Thursday, June 05, 2008

Low and High Fantasy in MMOs

Tolkien is pretty much the undisputed source of modern day fantasy, but his style only represents a portion of the genre nowadays. Those that follow exactly in Tolkien's footsteps often use the term "high fantasy" to describe their work. It's very easy to distinguish this classic approach from more modern sub-genres of fantasy since it almost always deals in the absolute alignment of forces for either good or evil.

In Middle Earth these forces were represented by the elves on the side of good and the orcs on the side of evil. This has lead to high fantasy often being associated with classic non human races like elves, halflings, and dwarves. While this tends to be true in some sense it’s really the nature of the main characters which define the genre. If the protagonist is a hero and has no inner struggles in deciding their actions then this tends to hint of high fantasy.

Low fantasy on the other hand tends to deal with a more human portrayal of main characters. The main characters struggle with their actions and may do things which are self serving or even petty in some regards. While we may not admire these characters as much as high fantasy ones they are easier for us to relate with. Recently I've seen a lot of low fantasy used in television programs like Heroes, Battlestar Galatica, and Lost. It seems that what has been a popular trend in books for awhile now is starting to make its way into other forms of media.

In general most MMOs have stuck with classic high fantasy since Tolkien's work was the original influence for Dungeons and Dragons. However, there have been a few games, usually oriented around PvP, which have adopted lore more in line with low fantasy. Age of Conan is probably the most well known and I've heard varying opinions on the style of its storyline. Some people see low fantasy has not having a clear purpose and feel that the lack of an absolute evil makes the story less grandiose. Others find that being able to relate to their characters makes them better able to enjoy the story.

It's funny since in the fall we're going to see the release of Warhammer which follows very strongly in the footsteps of other high fantasy games. Indeed I would say Warhammer has more absolute versions of good and evil then even World of Warcraft. So while the PvP looks like the best I've ever seen in a MMO, I wonder if their lore will produce lopsided factions. In general the Horde were less popular in World of Warcraft, but at least the lore in Azeroth didn't make the orcs into mindless minions of evil, like those in Middle Earth. It should be interesting to see how the factions fill up in the game and if they have worse problems then World of Warcraft.


br3ntbr0 said...

I'm one of the guys that has yet to feel drawn in to Age of Conan, probably for the reasons you state here. I haven't officially stopped playing the game yet, but I'm struggling to find a reason to want to play so that may be inevitable.

Relmstein said...

I'm actually a fan of the more "high fantasy" types of games but it's been so prevalent in MMO's lately that I find Age of Conan a bit refreshing. Funcom has a lot of problems with itemization and quest content that they need to clean up, so it's most likely not just the low fantasy setting that is turning some people off the game.

I'm playing with a group of friends at the moment so I find myself enjoying it more then I would be if I were trying to solo or duo in it.

Rhey said...

I prefer the low fantasy myself. I like how in AoC one of the dialog options is always to either threaten to kill them or insult their manhood. Because that’s just how my Bear shaman rolls but she’s not very conflicted inside. But having factions is a definite way to draw people in because lets face it the other side is always 100% jerks, and are always willing to show you the true face of evil. Especially the alliance, those bastards.

Scott said...

I've actually always considered Tolkien (and seen it referred to) as low-fantasy. Barely any magic in the world, very few crazy races and monsters; it's mostly about the struggles of the people, or expanding from there, about the two very black and white factions in Middle Earth.

Conan, to me, is still low fantasy, but higher on the ladder than Tolkien. It's men versus each other but also versus high fantasy-style monsters, demons, etc. with some pretty impressive magic being slung about.

Then again, is Conan emphasizing "low fantasy" or is it simply emphasizing a more "primal" motivation for your actions?

steve said...

I would have to say I agree with rhey. The low fantasy is more realistic at times. After a hard day of questing and killing evil sorcerous and brigands, who doesn't want to kick back with ale and women of questionable value. My PoM is not very conflicted other than the stupid boss you have to summon is the only one in the sanctum that drops my gear. It is not like he wants to rape Crom like some bear shamans I know.

Anonymous said...

Much as I hate to say it, the character art has a lot more to do with which faction players choose than the lore. Sure, the core RP crowd out there may pick a faction and a race based on what they prefer to "be". But for most people, who never roleplayed and play MMOs for the "leveling" and the "items", it's more about looking good.

The reason WoW was so imbalanced towards Alliance had little to do with lore and everything to do with humans and night elves being attractive to look at. Women, particularly women who had never played an MMO before, were drawn to that. Men who "I play this toon because if I have to look at a toon's arse for thousands of hours, it may as well be hot" want eye candy played Alliance. Bliz saw their mistake and added Blood Elves, and that has actually seemed to pull the Horde up a bit higher in pop. But it was pretty much 2 years too late to really get things to 50/50.

WAR is adding attractive human-style bodies to both sides; so if you aren't interested in twisted, hulking, knee-high, misshapen, or green, you have an "elegant" option regardless of which side you choose to fight on.

Personally while the low fantasy can be interesting, I think it's a lot easier for people to get into a high fantasy MMO because the delineation is drawn for them. That said, I do very much like FFA on PvP servers. Yes, you should be able to kill your own faction members when they are in need of it.