Thief: The Dark Project is one of the classic games from my teens, wich had gained an outstanding reputation back in the day, but for some reasons I’ve never really got very far past the first two levels. It’s a fantasy stealth game, and you could probably call it the stealth game that defined the genre for PC games. The same year, Metal Gear Solid was released for the Playstation, but even though they are completely different in almost any way, they both made the concept of games in which you secretly sneak around instead of killing all enemies popula. It was released way back in the great year 1998 (on the same day as Baldur’s Gate) for PC, and despite its age I was able to get it to run under Linux with WINE (with only an acceptable amount of trouble). I added some fan mods mostly for stability, but it also added some minor improvements like the night skies and water surfaces. I have to say it still looks pretty good for its age. Many games just a few years older have aged much worse when it comes to graphics. But this one is completely servicable. Audio is superb and I didn’t have any problems with controls or any glitches during play. My first impression had always been classic middle ages with a few anachronisms here and there, but as I got deeper into the story I discovered it to be actually following pretty closely to classic Sword & Sorcery traditions. It’s far more than breaking into castles and stealing gold coins and silver cups and candle holders.
Thief is the story of Garrett, a master thief who in his youth was trained by the Keepers, a secret society of lorekeepers who also have knowledge of semi-magical stealth skills, which come extremely handy for Garrett during the game. Some halfway decent shadows are enough to make him practically invisible, even to people who are standing right next to him and looking straight at him. The other two important groups of the settings are the Hammerites and the Pagans, which is where the Sword & Sorcery elements really start to take center stage. The Hammerites are a religion of smite-happy fanatics who have tremendous power in the City, while the Pagans are a group of wild men and women who live deep in the woods outside the city walls and worship an ancient and dark god of fertility and chaos. During the course of the game, the Pagans become the main antagonists for Garrett. As he delves deeper into their hidden lairs and learns more of their ancient religion, the game is getting more and more surreal and fantastic. It reminded me a lot of some of the more bizare adventures of Fritz Leibers Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The intro should give you a pretty good impression.
A few weeks back I wrote about my goals in how to structure the ideas for Sword & Sorcery stories that have been flowing through my head for some time. And yes, I could be writing on those stories instead of writing this. But this also is work. Spelling out my thoughts always helps me getting them into order and once I have free floating ideas put into some form of pattern it becomes a lot easier to build upon them. Expanding ideas is always much easier than creating something great out of a vacuum. It’s like starting a puzzle by first sorting out the pieces that go on the edge, put them together to create a frame and then building inwards from there. Trying to find two matching pieces out of 500 is almost impossible and takes forever. (A puzzle under 300 pieces is not worth the effort.)
So here you have my incomplete list of works that captured my imagination and influenced what I would like my own works to be like. In some cases I’ve literally been thinking “I wish there was a fantasy book like this.” Since I seem to be most easily impressed by visuals, most of these are actually movies and videogames. You might also notice that there’s actually more science-fiction than fantasy on the list. But there won’t be any post-Iron Age technology in the Ancient Lands. When it comes to pulp and adventure fiction, their essence is really about personal experience and emotion, which generally can be explored just as well in fantasy as in science-fiction, or even historic settings (see Indiana Jones), and it seems that in the past decades the majority of creators seem to have chosen to go with an outer coating of sci-fi instead of fantasy. After all, in the early days of planetary romance they regularly did both at once. My plan for the Ancient Lands is to continue in this century old tradition of writers and once again going with a fantasy guise again.
Knights of the Old Republic: The comic, not the videogame. This part of the Expanded Universe could be seen as a spin-off of the regular Star Wars universe, being set 4,000 years before te movies. You got the Jedi and the Sith, but they are different from those of the later ages, being much more numerous and acting much more out in the open. Which leads to this era feeling even more like traditional fantasy than Star Wars already does. And I actually like them a lot more. It started with the Tales of the Jedi comics in the early 90s, which were created simultaneously to the Jedi Academy novels and served as a kind of backstory but were also standing on their own feet. Later BioWare used those comic as basis for their videogame set some 100 years or so later. And then we got a comic series that takes place just before the game and visiting many of the same planets and having some appearances from the characters of the game, but mostly they are their own story. And while I am not usually fan of American comics, it’s actually my favorite Star Wars work. (After The Empire Strikes Back, of course.) I want to reread it and write a very extensive review for it as wrll. The main hero Zayne Carrick is not so great, being posibly literally the worst Jedi ever. While he’s a complete failure as a Jedi he still manages to become quite heroic in his own way, which is something I consider very much worse exploring in Sword & Sorcery. But to me the real star of the series is Jarael, who is only one character of Zayne’s weird gang of anti-heroes but also got her own storyline that runs parallel to his. And absolutely kicks ass. It’s a bit like Avatar, where the story of Aang was quite entertaining and often interesting, but I really always came back to see the story of Zuko. What I like so much about this era is that it takes the fantasy elements of Star Wars and gives them even greater emphasis, and also makes the universe feel more ancient and mystical. The absolute core concept of the Ancient Lands is “KotOR without the space ships”.
