Fantasy is an interesting genre. It can take us to awesome new worlds but also tell us a bit more about our own. I love the fantasy genre, because it lets me learn about a whole new world, and when it's done right, I get the impression I'm immersed in an actual, living, breathing, place. When it's done right, a proper fantasy setting can be a great reprieve from the real world. The trick is striking the perfect balance betwixt familiarity and awe.
Location, Location, Location
Note: A lot of my personal opionion coincide with this video. If you like this blog, I recommend you watch it.
There's a disturbing trend we see a lot of in the fantasy genre: stagnation. All too often in the video game industry, "generic fantasy" settings are becoming accepted. You know the type. Dangerous dragons, oppressed elves, dwarves who live underground and are great at engineering, and wolves who hunt in packs and hate fire. Instead of awe-inspiring landscapes, we're stuck with miles and miles of boring English countryside. Not that there's anything wrong with England mind you, but there's a couple of reasons why the rolling hills, happy meadows, and frolicsome forests of Medieval Britain just doesn't cut it when designing a fantasy world.
- It's too familiar. England is a place we've all seen, more so for those of us who actually live there or have visited.
- We've seen it all before. The game industry has been flooded with a rehash of old ideas, and in a genre typified by visiting new and fascinating places, this is especially bad.
This is an apt description of Oblivion's setting, and to an extent, Skyrim's. For all intents and purposes, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a great game, and whilst it's environments are pretty, they're also generic. There's nothing about it's world we haven't seen before; it's environment are beautiful, but uninspired. This is a shame, because according to pre-established lore, Cyrodiil wasn't always like that. The Pocket Guide to The Empire described the Imperial province as having a more tropical climate, with lush jungles and dense pine forests. It seems to draw inspiration from ancient China Rome. So why the sudden retcon? Would that have been to hard?
Of course, there are some who would say that this retcon can be justified. What if it was Bethesda's artistic vision for Cyrodiil to be a boring, blasé countryside? Maybe it was, but that doesn't justify a retcon; you can never defend a retcon. Even if it's for the better, a retcon always reflects a lack of forethought. Even if the developers decided to go this route for artistic reasons and not simply because it would be easier, it's still evident that they didn't plan ahead. This highlights the dangers of making up stories as you go; writers of long-lived franchises often end up in creative corners more than once.
Other games have done this as well. Dragon's Dogma, Dragon Age: Origins, and Dragon Quest VIII are all games that I love, but also have somewhat dreary and uninspired settings. When creating a world, one shouldn't be afraid of extremes. A good fantasy game should be a mind-blowing experience with incredible scenery I've never before imagined, not a trip to Europe!
Where is it written that a fantasy must have elves, dwarves, and European countryside? Well, there is one game I can think of that doesn't. I know I may be a bit biased in this regard, but Brütal Legend has one of my all-time favourite fantasy settings ever, simply because it wasn't afraid to be creative. Cars, machine guns, halberds, battleaxes, microphones, missile launchers, electric guitars, demons, and Ozzy Osbourne were all juxtaposition to one another, and nary a nimble elf to be seen. It had a wide range of interesting environments, all with a unique twist, and creatively crafted with loving detail. It was crazy, amazing, and out of this world-exactly what a fantasy setting should be.
Despite my own difficulties with the combat system, Morrowind probably has the best setting to date, because it dared to be different. Morrowind was a unique and interesting place, in part because it wasn't something we were used to. That game didn't go through the motions and make every mark on the generic fantasy check list. It was its own unique location, with a specific culture and geography. Volcanoes, ashy wastelands, and giant mushrooms? Hell yeah I want to go there!
