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The Age of Legends in Videogames

A brief look on the prefered narrative genre of the medium, the Epic stories.

Michael Arean, Blogger

October 28, 2010

5 Min Read

Epic.  Epic. Epic. I ask you dear reader, how many times have you read or written that word in a videogame related article or discussion? In a fast, broad Google search, the results of demanding “epic”  and “video game” gave over seven million results. That seems a lot. As those are only in English (Spanish rendered another million and a half results).

The word is thrown around in videogame boxes, even videogame title as the upcoming Epic Mickey and the just released Kirby’s Epic Yarn., and even a game studio, the famous Epic games, relate to the word.

And why not? Usually using the word relates to great things. Huge battle, memorable heroics and world saving feats come into mind when the word “epic” is thrown in. It talks to us, to our fantasies of being the hero, of being greater than life. Playing as that man is a great feeling, something we all want to do. Playing as a larger than life character is fun; it is a great escapist fantasy.

But I feel that narrative a bit, let’s say, archaic. In literature the first stories are epic. Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Mahabharata, the Aeneid to name a few.  The first few mentioned here predate the “first” (to my recollection, Aeschylus tragedies) non-epic by several centuries.

Epic is in the roots of our literary tradition. But it is mainly in the roots. After the Middle Ages more and more of the literary production seems to go from the epics to more personal genres.

As centuries go by, we see less books about the great heroes, to narrative of more mundane men and feats (there is a spike during Romanticism in the 19th century), to the more human. In books, the epics belong to the beginning of the medium, to the forging of legends and myths. Roland, Odysseus, Achilles are legendary figures, even a faint veil of myth surrounds them.

We are currently stuck in this legendary age in the videogame medium. Most of games that come out are epics. Even the Grand Theft Auto series leans towards the genre, with its huge environments and sandbox gameplay, even in the “mundane” setting of a modern city and no heroes to be found, seems so much larger than life that the game looks more like an epic than anything else. Every game that seems to have a narrative leans to the grandiose scale. And we love it, we even claim for more each time.

Let me do a little comparison. Not the best way to do it, but maybe the more explicit. Go to Metacritic.com and look for the best scored games. We all know this list. Grand Theft Auto IV, Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (well, not in the new version, but I was there), Half-Life 2, BioShock, Uncharted 2, Mass Effect 2, Resident Evil 4. Epics (not counting sport games, which have no narrative of consideration), games where you either save the world or a city, rescue the princess, fight evil organizations or other kind of heroic feat (GTA IV an exception, but why I considered it an epic is stated before).

Now, if you will leave the game section and head to movies and look again for the best reviewed films. Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, Seven Samurai, Superman II, Pan’s Labyrinth, Metropolis. Only two on that list that I would classify as epic films, Superman II and Lawrence of Arabia (and I skipped a lot that I didn’t know, but didn't look like epics).

All the other films, even with supernatural, fantastic or sci-fi elements, are more human, less about being great against just being human.  The density of epic works is outstandingly different in both mediums (and you could add Bloom’s Western Canon as a list for literature and find that is has more in common with film than with videogames). If you prefer it, here is the list for videogames and here, for movies.

So what is happening with videogames? Of course there are non-epic videogames. Shadow of the Colossus, Grim Fandango, Ico, Silent Hill, Heavy Rain, some of the nineties adventure games are some examples of well received games that aren’t epics. But they seem few and far between.  And mainly cult hits. Some may sell, but Halo will sell three times more with ease.

Yet again, Hollywood blockbusters also sell way better than Let the Right One In, so it may be something completely not related to videogames. Still, the critical response differs quite a lot, as the little experiment done before shows.

So, is this a bad thing? Not at all. Epics are as good as tragedies, comedies and any other “genre”. But we need to evolve, to add more things. The more variety we have as gamers the better. And more narrative possibilities, something that games could use, as the continuous criticism to videogame writing suggests that we need.

If we move away from epics and focus on the human nature of the characters, there are so many new paths to explore. Instead of variations of heroes or anti-heroes, we can just have a bar owner exploring his inner psyche in a Psychonauts-like platformer. Instead of fighting the forces of evil in an RPG, we can have an RPG centered in a child growing into adulthood by learning to live in the real world instead of his fantasies. Instead of an FPS fighting Nazis, play a paranoid journey of a mental patient trying to grasp reality. 

We often say that videogames present us with new ways to tell stories. We know that the interactive storytelling is one of the strengths of this new medium. So let us bloom form this age of legends and grow into the age of people, humans to keep that strength growing.

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