I was really big into fantasy novels when I was a teenager, but then I started to notice that a lot of them used it as an excuse to not have believable characters. I don't want to generalize because there are also fantasy novels that I still feel very strongly and positively about.
ML: Sure, of course.
Certainly some people use it that way.
ML: Yeah. I think they do, and I think that in the same way that you can have hard sci‑fi that is really about the science, or about the trope, rather than being about the characters, that can work. It can work really well.
But I think that when you apply the same thing to fantasy, there's a lot less research required. You end up in a position where you can say, "Well, the magic did it!" As opposed to science, where you at least need to say, "No, no. It's electronic fission thermo‑nucleo blah." And suddenly it's that level of effort.
So I think that there's potentially within fantasy an invitation to do a sloppy job, if you want to be like, "I have a neat idea. I don't really have to think it all the way through!" Fantasy, as opposed to sci‑fi, where it's "I have a neat idea. Now I really have to think it through because it's the expectation." Anyway, to me not all fantasy falls into that but it's a danger. It's a mine on the field.
Right. I feel like definitely there's this deep thought going into fantasy games. I think it's also because a lot of fantasy games -- for obvious reasons, because of tradition if nothing else -- are ending up as RPGs. And then you have to put in all this goddamn effort to make an RPG that doesn't fall apart at the lightest touch, right?
ML: [laughs] True, yes.
You actually have to world build.
ML: Well, you have to world build, and then that has to hang contiguously with a set of rules. Like how does sneaking work, right? That's why you either see an abstraction, where people say, "Well, okay. Sure, you have a sneak skill, but when you're sneaking through that room that's brightly lit, you're actually crawling on the ceiling!" Right? And that's the jump many DMs make.
Good DMs tend to make distinctions. Like hide in plain sight is about distracting the guy in hiding. Similarly with games, you can't do the table‑top shuffle and say, "Okay, well, here's how you did it." So you have to build a contiguous rule system and world that where it's like okay, cool. I see how stuff could be achieved by some rogue using obscuring mist, or clouds of smoke, or what have you.
It is a chance to step back and take a more allegorical view of realistic situations, and that's a strength of the genre, potentially.
ML: Fantasy allows us to vilify things that we might not be able to vilify if they didn't have horns. You know what I mean? And then taken to its next logical extreme, fantasy allows us to recognize that sometimes things with horns aren't the villains. I think coming out of Origins, one of my favorite character things in general would be Loghain, who is presented as the villain. He betrays his king. He leaves the kingdom open to invasion by this unstoppable hoard of clearly evil Darkspawn.
And yet, if you've read the novel, if you dig into the game, if you understand him as a character, you realize that this is a person who's been grievously wounded by Orlais, the next-door nation. And that every decision he's made since then has been colored by that, by his betrayal, and by the death of his father.
Suddenly there's a person making those decisions. As much as I want to vilify him because he did the obviously evil Grand Vizier thing, I start to recognize that there's someone in there. So suddenly I'm drawn in by fantasy, wanting to vilify the bad guy.
Then fantasy throws me a curveball and makes me go, "I wonder if that guy I have to deal with every day, who's kind of a jerk, is just having problems at home?" which can be a very cathartic thing.
Like you said, the only difference is you can't handle it with a broad sword really.
ML: And that's exactly it. It can also be a very cathartic thing. [laughter]
It's interesting that ultimately, at this point, I think the RPG genre is more important in this generation that anyone could have predicted at the outset. There's more innovation being done in the RPG genre. There's more popular games in the RPG genre. You've got really vital developers producing games in it. Bethesda just really came into its own. Not to belittle the previous games they made.
ML: No, but I think they hit a stride. And I think that to me we've hit a point where the graphics are certainly not done, but I could say they're good enough.
I remember the first time I felt that graphics had reached the point where they were good enough was probably about Grim Fandango, where graphics were now good enough to have an artistic vision of Día de los Muertos and the skeletons, such that I can look at Grim Fandango right now and, like Snow White, it holds up. It's perfect. It looks just fine. I might wish it were slightly higher res. But in terms of its art direction, it was great.
So when technology is no longer the driving force moving from like Lode Runner to Wing Commander to Crysis 2, and it's not as fundamentally "Okay, no, no. Better, better, better," suddenly the artistry comes out of it.
I think that what we find is that when visual artistry is in there, that it's about elements like stories, and about immersiveness, and about elements like that, that as much as RPGs are able to spin this tale that sucks you in that you lose yourself in for hours, you have similar things happening with the shooter franchises like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor where they're about the experience.
They're about dragging your hindbrain into a place where you're actually afraid, and realize your pulse is elevated because of what just happened. To me, that is where games have come into their own and become about an experience and about interactivity, which means the medium is now playing to its strengths.