Mass Effect: If there is one thing I love almost as much as Star Wars, it’s Mass Effect. The first game blew my mind just by seeing the main menu, but the second one is what I consider the greatest videogame of all time. Mass Effect was created by BioWare after Knights of the Old Republic and being clearly a successor of it, but being set in their own new universe meant that they no longer needed to be confined by the Star Wars license. There are various reasons why Mass Effect had such a huge impact on me. The first one being that it made me understand how much better any story becomes when it is about something meaningful and that this can also apply to whole universes. Mass Effect almost never gets preachy and has no sermons, but everything you run into deals with ending conflict and reaching reconciliation by admiting that you have been wrong in your actions or convictions. Blame and guilt become insignificant compared to forgiveness and only rarely can anyone claim the moral high ground. And because of it the conflicts all become so much more compelling and meaningful. There is real conflict and real doubt, not the artifical lack of ambiguity created by black and white stories where no thinking is required. This also hits very deeply to my existentialist contemplations and believes. These are the kinds of story that are really worth telling. This is the stuff that means something. The other thing about the series is that I like the way the visual style creates atmosphere. There’s something very late 70s movie about them. The way the places in the games feel, particularly the second, is what I want to capture and recreate. There is something ethereal about it which I find just fascinating.
Morrowind: I’ve talked about this game a lot in recent months. The world of The Elder Scrolls is not particularly interesting to me in general, but the specific region of Morrowind is amazing. It’s both exotic in its landscapes and wildlife, but it is also a mythic lands, full of philosophers, secret societies, and living gods who live alongside mortals.
The Witcher: I love both the books and the games. I often see comments about Sword & Sorcery that claim that it is an outdated genre from the 60s that failed to keep up as culture had been changing and being stuck in a past that has very little to offer to modern audiences. There certainly is a sense that all the good stuff has been by Howard and Leiber and that nothing really got close to them since. But The Witcher seems to me like a series that is very much a new attempt at Sword & Sorcery for the new post-cold war world. I think there was actually a massive shift taking place in entertainment in the early 90s, with one of the most striking examples being the difference between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. (Also a good topic for a future article.) The stories of Geralt of Rivia have a very strong deconstructive element to them. Fantasy in general, but really Sword & Sorcery in particular, is mercilessly disassembled, all the pieces critically examined, and all the hypocrisies and inconsistencies exposed. But they are not just a hateful critique or even a satire, but instead continue and attempt to straighten out the faults and emphasize the qualities. Or to put it more bluntly, Sapkowskis characters travel trough fantasyland and continuously call each other out on their respective bullshit. But they also have genuine respect and appreciation for their redeeming qualities. Sapkowski takes all the different characters of fantasyland down from their high horses and cuts them down to size, and they all come out of it stronger and you can appreciate what they have to offer for storytelling in the 21st century. Sword & Sorcery is not obsolete, but it could really use some fixing up. And I think reading the books can really help to recognize in which areas Howard and Leiber could be expanded on. They are a solid foundation, but not the end of all there can be to Sword & Sorcery. The writers of the videogames also manged to capture this aspect of the stories very well.
