Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Orcs and Elves are Mainstream Now?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 31, 2010

It’s kinda weird. Back when I was a young’un playing Dungeons & Dragons, elves were Santa’s helpers, and almost nobody outside of the geek set had a clue what we meant when we talked about orcs.

Nowadays, principally due to the the success of the Lord of the Rings movies and World of Warcraft, elves and orcs have permeated the geek membrane to enter mainstream understanding. Maybe not  immediate recognition, but in the same way that a casual listener might understand references about a “727” to be “some kind of jet airliner.”

I guess in some ways this is a geek victory that I always wanted to see when I was a kid – when our joy of Tolkien and fantasy RPGs might catch on within the greater culture. But it also feels a little weird when I overhear people in the movie theater talking about their Night Elf or their guild raid. It’s like the raw, untamed wilderness once explored as a youth turned into an amusement park.

And in the world of video games, a game involving a Tolkienesque fantasy world is kind of a “safe, familiar” setting. Particularly for “core” gamers. A game set in Victorian England? Or at the height of the Mayan civilization? Or the American West? Now that’s weird and risky!

Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 16 Comments to Read

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I agree about the Tolkienesque fantasy settings having become “safe” and “familiar”. I’m going to add one more adjective – “boring”.

    Now, admittedly, this is probably because I have been playing and gaming in such settings for well over twenty years now, but I can’t help but sigh and mutter a half-hearted expletive every time I see a new game, story, or movie with the “savage, tribal orcs” and “the wise, long-lived, and nature loving elves” and “the industrious, alcohol loving dwarves with beards”.

    There are no surprises in such worlds for me anymore. No sense of discovering a new world and culture and learning interesting new views. I’ve seen about every permutation of Tolkien’s fantasy world possible. It’s like a bunch of Tolkien fanboys all grew up and shamelessly ripped off the old man with stories that are ultimately just glorified fan-fiction. I mean Tolkien’s estate should have been more firm in enforcing copyright, instead of being satisfied with carbon-copies of hobbits being renamed “halflings”. But Tolkien was more like an early pioneer of “open source” and didn’t seem to mind much, and fantasy authors have been able to get by with limited creativity ever since.

    Arcanum was an amazing game, set in a Victorian fantasy world of steampunk that was a breath of fresh air, but even they fell back on the old orcs, elves, and dwarves triniy.

    I would love to see more RPGs with unique settings, like the Old West, or ancient Mayans, or what about feudal Japan, or ancient Egypt, or pre-Columbian Native America? I’m excited about the upcoming zombie RPG recently discussed.

    I may come off as angry, but I’m really just frustrated. I’ve read about and played with Tolkien’s fantasy world enough to last a lifetime at this point. Rarely does something interesting come from it. Even though I enjoyed Dragon Age and the Witcher well enough, I thought they would have been better for having more original settings. At least those two games explored the logical outcome of all those different intelligent races on one world, namely racism and hate crimes.

    Biologically there are a lot of good, scientific reasons why only one intelligent race is likely to evolve per world. Namely that at some point, one race will wipe at the other in competition for resources unless a symbiotic relationship is formed. Why don’t we see some fantasy exploring that? A world with two different races, but they need each other without question to survive, a real explanation of why both survived evolution.

    This is getting long, so I’ll stop, but hopefully all the “I loved Lord of the Rings, but it would have been better like this-” authors will stop too. If I want to read Tolkien, it’s sitting on my bookshelf.

  • Joe Larson said,

    What’s the deal? We tapped into some sort of collective unconscious? I was writing a rant for my YouTube channel on this very subject, going so far as to suggest a list of less-tapped settings people can use.

    Then @LateWhiteRabbit basically goes and finishes the rant for me. Well, I’m still going to do it. Hopefully we can see a new variety of games.

  • Calibrator said,

    About twenty five years ago when I first read LotR and The Hobbit it already was “old stuff” in certain circles. But it also was “the original stuff”, pretty much everything else seemed to be derived from it. I remember some books more or less cloning LotR. It’s fascinating how many rings are beset with evil, for example…
    Today, we have much more “fantasy media”: Movies, games, magazines, comics ahem “graphic novels” etc. This scenario seems to result in guaranteed revenues.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the bog-standard orcs/elves/dwarves fantasy scenario for RPGs beginning to get old and boring and I’d like to see other scenarios, too. In fact two games I fondly remember playing were “Savage Empire” (mayan? setting) and “Martian Dreams” (Victorian era space travel to Mars) from Origin.

    IMHO, “bastard scenarios” offer many possibilities if done right. Just mix something ordinary (a historic setting or event) with a fantasy or SciFi aspect and you may have an edge.

