Dragon Age, Fantasy Literature, and William Gibson
I have been playing this computer game called Dragon Age. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It came out, like, two years ago, or something. I don’t know if that’s true, it’s just been around for a while I think.
ANYWAY. Firstly, this game is tit-tastic. Just, boobs everywhere. Which, hey great. But, secondly, and this is interesting to me: it has a pretty intricate plot that you can make significant changes to by make particular choices in the game.
And, more importantly, it lets you fill out the plot in a way that’s more than, “Did you defeat the evil archdemon? yes/no.” You’ve got a character (and tangential to this: has anyone else found that in Dragon Age, your main character is super-boring? I know it’s probably an industry idea that the main character should have as few notable characteristics as possible in order to be a more effective cipher for the audience, but I found myself much more interested in whether or not my party members romanced EACH OTHER; maybe this is an old reader habit, or something) and you’ve got party members, and you spend a lot of time managing your relationships between those characters. You have options for romancing the other characters, for instance, which, if you think about it, is entirely superfluous to that traditional arc of a video-game story. Videogames are typically event-driven, and so things that don’t directly pertain to the event are unnecessary.
Obviously that’s been changing for a while; especially with the advent of the big MMORPGs, where the social environment is as or more important than the “did you kill the Lich King? yes/no” question. When we talk about computer games, particularly action-driven computer games, the question about whether or not games can be considered art comes up fairly often, and I think there’s something fascinating about the fact that action games are able to evolve beyond the “kill all the demons” structure of their origins.
Of course, there are event-driven games that aren’t about killing; we generally put “sports games” into a whole different category, though. ”Rock band” is its own thing, an outgrowth of videogame entertainment, but not in the direct line of succession from Mario.
So, now that we know that we can make a “dark fantasy RPG” that includes a lot more than just killing monsters, how far off are we from making a fantasy RPG that hardly includes killing monsters at all?
I guess this is what Second Life and The Sims are about, right?
This led me to wonder about the genre of fantasy literature, and to how it gets no respect. Well, little respect. I started wracking my brain for a fantasy story that doesn’t specifically involve the main character fighting his way up to some terrible evil that he then must defeat — it’s hard to think of one of those. And should it be? Fantasy, after all, is a setting; it doesn’t dictate plot. Why aren’t there as many fantasy detective stories as there are regular detective stories? Why aren’t there fantasy literature stories, where the plot doesn’t involve anyone killing ANYONE?
It was the combination of William Gibson’s new book, and me editing Mr. Stitch, that sort of gelled all of this in my head; Gibson’s last, Spook Country, is ostensibly science fiction, but it abandons almost all of the ordinary tropes of science fiction (even Gibson’s first, Neuromancer, went out of its way to abandon SF tropes). It made me think that I want to write fantasy more like the way Gibson writes science fiction: as complex social commentary, rather than suspense-driven action explosion.
I think. Maybe I’m just saying that to justify the fact that Mr. Stitch is kind of boring? It is pretty gritty and rough and bloody, and it has action events in it, but it’s not supposed end with a climactic battle between Main Character and the Archdemon. Action aside, the book is really a long meditation about a guy slowly losing his mind. Is the book anti-climactic, or are we conditioned to presume some kind of grand climax from our fantasy books? Is the trope of the Heroic Quest so deeply ingrained in the idea of the fantasy genre that they’ve become inseparable?