Whilst Oblivion's setting was pretty cut and dry, its expansion pack, Shivering Isles, was not only the very epitome of what every DLC should strive to be, it was also the most sterling example of what a fantasy setting should look like. The Shivering Isles is a fantastic, surreal world inhabited entirely by crazy people. The realm itself is literally split down the middle by Sheogorath's personality, forming the dark, bleak Dementia and the bright, blissful Mania. All of these things are interesting ideas, and they are all executed exceptionally well. That's what made the Shivering Isles so fun to explore: it was a refreshing change of pace. Instead of the same rocky, grey caverns, each cave was instead a large series of tree tunnels. The forts, towns, and camps all had a different design than what we were used to. The creatures ranged from wacky to Lovecraftian, a stark contrast to the mundane wolves and bears back in Tamriel. Everything about the Isles defied what we think of as "normal", and that's what makes it so great. Fantasy is supposed to immerse us in a different world unlike any other.
Skyrim gets points for not copy-and-pasting Medieval England, but it's source material, Scandinavia, is still technically part of Europe, sadly. I don't play video games to experience more of the same, I play them to see something new! When Skyrim's wilderness takes it to extremes, it's a lot more fun to explore; I've already frolicked through a hundred forests, I don't want to do it again. However, this doesn't mean I'm entirely against scenery that reminds me of Earth. I'm merely asking for a reprieve from the norm. Deserts, rainforests, jungles, and rocky canyons are something we don't see enough of in fantasy games.
All this might seem pretty petty, but for a series that often skips on story, crafting an amazing world for us to explore actaully means a lot, and making every acre the same as the last doesn't reward exploration as much as one might think.
A World Rife with Strife
Pretty scenery is important, but that's not all. There's nothing worse than putting up with dreary, mundane environment, only to find out the denizens of the game world are just as boring as the landscape. A fantasy world's aesthetic is important, but perhaps not nearly as much as the people who inhabit it. After all, characters make the story, and without them, the whole thing crumbles.
Compare Oblivion to Dragon Age: Origins. Both have very generic fantasy settings (isn't that an oxymoron?), but the latter has a far better and more engaging plot than the former. This is because the world of Thedas has cultural, political, and religious conflicts that pervade into the plot and shape the lore. Not everything in Ferelden is so black and white as many good vs. evil fantasy scenarios go. A big bad demonic dragon with a monstrous horde of Darkspawn that ravage the world isn't exactly grey, true, but the conflicts that form around her are far more interesting than the Oblivion Crisis. The only thing threatening Cyrodiil is an otherworldly invasion; in Dragon Age, the world is being torn apart from within.
The most engaging conflict in the series is the Qunari insurrection in Act II of Dragon Age II. The Qunari aren't some implacable and unquestionably evil foe; they're a group of people who follow a flawed philosophy. The fact that they resemble extremist religious movements from past and present makes it really hit home. There are other battles being fought, of course. We see mages struggling against the noble albeit pragmatic Templars who control them. There are patriots who would put their people at risk, just to avoid aid from an old enemy, whose occupation is still a bitter memory for many. The elves are essentially the Native Americans of Dragon Age, and the Chantry is their domineering Catholic Church. Tensions are always high, just as they are in the real world. Conflicts such as these, along with others, makes Thedas an interesting and believable world to explore.
So what was the point of that segue? Well, it was to show how deep and intriguing the culture of Thedas is, and how bland Tamriel, Cyrodiil especially, is in comparison. In Oblivion, the two beggars per town were the only indication of any kind of economic gap between the people. The Nine Divines are rarely doubted, making for many black and white conflicts. There doesn't seem to be any oppression, or philosophical differences dividing the people; There are heroes, and then there are villains.
Skyrim was a step up from Oblivion, and certainly a step in the right direction. Skyrim presented us with a civil war, with both sides raising good points. We got a sense of Skyrim's culture, which ultimately made the setting richer. This conflict is presented very well, and even though the actual questline was a bit lacking, it still served to flesh out the motivations of the characters. From the civil war, we get an inside look at the Empire's inner workings, and how the lore shapes the people's prejudices. In addition to the war, a conflict is steadily brewing between the Thalmor and the Empire, and the rising tension is palpable everywhere you go. All of these things make the world all the more believable, giving it a certain amount of verisimilitude, allowing us to be more easily immersed in the strange and fantastic land of Nirn.
