Posted by: Matt Y | 07/01/2017

Twenty Core Video Games That Every True SciFi/Fantasy Fan Should Know – Part 3

This is part three so if you’re wondering what this is and why I’m writing it, maybe check out the original post!

Yesterday I talked of the narrative, impact and unique ability of medium to add something new to the genre specifically for four great Eastern Role Playing Games, most of which came from the fourth generation of video games. This time I’m going to focus on a couple of Western RPGs that impacted the RPG genre and also added to the SFF field overall.

As mentioned before: No implication is intended that these are the only twenty games you should consider.

14. Dungeon Master

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While Eastern RPG games primarily relied on playing a predefined role, the term Role Playing meant something different to Western audiences. Pen and paper role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons where more culturally pervasive. Dungeon Master wasn’t the first game to be inspired from that source though it was one that ended up being the most inspirational as generations of games continued.

Dungeon Master held a very simple plot, find a firestaff which help the corporal form of the Grey Lord and defeat Lord Chaos. Not exactly deep storytelling with amnesiacs, world ending events or the multi-generational tales of Eastern RPGs.

Within the game itself though it allowed the player to explore a dungeon in the first person view, fight battles in real time, and manipulate objects within the world. The game also contains a history that is tied to SFF writers though they might not realize it.

The two developers, Doug Bell and Andy Jaros, who were working on the prototype of the game having been inspired themselves by Ultima and Wizardry ended up running out of money and looking for a partnership. That they got through Wayne Holder at FTL Games. Mr. Holder was a man who started a game studio after making money from spellchecker software called The Word, which he initially developed for his wife Nancy Holder, a SFF author who wrote many tie in novels for the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer universe and contributed to the game. I believe she also wrote the novelizations for the recent Ghost Busters and Wonder Woman movies.

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So without having written spellchecking software for his SFF writing wife there may have been no FTL Games or Dungeon Master.

The innovations of the game should not be taken lightly. Going from turn based to real time combat, the use of ‘paper dolls’ to display the character, involving an actual SFF writer into the developmental process to add character development, getting better through repetition instead of assigning points, and ability to manipulate objects on the screen with a click of a mouse all added to a sense of immersion that had not previously been available. It also separated the computer RPGs from the pen and paper ones. Previously computer RPGs were a visual extension of the pen and paper games, Dungeon Master added things that made computer RPGs more than extensions but a unique type of RPG that was not available otherwise.

13. Fallout The Series

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Game previous mentioned have in common several core mechanics. Gaining experience points and leveling up, a turn based combat systems against enemies, and linear narratives where the player character is predefined.

While Fallout has experience points, leveling systems, turn based action points, and a character you create and build on in an open world with a narrative that’s there though can mostly be ignored.

Instead the game is about creating your own story within the framework of the video game and experience the world that has been built. And it’s a fascinating one! The world is infused with a retrofuturism from pulp science fiction of the atomic age. A future where the cars still have fins on them but are powered by atomic energy; Leave It To Beaver with plasma rifles. Only the player gets to explore it after nuclear war has happened as a survivor emerging from one of many vaults.

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Through the game you can explore what happened to other vaults, towns that have sprung up in the time between, and go around and get involved with various dramas or choose to do whatever. In Fallout 2 you could become a boxer and a porn star for example.

The ways in which the player could interact are also different. One player might increase their intelligence and hack computers, another could increase charisma and talk their way out. Violence was often not the best way out of a situation.

One example is in Fallout 3 while exploring you can find The Republic of Dave, which is holding an election. Dave is running for the president of his minor republic again and wants help ensuring the votes will go for him. In the game the player can campaign for or against Dave, or rig the ballot box itself. Different rewards can be had depending on actions, while Dave’s safe can also be looted if the player has the right skill level. Or if they enter the code 1138 in reference to George Lucas’s THX 1138 movie. A genuine Adventure style Easter Egg.

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Fallout 3 also featured the series moving from a top down perspective to a first person perspective in a 3D world as the developer changed hands. The game managed to keep the semi-turn based battle system called V.A.T.S. while also implementing the ability to fight battles without it, though it was more strategic and less likely to miss an attack using the V.A.T.S. paused combat screen.