Thief: I actually finished this 17 year old game for the first time only earlier this year and somehow I still have not been able to finish the review draft I’ve started for it. The main character may look like a cliche now, being a sneering and sarcastic loner with a dark hood and a master thief as professional as he is unrepentant, but I think Garrett might actually have started this whole trend. Thief is the most straight example of Noir fantasy you’ll ever come across. It’s always dark and rainy in a claustrophobic city of narrow alleys and high roofs and it feels like The Maltese Falcon set in a steampunk version of the middle ages. The first game of the three also is a pretty straight Sword & Sorcery experience, which the second game largely abandoned and went more steampunk James Bond. Though it makes sense as each game focuses on one of the three factions of The City and the first one is all about the Pagans who worship Chaos and nature, while the second is about the Mechanist who are all about Order and technology. I hope to get a propper review done soon, but I really love the first game. It has relatively little action in the conventional sense, but Garrett’s sneaking around in extremely dangerous and heavily guarded places is just as daring and outrageous, even if there are no buckets of blood or piles of corpses. It’s a very gloomy and well thought out story which in many sections dips very strongly into horror as well. What I want to take away from it the most is how ot creates tension, danger, urgency, and dread without relying on combat.
Riddick: Thinking of the Riddick movies as very well made B-movies would not be inacurate. And if someone calls them cheesy, cliched, and failing at trying to be artistic, I could see where this impresion would come from. While they are science fiction on the surface, they have the undiluted essence of Sword & Sorcery running through their bodies. It’s hardboiled Planetary Romance. Genres that have always had a reputation for being a bit trashy, but every Sword & Sorcery fans that under the simple and rough presentation there is a depth of meaning and emotion in them that many great artist would envy, if you just know what to look for. The third movie is of similar quality as Conan to me. They are small productions but true art. Like Italian exploitation movies from the 60s were “art”. Of a type that probably is so foreign to most people that it might be impossile to see. What I like about the movies is the sense of desolation and a huge universe that seems almost empty. Civilization being tiny while the wilderness is empty is an idea I find very fascinating but rarely seems to get explored in fantasy. And of course, there’s Riddick himself. He is super cool to the point of beinf ridiculous, but the movies treat it with full seriousness and that makes it work. And as his story progresses (though there is barely any real plot in the conventional sense) you get a character that is both a real monster but also not despicable. He’s a beast, but a magnificent one.
Mushishi: This was originally written as a series of short novels, if I recall correctly, but also made into an absolutely amazing anime series a while back. Mushishi is about Ginko, a man who wanders Japan and can be thought of as a kind of ghost hunter or exorcist. But the creatures he is dealing with are not great dragons or demons, but just mushi. The tiniest and most primitive of spirits that are more similar to bacteria than to people or animals. They are a fundamental part of nature, but invisible to most people, except for the mushishi. The series is very slow, has few words, and very little happening, and is very melancholic in mood. While mushi are a part of all nature, it sometimes can happen that their presence has unusual effects on people who get too close to them. And since they are invisible there’s usually no way to tell where they are and what they are doing, unless you know exactly what to look for. When strange events are happening or people seem to become cursed for no apparent reason, the mushishi are the only ones who can help. The special charm of the series is that Ginko can identify the source of the problem and show the people how they can avoid any further harm from the mushi. But he does not destroy them and he also has no ability at all to reverse the damage that has already been done. Sometimes people die from the mushi, often they are severely cripled or maimed. This is no kind of curse that can be lifted and Ginko has no magic to remove the effects. All he can do is to help the people to live with the changes and to ease the pain, and sometimes his help comes too late. In many ways, Mushishi is the total opposite of Sword & Sorcery. There is no fighting or any action scenes. It’s not fast paced and loud but extremely slow and quiet. But what I really love about it is how it deals with the aftermath of encounters with the supernatural. One way in which I think classic pulp tales are falling short is that they generally don’t bother with any consequences. You get a big fight scene and it’s done. I’m actually not much of a fan of action scenes and violence, it always is much more interesting to me how people are dealing with it. And sometimes you don’t win and everything is alright again. Mushishi is all about that.
Wuxia: If you’re not familiar with it, it may come as a surprise that the Chinese really love fantasy. Specifically the genre of wuxia, which really is pretty much exactly the same as Sword & Sorcery set in a Chinese inspired world. And they’ve been making a lot of often pretty good movies based on novels for quite some time. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is probably the most famous one in Europe and America (though not considered particularly remarkable in China), but there’s also Hero, and House of Flying Daggers and I also very much enjoyed Reign of Assassins and the most recent adaptation of A Chinese Horror Story. For one thing, I really quite like the setting. Most of it is based on medieval China and probably just as accurate as western fantasy is dealing with medieval Europe. There’s swordfights, witches, and monster. Evil spirits are different than Greek monsters or classic demons, and the magic system is based around chi, similar to the Force in Star Wars, which is all very appealing to me. But there’s also one big difference to western Sword & Sorcery and that is the big place that is made for romance. Romance in western fantasy usually is terrible. But most wuxia movies I’ve seen somehow make it work. Queen of the Black Coast might be somewhat similar. Or pehaps the messed up relationship between Geralt and Yennefer in The Witcher.
