On the Fantasy of Fantasy

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“Transcending history and the world, a tale of souls and swords, eternally retold.” – Soul Edge

 

No kidding, Soul Edge guy.
No kidding, Soul Edge guy.

 

I’m sick of dragons. Really.

Not that dragons aren’t inherently interesting as flying, fire-breathing lizards, I’m just sick of seeing them everywhere. I can say the same for castles, orders, knights, vikings, cathedrals, et cetera. Europe as a motif is just played out to me. Yet, everywhere I go, it’s there. Between the pages, on the air, and behind the start button. Apparently, it’s the only thing that happened in the history of the world.

But wait … is that … a banner?

Of course it is. Don’t you know a feudal period when you see it? Rival governments don’t set themselves up, y’know. Daimyo not speaking your language? Be a ninja. Be the ninja. Be the pilot of a 100 ft. tall ninja mech fated to chew the infinite wheat straw … if your kingdom doesn’t burn to the ground first. If a dragon tries to fight you, there’s plenty of school uniforms to go around if you steer clear of the Triads. Point being, East Asian fantasy is cool … but is it the coolest?

(Only if you’re Onimusha 3.)

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m not impressed by as many games as I once was. It’s strange, as games have only grown more breathtaking with time and technology. My tastes have certainly evolved, but I should be able to at least appreciate a good ol’ fantasy game … especially when they look better than ever, right? Well, it’s a little difficult when the fantasy is limited to specific regions and cultures. Then again, aren’t the designers?

The worst kept secret in gaming is the overwhelming majority of designers and being either straight White or East Asian men. Naturally, it’s their stories and their history that permeate video games as an artistic medium. I get it; it’s safe to simply go with what you know. It’s even fair to say players don’t even think twice about it, given the general lack of concern in years past. Though, Multiplayer games are making the effort to avoid this as the products don’t reflect their increasingly-globalized audience. What about the rest of gaming? Somehow, we’ve still got a long climb out out of that dungeon.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “If you don’t like it, make your own.”

As an artist and a person of color, I understand the position. I can design anything I want at any time, but rarely can one person subvert the established practices of a billion-dollar industry to great effect. It’s even worse if that person is strictly a consumer. It’s like asking your mom to develop Symphony of the Night blindfolded.

But above all else, it’s a dishonest deflection of the issue, which is the lack of conscious effort when it comes to concept development. The idea of creating beyond your comfort zone can be frightening, but the truth is you don’t have to be from a place to make a place. Family, let’s not sit here and act like the Avatar series — one of the most successful in modern times — wasn’t created by two White guys that did their homework. It’s doable.

 

VERY doable.
VERY doable.

 

For a gaming example: DrinkBox Studios, under similar diversity circumstances, gave us a strong effort with Guacamelee, pictured above. Conceptually, that game tackled Mexican fantasy in one of the most compelling ways available — through the eyes of a luchador seeking to save his love from the jerk store version of death itself by traveling back and forth through the afterlife. Yes the afterlife, a generally happy place where friends and loved ones hang out as skeletons and they’re kinda miffed that Jerk Death killed the vibe. Maybe you didn’t expect that last sentence. Different cultures explore death differently, and after 100%-ing Guacamelee, it made me think of the release gap between that game and the critically-acclaimed Grim Fandango as they share the same cultural connection. That gap? Oh, something in the neighborhood of 15 years.

Just think about how many times a controller took you to Europe and Japan in 15 years.

So, are we in for more of the same? I mean, Dark Souls III is right around the corner. But if you look hard enough, so is this game:

 

Mesmerizing from the start!
Mesmerizing from the start!

 

One from the “make your own” column, Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan is an upcoming Action-RPG title from Cameroon-based Kiro’o Games. Notice anything familiar? Probably not. How often do you see a video game entrenched in African fantasy? How often do you see African fantasy period? See it in motion and tell me there is nothing to be gained from an experience like the one Aurion promises to deliver. Think of it like this: If the average player can’t find Cameroon on a map, do we really need another Skyrim?

Games like Guacamelee and Aurion are just a sample size of the efforts available when you deviate from the stranglehold European and East Asian fantasy have on interactive media. Never Alone, the tale of a little Iñupiaq girl and her fox restoring balance through indigenous Alaskan folklore, is just hanging out on Steam right now. If you struggled with “Iñupiaq”, I’m afraid that’s the point.

Players really don’t need another 15-year gap to experience fresh fantasy. The world is far too large to repeat the same inspirations. Several thousand years of history and culture can be found anywhere on this planet, in any of it’s people. Yet, today I can refer to the Prince of Persia series in past tense only. I thought we all loved Prince of Persia? Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t destroy that entire franchise by himself, now.

Why do we continue to tread the same ground in our games? With enough effort, video games can not only deliver captivating mythology from around the world, but with just the right touch they can even breathe new life into old legends.

Dragons aren’t going anywhere, but they don’t have to go everywhere.

RD
Majoring in savage studies, RD created Nonplayable. He was among the several miserable Knicks fans who booed the drafting of Kristaps Porzingis. He has since rescinded said boos.

Follow him on Twitter @Dynavolta — or just click the bird under this. Your life.