The fantasy genre by definition within the greater category of fiction is perhaps the most limitless subject imaginable. Science fiction? Yep, there are rules. Hard sci-fi? Forget it. You're lost. Fantasy? Go nuts. Do anything you like.
When Tolkien and others kickstarted the fantasy phenomenon into a greater market, followed (sorry for the broad sweeping generalizations) by Dungeons and Dragons, and in perhaps a full circle promotion of the genre the LOTR films, it has been gaining steam ever since.
However as most of us are aware, "high fantasy" as it is called has been used a LOT. My God is it used a lot. Elves, dwarves, and dragons are characters we all know and love, but they're also getting a little boring. To some, a lot boring.
So folks are scrambling for the next big fantasy style. I could ramble on about Planescape, Spelljammer and the forays made by pen and paper, but this is a video game expert blog, so let's try to stick with that media for now.
Let's start with Bioware
Ray and Greg and their band of merry game developers have hardly put a foot wrong since their reinvigoration of D&D in gaming (though they might laugh hysterically as they read that claim), and now they're striking out on their own firmly muscled and trained IP legs. Yes, they did it before with Shattered Steel and Jade Empire, but the rate of original IP is increasing. Mass Effect clearly laid some groundwork for this in current gen. Now we are on the cusp of the release of "Dragon Age: Origins", which calls itself a "Dark Fantasy".
Take a look at the video. Impressive to say the least but just how different is it? Does "Dark" mean "violent"? How about visually? So far tattoos and firey shadows don't say "dark" to me, yet. And a huge battle may or may not connote "dark" in the context of the plot. We'll just have to play it and find out.
What about Square Enix?
Japanimation as we all know is rife with the same style, and when something breaks out or even leans it head in a different direction, you remember it. Akira, Ghost In The Shell (even though the Manga took gross liberties with ambiguous gender in the case of Mariko, thank God they fixed that in Stand Alone Complex), Jin Roh (dear God, something at least TRYING to have depth? No way!). Lain, there are actually quite a few compared to the 80s. But this is anime, let's focus on games.
Square Enix (to us old fogies, Square and Enix) has made some amazing games, let's just put that out there right now. Secret of Mana to me at least broke boundaries that even Final Fantasy didn't approach, and did it all within Square's unique style, which frankly is a cross between preschool Barney the Dinosaur with its high pitched voices and twirling NPCs, and shocking violence (could anyone else invent a dragon that shoots a beam large enough to envelop a whole planet and incinerate everyone on it, even though after the attack is complete people only take a few points of damage?).
What are they doing now? Check out The Last Remnant. Pretty much the same stuff, it's just 100,000 times more detailed. Sweeping landscapes and cities that'd make your eyes bleed to look at too long, villains with long hair (but well manicured) and heroes with wide eyed innocence. All of them clad in gorgeous colorful garb. Music that is, just like the art, sweeping, but 10 years old stylistically, voices and scripts that still make you cringe, and gameplay that doesn't let us down somehow. Hey, it if ain't broke, right?
What IS dark fantasy?
Here's my idea of a different fantasy style, that can apply to gameplay, art, music, and story. Hey, I might be giving away the farm, but I don't care. Besides, Daniel Cook is the guy that sold it to me. If you haven't read Gene Wolfe's "Book Of The New Sun", you're missing out. Not sure if he's related to the great mystery writer Nero Wolfe but he might as well be. It is a story that presents something I can't even describe here, but it is refreshingly different. Thousands of years in the future but not futuristic. Dark, even during the day. Details, but not details that make you rip the book in half like Dan Brown. Things that truly challenge your brain to imagine something incredibly unique for a change. Go buy it. Go read it. You'll thank me for it.
Having said that I've only provided one example of how fantasy can take a different tack. There are plenty of arenas where people have attempted to do this but they usually assume you need to create multiple races, languages, etc.. Going down the path of Tolkien, who never really intended to write a seamless, meaningful story but rather create a world. This I think is a mistake. Wolfe approaches it the other way around.
Your experience is centered around one person and their interactions with other characters, starting with very small elements and growing from there. The reader's mind (and also the gamer's mind) tends to eat and digest these portions a lot more reliably than presenting a sweeping tale that needs to unfold, and a "world to explore". I can't believe I'm saying that since Ultima 6 was the coolest thing since sliced bread when I first saw it. And yeah, I only played it for a few hours because it was too overwhelming. And in "New Sun", oddly enough there's not all that much in the way of traditional action (fighting, sieges, spell casting, and whatnot).
So if this has helped a few of you think outside the box already, cool. But go read those books and see what I mean by what "dark fantasy" could really mean. I'd love to hear your reactions.