Saturday, 31 October 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 24

There are several ways of enjoying epic fantasy. You can read books, you can watch TV shows, you can go to the cinema or you can sit down with some friends to play Dungeons and Dragons (other fantasy RPGs are available). But in the late 1970s the development of home computers allowed fans of the genre to enjoy it another way: to delve into fantasy worlds on screen, take control of characters and armies and make their own decisions about what happens. Fantasy has gone on to be a huge genre for the medium, fuelling action games, role-playing titles and text adventures.


Zork

It's arguable what the very first fantasy game was, but Zork has a strong claim. The game was created in 1977 by computer students at MIT, impressed by a primitive text adventure called Colossal Cave Adventure. Zork rapidly expanded beyond their original plan, which was to simply update Colossal Cave Adventure with more advanced technology, and ended up being absolutely massive in size. Playable by MIT students on the university mainframe in 1977, the game was released for home computers in 1980. It was too big to fit into one title, so it was split, epic-fantasy style, into three distinct games: The Great Underground Empire (1980), The Wizard of Frobozz (1981) and The Dungeon Master (1983), better-known as Zork I, Zork II and Zork III respectively.

The games depict the player as an unnamed adventurer exploring the ruins of a once-mighty subterranean empire. Using text descriptions and commands, the players moves deeper into the ruins, gaining treasure, defeating enemies, solving puzzles and eventually assuming control of the underground lands as the Dungeon Master. The trilogy is extremely hard, with solutions to puzzles only becoming obvious through trial and error. Being trapped in a tunnel without a light source is also invariably fatal, with the game notifying the player that they have been "eaten by a grue". Despite its toughness, the game soon won a devoted audience who praised the freedom of the game, which allowed players to explore the dungeon as they wished and approach puzzles from multiple angles. The lore and storyline behind the game was initially fairly sketchy, but later editions of the game and the numerous spin-offs would come with manuals and booklets filling in the history of the world in some detail, mirroring how early fantasy novels are often light on such details but then fill in the worldbuilding later on.

The developers of Zork went on to found Infocom, the trendsetters for the adventure game genre. Numerous titles followed, among them the highly-acclaimed adventure game version of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Leather Goddess of Phobos, but Zork was where it began.

You had to bring a lot of imagination to these early games.

Ultima

Released in 1981, Ultima was one of the very first computer roleplaying games. It used primitive graphics to depict a fantasy kingdom named Sosaria (renamed in later titles as Britannia), with the player controlling their character from above. The game had a fairly involved plot (by the standards of the time) with the player having to fight the evil wizard Mondain for control of the kingdom. In doing so, they won the allegiance of the noble Lord British, who would go on to appear in subsequent games in the series. Later games would retcon the player as the Avatar, a vitally important warrior who holds the fate of the world in his hands.

The game was developed by Richard Garriott as a spiritual successor to Akalabeth, an earlier (1979) roleplaying game with a Tolkien Estate-baiting title. The first three Ultima titles are predominantly action-driven games with most situations resolved through violence. However, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985) introduced the "virtues" systems of morality and encouraged players to experiment with dialogue and puzzle-solving as alternatives to killing everything in sight. Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1990), which was the first game predominantly targeted at more advanced home computers such as PCs and the Commodore Amiga, went a step further by having Britannia invaded by Gargoyles but then encouraging the player to find a peaceful solution through diplomacy and investigation (although a certain degree of combat is unavoidable).

In 1993 Ultima Underworld was released by the acclaimed Looking Glass studios. This spin-off, which was more of an action-focused game set underground, used an ahead-of-its time 3D game engine which allowed for unprecedented player freedom in how they handled situations. The developers of the game would go on to create such historically important titles such as System Shock, Thief: The Dark Project, Deus Ex and the BioShock franchise.

The Ultima series became hugely influential again in 1997, when the developers released Ultima Online, the first big multiplayer online roleplaying game. A forerunner of EverQuest and World of WarCraft, it allowed players to join forces together to battle foes, work in mundane professions (such as blacksmiths) and own property.

The series has been important in the development of roleplaying games overall, with the developers of the recent Divinity series noting it as a huge influence. The last single-player entry in the series was the poorly-received Ultima IX: Ascension (1999). Richard Garriott is now working on Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, a spiritual successor to the series.

Yeah, screw those Small Humanoids. They suck.

Wizardry

Contemporary with the Ultima games, the Wizardry series similarly depicts adventures in a fantastical realm but takes a different approach. It is mostly set underground and featured a then-unusual first-person viewpoint. It also allowed the player to create an entire party of characters rather than just one. Compared to the Ultima series, the lore and story were initially light but came more to the fore later on. As well as its primitive 3D viewpoint, the Wizardry series also became rather experimental in later games. The fourth title, for example, is set from the POV of one of the main villains from the earlier games as he attempts to escape from prison and has to fend off adventuring parties seeking to kill him.

The Wizardry game proved unusually successful (for early western games) in Japan, with both the Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy series being heavily inspired by it. The series concluded with Wizardry 8 (2001), although several further spin-off games have since been released for the Japanese market.


Thorin! That helps no-one at this time!

