Ever since the inception of Dungeons & Dragons, games have played a role, so to speak, in introducing non-readers to the concept of fantasy worlds. Fantasy games are hardly new; one of the first computer games I ever played was Akalabeth, the precursor to the Ultima series, on the Apple II. But what has changed is that games, and specifically massive multiplayer online games, have perhaps become the most important medium for the genre, surpassing not only movies, but the very literature that spawned the concept. You know we have entered into strange new territory when one can’t turn on the television without seeing the Wrath of the Lich King ad featuring Ozzy Osborne and when one sees a pair of pretty Italian models casually stroll into a game store of the sort that have been shadowy temples of high geekdom for decades, sit down at a pair of machines, and fire up their Blood Elves.
However, fantasy gaming does not yet boast the collection of masters of the genre of the sort we have long enjoyed reading in fantasy literature. Most of the worlds created are mere technological translations and the few genuinely original creations tend to be distinctly mediocre. The World of Warcraft is great gaming fun and an incredible achievement, but originality is not among its many virtues. Indeed, its huge success is in part dependent upon Blizzard’s commitment to the precise opposite. That’s why I was delighted earlier this week to see the news that Richard Garriott, Lord British his own royal self, has apparently had enough of space for the time being and is contemplating a return to the world of medieval fantasy gaming, if not necessarily Britannia itself. While the failure of Tabula Rasa may cause some gamers to wrongly conclude that Lord British is finally past it, this would be a mistake. That failure is little more meaningful than if a great author happened to have a team of midlist ghost writers throw together a meandering and soulless book called Working Title published under his name. Anyone who has spoken with Garriott about the state of electronic gaming in the last year or two will know that he’s as keenly perceptive a game designer as ever, and the fact that he has pointedly identified artificial intelligence rather than graphics, IP licenses or social networking as being the most important area of game development over the next decade is a good sign that his next death will take place in a fantasy world as groundbreaking and eminently enjoyable as the previous ones.
Fantasy games have a long, long way to go before they can reasonably compare with the immersive and otherworldly quality of the best fantasy novels. But if there’s a designer who can do it, it is the one who has shown the rest of us the way so many times before.