Friday, 25 June 2010

Victorian halls, medieval knights & elves in mithril swimwear

I've played a little World of Warcraft, though I have to confess I never really got into it. I think I reached 6th level, which devotees of the game will know you can manage in about an hour's play. I chatted with other adventurers in textese. I may have killed some orcs.

Those fantasy CRPGs and MMOs all seem too much the same to me - a vaguely medieval/gothic world, dwarves (often Scottish), elves (often dressed for Venice Beach), clanking armor, rangers and "magic-users". If it's medieval, it's the themepark version: medieval America. It's like a bunch of writers copied Tolkien, and then the Dungeons & Dragons designers took their cue from those guys, and then a dozen other role-playing games copied D&D, and then CRPGs like WoW drew their inspiration from there. Result: all too far from an original concept to avoid tasting stale.

Look at orcs. Tolkien's concept was interesting, a dark mirror held up to humanity's undercurrent of xenophobic hatred. Whereas all these green-skinned tuskers are a vague sort of mash-up with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Specifically, ERB meets Aurora monster kits by way of some cheap 1980s straight-to-video adventure.

When did orcs turn green? I think it was in grimy Brit hack-n-slay RPG Warhammer. But it could have been any one of a dozen games - once these tropes come in, they often spread like wildfire. It's like the selective sweep that proliferates a useful new gene - except that, in creative work, you aren't trying to evolve towards a perfect fit, you're hoping to create something a little bit different. Rather than look at what somebody did last week, it's often worth tracing right back before the new gene came in and taking a different path. That's how the designers of Ico came up with such a cool and coherent vision.

But that's just me. With upwards of 11 million subscribers, Blizzard needn't lose any sleep. Those orcs are making them some serious green!

Anyway, that's all just preamble to this interview with Sam Raimi on Collider. After Spider-Man 1 & 2 (let's try and forget 3) any new project of Raimi's commands serious attention and should get the benefit of the doubt. So it'll be interesting to see how he turns a D&Dish computer game into a story we can really relate to. All the same, when I hear him enthusing about the cinematic landscapes in WoW, I'm thinking how cool it would be if somebody showed him Outcast. Now that would make some movie!


  1. Just checked out WOW on YouTube.

    Strewth!!! It's really risable, totally overblown and even the actor's voices are wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Give me Dungeon Master any day Dave. A prime example of less is more.

    But then DM was an innovator amongst games, as was Tomb Raider, the first was a thing of beauty, which was never quite recaptured in all the sequels that it spawned.

    Yes, I'd definitely concur with your observation that you need to go back to the inspirational touchstone to have any chance of achieving a work of real merit.

  2. To be fair to WoW, Peter, I ought to have acknowledged that the setting was never intended to be original or intriguing in its own right. As I'm sure Sandy will point out, the game is not so much about suspension of disbelief, it's really a kind of chatroom/playground with dressing up. It may even make more sense for a game like that to be derivative and pantomimey in its look. The designers just wanted a background that millions of players could immediately connect with, so familiarity and a certain cheesy jokiness may have been part of the plan. But in that case, why turn it into a movie? I would think that the lesson of D&D movies would be enough!

  3. Yes Dave, I do remember seeing Final Fantasy which was a games based movie (although not strictly D&D)and that was at the time amazing for at least the first ten minutes as it was all rendered with 3d software but then after the initial techno-buzz you realized that watching paint dry might be more fulfilling.

    Audiences thought so too and I think it achieved the dubious distinction of being the biggest animated box office bomb in the history of movies losing £100 million.

  4. I had to laugh at Dave's prediction that I would chime in - because of course I must. ;)

    I fell in love with WoW because it came at a time when almost every other game out there was trying to be gritty, photo-realistic, and take itself oh-so-seriously. No the universe isn't original - it is based on Warhammer which wasn't original either - but it was an MMO that let me dress up and have adventures in a world that looked like a wonderful storybook illustration.

    It also regularly poked fun at itself, which I think relaxed me into the fantasy even further. Within my own set of characters I had a range of personalities that I took on whenever I played them. It was an escape place where I could spend time with friends that was loads more fun and interesting than hanging out at a bar or a shopping mall (and loads cheaper), and where we had our own personal "movie moments" on a regular basis.

    Which brings me to my concern about someone making a WoW film. While I am sure it will be successful (it has a large ready-made fan base) part of the joy of the game is that you are starring in your own story. Will watching a story about other characters be compelling in a universe where you are accustomed to it being all about you and your friends? Wouldn't people rather just play the game? You can get a whole month of play for the price of one ticket.

  5. Sandy, that's exactly my feeling. One of WoW's strengths, as you say, is that it doesn't take itself seriously. It's a playground where people are just themselves in a costume. It's not a role-playing game where you're expected to get inside the part. That's why they have 10 million subscribers - because most people aren't interested in role-playing, they're just interested in coming to a kid of big, fun fancy dress party.

    But that same quality is a shortcoming in movies. A fantasy or SF movie has to take itself seriously, otherwise why should the viewer take it seriously. Yep, that's true even of Galaxy Quest - a great movie, full of laughs, often silly. But they play the core story absolutely straight. They want us to achieve "that willing suspension of disbelief that constitutes poetic faith".

    A friend of mine, the lawyer, philosopher and writer Mike Polling, often says that Coleridge understated what is necessary for storytelling. It is not suspension of disbelief, but rather the active commitment to believing. A WoW movie is not going to achieve that any more than a D&D, Warhammer or Dungeon Siege movie would. It will just be sub-sub-sub-Tolkien I'm afraid.

    Btw - off-topic, but Hollywood keeps making that mistake about the appeal of videogame-based movies. If 300,000 people buy a novel, you have a reasonable expectation that 30 million might pay to watch the movie. That's because the book market is shallow but broad - it gives a fair cross-section of society. The games market by contrast is deep but narrow. 10 million people play WoW? Those might well be the *only* 10 million who turn up at the theaters. Roughly $100m at box office means Raimi shouldn't be thinking of this as the next Avatar.