The problem with fantasy is that it’s often not very… well… fantastical. Far too often, even brand new worlds feel like Tolkein or Warcraft or Star Wars with a few twists, and the serial numbers scraped off. The good thing about this is that when a game does take us somewhere new, it feels all the more special for it. This week then, a quick look back at some which have caught my attention for their sense of place. That doesn’t necessarily mean super-original in the great scheme of things, or even not based on a licensed work, or even necessarily that the world contained a great game. These are just a few settings that have stood out from the crowd as cool ideas that surprised, inspired, and deserve borrowing or dusting off.
Escape From Hell
Okay, I understand this might seem like an odd starting point after the likes of Doom and Painkiller and Dante’s Inferno, and especially given that ‘set in the afterlife’ is a cliche that makes many an agent shudder. In RPG terms though, Escape From Hell was playing Old Harry’s Game long before Andy Hamilton’s sinus-challenged Satan, and taking advantage of the setting to bring in just about any historical character or reference that it wanted. It’s a game where you team up with Stalin and Genghis Khan and Hamlet to beat up Satan, using dustbin lids as shields. Sadly, the game coming on floppy disks meant very little actual characterization, and what was there was rippled with a deeply unpleasant sense of misogyny. Of the army of NPCs for instance, only two are female, and one is simply a topless blonde called “Blonde” with no skills at all. The humour is also pretty… let’s say ‘awkward’ at times, with settings including a walk through Dachau. But as said, we’re looking at originality here rather than necessarily specifics, and the vast quantities of fiction exploring similar possibilities show that there’s plenty more that could be done here.
Okay, so Eternam is primarily an adventure game, but it has just enough combat and exploration that I’m promoting it to RPG status just to say: Theme Parks. Eternam, the world, is basically Westworld – a series of biomes devoted to different periods of Earth’s history. The main character is a visitor role-playing as a barbarian within the game, tracking down his arch-enemy who has taken over the park. The advantage of all this should be obvious. An inherently fake world allows for both playing fast and loose with mechanical rules, and allowing world-design to focus purely on the awesome. (I still say that if the Dead Rising series never has an installment set in Not-Disneyworld then everyone involved has failed). It doesn’t need to be historical, though of course there’s a lot of fun to be had with the time-travel possibilities there – of bringing a plasma gun to a sword-fight etc. Any question about ‘why this’ and ‘why that’ can be thrown out of the window to give the designer completely free reign. Though ideally without completely running out of steam, as Eternam did long before the lend.
A game close to my heart, and not just because I’ve had the privilege of having the keys to its kingdoms now and again (translation: I’ve written for it, and its nautical spin-off Sunless Sea). While it gets a lot of praise for its sense of mystery and the deep lore, and that’s all obviously great, the raw setting would be one of my favourites even without that. It’s one of the best cases I’ve ever seen of taking the familiar and twisting it approximately 32 degrees. In particular, the gap between the big incident of London being stolen by bats and the period in which the game takes place allows for a wonderful melting pot of old and new, but presented as completely normal. My favourite bits are actually the relatively early stuff, where your character isn’t involved in the machinations of the Masters or launching epic zee-journies, but simply tipping their hat to eldritch horrors while trying to write love poetry, or concerning themselves with whatever delightful fancy lay happens to be taking place between the paragraphs. No other universe is so comfortable playing in that margin where the mundane meets the magical. How I’d love to see a big budget TV version of it someday.
Do not take this as a game recommendation. I think Bloodnet really, really sucks. I hate almost everything about it, from its combat system to its visuals to its UI. However, that said, I do love its core concept – a cyberpunk city where vampires rule, you’re trying not to become one of them, and every minute that passes is another drop of humanity draining away. The upcoming Vampyr looks to have a similar historical concept and conceit, in that you get to choose who to kill to satiate your thirst for blood. I always did like that idea, and since Vampyr’s not out yet, Bloodnet’s the game I’m throwing the shout-out to. Likewise, while I see no reason to suspect CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk will be anything other than awesome, it’s weird how little it’s been used as a setting. We’ve got Shadowrun now, but lest we forget, its first PC appearance was a team-shooter. That’s ridiculous considering that both SNES and Megadrive/Genesis consoles had an actual, proper RPG version back in the 90s. Bah.