The Hobbit

Somewhat inevitably, when making early games and trying to bring the fantasy genre to the medium, developers turned to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Initially daunted by The Lord of the Rings, the team at Australian developers Spectrum Holobyte decided to adapt The Hobbit as a text adventure, released in 1982. Using a more advanced text system than the Zork titles, with later versions of the game adding graphics in the form of static illustrations for each area, The Hobbit was both quite difficult but also fiendishly addictive. It was also clever in how it adapted the book, with readers of the novel getting a leg up in some scenarios only to find themselves stymied by sequences which deviated from the text. Indeed, the early release of the game was accompanied by copies of the novel in an early and successful example of cross-medium marketing.

The game remains one of the stronger games based on Tolkien, mainly for its lack of violence and success in capturing the spirit of the book, even if Thorin didn't sing about gold nearly as much in the novel.

So far beyond cutting edge in 1984 it was off the map. Now you can play it on your phone.

Lords of Midnight & War in Middle-earth

Early video games tended to be focused on a single protagonist or, after Wizardry, a small party of adventurers. This made for some fine games, but arguably the scope of epic fantasy was missing from them, limited by both technology and ambition.

Lords of Midnight, released in 1984, had no truck with such limitations. The game employs an RPG approach, with the player guiding a party of adventurers across a hostile landscape to defeat Doomdark, the evil Witchking of the North, but also has a strategy mode in which the player can recruit other kings and generals into siding with them and then sending their armies into battle. In this manner the game can be played as a roleplaying game, a strategy game or an epic fusion of the two. The scope of the game is enormous, with numerous variations in strategy and approach possible. In fact, if it hadn't been for the near-simultaneous release of the space trading game Elite, Lords of Midnight would likely have been the most influential and important game of the year. It was followed by a sequel, Doomdark's Revenge in 1985.

More insanely, the game was the creation of a single games designer of singular vision: Mike Singleton. Singleton was constantly intrigued by the idea of simultaneously combining the micro and macro viewpoints in games, a design he continued to favour in his classic Midwinter trilogy (Midwinter, Flames of Freedom and Ashes of Empire, released between 1989 and 1992) which took the philosophy onto an island controlled by a dictator where the player has to undertake sabotage and assassination missions whilst helping the local rebels achieve their grander strategic goals.

Between the two series, in 1988, Singleton was given the opportunity to work with the Tolkien licence. War in Middle-earth was similar to Lords of Midnight in that it allowed the player to control hero characters (in this case, the Fellowship of the Ring and allies such as Eomer) in an RPG/adventure-like mode, but also moving armies around on a map of Middle-earth. The game was particularly successful in that it allowed readers of Lord of the Rings to replicate the strategy from the books and gain victory, whilst also allowing for experimentation and changes to that strategy (having Frodo and Sam accompany Aragorn to Rohan and Gondor, for example).

Singleton sadly passed away from cancer in 2012, although successful mobile remakes of Lords of Midnight had brought his work to the attention of modern gamers. He was a visionary in gaming and it's surprising that more games haven't tried to combine the large and the small scale in the manner that he (and the best epic fantasy) managed.

"I don't want to play the bard!"
"You have to, it's your tale!"

The Bard's Tale

Released in 1985, The Bard's Tale was a fantasy computer RPG that, in many respects, was a straightforward challenger to the likes of Ultima and Wizardry. However, it featured more of a sense of humour, more originality (using a magic system based around music) and more of a sense of place, with the game starting in the town of Skara Brae which would serve as a constant source of refuge and resupply between dives into the nearby dungeons. Three games were released in the 1980s for Electronic Arts before the development team made a post-apocalyptic title in a similar vein (only much larger and more ambitious), Wasteland. The team then went solo to become Interplay, with a failed attempt to create a Wasteland sequel instead leading them to create one of the greatest and most influential RPGs of all time, Fallout. But The Bard's Tale remained close to their hearts and in 2016 they hope to release The Bard's Tale IV, which will continue and conclude the storyline from the venerable original games.

The Bard's Tale is a very solid fantasy adventure series, and a stirring riposte to the traditional CRPG notion that bards suck.


Might and Magic

In 1986 game designer Jon Van Caneghem self-published his game Might and Magic: Secrets of the Inner Sanctum. An RPG heavily in the Ultima and Wizardry moulds, Might and Magic did do some things differently. It was extremely large and the game also made a note of the player's choices in the type of party they created, taking gender and race into account in the reactions of other characters and enemies. The game also had a bizarre cross-genre slide into science fiction, with the player discovering that his or her party had been drawn into a battle between an escaped alien prisoner and his pursuer. As the series continues, it is revealed that the various fantasy worlds the player explores are in fact artificial planetoids or environments on huge starships.

The Might and Magic series continued through five games, developing a complex backstory as well as an epic, ongoing narrative. That narrative concludes in the fifth game with the final defeat of the evil Sheltem. The huge success of the games, however, led the publisher to commission a series of spin-offs. Set on a different world and (at least initially) unconnected to the main RPG series, the Heroes of Might and Magic series featured turn-based strategy and adventuring. After three successful spin-off games, the core series was rebooted in 1998 with Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven, set in the same world as Heroes of Might and Magic III and with references confirming that all of the games were set in the same universe. Might and Magic VI mixed fantasy with SF more strongly than ever before, with the characters gaining access to advanced laser weapons towards the end of the game.

The core Might and Magic series ended in 2002 with the appalling Might and Magic IX. The series had always been relatively light on a strong narrative drive compared to other RPGs, and the series was looking increasingly archaic in light of other RPGs. Sales had also dropped significantly compared to the Heroes series, which continued (Heroes of Might and Magic VII was released in 2015). Fans were therefore surprised when Might and Magic X: Legacy was released in 2014. A retro-RPG which eschewed modern conventions in favour of turn-based combat and grid-based movement, the game was reasonably well-receive and now it looks like new titles in the main series could follow.



