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Lighten up!: On thematic consistency in role-playing games


This is a weekly column focusing on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

One of my all-time favorite role-playing games features a militaristic, near-fascist race of rhinoceroses who walk on two legs and wear uniforms. When you encounter them, they slide across the game screen, waving their muskets and cutlasses. They also fly spaceships around the galaxy, and are considered one of the most powerful empires in space, along with their spider-like rivals. It's a fantasy world.

The game is Wizardry VII: Crusaders Of The Dark Savant, released in 1992. The setting and story aren't what make the game great (see: the mechanics of the class system) but they are part of the whole, pleasant experience of the game. Yes, the setting is utterly ridiculous, but that's not a point against the game. If anything, it's a benefit. It's not serious, and it knows it's not serious, so why not just do fun weird stuff, like take on an army of blue-skinned theocrats aligned with an empire of spiders?

Wizardry's setting was not exceptional in those days. For example, the Might & Magic series was a pastiche of different fantasy and science fiction tropes, all jammed together without rhyme or reason. It's still around, in the Heroes Of Might & Magic strategy spinoffs, where fairies, bears, and dwarves all live together in the same towns. Even Ultima, in the early stages of the genre, included totally random Star Wars-like space combat sections, mandatory for completing the first two games. Across the Pacific, Japanese games like Final Fantasy included airships and aliens alongside its fantasy tropes.

I miss this wildness sometimes. Modern RPGs are built around thematic consistency. They're set in worlds that attempt to make sense. To take Dragon Age: Origins as an example: it has a recognizable, historical political system. The characters generally understand the state of the world, and are motivated to deal with that. These are not bad things. As a critic who deals with narrative, creating worlds without inconsistencies appeals to me. My problem is that this has become the default mode for role-playing games. I like the thematically consistent, intense stories of a Dragon Age, yes, but I also miss the goofy weirdness of a Wizardry.

As with so many other aspects of the RPG, and gaming generally, this shift can be traced to the mid-1990s. In simple genre terms, most RPGs made in the 1980s were "science fantasy", using settings that mixed lasers and swords, elves and astronauts, wizards and spaceships. Star Wars was a model for much of this. Combine it and Tolkien, and you have a template for most RPGs of the era.

By the time the 1990s hit, things had changed. The technology had improved to the point where games weren't simple abstracted forms, consisting of references to other stories. Video games, led by RPGs, became storytelling media in their own right. But games generally have chosen to follow in the footsteps of other styles of existing stories -- novels at first, but then onto blockbuster action movies.

Take a look at the RPGs that have succeeded since roughly 1995, and you can see a trend away from weirdness. Diablo is a straightforward gothic fantasy setting. BioWare games, from Baldur's Gate to Dragon Age, have always been built around a largely serious, slightly gritty fantasy or science fiction world, with some characters like Minsc or Mordin for comic relief. Even their Star Wars games try to paper over the inherent ridiculousness of that universe, by moving the setting back thousands of years where the game's creators can change things so they work as a whole universe, instead of a simple film or three.

The Elder Scrolls started in 1994 as a generic fantasy world with some weirdness -- specifically, cat and lizard people -- but has since focused on smaller, more thematically consistent stories built on single provinces. Those weird species have been integrated into the setting of The Elder Scrolls games, but they haven't become central like the Dark Elves and Nords of Morrowind and Skyrim. This makes sense -- those are less embarrassing than making an RPG about cat people would be.

Longer-running RPG series struggled to adapt to the new forms of consistency. Ultima, as ever, led the way, switching to a primarily fantasy setting by its fourth installment, although it never shook the oddity of the heroic Avatar being a representation of "you" transported from Earth to a fantasy world. Wizardry and Might & Magic just stuck with it, but they disappeared, sadly. Final Fantasy survived and thrived by making the weirdness part of the thematic consistency -- they dropped much of the silliness, but kept the airships and yellow, rideable ostriches.

One of the great RPGs of the 1990s, Planescape: Torment, made a virtue of thematic inconsistency. Its world was built on the idea that every different kind of fantasy world imaginable was connected at a certain point. It used this wildness to explore philosophy, theology, the nature of memory, the soul, reincarnation. All of these things were fair game because all of them were literally real within that world.

Fallout took an alternate path, keeping the silliness, but doing so by incorporating it within its extremely strong theme and style. The satirical, retro-1950s charm begs for jokes. Some of the humor is darkly ironic, like the intro to Fallout II, with mass murder set to an old pop love song. Some is lighter, like references to famous post-apocalyptic films such as Mad Max. Logically speaking, the jokeyness should get in the way of Fallout's apocalyptic setting. Instead, it actually helps the game, giving it a certain flair and disrupting what would otherwise be an excessively depressing game.

I like that kind of thing. I like it when Skyrim has a special pick that hails Minecraft, or Mass Effect II has an add-on which includes references to Deus Ex. Video games, especially RPGs, are big and diverse enough that a little weirdness doesn't hurt their overall point. We can have a big tent, with room for the heavy games like Dragon Age and The Witcher as well as lighter pastiches like Might & Magic. Because sometimes, you just want to see elves fighting robots for control of demonic spaceships, or fascist rhinoceroses waving muskets.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

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