Tuesday, April 5

On Dragons

Gamers are nerds.  One would think this goes without saying, but the consequences of that are more than most people care to think about.  Lead Writer and Designer of Bioshock Ken Levine said that most gamers have seen one movie and read one book, and those are Star Wars and Lord of the Rings or something similar, and to a degree, he’s correct.  What he was getting at in saying this is that gamers have a tendency to love certain genres and tropes, and that love means we see those genres and tropes played to death in games.
Case in point: Dragons.  The bloody things are everywhere.  There aren’t always lots of them, but I see at least ten games from where I’m sitting that feature them.  And, really, it’s a problem.
Oh, dragons themselves aren’t the issue, nor is thinking they’re great creatures, because let’s face it: they are.  The problem is the overexposure of these mighty winged lizards, and in effect, so much of what is typically geek culture.  Space Marines, orcs and goblins, secret science labs, zombies, etc, ad nausiem.  Again the problem isn’t inherently with these things, the problem is with how often we see them.
This has led to most, if not all of this geek iconography losing much of its initial sting or effect.  Zombies are no longer scary, dragons are not as fearsome, orcs and goblins are just basic canon fodder, and it all seems like no one cares.
This first really hit me when playing Dragon Age: Origins.  This isn’t really a spoiler, considering how early it happens in the game.  You’re told of the Archdemon, the one true and perfect indication that a Blight, the most feared invasion possible, is descending.  Now, something called an Archdemon should be… well, demonic, wouldn’t you say?  A terrifying, bone chilling creature torn from the nightmares of mythology, a horror of…
Oh, it’s a spiky dragon.
Still cool in its own way.
Really?  I mean, I loved Dragon Age, the characters, the storylines, the intrigue… but the Archdemon?  Nothing.  Just nothing.  And I really had to question why.  The problem was, nerds know too much about dragons.  They breath fire, or lightning, or acid, but nothing they’re not surprising.  Almost nothing done with dragons for the past decade has really rekindled the power and fear dragons are supposed to inspire.  The only time anyone worries about a dragon is because they’ve read the stats blocks in D&D.  We only fear them because we’ve been told to fear them.  The dragons themselves no longer inspire fear, they’re just a fallback for when the writer is feeling uninspired.
This needs to change, and I mean big time.  For these icons to properly survive, and I believe they should, they need to adapt to be more than they were.  For instance, let some imaginative designs come forward and take up new titles.  For instance, this is the archetypal demon we know now: (right)
And we could switch it out for something more like this: (below)
Now THAT'S a demon.  Long tail, spiky bits, wings, and six breasts.
I don't even know why there are breasts, it's just weird.
Going back to my starting point, gamers are free to love what they love.  Science fiction and fantasy are genres full of great concepts and creatures, but when the love of something gets as great as it has, it can get old fast.  For those of you who love your science fiction, take a look at the last few great science fiction concepts you’ve come across.  How many of them are new, or make you contemplate the universe and its components in a different way?  I’d bet few to none.  It seems like we’ve moved away from fictional science and more into the realm of “Syfy.” (You’ll never convince me that spelling was a good idea).  That is to say, the Science is no longer the focus of science fiction, just as the fantasy is no longer the focus of the fantasy genre.
To look back, take concepts like those in Dune, the idea of “Folding space” or “Psychohistory” in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.  These were the concepts of science that not only helped make science fiction amazing, but pushed real-world scientists to study and look for similar methods with real-world use.  Similarly, dragons, dwarves, elves, halflings (hobbits, bobbits, whatever), were great for creating Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but there are more things out there.
I’ll more than happily say that we should move away from what Tolkien taught us.  Sure, it’s great to have some familiarity in our books, our movies, our games, but really, we need to expand our horizons.  There’s a reason Fantasy and Science Fiction don’t receive equal appreciation and criticism in the “serious” world of arts, and it’s because of the mountain of drivel that quite unfortunately surrounds those few glittering gems we see in things like Inception or…  wow, I actually can’t think of an even moderately recent fantasy creation that made me think about the world it portrayed.  I suppose the closest is all the creatures in Persona 4, but the creature weren’t enough of a focus to really bring that across.
Well, I apologize, that was more of a rant than I intended.  But I stand by it.  The realm of mythical creatures, or mysterious forces, of space and aliens, of fantastical science and scientific impossibilities, of magic and many worlds, has become bland, and the task we now face is to revitalize, to reinvigorate that world with challenging concepts for our future, allegories for our own world as well as our possibilities.  I want to ride on a mythical creature, and this time, I don’t want it to just be a normal creature with some wings pasted on.

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