And so it began.

The Legend of Zelda

Very few video games, let alone fantasy roleplaying ones, crossed over into the mainstream. Almost all of the above titles were successful and sold well, but nothing like what happened in Japan in 1986. Shigeru Miyamoto was already famed as the creator of Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers when, along with Takashi Tezuka, he created an action roleplaying game called The Legend of Zelda. Set in the fantasy realm of Hyrule, the game saw the player take control of the hero Link in his attempt to rescue Princess Zelda from an evil villain. The first game was light on lore and background, but sequels rapidly expanded the realm of Hyrule and its enormous cast of heroes and villains. The first game, released in 1986, went on to sell a truly mind-boggling (for the time) six million copies, helping drive the Nintendo Entertainment System into millions of homes across the world.

A large number of sequels and prequels followed, although some are non-canon and others are set in parallel timelines. The Zelda series remains one of the biggest and best-known fantasy franchises in the world, and several of the games in the series (with Ocarina of Time, arguably, as the most critically-acllaimed) are generally held to be among the greatest games ever made.


With the first game, the title actually made sense. The most recent single-player game in the series was Final Fantasy XIII 2, which did not.

Final Fantasy

Released in 1987 by Squaresoft, Final Fantasy was a Japanese roleplaying game featuring turn-based combat in a fairly standard fantasy world. Nothing too original, except that the fusion of adventuring and combat was particularly well-done. The game was a huge hit and a sequel - somewhat nonsensically given the title - was demanded. The developers hit on the idea that each game would be set in its own universe with its own characters and magic system, with nothing other than Easter Eggs and the basic underlying gameplay (real-time adventure and turn-based combat) linking them together. This formula proved successful but unchanged up until the very well-received Final Fantasy VI.

For Final Fantasy VII (1997), the first game in the series developed for the more powerful PlayStation console, the developers decided to shoot for the heavens. The gameplay was adjusted to feature 3D sprites moving over beautiful, hand-painted 2D backdrops with dynamic music and gorgeous, lengthy and animated cut scenes. These improvements was also used to sell an unusually powerful story about a world threatened with destruction through blind greed and hubris. Even for a series famed for it, the characters were extremely well-drawn and a particularly tragic, unexpected death a third of the way through the game completely stunned players (becoming effectively the Red Wedding of CRPGs). The story was also noted for both its actual complexity (an unreliable narrator is implied, and at one time the entire backstory of the game has to be thoroughly reexamined when it is revealed to have been a lie) and its thematic musings on identity, loss and power.

Vincent and Yuffi clearly didn't get invited to the afterparty.

Although hamstrung by a poor English translation and occasional graphical limitations, Final Fantasy VII went on to become one of the biggest-selling and most critically-feted video games of all time up to that point. It is generally regarded as the point that RPGs came of age, and set the scene for many games that would follow.

Additional Final Fantasy games have been released, but their quality has been highly variable. Final Fantasy XV is set for release in 2016, but for many fans the real excitement is building over a remake of Final Fantasy VII for the current generation of consoles and home computers.

As well as its 3D viewpoint and real-time gameplay, Dungeon Master also popularised the "Crush monsters in door" mechanic, sadly abandoned by newer titles.

Dungeon Master & Eye of the Beholder

In 1988 Dungeon Master was released. Despite the lawsuit-baiting name, the game was not affiliated with the Dungeons and Dragons franchise, although players might be forgiven for getting confused between them. This game saw players taking control of a party of four characters and delving deep into a multi-level dungeon in search of treasure and enemies that needed to be defeated to win that treasure.

The game was unusual in several respects. First, it was completely set in real-time from a first-person viewpoint (although your character moved from invisible square-to-square, without full, smooth 3D movement). No turns, no pauses, just constant action with some spells and attacks taken time to recharge, a mechanic used in, well, pretty much every modern action game. It also featured much more sophisticated graphics than any prior RPG, the result it being released exclusively for the brand-new 16-bit home computers, the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. Even more impressive was the fact it required a monstrous 1MB of memory to run, at a time when the BBC Micro (with 32K of memory) and Spectrium (with 48K) were still popular. The game was not very hot on backstory or hand-holding, with casting spells only accomplished by parsing archaic runes and coming up with combinations of runes to unlock new spells. As the game continued the puzzles became more fiendish, the monsters more powerful and the challenge ever more formidable.

For quite a while, Dungeon Master clones were all the rage, especially as the game's own sequels were fairly underwhelming. There were science fiction variants like Captive and a version riffing off popular British fantasy TV gameshow Knightmare. There was Bloodwych, which split the first-person viewpoint between the four characters and allowed them to move around independently of each other (this ended up being more confusing than helpful). The most successful was Eye of the Beholder, released in 1990. This was an official Dungeons and Dragons game set in the Forgotten Realms universe and saw the players delving below the great city of Waterdeep in search of a tyrannical beholder crimelord. It was followed by two sequels, and then a series of "spiritual successors" in the Lands of Lore series (created by the same personnel as the first two Eye of the Beholder games, but not using the D&D licence).

These games were important for making the action more dynamic and allowing for time-based puzzles. However, some players bemoaned the move away from a greater focus on tactics that had been allowed by the previously-dominant turn-based type of combat. Recently this style of game has been making a bit of a comeback via the retrogaming scene, most successfully in Legends of Grimrock and its sequel.

