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Fighting Fantasy

June 5, 2007

Last week Tobold asked the burning question why all ‘the most successful MMORPGs all have a medieval fantasy setting’ ?

It’s a very good question, particularly as I’m very interested in the origins and development of the fantasy genre. My first thought is that fantasy is a very broad term, okay you get high and low fantasy, but they in themselves pretty broad terms and are largely based on the access to and effect of magic in a given fantasy world.

While fantasy MMORPGs such as WoW and LOTRO appear on the surface to be very similar, they are of course very different in the detail, and I don’t just mean aesthetically. Yes, both are set in worlds with ‘medieval’ levels of technology (the kinds of technology available clearly changed throughout the medieval period, but that’s another post), but WoW incorporates early gunpowder weapons and Steampunk elements, especially since The Burning Crusade. In LOTRO there is a clear division of good and evil races, elves, humans, hobbits and dwarfs are good and orcs, trolls etc are bad in WoW races seem capable of both attitudes. And when it comes to the aesthetic styles LOTRO and WoW, there are clearly huge differences. Now I know traditionally aesthetics have been seen as relatively unimportant, but as the fantasy genre becomes more visual, as opposed to being primarily textual, the aesthetic element will become more significant in defining the nature of a fantasy world.

While the ‘medieval setting’ is a stable of the fantasy MMORPGs each one has its own unique take on this theme.

Perhaps this is the reason fantasy settings are so popular, because they are so flexible. For example there are many fantasy settings that are simply earth in the distant past or a forgotten part of earth, like the Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories or like Jack Vance’s Lyonesse stories and Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories journey through hundreds of different dimensions and worlds some of which could constitute sci-fi in some respects.

Robert E Howard, one of the earliest fantasy writers, explained that the reason he came up with the Hyborian Age was in order to give him the freedom to write stories set in ‘the past’ without the need to maintain historical accuracy.

 “There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as re-writing history in the guise of fiction… i could never make a living writing such things though; the markets are too scanty, with requirements too narrow, and it takes me so long to complete one. I try to write as true to the facts as possible, at least, i try to commit as few errors as possible. I like to have my background and setting as accurate and realistic as I can, with my limited knowledge; if I twist facts too much, alter dates as some writers do, or present a character out of keeping with my impressions of the time and place, i lose my sense of reality, and my characters cease to be living and vital things…”

Part of the appeal of the fantasy genre seems to be the ease with which is the limitations of reality can be surmounted, something that, for example sci fi rarely does in the same way fantasy does.  Perhaps Star Wars is the most obvious exception here but to do this Lucas felt it necessary to locate the Star Wars galaxy in an ambiguous place in space and time (‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’). Fantasy settings allow players/writers/game developers to ignore the realities of everyday life and focus on adventure without any of the issues that would arise if a world setting resembled our own world too closely. We can probably thank Romantics across the modern age for the idealistic imagery we associate with the medieval period – chivalry, magic, heroism, adventure etc. – after all William Morris is considered the first ‘fantasy’ author proper by many.

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