Sunday, June 2, 2013

5 Things We Can Learn From Skyrim

I recently took to playing Skyrim again, and it occurred to me that there are a number of things we can learn from the game about how the conventional genre of Fantasy works. Tonight, I'd like to address 5 Things We Can Learn From Skyrim About Fantasy.

1. Races
Fantasy lends itself to other races. Not always, but often enough that there's an existing idea of the genre in people's heads before they ever read or see a Fantasy novel or film. The Lord of the Rings had humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits, and variations on the above. Skyrim gives us three types of human race, three types of elves, orcs, cat-people, lizard-folk, a bizarre magical creature similar to elves, and the extinct dwarven race. They all go by different names depending on the novel, game, film or television series you're talking about, but in general, Fantasy allows for there to exist a plethora of sentient races.

2. Magic
Think Fantasy, think Magic. Even Game of Thrones has magic, though it comes in rarer doses than what most mainstream Fantasy demonstrates. There aren't any major characters who actively practice Magic in the show, though a few that demonstrate a semblance of magical ability. Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings is part of a wizarding order, and from his first appearance in The Hobbit demonstrates even a basic use of magic. I don't think I need to get in to Harry Potter on the matter of Magic. In Skyrim, we're given a much more basic understanding of magic. Any race can use it (as demonstrated by our ability to choose a character of any race and still throw a fire ball at a bandit), anyone can learn it. It does, however, break itself down into sub-categories, including Destruction Magic (for the standard elemental Magic we see so often: Fire, Ice and Lightning), Restoration Magic, Illusion Magic, and Conjuration, being just a few.

3. Politics
Perhaps the most important thing we need to pay attention to in Skyrim is the politics. In both Elder Scrolls games I've played, Oblivion being the other, the political tension in the world is a major factor into the storyline. It affects the protagonist, we're asked to become involved in it, and it reaches out into the various towns and cities across the Fantasy world no matter how far away from the capital they are. You don't necessarily need a big battle, either. The college at Winterfold in Skyrim is purposely removed from politics - but even the statement of this fact by a member of the college is in reference to the Mage's Guild's political involvement in Oblivion. There are also the little politics of each guild and town, who is in charge, how they reach power, who wants to take them down.

4. Religion
I've always been aware of the religious aspects of these games, probably as a result of the overexposure to religion at college. Looking at it simply, there are four kinds of people in Skyrim: those who don't believe in the gods (the minority), those who do believe in the gods (the majority), those who actively work for the gods (i.e. clergy), and those who worship the Daedric Lords instead. Players are free to do as they wish, though it usually comes down to whether or not you do something for the Daedra or not. (For those who don't play the games, consider them demons, and worship of them akin to worshipping the devil.)

5. Guilds
While the word "guild" is used to describe groups that no longer exist by the time Skyrim begins, the basic idea still exists: characters belong to groups of either mages, warriors for hire, thieves, or assassins. The latter two are typical in Fantasy when a hero is trying to avoid trouble. Terry Pratchett makes use of them in his Discworld novels. There are wizarding schools through the Fantasy genre, too, to the point that we can't ignore the fact that like-minded individuals come together for the building of a craft.

How does this help writers?
A simple focus on these five areas can shed some light on what your Fantasy novel might be missing. This is especially true for those who just dive in without planning (I'll raise my hand to that one - my first novel ever written was a Fantasy novel, though I hadn't fully thought it through before I began writing.) Making appropriate use of the different races that have appeared in Fantasy in the past can enliven your towns and cities. Knowing whether there is Magic, and understanding how it works, makes it much more acceptable for a reader when a character causes a man to freeze with ice coming from this throat. Having political parties - even just a ruling army and a rebellion - appealing for support can drag your character away from their true goal - or closer towards it. Embracing the idea of religion is much more believable for a world than one without any concept of a God, god or gods - a sense of the divine, whether you feel it yourself or not, has been part of human history for thousands of years. Creating groups of magic users or warriors or thieves can help your character find the help and support he or she needs. Parties of diverse characters are part of what has become convention. Even if you choose to then ignore the convention, being aware of it is a good first step.

Of course, there is a sixth thing we have to remember when it comes to Fantasy: have fun! If you, as the writer, or the reader, or the gamer, or the viewer, are not having fun with the genre, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Writers: play around with how things work in your novel (especially if you haven't actually started writing it yet...which you totally should start doing instead of putting it off.) Make things different. Don't repeat the wizarding order of The Lord of the Rings or the Magic system in the Discworld novels. Don't just mimic the gods of Dungeons and Dragons, or throw out the old Fantasy races for the sake of familiarity. Use your imagination, and show the world something different. And one you've created that, keep with it. Skyrim is the fifth game (minus-extensions) in the Elder Scrolls series, and while it has developed with the processing power of computers, it's stuck to the same world, to the same races, and to similar concepts for how the world works (including Magic and other dimensions.)

There's an awful lot to the Fantasy genre, yes, but Skyrim helps make it all a little bit easier to see how it fits together nicely. All this while shooting people in the head with lightning enchanted arrows. Imagine that.

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