Fantasy CRPGs And Distance From The Source

I love Lord of The Rings.  It really is a classic, awesome and epic and beautiful.  Hell, I actually think Tom Bombadil was awesome, but that’s another story.

Or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.  A fantasy road movie, two guys getting into crazy trouble and magic kingdoms underground.

How about Elric?  A buddy story gone terribly wrong among battling gods and falling kingdoms.  Also, hey, god of Jesters.

But what doesn’t feel like fantasy literature is fantasy games.  I don’t say this to diss CRPG fantasy games.  I love a lot of them, I played the first Wizardry, I know Demon’s Winter is one of the most unappreciated fantasy games of the 80’s.  I enjoyed a lot of the Atelier series.  I played a lot of Final Fantasy.  I adore Dragon Quest IX.  It’s just they don’t always feel like the epic literature that inspired them or the genre.

Too many CRPGs boil down to a group of people invading some place, killing everyone, and taking stuff, the classic “Murderhobo” joke (which was applied to pen and paper RPGs before).  Sure there are other plots, but often time its still “fight your way through this and take stuff”.

You get the idea.  Aragorn and Frodo didn’t spend hours figuring out what the best pair of magic trousers to wear was.  I don’t think Elric and Moonglum really calculated their levels.  Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser did do a lot of adventuring and treasure-seeking wandering, but also got up to all sorts of shenanigans with were-rat girls, gods of hate, and more.

Over time, CRPGs kept adding new features.  Crafting items, homesteads, datesim elements, and more added more to a “sense of life.”  I frankly enjoyed a lot of them, because I am, as a gamer, someone who enjoys crafting and making things and decorating.  I spent so much time decorating homes in Fable II that it’s sad to talk about.

But still . . . there’s that element of hunt-and-kill draped around the other plots.  I’ve been thinking about why.

I think frankly D&D was part of it.  D&D’s wargame and combat origins, moved into CRPGs, made it pretty easy to make it all about combat and loot.  Besides, that’s also easy to program.

But in time, as games added more, as people wanted more than combat, it seems what was grafted on was sim elements.  A CRPG in many ways is evolving towards a lifesim, creating not necessarily a fantasy feel, but a world to walk around in with life elements in it.  I am somewhat glad Hearthfire came out late for Skyrim as I probably would have sunk a lot more time into it . . . because I’m a sucker for sims like that.

But it doesn’t always seem to feel as epic in many games.  I think Skyrim did manage it (as you can tell).  Dark Cloud’s mixture of action, photography, social elements, and time travel managed it by almost sheer weight of everything.  There’s close, but so little has had that feeling of the literature for me.

Why?  I think because CRPG fantasy games have become, slowly, their own thing.  They started in combat-heavy loot games, added crafting, went into sims.  They’re really in many ways fantasy life simulations of some kind.  They are not so much capturing the influential literature, as telling fantasy stories with various game mechanic elements.

In some cases, these are good.  I enjoy the homsteading and datesim elements of fantasy CRPGs.  One thing I truly liked about Dragon Age II was that I had a home base and a growing group of in-game friends, along with some interesting life complications (though way too much of the game was upolished).  There’s something evolving here.

It’s just it doesn’t always, well, feel like the literary sources.

Future CRPGs and MMOs that can tap more of the feel of the literature while keeping the fun and familiar elements, I think can go far.  When you can make me feel like I’m minutes away from dying in Mount Doom, when I stand on a devestated world and look at Law and Chaos, when I enjoy my time in my idylic fantasy town restored now that the Evil Dude is gone, then you’re getting somewhere.  There’s moments in games like that, but when someone can take the fantasy CRPG and keep the literary feel throughout, it’ll be a triumph.

Here’s the thing – I think it’s possible.  I hope we can see it.

Any thoughts?

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, nerd and geek culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at