There’s a lot of world building in SFF but in no other medium aside from pen and paper games does the audience get a chance to explore those worlds further and as they want to.

12. Elder Scrolls The Series

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LEGO Batman said “DC, the house that Batman built. Superman, come at me, bro.” Which is debatable, what isn’t a question is the fact that Bethesda is the house the The Elder Scrolls built. Prior to Elder Scrolls: Arena the company had released a handful of games, mostly sports titles.

The developers were long time pen and paper RPG fans who like many SFF played those games and were inspired to create their own worlds. For Elder Scrolls this was the world of Tamriel. Initially not set to be a role playing game at all it was set to be a gladiator type game where the player went around to different arenas, hence the name, in order to become world champion. As it went through development cities were added around the arenas, then dungeons near the cities, and then the gladiator stuff was dropped in favor of questing through the world.

The sequel, Daggerfall, continued their world building with creating much larger land with 15,000 towns. The advancement system when from experience point based to repeating tasks, continued the idea of fighting battles in real time, and added guilds, religions, and political factions which the player could take a part of. Due to the sheer size there was a lot of similar looking cities and landscapes which the developers heard the criticisms of and focused on making more personable hand crafted areas for their sequels.

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Morrowind was the third game in the series and is where I really connected with the games. Now imagine being a Sci Fi/Fantasy genre fan being able to explore a fantasy world the way they want to. That in itself is already impressive but then the game is filled with lore. Not just in the quests but as actual books. Books of history of the land, of folklore and religion. Stories of heroic deeds or warnings. And they’re all over the place. Sure they’re not that long but they’re interesting. This was the first game I ever played where I could literally find books and create my own library. Basically I’d make a terrible Frodo as I’d want to stop to read everything I came across and never get that ring to where it was supposed to go.

In addition to that the Elder Scrolls were one of the games that were so large and had so much going on in it that it became a sort of water cooler type game, where you could talk with other players about your adventures because what you encountered and what they encountered in the world was likely to be different. If similar than the ways the two people discussing it would likely have different approaches to how they handled a situation. In that it also shared similarities to people talking to each other about their pen and paper RPG scenarios.

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Oblivion was released at a perfect time to become a popular console game in addition to the continued PC game success. Skyrim built on those successes and even though it was released in 2011 continues to make waves when announced that it’s being ported to a new system like the Nintendo Switch, or as a virtual reality game with Playstation VR.

The interactivity of video games brought to life the world of Tamriel which existed previously in the minds of a few pen and paper role playing game fans. With millions of people having played the game worldwide Tamriel is likely one of the most recognizable fantasy worlds in pop culture after Middle Earth and Westeros.

11. Baldur’s Gate

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While some of these earlier computer RPG games tended to focus on the trying to give the player a lot of choices to create their own narrative within a larger framework there were also Western developers trying to find that line between giving a player options while also striving for a strong narrative. This is a line a lot of games still struggle with, trying to balance keeping the protagonist generic enough for the player to customize, side content to enhance the world building, and plot progression/tension.

Baldur’s Gate might be one of the first to find a good balance between player choice and keeping the plot tense and forward moving. The game creates both conflict within the world itself, an Iron Crisis that’s causing iron to rot, and for the protagonist who is the target of assassination attempts. The main character is a cipher. This allows the player to create their own character as the murder attempts aren’t related to the background of the character but because of their heritage.

Because of the conflicts above the plot is pushed forward by the mystery behind them both. Memorable characters are brought in as allies, all while the player still has the option of exploring more of the world and choosing what kind of protagonist they are through dialogue choices.

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That balance between choice and narrative influences games to this day. Some games have refined it or applied it to other genres in different ways however Baldur’s Gate popularity showed that it was possible to have an engaging game with choice and an interesting narrative. Plot did not have to be sacrificed for an open world, and choice did not have to be sacrificed in order to push players to move forward.

Another fascinating way video games have contributed to SFF is the communication of ideas when the creator not only has to consider the narrative they’re writing but also the agency of the person interacting with it. This exists in different way in movies and books, like not wanting to put info dumps that bore the reader, only not to the extent it is in video games. Several later in the list use that idea of having the plot challenge that agency as well in interesting ways.

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