One of the biggest games at E3 this year was Dragon Age: Inquisition. The trailers showed off beautiful visuals, exciting tactical gameplay, and a whole new cast of characters to clamber into bed with – all of which got a lot of people excited for a lot of different reasons. Shrouded by that universally-felt excitement, Bioware somehow managed to hide the fact that they’re not doing anything original.
You see, the fantasy genre has a problem: it has failed to escape from the influence of one man, a man whose name carries more weight than any other. Unless you’ve been marooned on a desert island for the last hundred years, you’ll know that that name is J.R.R. Tolkien. He may have taken his own cues from mythology and fairy tales, but he has since eclipsed those influences to become the undisputed grand-daddy of fantasy. His works have inspired millions of people all over the world and they are still inspiring people today.
Unfortunately, “inspiring” isn’t really the right word – because people are actually content to just imitate Tolkien. Peculiarly, in the genre which should most set the imagination free, the same ideas are regurgitated over and over again. Invention and creation are the last words on anyone’s mind.
An ancient evil returns. A party of heroes – men, elves, and dwarves – set out to defeat it. That was the premise of Dragon Age: Origins, but give the main character a pretty gold ring and a pair of hairy feet (admittedly an uncommon option in character creators) and you’re stumbling back to Middle-Earth. Bioware can sex it up as much as they want – and they sex it up an awful lot – but it doesn’t hide their lack of originality. If anything, the violence and sexual content of the Dragon Age series just seems to be borrowed from George R.R. Martin instead of Tolkien.
Before this becomes a witch-hunt, it’s important to point out that this is an issue plaguing all manner of mediums, including literature and film. However, the problem is infectious and it is spreading. It has now affected video games as well, and most particularly Western RPGs.
The dwarves may properly be called Dwemer and they may have disappeared from the world, but the Elder Scrolls series is still populated by men, elves and orcs, and it aims for the same kind of extensive lore that Tolkien created. The most recent main series instalment, Skyrim, featured the return of an ancient evil, and its mountainous setting could have come straight out of The Lord of the Rings.
Similarly, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning did everything very well – engaging combat, beautiful environments, and an engaging story – but could not have been more lacking in originality. Its elves were called Alfar and its dwarves were called Gnomes, but nobody was fooled. When you add to this the story premise of an ancient evil on the comeback trail, it’s actually surprising that a giant flaming eye didn’t pop up. What’s more, the story elements not taken from Tolkien – regarding the weave of fate and the appearance of a fateless one – seems taken from Robert Jordan’s series of novels The Wheel of Time, which was itself heavily influenced by The Lord of the Rings.
The list of games recycling the same elements is rather long – Dungeon Siege, Baldur’s Gate, World of Warcraft – and it keeps on growing. Games based on or around The Lord of the Rings are not in short supply either, with E3 2014 showing off the latest, called Shadow of Mordor. Though each of the above has its own character and concepts, and many of them demonstrate excellent production values, that doesn’t save them from a single, valid criticism: none of their developers bothered to think for themselves.
What’s more is that Western fantasy RPGs have developed tiresome tropes of their own, such as the triumvirate of warrior, mage, and rogue classes. Dragons are currently the villains in vogue, with Tirnoch, Alduin and the Archdemon being the final bosses of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Skyrim, and Dragon Age: Origins respectively. Elemental magic types rarely vary beyond fire, ice, lightning and earth. In short, these sort of games have found a formula and nobody is daring to deviate from it.
Someone is probably getting very upset reading this (and if that person is you, I apologise). “Isn’t this what the high fantasy genre is about?” they’ll be saying. “Isn’t it about elves and dwarves and ancient sealed evils?” It’s possible they’re right, but it seems more likely that all those things belong to Tolkien’s high fantasy, and not high fantasy itself. “Not all Western RPGs feature all those things anyway, and so do some Japanese!” our enraged reader continues. That much is also true; the early Final Fantasy games, for example, contain an abundance of elves and dwarves. What’s really astounding, though, is the sheer proportion of Western RPGs that use these elements – and how easily they get away with it.
Consider The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as an example. Winner of numerous Game of the Year awards, with positive reviews consistently exceeding 90/100 on Metacritic, Skyrim is one of the best received games of recent years. For certain, it is due much of that praise, being a game of extraordinary scope and vision. But it seems that most gamers, reviewers included, have become so habituated to Tolkien’s ideas that they no longer notice when those ideas pop up in Tamriel instead of Middle-earth. The real question now is: should that trend be allowed to continue?
The mere fact that these games are selling speaks volumes, and it goes quite some way to defending them. They may be unoriginal, but if people are enamoured enough of Tolkien to forgive when his story elements are transplanted elsewhere, does it really matter? As long as people continue to enjoy them, surely that’s the most important thing?
In part this is true, but it also misses the point entirely. In other mediums, some of the most exciting things the fantasy genre has introduced in recent years are exciting precisely because they forgo the tropes that Tolkien introduced. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted into the wildly popular television series Game of Thrones, is most heavily inspired by history and historical fiction. Patrick Rothfuss is clearly well read, both within the genre and without, but his series The Kingkiller Chronicle seems entirely his own. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series deliberately subverts the conventions of the genre.
So the issue is really one not of whether people are still enjoying games like Dragon Age and The Elder Scrolls, but whether opportunities are being missed to tell exciting new stories. Imagine reaching the end of a game and facing off against something new, something that hasn’t been sealed away for thousands of years. Imagine walking a path no-one has ever walked before and being surprised by a plot detail you never saw coming. Video games are certainly capable of such things, as games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us have proven. So why can’t fantasy RPGs do the same?
Dragon Age: Inquisition is currently due for release on October 7th of this year, and plenty of people who agree with this article will no doubt be lining up to get their paws on a copy – including the article’s author. If fantasy inspired by Tolkien does ever die out, it certainly doesn’t look like an imminent death, and perhaps it shouldn’t be an imminent death. But wouldn’t it be nice if, just for once, a Western RPG gave us something we had never seen before?