Much to my chagrin, RPGs love nothing more than big bugs and creepy-crawlies. Oddly few though have tried an organic world. Tides of Numenara recently tackled this with its Bloom location – a huge monstrous world of revolting flesh-deals and putrefaction – and we’ve seen individual worlds give it a shot, like Ultima Underworld 2’s Tanaris or Sanitarium’s Hive. They’re still pretty rare though, despite the obvious scope for horror and creative biology. That seems an odd omission, though it’s not as though a few games haven’t tried. Tabula Rasa for instance was initially going to be far more organic, before turning into a fairly stock SF world whose second planet began with a character complaining how boring the world was. Nothing though has really fused body horror and bugs with a sense of an actual world. It’s a wide open field, even if they’re only there as invaders.
Here’s one that’s always surprised me – the vast quantities of pulp adventure fiction ripe for the picking, yet left to wither on the vine. Obviously, bits of them show up all the time, but the crazy melting pots of things like the old Doc Savage stories are largely left to simmer over. Savage Empire presented a cool world of larger-than-life monsters, less-dressed-than-sensible characters, and crazy jungle adventures without… at least that I remember… the more unfortunate elements of the original stories. Certainly, there’s got to be potential in a Flame And The Flood style adventure down a fantasy version of the Amazon or similar, right? Right.
There are of course three kinds of people in this world. The ones who praise Darklands for being a scrupulously historical RPG with no fantasy elements, the ones who go “Wait, it has witches and thing…”, and those who’ve never heard of it at all. Either way, the idea of a historical RPG with a few tweaks still has much potential. (A good start being to find a copy of Lionheart and then not do anything that it does.) We’ve occasionally seen dips into this territory, often tied to Robin Hood or King Arthur, but nothing that really fuses the potential of RPGs with a sense of historical veracity. That said, to a generation brought up on Assassin’s Creed, I suppose much of the tutorial would have to be taken up by explaining why everyone isn’t currently doing parkour.
Remember when the Aladdin TV show intro invited us to “Grab your shield, grab your sword, you won’t ever get bored!”? I’m not going to go that far, but the Thousand And One Nights style of world-building does offer plenty of potential. Just ask players of the Tales Of The Arabian Nights card game. Yet it’s pretty much unheard of in games. Even Al-Qadim is a Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting. So much more stuff to be done, surely?
Arcanum: Of Steamworks And Magick Obscura
Steampunk. Love it or hate it, it’s underused and rarely done properly when it is. That is all. The fusion of magic and technology is also always a fun experience.
Okay. I would love a Vampire: Bloodlines 2. I make no bones about it. However, this one is here primarily so that I can ask – where the hell is all the urban fantasy? It’s the perfect genre for RPGs, and you don’t need to put it in the cyberpunk future just because it’s easier to justify people wearing stripper clothes and wielding Uzis. It’s ridiculous that we haven’t seen more adventures on dark nights where monsters tread and occasionally stop for a chat. Yes, as with other examples here, there are non-RPGs that offer the vibe and the aesthetic. However, there’s a big difference between shooting the hell out of secret societies that control the Earth in secret and actually being part of them and living that life. It’s such a strange open goal, with even the likes of The Secret World largely side-stepping it in order to focus on locations with open mysteries and no sense of masquerade.
And I could go on! But as ever, I’m interested in hearing the games that would go on your list. As said, it’s not necessarily about the games themselves, but the chance to experience a different world. There are many fantastic fantasy games that simply don’t stick in the mind, and just as many awesome ideas that cry out to be in a better game. The joy of RPGs is that they can explore all of them, with sword, gun, or just a well-chosen word. And without the need for a single orc or elf within a hundred miles.