I know it might seem odd for me to talk about a fantasy world's credulity when I just got done saying that settings need to be more out of this world. That's the trick to doing anything right in the game industry: finding the perfect balance. Fantasy settings should be surreal on the outside, and Human at the core. Fantasy settings allow us to enter a new world, free from certain limitations of ours, whilst also telling us more about our own.
A Fantastic Future
I've already talked a lot about the previous settings, and how much fun they were to explore. Of all the locations we've visited thus far in the Elder Scrolls universe. Overall, I'd say the best has been the Shivering Isles, which, along with Morrowind, was able to present us with a unique and interesting experience. We know about those places already, but what about the rest of Nirn and beyond? Where should future Elder Scrolls games take us?
Sorry for the awful pun, but Elsweyr would be a great change of pace from the usual forest and meadows. Giving us more of the same gets old after a while, and I for one am sick of seeing green. Imagine exploring dry desert badlands and lush trophical forests instead of the same tired fantasy clichés. Rocky canyons and harsh deserts would be a real treat to explore after being stuck with so much "normal".
However, it isn't just the change of scenery that would make Elseweyr an optimal location for future games. As I've said, when crafting an interesting fantasy world, culture is just as important as aesthetic. For the first time since Morrowind, players could take part in a world not dominated by Man. Having Betmer with awesome accents would be a lot cooler than the Viking voices we got in Skyrim. Don't be afraid to give the world a unique twist! Let it stand out from the rest of the fantasy RPG crowd! Werelions, pirates, Skooma smugglers, elephants, camel mounts, and cat people? This place sounds like the best vacation ever!
Black Marsh and Beyond
Whilst I strongly believe Elsweyr would be an amazing place to visit, I'm not entirely sure about Argonia. On the one hand, a treacherous swamp inhabited by lizard people does sound pretty badass. However, my one fear is that we may end up with a single geographical feature: swampy swamps. I'm all for a good chuck of the game world looking like Dagobah; it makes the wilderness feel richer, and at the same time, increases tension. However, I would like to see some more dramatic differentiation in the landscape. Going from deeply wooded forest to slightly less wooded plains isn't that big of deal.
However, the righteous retribution and blood-stained history of the Argonian people would make for an interesting story. Opressession and vilification has defined their culture, and seeing that manifest itself in a plot filled with political intrigue would be pretty interesting. There may be some issues with this obviously, but it's at least something to think about.
Another interesting location would be the Summerset Isles, or the entire Aldmeri Dominion. Part of the allure is how little we know about it. The Isle is just as mysterious as it is mystical, and both of those things can make a setting more intriguing. Since so little about the geography of Alinor has been elaborated, Bethesda would have a lot more creative freedom, not having to resort to retconning again. What we do know however, is pretty fascinating. Lagoons, misty forests, ruins made of coral, and mountaintop cities dominate the landscape. This is good fantasy material, but there's one problem: we don't see any of it. Instead of reading about all these great ideas, why can't we explore them, live in them? It seems like all the coolest places are the ones we hear about, and not actaully see. In this case, the grass is a lot greener in the other provinces.
Of course, Sumurset is a bit small. Maybe, in addition to the two islands seen on the map, Valenwood would be an awesome place to explore. Valenwood is home to more than just wild Wood Elves. It also holds cities atop migrating trees, coastal rainforests, green glens, and giant glens. It sounds like a truly amazing place; why can't we see it for our own eyes? This would certainly push the limit of Bethesda's technical and creative prowess, but I have faith in them. Tropical forests teeming with life however, could be exactly what the fantasy genre needs.