Dwarven exposition in a pub is a common fantasy video game trope.
 
Betrayal at Krondor & Discworld

Novel-to-game translations have not been unknown, although the majority have been horrific. The less said about the Shannara video game, the better. However, two of the better ones were released in the mid-1990s.

Betrayal at Krondor (1993) was based on Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar novels. Taking place in the narrative gap between A Darkness at Sethanon and Prince of the Blood, the game features a massive threat to the Kingdom of the Isles (as usual) and the player taking the role of one of several characters charged with defending the kingdom. This mission takes the player and allies into several dangerous regions of the Triagia continent and blends real-time, 3D adventuring with turn-based combat. The depiction of the game world was impressive, the combat satisfying and the story very well-done. Amusingly, Feist himself adapted the game into his novel Krondor: The Betrayal (1998), which is easily the worst thing he has ever written. A sequel to the game, Return to Krondor, was also released in 1998 but was not as successful as the original title.

Talking to the guards (guards!).

Discworld (1995) was based on Terry Pratchett's novels and was more successful still. A point-and-click adventure made with input from Pratchett and voice acting by Eric Idle as Rincewind, it was a fun game that nailed the spirit of the novels despite some very bizarre and obscure puzzles. A direct sequel followed, Discworld II: Missing, Presumed...!? (1996). A third game, Discworld Noir (1999) completely abandoned the style of the previous games and was a 3D adventure featuring an original character investigating a spate of crimes in Ankh-Morpork. The game was a marked departure from the previous titles and was also easily the best of the three, replicating as it did the book approach of taking a genre and series of tropes and poking fun at it whilst also telling a compelling story with well-drawn characters. Mystifyingly, given the critical acclaim and sales of the early games, no further Discworld video games have followed.

Yup, even the first game started with you in prison.

The Elder Scrolls

In 1994 Bethesda Studios released The Elder Scrolls: Arena. It was a bit of a departure for the company, who had previously made shoot 'em ups and hockey sports games. Arena was a full 3D RPG, allowing for total freedom of movement and real-time combat. It also had an absolutely massive gameworld, sprawling across the entire continent of Tamriel, and an extremely elaborate and detailed backstory drawn from one of the developer's pen-and-paper roleplaying campaigns.

The game was a big hit and was followed in 1997 by The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. Daggerfall was set in just a small corner of Tamriel, but the scale was insanely increased: without fast-travel or magic, it would take days for a player to walk from one side of the map to the other. This was possible due to procedural generation, where the game could generate towns, scenery and dungeons from numerical values rather than everything having to be hand-created. It was technically impressive, if a bit buggy, but the real draw was the game's lore, storyline and the immense freedom it gave to the player to do what they wanted.

Aware that Arena and Daggerfall's vast size was offputting to some players even as the freeform, "open-world" gameplay was attractive, Bethesda decided to make their following games smaller but more hand-crafted and personal, mixing a strong central narrative with lots of interesting side-quests. The result was The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, released in 2002 for both PC and the original X-Box. It had an impressive 3D game engine and a much more focused style of gameplay, but still easily allowing enough freedom for hundreds of hours of adventuring. The game was hugely acclaimed. It was followed in 2006 by The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, an early title for the X-Box 360 and the PlayStation 3. This was the game that finally allowed the series to cross over to a general audience, with a starry voice cast (featuring Sean Bean and Patrick Stewart), jaw-dropping graphics and a splendid mix of a central storyline, side-quests and optional adventures found through simple exploration. Hardcore RPG fans muttered about the game being dumbed down (and some of the game mechanics, such as levelling, are nonsensical), but the millions of sales that followed showed that Bethesda were onto a winning formula.

The Elder Scrolls, 2011 style.

This formula was repeated with their next game, Fallout 3 (2008), a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game with the same engine as Oblivion and a similar story/quest/adventuring structure. Both Fallout 3 and its outsourced follow-up, New Vegas (2010), sold tens of millions of copies, transforming Bethesda into one of the biggest games developers in the world. But even this success was dwarfed by The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Released in 2011, the game featured the player as an inhabitant of a frosty northern land of Skyrim, fending off giants and dragons as the player got involved in complex politics and a bloody civil war. Released just after Game of Thrones became huge, the game capitalised on the massive increase in popularity of the fantasy genre.

The online-only prequel, The Elder Scrolls Online (2014), developed by an outside studio, is the latest release in the series but has not attracted the same level of success as the single-player games. Bethesda released Fallout 4 in 2015, and will likely be turning their attention back to The Elder Scrolls series soon. Although hardcore RPG purists may bemoan the more "dumbed down" nature of the roleplaying experience in this series, it has nevertheless sold the fantasy of being a hero in a fantastical world more completely and more successfully than almost any other game.


Extremely accurate.

King's Field & Dark Souls

Due to their complex mechanics, stats and increasing graphical complexity, the most successful early RPGs had mostly been released on home computers. In the late 1980s Japanese developers cracked some of those problems to create engrossing roleplaying experience on consoles, despite the more limited number of options available due to having controllers with only a few buttons rather than a full keyboard. In 1994 a Japanese studio called FromSoftware went a step further by making a game that was more of an action title, but then encouraging the player to develop more tactically nuanced skills to handle increasingly tough enemies.

