The RPG Scrollbars: Universes Built For Sharing

For a few horrible minutes during E3, it looked like Bethesda might seriously claim that The Elder Scrolls and Fallout were part of the same universe. Thankfully, not. Despite this being an era where Sony wants a Ghostbusters universe and Universal thinks demeaning the Universal Monsters by linking them with a top-sekrit monstah hunting group led by Dr Jekyll is anything other than schoolboy fan-fiction, Bethesda’s Pete Hines has been quick to go “What? No. No! No…” Phew! Honestly, it’s bad enough that Daggerfall has six endings, ranging from the villain becoming a god to orcs being either defeated or victorious, and canonically all of them are true.

But at a time when we’re seriously asked to pretend that “Dark Universe” is a thing we should want to see, that unholy union really wasn’t impossible…

I’m not really a fan of shared universes, and at the very least I think they have to be earned rather than just stated or assumed. Marvel’s done a pretty good job with its cinematic universe, in particular making it so that most of the characters’ skills and problems manage to avoid the ‘Call The Avengers’ issue and make a good case for why the problem at hand should be kept local. The Arrowverse on the other hand can highlight the differences between Barry and Oliver all it wants, both the crossovers and overlapping villains and similar mean you have to keep reminding yourself that the answer to “Why doesn’t he just call The Flash/Supergirl?” is “Because then the story would be over in five minutes.” Don’t even get me started on how little The Avengers has managed to interest me in the big blue chap sitting on the space toilet.

So, I’m quite glad that Bethesda, despite having the kind of portfolio that could probably get away with some Bethesdaverse nonsense, isn’t falling into that trap and leaving itself in a position where it has to explain why the future is 1950s style and why any other future games aren’t, or why nobody in Tamriel has ray-guns or whatever. (Except modders.) It wouldn’t add anything except a layer of silliness and artifice. Pretty much without exception, the only cases that work in games are those that fully embrace it. Super Smash Bros for instance isn’t really suggesting that Mario and Luigi spend their off-time fighting Bayonetta and Samus and Kirby – the series’ original metaphor was a kid with toys – while Super Mario Kart invites you not to think about why they’re go-karting with Bowser instead of stomping him into Koopa-goop.

That’s not to say that nobody’s ever tried blurring the edges of their popular franchises, of course. SF and fantasy are surprisingly easy to mash together, the difference between aliens and monsters being mostly one of origin rather than detail. The trick is for a developer or publisher to actually have the necessary worlds, although even those who do have only really used the potential for glorified easter eggs. The most famous is probably the appearance of a Kilrathi fighter in Ultima VII (take a shot), although there’s actually a second example in Ultima Underworld 2 with another feline race called the ‘Trilkhai’ – members of a former spacefaring race ruined by war. They’re not Kilrathi as such, being more cheetah/leopard people than lions, and telepathic into the mix, but the reference isn’t subtle. Just mix up a few letters.

The other big example that comes to mind is Lands of Lore III, the incredibly disappointing final game in Westwood’s RPG franchise. The premise is that you’re trying to get your soul back by exploring assorted dimensions that have bled into the world of Gladstone, facing off against dangers ranging from a haunted house in the Netherworld to the inevitable fire and ice worlds, to… well… death by snu-snu. The final portal realm though is a radioactive desert, which soon leads the way to a NOD Temple from Command and Conquer, complete with an AI that hero Connor doesn’t understand at all. On a less overt level, the series also semi-connected fantasy with fantasy by idly referencing the Kyragem from The Legend of Kyrandia, and with the Gladstonian sorceress Dawn pretty much Kyrandia’s Zanthia copy and pasted between worlds.

(Oooh, and now I think about it, of course there’s Tides of Numenara, which connects itself to Planescape Torment in a few mostly thematic ways, like the use of ‘Adahn’ as a nom-de-quest but specifically in the case of O, a letter of the divine alphabet who likes hanging out in slightly seedy bars.)

Outside of RPGs, we get a few more cases. GTA references Manhunt, Tom Clancy has a whole military mash-up, and Assasins’s Creed’s Abstergo Entertainment has gotten around a bit. Almost never though are they more than a cute thing for fans to go “Oooh! I know that reference!” and intended as a true canonical thing. When Crusader: No Remorse’s packed-in newspaper discussed the recent success with Project: SHODAN, for instance, it wasn’t really setting up a game where its red-armour clad Silencer (think a Stormtrooper who can aim, but doesn’t have the sense to at least try and scratch off the Empire’s logo from his armour before trying to ingratiate himself with his fellow rebels) would team up with a plucky hacker. Which is probably for the best.

Look at you, Silencer. A pa-pathetic incredibly trained killing machine armed to the teeth with the latest firepower and no concept of- of- mercy. How can you challenge a per-perfect immortal… machine…

(Sound of rocket launcher being loaded)

I suppose a really large bribe is out of the question. Australia, perhaps?