What most interests me about adventuring in the Aldmeri Dominion however, is it's intricate culture. Obviously, there's the Thalmor with which to contend, but there is also its socio-economic structure. At the top are the Wise, which are the teachers and clergy. Below them are the artists, royalty, warriors, workers, merchants, and landowners. After that are the domesticated monsters, all of which are enslaved. This is a pretty interesting way to divide its people by vocation, and through this class system, we get a sense of what the Altmer value. The fact that some races are enslaved gives the impression of oppression, which is always fun. In addition to these internal conflicts, the isles also come under attack from the Necromantic Sloads, whom we haven't heard from since The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard.
Another interesting location that is more-or-less a part of the Summerset Isles is the island of Artaeum, home to the Psijic Order, and once home to Mannimarco, King of Worms. I think this would be a prime location for a DLC, since it's sudden addition to the world can be explained by it literally reappearing of thin air, as it sometimes has a tendency to do. Also, since this is Manimarco's homeland, why not let the Necromancer make a return?
Where Dragons Rule
Note: The map of Akavir is fan made, and is not reflective of canon.
I know, I know, there may be some complications with it, but don't tell me Akavir wouldn't be a badass setting for an Elder Scrolls game, or at least an add-on of some sort.
So what's cool about Akavir anyway? Well, for about all the reasons I've stated above. It's unique, has an interesting twist (several of them, actaully), and its premise is pretty badass. Akavir is a continent many, many miles away from Tamriel, consisting of four different races: monkey-people, Tiger guys, snow demons, and serpent Men. There's a lot of wiggle room for creativity as well, meaning Bethesda doesn't have to retcon as much.
Of course, there are some nagging issues to consider. First off, there probably aren't any Men in the magical land of Akavir. Second, it may be a bit too uncivilised. These things can be rectified however, with a bit of imagination. There are a ton of scenarios in which Akavir could be made suitable for players to explore. Man could return to Akavir, and maybe this time they're successful in gaining a foothold. If the Thalmor are still around, they could have a precense as well. What if multiple factions were fighting to gain control of the ancient continent? The Aldmeri Dominion wants more land and power, and the Empire wants to annex it. This set-up wouldn't be unlike Fallout: New Vegas (and you thought I could go an entire blog without mentioning that game, didn't you?), in which players could help one of several factions vying for control of Akavir.
Remember all that nonsense about interesting settings, conflicts, characters, culture, and pretty scenery? I'd say Akavir has all of that in spades. This is a continent defined by war, subjugation, and of course, dragons. Its races all sound interesting to see and meet. Maybe the ten Tamrielic races could be introduced to Akavir, in addition to a few new playable races?
Being set outside Tamriel would make for a refreshing change of pace. Bethesda, don't be afraid to mix things up a bit. Take chances, and don't be afraid to alienate a few mainstream fans if it means making your game more fun. It's The Elder Scrolls we're talking about here, after all. It's bound to sell copies no matter where you take the series, so how about somewhere new?
The Next Scroll
I'm not saying the past games have been bad, or even that I didn't enjoy exploring Cyrodiil and Skyrim. I still do. However, none of them will ever compare to the Shivering Isles, which is without a doubt the most fun I've ever had with an Elder Scrolls game. I think of Bethesda innovated a bit more, and pushed the creative envelope, uncovering every nook and cranny would be a lot more fun. We all know that a good premise isn't enough. Without proper execution, you end up with Lair. Thus, it's easy to discount the ideas put forth on paper prior to production. Remember Brütal Legend? Simply saying that it contains electric guitars, battleaxes, hot rods, half-naked Amazonians riding fire-breathing beasts, epic battles, rock concerts, and Tim Curry is enough to get me exited. Without proper execution, a good premise is often discounted as being a failure from the start (For the record, I still believe Lair should have been a movie, instead), but without a good premise, there's no foundation to allow the fantasy setting to flourish. In this genre, creativity is king, not dual-wielding and dynamic dragon battles.
I'm not asking for much, but fantasy settings are a lot more fun when they offer me a whole new world, instead of one eerily similar to Great Britain. I want a fantastic point of view, a whole new world, a dazzling place I never knew....
Note to self: do not write blogs and watch your favourite childhood movie at the same time.