The game was called King's Field and was something of a cult hit, applauded for its hardcore attitude, stripped-back setting and generally dark atmosphere. Several sequels of varying degrees of success followed before the series was rested in 2001. In 2009 FromSoftware released a spiritual sequel called Demon's Souls for the PlayStation 3, which updated the King's Field gameplay with modern graphics and greater tactical complexity. This in turn was then followed by Dark Souls, released in 2011.

Dark Souls was a massive, worldwide hit. It completely took the gaming world by surprise because it challenged the very foundations of what modern, big-budget action gaming had become focused on: easiness, hand-holding, lazy cut scenes, awful writing and blandness. Dark Souls was ludicrously tough, punishing characters for the slightest mistakes or misjudgements. Death was not just possible but also frequently commonplace. The worldbuilding and writing was subtle to the point of being able to completely ignore it, and the focus of the game on atmosphere over plot was unusual. A sequel followed in 2014, along with a further spiritual successor (this time in a steampunk setting), Bloodborne, in 2015. A third Dark Souls game will be released in 2016.

The Dark Souls games use a very different kind of fantasy to what has been seen before in games, one that is bleak and unremittingly harsh - even grimdark - with stripped-back, minimalist storytelling. It'll be interesting to see how much it influences the genre going forwards.

Blizzard: Creating cut scene promises the game can't deliver on since 1998

WarCraft & Diablo

In 1994 a relatively small and obscure company called Blizzard Entertainment released a game called WarCraft: Orcs and Humans. It was an early title in the burgeoning "real-time strategy" genre, in which players built and commanded armies in real-time rather than taking turns as in many previous strategy games. The RTS genre had been effectively created in 1992 with Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis by Westwood Studios, but WarCraft was an early attempt to muscle in on the genre and do things a bit differently, by employing both a fantasy setting (heavily - and I do mean heavily - inspired by the Warhammer miniatures wargame from Games Workshop) and focusing a bit more on story and lore. The RTS genre would firmly be pushed forwards in popularity by Westwood's own Command and Conquer, released in 1995, but this would then by trumped by WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness in the same year. Blizzard would then step things up with their SF variation of the same idea, StarCraft, in 1998, followed by WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos in 2002.

The WarCraft universe is centred on the traditional fantasy conflict between the kingdoms of man and roving warbands of orcs. However, the spin of the games is that neither side are good or evil. Instead, both sides have heroes and villains and they are plunged into conflict due to a mixture of racism, politics and manipulation from outside forces. As the series unfolds, an increasingly detailed backstory (unfortunately, one prone to inconsistent and convoluted retcons) reveals the scale to which both sides have become the playthings for demonic entities, undead spirits and other factions. WarCraft III has the various sides teaming up to defeat the Burning Crusade, an invading army of demons from another dimension.

In 2004 Blizzard unleashed World of WarCraft, a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game using the background lore from the strategy games. The game was a success on a massive scale. By 2015, more than 100 million accounts had been created for the game, tens of millions of boxed copies had been sold and the game's popularity had peaked with over 12 million simultaneous players. Although it wasn't the first MMORPG, being heavily influenced by the earlier Ultima Online (1997) and especially EverQuest (1998), it was by far the most successful. Indeed, the failure of any other MMORPG to come close to its popularity has been placed on the game's utter domination of the field and the reluctance of players to commit to more than one MMORPG at a time. More than eleven years after its release, the game remains popular and a sixth major expansion for the game has been announced for 2016.

However, Blizzard have also found time to create another fantasy franchise. In 1996 they released Diablo. This was an action-roleplaying game, with the roleplaying elements tone down in favour of loot and fast-paced, increasingly epic combat. The game was a huge success and was followed by Diablo II in 2000 and Diablo III in 2012, as well as games it inspired, most notably the Torchlight series from some of the same developers. The Diablo games are noted for considerably more restrained worldbuilding and lore than the WarCraft games, as well as a much darker and grimmer tone (although this was lightened somewhat by Diablo III).

Rumours persist that Blizzard are planning WarCraft IV, a new strategy game that will move the narrative forward from the events of both WarCraft III and World of WarCraft. A big-budget WarCraft movie will also be released in the spring of 2016.

The game includes everything you could wish for, including minions, dominatrixes, bile demons, minions, gold, traps, minions and magic. Did we mention that it gives you minions? It gives you minions. Mwahaha.

Dungeon Keeper

Some earlier fantasy games had experimented with allowing you to be the bad guy, or at least choose an evil or amoral path. But none had quite embraced the concept like Dungeon Keeper, released by the mighty Bullfrog Studios in 1997. The game pitted the player not as the adventurers breaking into the dungeon but the demonic entity/thing charged with keeping the place running. The player had to hire monsters, build lairs and training rooms for them, keep them happy/amused/tortured and build up a line of defence against invading heroes whilst also taking on rival keepers in an underground world.

The result was a phenomenal game, macabre and darkly hilarious whilst also embracing tricky strategy and confirming what we had all suspected along: that there is nothing more diabolically evil than middle management.

An equally excellent sequel followed in 1999, but there hasn't really been a satisfying follow up (despite the best efforts of Dungeons and Overlord) since.


Meet a bunch of perfect strangers, bond over slaughtering hobgoblins.

Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment & Neverwinter Nights

Starting in the 1980s, various Dungeons and Dragons-based video games had appeared. There was a series of RPGs released in stirring gold boxes in the late 1980s such as Champions of Krynn and Pools of Radiance which attracted a hardcore fanbase and in 1990 the Eye of the Beholder trilogy won over gamers with its faster action and first-person viewpoint. However, in the mid-1990s video games based on the franchise became less consistent, likely resulting from TSR's financial problems. Descent to Undermountain and Blood and Gold, both released in 1996, were critically and commercially unsuccessful and it looked like the golden age of D&D video games was over. In fact, it hadn't even started.

