Dragon Age, Fantasy Literature, and William Gibson

Posted: September 16, 2010 in Braak
Tags: , , ,

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?


  1. silver1881 says:

    I certainly didn’t consider the main character in Dragon Age boring. The idea is to create your own character – my character had opinions and flaws and favorites and a history, because I gave them to her. They are hers alone because everyone’s characters are different, and that made her interesting. The romance is superfluous, yes, but it adds another dimension to the game that I find very enjoyable. I loved the combat, but I also loved getting to know the characters and seeing how our relationships developed. Just like a book, as you said, but one in which I get to participate.
    Getting to the point, you do raise a good question regarding the ubiquitousness of combat. The fighting is there to give you something to do besides standing around and talking, and a lot of the fun of it is in the strategy and tactics. But there’s no reason why we couldn’t have a Heavy Rain-style mystery in a fantasy setting. As far as books go, urban fantasy seems to be doing more of this – the Dresden Files books, for instance, or even Anita Blake. I wouldn’t mind seeing something like those using a high fantasy setting, as urban fantasy is really not my thing.
    The heroic quest is definitely ingrained, but I don’t think it’s something that we can’t move past. If it can be done with sci-fi, it can be done with fantasy.

  2. braak says:

    Yeah, that’s what makes me wonder if it’s a reader habit; that is, I’m used to having the characters pre-defined. Though I do think there are challenges in how the character is presented: the main character in Dragon Age never speaks, never has much in the way of facial expressions; I think the other characters just come off feeling more real. Maybe it’s some cognitive quirk, like I can’t trust the reality of my own character because I remember having made it up, but I can believe in the other characters because their behaviors come from outside my imagination.

    Well, anyway. And it’s true that there have been (especially urban) fantasy stories that aren’t really about going out and killing the bad guy. One of my favorites was Finder, by Emma Bull, which is a detective story in which the main character is not bad ass in any way, shape, or form. Unlike, say, Harry Dresden, who is gradually moving away from being a detective in a supernatural Chicago and towards being an epic hero who happens to live in present day earth.

  3. silver1881 says:

    I would have been much better if she spoke. Although none of the characters had much in the way of facial expression – there’s a HUGE difference in that department between this and Bioware’s other recent opus, Mass Effect 2. My character did feel real to me, but I really get immersed when I play games, and I felt like I knew her very well and the choices that she made were organic.
    I guess I can see why Harry Dresden is moving more towards epic heroism – once a series goes on for a while you feel like you have to move it somewhere and give it a story arc that covers the whole series. But really, a series doesn’t necessarily need that. Many detective series just cover cases, without moving forward any kind of game-changing multibook plot. The more I think about it, the more intrigued I am by the idea of a mystery or psychological drama in a fantasy setting. Magic doesn’t always have to be used for fighting, after all.
    I’ll check out Finder – I loved Territory, so I’m up for more Emma Bull!

  4. I wouldn’t be surprised if Discworld had numerous examples of this. Because there’s a far bigger universe that satisfies the desire for epic battles, you can have wonderful smaller stories which simply explore the universe and tell fun tales.

    That said, I still haven’t read it yet.

  5. RickRussellTX says:

    Maybe the reason conflict is so dominant in fantasy settings is that fantasy settings are… how can I put this… like children. By which I mean, the author has spawned this setting out of their own head, it’s their baby, they’ve spent countless hours thinking about its rules and geography and history and weather and animals and how the stars look at night and …

    Science fiction and alternate history worlds are variations rather than creations. Their roots are understood; they sit grounded in the known.

    Perhaps the obvious and logical storyline in a created environment is a threat to the world itself. Varley’s Titan with its warring sub-minds, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul and his threat to despoil The Land, almost any Chronicle of Narnia. Since the world is a sort of character, and one of the most important characters, it’s difficult to conceive a story where a threat to the world does not play a critical part.

    And in the defense of fantasy, you’d have a hard time getting through the less fantastical items on the NYT bestseller list without tripping on a murderer, or love in a time of war, or a battle between a strongly moral main character and a vile, soulless bureaucrat who wants the terrorists to win. Even Forrest Gump went to war. I don’t know that “mainstream” fiction is much different.

  6. Erin says:

    The Last Unicorn jumps to mind as a fantasy novel that doesn’t follow the standard epic fantasy pattern (okay, the unicorn is kind of working her way up to fighting the unstoppable evil of the Red Bull… but, no. That’s just not the point at all). Also, there’s King of Elfland’s Daughter, which has practically no death, at all (and what there is doesn’t remotely resemble the quest-driven, lich-slaying type we’re accustomed to).

    Also, there’s the entire genre of “Magical Realism,” which is a subsection of fantasy that literary people like so much they pretend it’s not fantasy (because everyone knows fantasy is crap).

  7. braak says:

    Man, I just want to take a second and pimp out Emma Bull’s Finder again. That book was so great; I keep wanting it to be a movie or a TV show in which I get to play Orient (who is the protagonist).

  8. jge says:

    You haven’t tried british writer Jasper Fforde yet? The Nursery Crime series (The big over easy, The fourth bear) should satisfy your wish for a detective story in a fantasy setting.

  9. braak says:

    No, I have. I like Jasper Fforde and, like I said, I know that there are some people that do this stuff in a different way. But I’m not specifically interested in detective stories, per se–I’m more interested in the wide variety of kinds of stories that don’t involve stabbing all the monsters.

  10. jge says:

    Thanks for the answer, I thought I was a little bit late for the thread …

    There are some stories I’ve forgotten whether there’s any stabbing in it — “A canticle for Leibowitz” for example. I remember it as a remarkable story because of its rich setting (must be SF not Fantasy). Does that count?

  11. RickRussellTX says:

    _A Canticle for Leibowitz_ is a story about a monastery after a global nuclear war, which ends with a second global thermonuclear war. I think that fails to qualify as a “plot that doesn’t involve killing anyone” 🙂

  12. braak says:

    Well…actually…I mean, it’s not really the plot that involves killing people, it’s kind of the setting. I’ll count it.

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