Very well. You challenge me and I shall ans- ans- answer. For I too have forged an alliance with great- great- with greatness. The most powerful artificial intelligence known to history!

Siri not available. Connect to the internet.

Pestulent shit buboes. This is why AM works alone.

I have no friends and I must sob.

Despite the lack of official shared universes though, it can often feel like we get them anyway. Fantasy, in particular, is so rooted to the traditions of D&D and Tolkien and the tropes of the 80s that it can be hard to remember that things like health potions and mana and the traditional warrior/mage/rogue type classes really aren’t some kind of universal law. Worse, while the games that break away from that often do become cult hits and fondly remembered, just as often it feels like different is scary and uncomfortable, be it coming to a JRPG after a lifetime of playing Western modelled games, or just something that does things a little different, like Drakensang or Tyranny or the aforementioned Tides of Numenera. One of the most interesting cases there has to be The Elder Scrolls, where for all the praise lavished on Morrowind, Bethesda opted to spend the next decade first on the far more traditional Oblivion and Skyrim, just as BioWare’s plans for Dragon Age began with all kinds of interesting concepts like magic being super rare and ended with a world full of apostate mages for caster fights.

Of course, I’m not saying that all these worlds are the same. Every major RPG of interest finds new material to tap and its own direction to take things, from The Witcher’s focus on personality and lavish use of fairytale mythology to the titular Dragon Age: Origins, and at least its attempt to do something new in the sequel by creating an epic story based primarily on the passing of time rather than distance. As a general concept though, it would be nice to see more fantasy in the sense of crazy and wonderful ideas, and just a little less based on the accepted definition of the genre. There’s only so many worlds you can save before they start blending into each other regardless of the creators’ intent, and if that’s going to happen, maybe their collective heroes are okay saving the day on their own while we focus on the new and interesting threats still lurking behind P&P games and mythological bestiaries and classic stories of adventure that have still yet to be retold through the glorious medium of pixels.

45 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Well obviously there was a mission to mars to start teleportation experiments. Shortly after that left, there was a nuclear exchange on earth that left everything fallouty. Over time all the old junk broke down, and the radiation mutated people, etc. Then people built back up and it was Elder Scrolls.

    There, neat and tidy. No loose strings at all.

    • jon_hill987 says:

      You basically just described Adventure Time.

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      particlese says:

      The Dwemer ruins are Vaults filled with 50s refrigerators and 50s future-robuts, and the mechaspider dude in Fyr’s basement is Doomguy after nicking the spider mastermind’s kicks and getting convenient videogame amnesia… The birth of Nirn and the diminishing chaos thereafter was nukes and decaying nuclei… Argonians are now “lizard people” and Khajiit have become… Well, Imga are damn dirty apes!

      It all makes complete sense. What have you done?! You must be a vestage of UAC’s upper management, finishing off the merging our universes for profit and evil!

    • Steaxz says:

      except for the fact that the elder scrolls universe has two moons?

      • Premium User Badge

        particlese says:

        Something something, and the hellspawn finally conquered Earth and everyone from Earth ended up on Mars, which was magically (with magicka!) made massive enough to support a nice atmosphere?

  2. poliovaccine says:

    The little Harlan Ellison joke was a good one haha, still enjoying that

  3. forwardirektion says:

    The Bullfrog shared universe had some scale, starting with Populous and going through to Syndicate. And everyone from their other games queuing in the Theme Hospital cinematic.

  4. Michael Anson says:

    I think it’s worth pointing out that Bethesda already has stewardship over the joint id universe, which supposedly has a direct ancestral link between the main characters of Wolfenstein, Doom, and Commander Keen.

  5. ElementalAlchemist says:

    Is it just me, or did the second half of the article steer off course onto something else entirely?

    On the subject of shared universes, as well as Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K sharing all the same base thematic elements, it’s popularly speculated by fans that the Warhammer Fantasy world is in fact just a backwater planet in the 40K universe, with Sigmar possibly being one of the Emperor’s primarchs.

    • jon_hill987 says:

      Presumably this means that there is another backwater planet in the 40k ‘verse where everyone just plays football?

    • Stompywitch says:

      This used to be somewhat canonical, with various Chaos units able to directly cross over (And WHFB’s Amazon’s wielding lasguns, amongst other things). But it got kinda dropped around the time their licensing really took off; if the two worlds are linked, they can’t sell both licenses as easily.

      And after the Warhammer world got shattered, that link is probably entirely gone, although the Skaven did possibly telephone the Eldar one time…

      Blood Bowl has always existed in it’s own world, but between it and WHFB, it’s the “nice” one.

    • frogulox says:

      Not just you, i thought the exact same thing when i realised i was on the last paragraph.