BioWare was a new company with a single action game to its name, Shattered Steel. The game had done reasonably well for the publishers, Interplay, who asked BioWare for more ideas. BioWare presented a demo for a new engine they'd been working on, which got Interplay extremely excited. Having recently purchased the D&D video game licence, they asked BioWare to work on a game set in the Forgotten Realms setting. BioWare agreed. Interplay was so impressed with the engine BioWare had created that they licensed it themselves for use by their in-house RPG division, recently renamed Black Isle Studios following the success of their first two Fallout games.

Released in 1998, Baldur's Gate was both a critical success and a bestseller. The game prioritised narrative and character whilst also allowing a great deal of player freedom. The game also sold a sense of atmosphere and place, using fantastic artwork, stirring music and ambient sound effects to draw the player into its complex, morally murky storyline. RPGs had focused on character and story before to great success (most notably in the preceding year's Final Fantasy VII), but usually only through railroading the plot. Baldur's Gate managed to incorporate a number of side-quests and character-specific missions to break up the narrative and give each player a slightly different experience. Baldur's Gate was acclaimed for allowing players to live out their pen-and-paper fantasies in a richly detailed game world and setting.

This was followed in 1999 by Planescape: Torment, from Black Isle Studios. Planescape: Torment was not strictly an epic fantasy, instead being set in the weirdly metaphysical world of the Outer Planes, where ideas are weapons and wits can win wars. The game featured a masterfully-executed narrative and plot, with tortured and sympathetic characters and environments and ideas unlike anything scene in a fantasy game before. It is often still cited as the greatest roleplaying game of all time.

The third series spawned from the Infinity Engine began in 2000 with Icewind Dale, also from Black Isle. Unlike the narrative-focused Torment and Baldur's Gate, which mixed combat with roleplaying, Icewind Dale was heavily focused on dungeons, loot and action. There was a reasonably good story and some superbly-realised locations and music, but killing things and levelling up was front and centre, and surprisingly well-done.

The single finest game using the engine was released at the end of 2000: Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn utterly dwarfed the original game in the series in its number of locations and major characters. The plot was labyrinthine and complex, drawing a party of well-drawn heroes (some returning from the original game, many completely new) into a conflict with the enigmatic Jon Irenicus. Voiced with skill by veteran actor David Warner, Irenicus would become one of the most iconic of all CRPG villains, and was noted for his well-developed backstory and, unusually for a video game villain, his own personal story arc.

The game was colossal, with storylines varying depending on the player's character, race and class. The game would give the player a huge stronghold to develop and defend, with its own attached storylines, and the type of stronghold and attached storyline would vary by character class. The title would also track a startling number of possible combinations of companion characters, resulting in burgeoning friendships, friendly rivalries and even deadly enmities. The game even allowed romances to develop between members of your party, with a huge number of possible outcomes. Even a relaxed playthrough of the game and its titanic expansion, Throne of Bhaal (2001) would consume dozens of hours and an exhaustive one would easily top 200 hours. This was very much the Lord of the Rings to the original game's Hobbit, and remains arguably the greatest of all fantasy roleplaying achievements on the screen. Not even BioWare's own spiritual successors to the game (Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age) could match it.

Interplay collapsed in 2002 and BioWare had to team with Atari to release their next D&D RPG (and, it would turn out, their last one): Neverwinter Nights. Despite an ambitious new 3D engine, the game was deemed a failure for its storyline, which was never really better than "okay", and its focus on controlling a single player rather than a party of six as in the Infinity days. This was down to the focus being on tools allowing the player to create their own dungeons and adventures. The expansions were much better-received, but BioWare soon moved on to develop a Star Wars RPG, the excellent Knights of the Old Republic. It fell to Obsidian, a company emerging from the ruins of Interplay and Black Isle, to develop Neverwinter Nights II and its superb expansions. The first of these, Mask of the Betrayer, was soon heralded as the finest D&D game since Baldur's Gate II itself.

Following this period making a big, sprawling RPG became almost prohibitively expensive, limiting their development to just a handful of companies. However, in the early 2010s the advent of crowdfunding allowed a number of successors to these games to appear, most notably Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin and Torment: Tides of Numenera. But more on these later.



Jade Empire

Released in 2005, Jade Empire was highly significant as BioWare's first roleplaying game not based on a licensed property: their previous roleplaying games had been set either in the Forgotten Realms or Star Wars settings. Jade Empire was instead set in a new world heavily influenced by Asian mythology and films, mixing magic and martial arts with their traditional, character-focused storytelling.

The result is one of their most visually stylish and overall cool arms, with a superb sense of place and a visual design which is unlike anything they've done before or since. The game was not a massive success, however, with fans criticising the company for "dumbing down" on the RPG mechanics. There is no inventory management, very little to spend money on and the game is reliant on real-time, directly controlled combat rather than pause or turn-based clicking. It was a divisive game, with its fans appreciating its streamlined and focused approach but others less keen, especially when its RPG-lite style of gameplay continued into the Mass Effect science fiction series.

Despite that complaint, Jade Empire is a fine epic fantasy story, all the more successful for employing Asian tropes rather than the over-familiar European ones, and is the most underrated game in the BioWare canon.

