What’s a high fantasy story without an epic journey?
What’s the purpose of the fantasy genre as a whole if not to allow you – the reader, listener, viewer, or gamer – to relish your own unique emotional journey; that vibrant, personal experience materialising intangibly as the heroes and villains wend their way through the realms of your imagination?
Can video gaming in particular deliver the kind of immersive and memorable experience that the Tolkiens of the world have long crafted through more traditional means?
Envision a spectrum encompassing the wide range of media that make themselves at home in the ‘high fantasy’ genre. Off to your left, at the very end of the line, you will see the aforementioned Utopia with its entirely player-derived adventure. The Utopian existence is one without quests, without NPCs, without maps, and without backstory. All you have is a fledgling province to nurture and your kingdom mates to embrace or ignore. Utopia might be seen as that oddball, postmodern/fundamentalist guy by its closest neighbours, LARP and D&D, but in truth everybody is a little curious about the absolute freedom it extols. The other video games on the block are far enough removed that they haven’t yet noticed Utopia’s crazy, narrative-free shenanigans and are content to go on with their balanced, mainstream existence.
Given how addictive I found the DIY world of Utopia to be, it is a little surprising that the very next step in my journey introduced the most comprehensively considered and precisely assembled work of fantasy I’ve ever encountered. Here there were Quests, a plethora of side characters, reams of detailed maps and a vast history that includes its own functioning language (and, no, I’m not talking about Star Trek).
…TO POINT B
Academically speaking, deciding to finally commit to reading The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings series when I was at university may not have been a great choice. Perhaps those hours would have been better spent studying – and not failing – German, for example.
Knowing that it was another prequel in JRR Tolkien’s universe meant that my expectations for The Hobbit were not overly high. I steeled myself for more of the same hard slog encountered in The Silmarillion, which had been dismissed within a few chapters as something akin to a history textbook when attempted in high school. The Hobbit’s unanticipated lightness was therefore a welcome respite, especially having completed the more demanding Rings trilogy not long before. The result of all this high fantasy culturing was that suddenly the archetypes of elves, dwarves, orcs and halflings had a vivid context in which to exist. I realise that these fantasy races weren’t all of Tolkien’s creation, but it was his tale of Middle-Earth that gave background and detail to the canvas on which my imaginings of HeroQuest and Utopia had sketched themselves all those years before.
Now before anyone denounces this as no longer being a legitimate gaming blog, don’t panic; all this reading business led to the discovery of an awesome multiplayer hack-and-slasher in the form of The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (PS2). My wife would probably have preferred that this Official-Game-Of-The-Hit-Movie-Of-The-Classic-Book hadn’t found its way to the holiday house we were sharing for a week with her family, but I look at it as a treasured time of family bonding. Involving swords, orcs and the occasional Ent. And only half the family… but not my lovely wife. She still remembers this and frowns for some reason. Weird.
Thanks in part to my Nintendo-centric upbringing, local multiplayer is where I think the joy of video gaming shines the brightest. Somehow the pleasure derived from a good game grows exponentially with the number of people in the room holding controllers. The Smash Bros. and Mario Kart series benefit greatly from this phenomenon, and surely wouldn’t have garnered such a passionate following if they were limited to AI or online competition only. That relaxing week with The Return Of The King provided the opportunity to (a) participate in an inspiring journey laid out by a master storyteller, and (b) share the excitement with others as it was playing out. Now there’s a magical combination if ever I saw one [here are some other examples of magical combos in reference to the wonder that is Hearthstone].
And then came… [cue fanfare] The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Emerging for the first time from the dragon-ravaged ruins of Helgen and onto the mountainside of Skyrim was for me one of those defining gaming moments that etch themselves permanently into your memory.
What a panorama!
Snow-capped peaks, winding rivers, lush forests and majestic remnants of ancient civilizations; all beautiful to behold and abuzz with life in a way I’d never considered possible with contemporary technology. Sure, I’d been out of the PC gaming fold for a few years at this point, but WOW!
For those unfamiliar with the premise of Skyrim, there is a bitter civil war wracking the titular continent and within minutes you find yourself embroiled within it. As the story unfolds it also appears that you are a chosen one with magical blood allowing you to gain all sorts of super powers. Sounds legit.
As epic as this medieval journey of discovery and salvation promised to be, I couldn’t shake the sensation that it was the world itself that was stealing the show. Bethesda’s creation was so enormous and intriguing that I found myself entranced to the unprecedented point of being content to simply roam the landscape and take adventure as it came.
“Your timber mill needs some troublesome bears taken care of? Sure.”
“These supplies need to make it to the top of that dangerous and foreboding mountain? Why not.”
“Oh look, a troll!”
And so the journey went: a combination of intentional story exposition, incidental questing and leisurely bushwalking [Australian for hiking].
Another legacy of growing up with Nintendo consoles and their extensive game libraries is that I appreciate the regular emphasis on substance over style. Sure, games like the Donkey Kong Country trilogy (SNES) represented the epitome of smooth mechanics and stunning style, but in general I suspect most gamers would lean towards the former if a choice had to be made. This predisposition makes my Skyrim experience unique in that it succeeded in winning me over with form and not function. I found that Skyrim’s melee combat – especially on PC but also to an extent on PS3 – felt a bit clunky and vague. Also, as a newcomer to RPGs of this scale in which you acquire mounds of equipment, spell books, crafting materials and story-related items, the user interface and other menu screens took a lot of play time before being familiar enough to navigate efficiently. The basics such as equipping or selling things eventually became easier, but the initial learning curve felt pretty steep. Then there was that time on PS3 when I fell down between some boulders in a cave and no amount of running, jumping or casting spells could get me out. From memory it wasn’t possible to run multiple save files in the console version, and as the game had auto-saved with me wedged between the rocks that was the end of my adventure. Such was the lure of Skyrim’s majestic fantasy domain that I kept on coming back for more regardless.
This digital journey of exploration has resulted in the idea of real-world recreational hiking crossing my mind more than once. When this occurs I quickly remind myself that the real world doesn’t remain at my carefully sustained room temperature, and that many of the glittering bugs flitting and hovering above Skyrim’s forest paths would offer real-life bites and diseases. And then there are the leeches, centipedes and spiders. And lack of toilets…
So all in all I’m happy to leave my investigation of majestic mountain ranges to take place in the living room, contentedly positioned on the couch between the heater and fridge. Perhaps there are some epic journeys that are all the better for only taking place in words, on screens and in our imaginations. Or not.