Yes But No But…

In a response to my post about RPGs killing fantasy, Jeff Vandermeer asks, ‘Isn’t it just about characters and plot?’

Well, yes and no. Novelists will always have the upper hand over games. The characters will be richer, the plots more complex and intriguing, and there will…or rather, should…be some level of meaning and subtext that makes the whole experience worthwhile.

The point is, if the area they’re writing in is so degraded by over-familiarity, characters and plot aren’t enough to provide that sense of ‘otherness’ that fantasy readers require. But Jeff is already working in a completely different area of fantasy.

On a slightly different tack, M John Harrison quite rightly expresses no interest in that obsessive level of world-building detail that gamers demand. Which is interesting, because in his excellent ‘Viriconium’ tales from a few years back, he created a fully-realised world with a few brush-strokes. What some people don’t realise is that books are a collaboration between writer and reader – both bring something to a story, and both help realise the world through the power of their imaginations.

Are RPGs Killing Fantasy?

The massive explosion of RPGs, table-top, video and net games over the last fifteen years has changed the landscape for fantasy authors. In ancient times, if you wanted to slip quietly into another world, you had only a handful of potential access points that were widely available in commercial locations: some Moorcocks, the odd reprint of the Weird Tales authors and the ubiquitous Tolkein. Mythologies were being re-interpreted for a new audience, strange horizons were invoked and it was all fresh and exhilarating.

Now we’ve all visited fantasy worlds hundreds or thousands of times by our teens, whether it’s the Dungeons and Dragons of the eighties, the paper-based games that grew out of it, or the World of Warcraft and other MMPORGs of the netscape. This huge industry has turned all the tropes of fantasy into crashing cliches. Elves, dwarves, and dragons are as familiar as your next-door neighbour. We all know how magic works, as clearly as the laws of physics – it’s defined in a thousand rule books. Games Workshop alone has mapped an entire universe of new worlds. And when I say mapped, I mean geographically, culturally, economically, racially, sexually, theologically, scientifically and mythologically. They are defined as clearly as the world you might search for in Wikipaedia or the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This is not fantasy. This is reality, living, breathing and evolving all around.

Nor is this is a criticism of games, far from it. Their remarkable success has turned our shared minority interest into a mainstream taste – or it will have when the next generation comes to maturity. How will our western society be shaped when people rooted in imagination and the fantastic become the majority? But that’s a different blog…

The question now is, what is the point of the fantasy author? Any writer coming into this field in this age faces immediate dangers. The core fantasy elements have been so colonised by the games industry that the writer automatically has to handle accusations of being a hack dabbling in cliches. Yes, a good writer should infuse their work with levels of meaning, subtext and characterisation usually unavailable in games and their fictional tie-ins. But is that enough? Any author utilising the long-standing tropes and landscape of fantasy fiction will now always be hamstrung by suffocating familiarity. The games worlds are so diverse, so cleverly and startlingly imagined (usually by teams of highly inventive people) that authors working in these traditional fields will be seen as ‘more of the same’ by anyone giving their work a cursory glance on the shelves. And what author worth their salt wants that?

Fantasy authors – and all the thousands of would-be fantasy authors out there – need to wake up. They’re being squeezed out of the territory they have occupied for the last hundred years or so. They can no longer count on the fact that they’re the only visionaries in town, or the only explorers charting the fringes of the imagination. They’re being supplanted by a much more dynamic and agressive breed.

I’m not convinced that simply ‘doing it better’ will work. Fantasy authors need to find a new unique selling point. If they want to maintain their reputation as the elite of this field, they need to work their imaginations harder, start defining new territories, go to places that the gamers wouldn’t (yet) dare to go.

Who is up for that challenge?