October’s pale sunshine and crisp days are about to turn the corner into a dark and wet november, full of foggy mornings and cold nights, the streets flickering in the dull glow of tangerine streetlights. Icy Russian winds are already heading in, and soon I’ll be forced to pull out the scarf.
So to celebrate, I’ve made a November resolution, one which will severely affect my gaming habits over the next four months. Fortunately, despite it’s long, meandering and dangerous connotations it can be summed up entirely in one line, and it goes something like this:
If it’s got Orcs in it, I’m not bloody playing it.
On first glance Orcs aren’t all bad that bad. Great, Hulking beasts, spittle running between ivory tusks, the very epitome of meaty, brutal savagery motivated only by a lust for blood and violence. So mad with rage that they can barely form even a basic society. They’re not the kind of chaps you’d want to liase with, they’re the kind of chaps you want to chop up into little pieceswith a big sword, because if you don’t they’ll actually physically eat you. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. The problem, you see, is with the archetype.
As archetypes go this one has been overused to the point of being as meaningless as the word blurble, which is a word I’ve just made up. It’s a dead horse that has been kicked and beaten so frequently that it is now deader than anything else on this planet has ever been. When the second coming of Christ sees the dead rise from their rest to fight the holy war on the undulating fiery plains of the apocalypse that horse will still be lying there, its blue tongue sticking out of its mouth, its face frozen in a comical expression of bland indifference.
You see, your average orc is about as original and exciting as a towel, and about as charismatic and threatening as a mop. They’re blank starey boring things wondering aimlessley around the map like a strange soulless modern art installation, their stilted pathfinding AI scrawling autistic messages on the grey landscape, announcing loudly the developers lack of imagination.
So, developers, remember those artists you’ve got? Yes, the ones locked in the basement. Pop down there, put a window in, let them see a bit of daylight. Give them some cake, pat them on the back and point them at a canvas and tell them to invent some stuff. Loosen the shackles a bit and see what you get. If they draw an orc, or an elf, or a dwarf, fire them ass. Oh, and if they change the colour and call it a ‘Darkspawn’ or something then that doesn’t count.
What’s really irritating, aside from having the same game world endlessly copied and pasted until it feels as though you’ve slipped into a bland trance-like purgatory of eternal dullness, is the fact that repurposing Tolkien’s mythology so frequently robs it of its resonance. As overinvolved as it was, Tolkien’s work imbued these archetypes with a the charm of a folk tale, an idea borne out wonderfully by the precise, almost naive strokes of his line illustrations. Now Tolkien is left turning in his grave, so much so that in fact he’s already burrowed halfway to Australia and he’s gaining speed. It’s onyl a matter of time until he bursts forth from the crusty earth, hands flapping wildly, screaming at the sky “Where are my royalties!?”
Games let you craft your very own world, and it can be anything. The laws of physics don’t apply unless you say so. If you wanted you could switch gravity around so instead of holding you to the ground it relentlessly tries to throw you out of the atmosphere into the sun. The sky can be green and the sea can be red, or there is no land or sea, just a ghostly world of forms that crystallise into levels as you approach. I don’t care what it is, it just has to be something I haven’t seen before. The possibilities are so limitless that it’s positively offensive when I’m spawned in genero-Fantasy Castle 2B. And when I leave its predictable old wooden gates I know I’m garaunteed to come face to face once again with the dead stares of a greenskin, milling around with the local wildlife, making awkward small talk with the giant spiders and the kobolds. Sigh.