The Witcher III is both the most critically-acclaimed and one of the biggest-selling video games of 2015, a remarkable achievement for a small Polish studio producing a game based on books that remain obscure in the English-speaking world.

The Witcher

Released in 2007, The Witcher was a video game based on Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher novels and short stories. Developed by Polish developers CD Projekt Red and using a game engine borrowed from BioWare, it was released in a monstrously buggy state. The fact that the game prospered is amazing, but it did so. The developers fixed the problems and released an "Enhanced Edition" which repaired the most egregious bugs and fixed the biggest gameplay issues. This allowed the game to be reassessed and enjoyed for its much more low-key and morally murky storyline than was in most fantasy games, along with its focused character development.

The game's rough edges were smoothed off for The Witcher II: Assassin of Kings (2011), a shorter but much stronger game about politics, racism and war. The game crossed over to consoles, winning over new fans, and was praised for its reactivity: the entire middle third of the game is set in a totally different area depending on choices you make earlier in the game, and the alternate location can be only be visited by reloading a save from earlier.

However, both games were but tasters for The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (2015). This game moved into an open-world setting (instead of a linear series of areas) and was vastly bigger than the first two games combined, featuring hundreds of hours of content. It took on both Skyrim and Dragon Age head-first and won, thanks to a much better story and jaw-dropping graphics. It remains, for now, the last word in fantasy adventuring in video games.


Dragon Age

BioWare released Dragon Age: Origins in 2009 after five years of development. Stung by criticisms of Neverwinter Nights, BioWare decided to develop a game that was much bigger but also more focused on their strengths with narrative and character. The result was an epic fantasy game that was huge in scope, impressive in visuals and, er, clunky as hell, especially on the rushed console versions.

Dragon Age: Origins certainly isn't a bad game, but it's one that suffers badly from comparison with BioWare's earlier titles. On just about every level bar visual, it's a weaker title than Baldur's Gate II, featuring simpler and less inspired mechanics, less interesting characters, much less of a sense of place and an inconsistent design style. It's certainly a far better single player game than Neverwinter Nights, but its interface is stodgy and ridiculously less customisable than that game, despite being seven years newer. It's also trivially easy even on the hardest difficulty levels and its combat is poor.

The franchise also suffered due to BioWare's takeover by Electronic Arts. Plans for a bigger, more epic sequel were thrown out by EA who mandated a quickie sequel to help moderate the original game take so much time and money to develop. BioWare responded with style, making Dragon Age II  (2011) a conceptually fascinating and stripped-down fantasy game (which demanded a huge, epic scale whilst being limited to a small handful of locations) with memorable characters, but also completely wrecking the sense of immersion the original game had. Arguably the series didn't really manage what it was aiming for until Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014), but even that suffered from being far too large with, bafflingly for a single-player game, too many ideas and mechanics inspired by MMORPGs. It was then promptly upstaged by The Witcher III's release a few months later.

Dragon Age feels like the epic fantasy gaming series that just couldn't quite satisfy, despite the fact it's a reasonably enjoyable series and has sold very well. But it's certainly a series that has been torn between chasing old glories and trying to copy its rivals rather than just doing its own thing, and has suffered for it.

Dishonored fulfils all of your rogue/assassin fantasies in an unusual world.

Dishonored

Released in 2012, Dishonored is a steampunk fantasy epic. It takes place in a single city, Dunwall, but gives that city a sense of place and purpose missing from almost every fantasy city created for games. It's a pseudo-Victoriana nightmare of slums and corruption, drawing from the New Weird as its primary fantasy inspiration. A game set in China Mieville's New Crobuzon using this engine would be incredible.

The game was also impressive for reversing POV and presenting the same events from the perspective of one of the villains in the two expansions, The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches, with an even more twisting narrative. Dishonored II, which will pick up some years later and featuring the princess you rescue in the first game as a major playable character, will be released in 2016.


Triumph, tragedy and desperation are superbly evoked through a beautiful style in The Banner Saga, proving the best ideas don't need a billion dollars to be realised.

The Banner Saga
Over the course of the 2000s, game development costs went through the roof. Publishers became less keen to back more experimental and "different" games, instead demanding more sequels, franchises and games that were similar to other games.

The solution to this creative decline was simple: take it to the fans. Small game companies used platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo to directly ask fans to fund their projects and they responded. Early successes included the post-apocalyptic Wasteland 2 and the adventure game Broken Age, as well as retro-RPGs Shadowrun Returns, Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera.

One of the less famous but still accomplished games in this period was The Banner Saga (2013). Made by ex-BioWare veterans, the game is set in a world being consumed by the steampunk robot-like Dredge. The forces of civilisation stand against them but are swept away, with both humanity and their titanic Viking allies, the Varl, being forced to go on the run. Evacuation caravans have to make it through hostile territory and overcome their own internal divisions to survive, even as the Sun itself prepares to die. This is a desperate game of survival, immensely nuanced characterisation and strategic combat, all told in an old-school, 1950s animation style which is remarkably beautiful. This really is an epic fantasy, with a world-shaking plot but related through fascinating characters and making minimal use of established genre tropes.

The Banner Saga II will be released in late 2015 or early 2016, and will be followed by a concluding game in the trilogy. Not quite like anything else out there, it's well worth a look.

Pillars of Eternity embraces old-skool, epic adventuring.