      Unusual drift from mr cobbett

  6. Alberto says:

    If I remember correctly, all Amplitude’s “Endless [ ]” games share the same universe.

    • napoleonic says:

      Yes, but they were built that way. This is about shoehorning existing franchises into one shared universe after the fact.

      • Zenicetus says:

        It’s a shared universe, but it wasn’t built in one go. They’ve managed to keep the lore relatively intact, but a few things in the timelines show signs of retconning to make it all work out as new games are introduced.

    • dylan says:

      I like this example, because starting from space and ending with a dungeon, each series offers a sort of zoom-in on the last, in terms of its scope. This was the same pitch that made WoW so appealing, originally: what if you could zoom in and take control of one of those little grunts on the battlefield?

  7. FreshHands says:

    Definitely no to shared universes!

    There probably are franchises (yuk, using this world too often, lately) where it worked out somewhat – Alien vs. Predator is kind of goofy but fits tonally at least.

    A really bad example to me is the DC Universe. I mean, many believe they have worked it out, but come on! Batman is a ninja with a really big budget fighting mad criminals in a gothic environment – while Superman is this imbalanced demigod from outer space.

    You can fix anything together with superglue (and money) but usually all you get is some kind of ugly Mutant :)

  8. Premium User Badge

    tigerfort says:

    “the traditions of D&D and Tolkien […] things like health potions and mana and the traditional warrior/mage/rogue type classes”

    Literally none of those things are in Tolkien. Well, OK, there are warriors (of many different kinds), but that’s it. D&D-style halfling rogues are based on Bilbo in much the same way that Doctor Who is based on real science: there’s sometimes kind of a nod there if you really squint, but basically it’s something utterly unrelated claiming to be the same. (The most hilarious example is that people talk about “D&D/Tolkien-style elves”. Tolkien’s elves are taller, stronger, and much hardier than humans, as well as being smarter, more skilled, and immortal.)

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I didn’t actually say they were the same thing, just examples of stuff that gets reused more or less on a ‘of course they’re X’ way.

      • Someoldguy says:

        If I may, I’ll cross link this to the recent articles about Jeff Vogel’s opinions on the overuse of writing. I often feel that games designers that don’t want to do any heavy lifting on the writing and world design fronts eagerly adopt these stereotypes because it saves them all that time and effort. They expect not to have to explain to anybody what an Elf or a Hobbit are good at and can concentrate their efforts on explaining or demonstrating the things that make their games slightly different. “Our Elves are better than their Elves because they get a five arrow end-game trick shot, not three!” For the same reason most sci fi games have people firing laser weapons even though in reality they’re a stupid idea.

        I can sympathise, too. What’s the point in creating a whole new world where the Spalsm are a mistreated servant underclass when the reviewers are going to take one look and call them three-armed yellow Goblins anyway? When you’re asking us to inhabit the role of someone who is familiar with the world they live in (give or take a spot of amnesia) it makes sense for the player to be comfortable with the basic structure of the game world as well.

    • FreshHands says:

      Ooops, two posts within a few minutes – shame on me!

      I also believe that people are throwing around Tolkien a little too wildly these days. On the other hand whether you call them Elves, Aelfs, Vulkanians, Eldar or Mirins – in the end they are all your classic pointy-eared, aloof/arrogant biatches.

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      Drib says:

      Athelas was basically a healing potion. It seems like everyone disregarded it as useless even though every time anyone touched it at all it made everyone in the room feel better.

      • Someoldguy says:

        Athelas was more like antibiotics. It could effect a ‘miracle cure’ from many things if administered in time, but you still needed days or weeks of bed rest to make a recovery from anything as serious as a stab with a morgul knife. You couldn’t just chug them in a fight and see your wounds close instantly.

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        tigerfort says:

        Athelas can be used by the members of one bloodline to heal the effects of one type of black magic. Unless it’s being used by someone descended from Luthien, it just makes a nice smell. And it has no ability to cure diseases, or physical damage, or psychological trauma, or even other kinds of magical injury.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      When I hear Tolien elves I’m thinking about the badass shifty Noldor primarily rather than the dandelion eaters of other franchises.

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        tigerfort says:

        To err is human; to really screw things up requires a descendant of Finwe? :)

  9. ZippyLemon says:

    I would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone of that E3 where Todd Howard convinced the games industry that dragons in a fantasy game was a downright revolution.

    Because it was, for The Elder Scrolls, wasn’t it? The revolutionary lack of dragons in TES lore was but an open door for an even more revolutionary move: putting them back in.

  10. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    In the Witcher 3, if you ask Ciri the right question at the right time, she tells Geralt about a world that she jumped to where the Wild Hunt couldn’t find her. The way she describes it sounds very much like the world of Cyberpunk 2077.
    Not that I’d expect CDPR to be as clumsy as to have Ciri as a character, instead I’m expecting a throwaway bit of dialogue about a girl with white hair and a sword, who’s “gone back home”.

