Myth and Fantasy: Part I
I’ve mostly recovered from the best four days in gaming (thank you GenCon!) but I can’t stop thinking about all things related to swords, magic, giant robots, and/or dystopic futures. Once again GenCon proved to me how exhausting and exhilarating geeking out can be. When I wasn’t shouting myself hoarse at the Harebrained Schemes booth, I had the chance to reconnect with some amazing people and meet both new fans and diehard backers of Golem Arcana.
Since then I’ve been reflecting on what Fantasy and Science Fiction share, and most importantly what Fantasy does better than any other genre. This all started as a reflection on Navajo myth in Dark Souls, but I have a feeling that we’ll have to wait for Part II to get there.
Too often Science Fiction is portrayed as the more “serious” of the genres while Fantasy is relegated to good fun. I’ve never understood the argument against Fantasy. It’s escapism? Sure, it can be but you can lost touch with the reality of everyday life reading Kant or Jordan, it’s a matter of how you engage with a book.
Like any genre, be it Romance, Literary Fiction (this is absolutely a genre regardless of the academic pedestal it rests on), or Victorian, Fantasy has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. It can be pure entertainment, “serious,” or as often is the case, a little bit of both.
Game of Thrones is a perfect example of this, flirting with deeper themes while regularly exploiting women’s bodies and violence equally for our viewing pleasure. Regardless of your opinion it has unquestionably brought Fantasy to the forefront of pop culture.
Unless, you’re a gamer, then it’s hard to conceive of a world that doesn’t involve dozens if not hundreds of fantasy-themed games a year. Between mainstays like Final Fantasy, every other MMO, and indie darlings like Shovel Knight, Fantasy has been integral part of gaming.
If Science Fiction allows us to projects our fears and hopes into the future, than Fantasy allows us to look back and twist history and superimpose a question of what if and at the same time how did we get here?
In many ways, the genres aren’t so different given that most Scifi these days isn’t “hard Scifi” the majority of it is unexplained, much like magic in Fantasy. I admit this isn’t entirely accurate, while Scifi has shifted away from explaining all the technological quirks of our future in realistic details, while fantasy has actually become more transparent with magic. Notably, one of the Fantasy’s biggest names, Brandon Sanderson has boiled down his magic to systems that more closely resemble science than mysticism.
And you know what? I love Brandon Sanderson. He’s helped explore new space in the genre and brought attention too many other authors who are following in his footsteps or had already been exploring this territory before him. I have no problem with that at all, but I often find it best to explain only as little as you can and leave the rest for the reader to wrestle with. In this manner magic and technology serve similar duties as symbols, plot devices, and central character traits in Fantasy and Scifi respectively.
I find that our expectations about Fantasy in Scifi are flipped when it comes to gaming. Typically, those inspired by Scifi are portrayed as “dumb” shooters where you kill aliens without remorse as some nameless and characterless meat-head (I’m looking at you Doom-guy, Masterchief, and the entire cast of Gears of War), while RPGs embrace Fantasy almost by default as a way to explore characters and monsters alike, they also provide the backdrop for almost all styles of games from dating simulator to rogue-like.
So what are the strengths of Fantasy?
Myth, immersion, and language. Wait! Language is part of all writing, you might say. True and the strength of fantasy is that as the rules of the world as you know it are twisted so too is the language that describes it (You can read all about it in Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction). Unlike Scifi, Fantasy doesn't ask you to directly reflect on where our current society is going, though it still gets at those questions in its nuanced way.
When I write, “The sea blinked.” It has an entirely different context in Fantasy than most literary fiction (though this is changing). In the context of Fantasy, I could quite literally mean that sea is actually a giant eye and it has closed rapidly. In literary fiction we might see this description as potentially poetic or more likely an expression of psychological distress in our narrator. Fantasy (and Scifi) is powerful because it changes the context of language and allows the writer to play an entirely different set of expectations.
Does this always get explored to its full potential?
Of course not.
Here’s a poignant sentence from one of my favorite games.
“In Lordran, the flow of time is distorted.”
Sure, it's telling over showing, but this sentence makes Dark Souls work. It is the heart and soul of the game. It explains the game mechanics, reveals a sliver of essential information about the world, and because of this information we are able to more fully immerse ourselves in Dark Souls as it has linked both the mechanic of death with the setting thus resolving the typical issue of watching our hero die over and over in a game.
Wait! What about Myth? What does Dark Souls have to do with the Navajo?
Great questions! In Part II I'll discuss myth's role in Fantasy and how that separates it from all other genres.