Ghost in the Shell: A great comic and the movie based on it is probably my favorite movie after The Empire Strikes Back. Ghost in the Shell is probably the defining work of the post-cyberpunk genre, (which is primarily defined by removing the punk from cyberpunk) and particularly the movie adaptations are extremely existentialistic. All the main characters are cyborgs and the main hero has so many enhancements that she has essentially turned into something superhuman, more machine than mortal. While it is as hard as hard sci-fi can possibly get, it often turns quite deeply spiritual. When the brain can be directly plugged into computers and machines, it really feels a lot like magic. It’s a world vastly greater than the human mind with possibilities that can not even be imagined. And of course, there’s also various forms of mind control and manipulation of memory and thoughts. Ghost in the Shell has a really important impact on me to how I am thinking of incorporating magic and the Spiritworld into fantasy stories.
STALKER and Metro: Stalker is a videogame inspired by a Russian novel and a movie, while Metro is a series of Russian novels which also got two videogames closely based on them. They are all post-apocalyptic science-fiction and can there really be any kind of sci-fi more closely related to that? I am pretty sure that the games and Metro novels are very strongly based on the experience of growing up in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine. Things were not great under the Soviets, but in many respects things totally went to shit after that. Turning to post-apocalyptic fiction as a means of expression seems completely natural in that situation. They are not dreams about creating some new utopian societies inspired by the Old West, but instead you have some people who just somehow survive and linger in the ruins because they really have no idea what else to do. It’s not a rebirth of civilization. It’s just some remnants fading away. What inspires me about them is the strong presence of ruins. Wherever you look it’s urban and industrial decay. The Ancient Lands are a world where villages and towns disappear just as fast a new ones are build, with societies remaining at low numbers and ruins being found anywhere. And sometimes there’s still stuff left that can still be useful to the people of a later generation. I want to make exploration and treasure hunting a big theme, as that’s what lots of Sword & Sorcery bheroes do, but instead of robbing tombs I want to go with the leftovers of failed settlements. Both Stalker and Metro are giving me lots of ideas for both ruins and treasure hunters.
This list is actually getting longer instead of shorter because I constantly forget that I wanted to write reviews for these. Hopefully I get around to do them someday not too far in the future. And if you want to, you can bug me about them still being late. That usually motivates me quite a lot. ;)
If your age is about 30, then there’s a very good chance your favorite classic videogame was releases in 1998. I first noticed this strange high occurance of famous gaming classics when I learned that Metal Gear Solid was release in the same years as two of my other favorite games: Baldur’s Gate and Half-Life. Also StarCraft. And FreeSpace. What, Thief too? And Commandos?!
Just look at this!
January 21: Resident Evil 2
February 11: Xenogears
February 28: Star Wars: Rebellion
March 19: FreeSpace
March 31: StarCraft
May 22: Unreal
July 31: Commandos
August 5: Soulcalibur
August 21: Rainbow Six
September 3: Metal Gear Solid
September 24: Anno 1602
September 30: Fallout 2
October 30: Grim Fandango
November 19: Half-Life
November 21: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
November 30: Baldur’s Gate
November 30: Thief
December 3: Star Wars: Rogue Squadron
There might of course be some bias here. And given the huge amount of games that are released every year, this list of 18 famous titles may not be that impressive. But look at them! These aren’t just games that were simply “really quite good”, but a lot of them had a huge impact in the long run, that continues to this day. Nobody has to be told what Half-Life and StarCraft are. Baldur’s Gate is the granddaddy of Dragon Age and Mass Effect and made BioWare into the famous company it is today. Ocarina of Time is the first Zelda game as we know them today. Soulcalibur, Metal Gear Solid, and Thief are still getting new games. And while my memory might deceive me here, I think Rainbow Six pretty much invented the Modern Military Shoter with political backstory. Commandos and Anno 1602 may not be much remembered these days, but back then they made a really big splash and got lots of sequels and inspired many other games with similar mechanics.
I think this is much more than simply perception bias and nostalgia. 1998 was an amazing year for videogames, the like we probably havn’t seen again since.