    • ElementalAlchemist says:

      In the novels she jumps to modern Earth IIRC. I can’t remember the specific bit in the game that you are describing, but it could very well be a reference to that.

      She also visits Arthurian England at one point, as well as managing to arrive somewhere in Mediterranean in the mid-1300s at the very start of the black plague, which she then inadvertently carries across to the Witcher world.

      • Konservenknilch says:

        Geralt also referenced Lord of the Rings in a throwaway line. In a world where paralell universes are a given, anything goes.

    • SanguineAngel says:

      I remember that conversation. I’m pretty sure she was just describing contemporary Earth

      • Chaoslord AJ says:

        It’s just after the Cyberpunk reveal online game journalists phantasized about Ciri being back in that game but it’s not really backed up by her dialogue.

    • Chentzilla says:

      Not quite on topic, but imagine if Witcher 3 was playable in Cyberpunk 2077 on the character’s computers!

  11. Ghostwise says:

    Technically, Wolfenstein, Commander Keen and Doom are maybe in the same universe.

    Technically.

    • jeremyalexander says:

      That doesn’t seem that far fetched actually in terms of franchises sharing a universe.

  12. jeremyalexander says:

    I don’t have a problem with unified gaming universes. The second edition of AD&D did it brilliantly with each of it’s worlds contained in giant spheres with different laws of physics, magic, etc. These spheres could be moved between in space, the ether, using Spelljammer ships, or via Planewalking in what is still the best version of Planescape. It was brilliant and a high point for me in terms of Dungeons and Dragons. As for Ultima, let me preface by saying that I grew up with Ultima. My first non-Atari, Colecovision, or NES title was the PC version of Ultima 3. I awaited every release like it was a holy day and would do nothing for a week or two after until I finished them. Then last year I played them all again and they’re pretty awful. They have almost zero lore consistency, they are blatant rip offs of basic fairy tales, the writing is horrible and childish, and while the story concepts are really good, little of that actually comes through in gameplay. In Ultima 4, you are tasked with becoming a good person, but in reality you kill thousands of things, dive into dungeons, have no meaningful interactions or conversations,etc, but worst of all, tying into this article, if you are looking for consistent lore, Ultima is the last place you want to use as an example. My nostalgia blinders have completely fallen off for that series.

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      teije says:

      This is why I don’t usually replay any of those old “classics” from my youth. Fear I’d see them with the nostalgia blinders off.

  13. April March says:

    Of course Fallout isn’t in the same universe as Elder Scrolls. It’s in the same universe as Saints’ Row. Wait, let me fetch my diagrams…

    Also, I really like the little Abridged Games in the middle.

  14. Premium User Badge

    MajorLag says:

    On the one hand, I like mashing up universes to see what will happen. I think there’s a lot of potential for narrative experimentation and character exploration to be had there.

    On the other hand, I kinda hate it when people try to justify it canonically. I think that’s completely unnecessary.

    I prefer Nintendo’s way of doing things, where they just do them and ignore it. Well, until some of the more obsessed fans, no doubt writing equations on their walls and constructing elaborate webs of string connecting seemingly unrelated bits from the pages of game manuals, come up with some grand unified theory of franchise coherency. Not that there’s anything wrong with that really, I just think it’s the kind of thing that should stay on the internet and go entirely unacknowledged by creators save for nicking any really good bits.

    I think the gaming industry could do with more crossovers. Problem being, all the interesting ones would require competing studios to collaborate, something corporations are typically not very good at unless it’s to the consumer’s determent.

  15. newc0253 says:

    Is this a problem in 2017?

    RPGs have been mashing up SF and fantasy since the very beginning.

    The Temple of the Frog, the very first printed D&D adventure that was included in 1975’s Blackmoor supplement, has power armour.

    The 1e AD&D includes rules to crossover into Gamma World and Boot Hill.

    And 1980’s Expedition to the Barrier Peaks revolves around a crashed spaceship, complete with aliens and laser rifles.

    It was only a matter of time before you had entire RPGs based around genre-blurring, like Shadowrun.

    Mixing genres is like anything else, it can be done badly or it can be done well. I don’t have any particular interest in Tamriel crossing over into the Fallout universe or vice versa, but whose to say it can never be done?

  16. Chentzilla says:

    >complete with an AI that hero Connor doesn’t understand at all.

    The hero’s name is actually Copper LeGre. Connor was the hero of King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity.

  17. Chentzilla says:

    >When Crusader: No Remorse’s packed-in newspaper discussed the recent success with Project: SHODAN, for instance, it wasn’t really setting up a game where its red-armour clad Silencer would team up with a plucky hacker.

    Actually, the Silencer did team up with a plucky hacker in the original game. I believe he was called Wizard.