Pillars of Eternity

The most recent big epic fantasy game on this list, Pillars of Eternity is a deliberate throwback to the isometric RPGs of yesteryear, particuarly Baldur's Gate. Like that game, Eternity features a cast of well-drawn characters brought together by the player to help combat a threat to the land. It's set in an original and interesting world and was created by a team of veterans of many previous RPGs, including the Fallout and Icewind Dale series, as well as Planecape: Torment and Neverwinter Nights II. It's not flawless - the game refusal to reward you for defeating enemies, only completing objectives, makes combat feel rather pointless - but it's a game of narrative depth and ambition that could only be made these days via crowdfunding.


Epic fantasy has become a dominant genre in gaming, with many fine titles allowing fantasy fans to fulfil their dreams of taking part in a fantasy story. However, nothing can be more immersive than a book. By the late 1990s that suggestion seemed to be unfashionable, with commentators pointing towards the falling number of readers and in particular fewer children taking up reading at a young age, lured away by video games, cartoons and movies. In 1997 a book was released that completely changed that argument and launched the single most successful work of fantasy in history.

10 comments:

TerokNor said...

Wow, this one's huge. A very enjoyable read. I think you managed to hit most of the important titles. Some I would have liked some more detail about: SSI Gold Box (hugely influential I think), Ultima (Ultima VII is probably still the greatest achievement of fantasy world simulation in a game), Lands of Lore, the Zork spinoffs (Enchanter series and the graphical games of the 90s).

Let me throw some names around that also come to mind: Stonekeep for an Interplay title between their glory days of Bard's Tale/Wasteland and Black Isle. Dungeon Siege for a notable Diablo clone. Lots of strategy games besides Heroes: King's Bounty (original + remake). Warlords + Warlords Battlecry. Stronghold + Fantasy Empires. Master of Magic. Fantasy General. Age of Wonders. Kohan. And many others. Quest for Glory as the notable adventure/RPG hybrid. Dozens more Tolkien and Warhammer licensees. Some German favourites or big names: Thalion's games (Dragonflight, Amberstar - didn't make much of an impact outside of Germany), Attic's Realms of Arkania (which did, a bit), Gothic + Risen, Spellforce.

Then there's Japan. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy (and other Enix and Square games) are just the tip of the iceberg. Breath of Fire. Grandia. The Shining series. Langrisser. Fire Emblem. Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogre. Strategy games and RPGs to the hundreds. Spin-offs of not only Wizardry (countless titles) but also Dungeon Master.

I also noticed some slight mistakes, mostly release years: Ultima Underworld is 1992 (UW2 followed in 93). Dungeon Master is 1987 (the Amiga version came out in 88). Eye of the Beholder is 1991 (despite the copyright year of 1990, mid-1991 magazine reviews confirm it). Akalabeth is often placed in 1979, but there are several indications it wasn't released until 1980 - see http://www.filfre.net/2011/12/a-word-on-akalabeth-and-chronology/ Daggerfall is 1996. Blood and Gold is probably meant to be Blood & Magic. Descent to Undermountain is 1998.

JohnB said...

Great article Adam, again. I lost a lot of time in Pools of Radiance and the
Curse of the Azure Bonds. They were the first PC games that I played which felt like D & D , at the time they really captured the essence of what an epic fantasy game should be. I much preferred them over the Ultima games.

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying this series. I hope once you are finished you look at expanding it into a book.

Adam Whitehead said...

BLOOD AND GOLD is definitely a different game (a strategy game) to DESCENT TO UNDERMOUNTAIN (a FPS/RPG, kind of), as I own both :)

And yes, there are many, many other games that should have been mentioned. More than any other, this is the article which had to sacrifice a lot of detail in the interest of space :)

Mick said...

Playing Dungeon Master on the Atari ST with my Dad is responsible for my love of all thing fanatsical

Anonymous said...

Adam, I'm curious. Did you have all the entries in this series written and ready to go before posting part 1, or do you just whip a new one up every few days?

Adam Whitehead said...

No, I write them and then post them the second they are done, usually after I've spent the day at work (hence the occasional bout of incoherence and misspelling). I had zero idea it was going to be this long, or involved, or extensive when I started.

The book version will be a lot more polished, it has to be said.

Jens said...

No thing I noticed -and please correct me if I'm wrong!- is that you never specified what exactly "epic fantasy" is to you, except occasionally by exclusion. I guess many have their own understanding of what puts fantasy in the "epic" category but I doubt that these individual ideas are identical.
Did you intentionally refrain from formulating a definition?

Jens said...

That should have been "One thing I noticed" of course... Shouldn't post stuff at night time!
Adam, feel free to edit.

Adam Whitehead said...

It may be worth revisiting that at the end of the series, although the next part will touch on it in a big way.

Certainly when I was discussing it with a publisher they said it would be a very short project and seemed bemused when I mentioned stuff like Vance, Howard, Peake etc. Not as part of the subgenre, but as important influences on it.

I would say that my working definition is that an epic fantasy involves a group of characters tackling an existential threat to their world/existence, which is a well-defined secondary world (and this can be an alt-history/alt-universe Earth as well as an outright fantasy world). This is the dividing point from sword and sorcery, which more frequently focuses on only one or two protagonists (like Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser) and where often the stakes are much smaller or more personal. It's a fairly broad church, though, as I think epic fantasies can also be set using much later technology than most series do; Chris Wooding's aeria steampunk KETTY JAY series I think could count as an epic fantasy even if a lot of people would argue with that.