    What about:
    – A renaissance scenario with some of Leonardo’s ideas being put to work (without perhaps The Man himself): Helicopters, diving suits, siege machines etc. Things that couldn’t work with the laws of physics we know could have worked at the time, couldn’t they? 😉
    It was an era without bounds and restrictions, it seems: Alchemy still being considered a worthwhile science, breakthroughs in art, geography, physics, biologie etc.
    – Medieval/Victorian with some fantasy elements thrown in for good measure but not relying on it completely (something along the line of the Thief games). A Victorian setting shouldn’t always result in either a Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper scenario…
    – Anybody remembering “The Great Game” of the British Empire in India at the Chinese border? Well…
    – A World War II RPG. Not that there are many. In fact I only can come up with a single one right now: “GROM” – and even that one happens to have a Tibetan mountain scenario and not a D-Day one. While lots of people won’t consider GROM being a proper RPG this is beside the point – I only see such “exotic” scenarios in shooters or action adventures like Uncharted / Lara Croft that use them mostly for colorful backgrounds.
    – A really faithful cyperpunk scenario – faithful to Gibson’s sprawl trilogy, that is. Anybody remembering reading Neuromancer in the mid-eighties and thinking “This is the greatest think in SciFi since sliced bread!”?
    Personally, I find it astounding that cyperpunk sucked pretty much everywhere except in books. Mostly forgettable to mediocre movies and only a handful of well-made games. SciFi games today are mostly space operas and unless somebody revives cyberpunk like Bioware put big epic fantasy RPGs on the roadmap again it pretty much is a failure.
    Yes, some ideas of cyberpunk are a reality now and/or have been adapted in many games: Cyber suits, HUDs in eyes or visors, nanobots, rigged vehicles, drones etc.
    But the true cyberpunk scenario doesn’t feature orcs and elves like in Shadowrun but only (mostly) human persons and perhaps artificial intelligences. Few games offer hacking systems like for example the first System Shock – today we are playing silly! minigames to open locks!
    I could go on and on but I guess I better stop right now… 😉

  • slenkar said,

    Jade Empire tried a new setting but a lot of people didnt like it, and it didnt sell well.
    Generic fantasy does sell well.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    @Calibrator, for a Victorian-themed game, there’s something in the works from Crate Entertainment: http://www.grimdawn.com/

    I suppose it’s key to acknowledge that the different tolkien races are often used these days as broad stereotypes of certain aspects of human society or behaviour. You get the industrious Dwarves, nature-loving Elves, warlike Orcs, etc.. In reality of course, each race would have a broad spectrum of personalities, behaviours and cultures as humans do. See further, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PlanetOfHats

    I always thought one of the strengths of Ultima was their movement away from certain fantasy staples. While the early games copied generously from Tolkien, the latter games started to change their focus.

    The Witcher of course changes a few things and uses it’s own brand of elves and dwarves. It’s actually quite an interesting change, and yet the focus is definitely on the majority of humans despite the weird and wonderful collection of creatures you face.

    Even Dragon Age is trying… although it perhaps pulls it’s punches too much.

  • Pisces said,

    One of the things which I hate which is bleeding into main stream culture is the term… “EPIC FAIL”… I’m not sure how that got in, but apparently its being thrown around so often by gamers who don’t even know its root. Heck ! Even my younger sister who plays 0 games uses it…

  • srobinson said,

    I would love to see different settings. Worlds of Ultima was mentioned. I remember playing Savage Empires, and loved it. Probably because it was something different. Even back then, I wanted something different. Never got to play Martian Dreams. Even before that, ya had games like Wasteland, and Escape from Hell. Both interesting and good games(more so Wasteland). It seems that experimenting was more doable back then. Too much money on the line for big publishers to do that so much these days. This is why we look to the Indies.

  • Picador said,

    I’ll jump on the bandwagon here. I can’t overstate how disappointing it is every time I see a new game come out in any of the following settings:

    1. Elves, orcs, and wizards going on quests and fighting with swords
    2. Shooting biomechanical demon-aliens in darkly-lit spaceship corridors
    3. American soldiers/law enforcement/intelligence agents shooting non-American soldiers/criminals in the 1940s or 2000s

    That seems to cover about 90% of RPG/action games on the market. Seriously, those three EXTREMELY specific settings.

    I understand the problem, of course: anything outside of these comfort zones takes a hit in sales unless it has a very expensive and very smart marketing campaign behind it (e.g. Red Dead Redemption). I suppose we’ll just have to wait it out; we’ve certainly seen similar tunnel vision in other media, such as film, for long periods of time. (Name an action movie from the 1960s that wasn’t a Western, a WW2 movie, or a detective story.) Just as Hollywood eventually branched out a little (although not nearly enough), I assume we’ll see the games industry slowly come out of its shell and take a few small risks every now and again. But as with Hollywood, we’ll probably have to rely on the indies to blaze the trail and to continue providing the bulk of interesting new content.

  • Calibrator said,

    @Andy_Panthro: I am aware of Grim Dawn (I’m sure it was mentioned in this blog) and it surely is interesting and graphically beautiful but I’m not really convinced that it is comparable to a Victorian scenario (apart from the fact that it isn’t located in Victorian England – or anywhere else on Earth for that matter ;-).
    It seems more like a truly gritty, dark fantasy world to me with a lot of the staff that populates it.

    I also like the occasional action-RPG-clickfest now and then but I think that there should be more RPGs about humans and less about blob monsters and skeleton hordes.
    Most parties in RPGs could call themselves “Pest Control” or “Critter Extermination, Inc.” and, obviously, most RPG parties are only there to make varied combat against many enemies possible and not using the various strengths of the characters to solve problems.
    This is where I think the most potential is still largely untapped. And no, endless cutscenes with dialogues about existentialism like in many JRPGs or a “kindergarten”-level morale and justice system that governs many Western RPGs isn’t really compensation for that…

  • slenkar said,

    The Tolkein races are becoming ‘token’ ha ha ha


  • Picador said,

    ‘And no, endless cutscenes with dialogues about existentialism like in many JRPGs or a “kindergarten”-level morale and justice system that governs many Western RPGs isn’t really compensation for that…’

    Amen. It’s important to note that interesting character interaction can’t just be conjured up by inserting:

    1. “Serious” dialogue: Deus Ex is an example of putting this kind of interminable “serious” dialogue into actual in-game conversations, and the effect is just a hair less tedious than, say, a Final Fantasy 13 cutscene

    2. Brain-dead “morality” systems: Admittedly, complex moral choices are so context-dependent that it’s hard to expect game designers to be able to integrate them into anything but a straight-up railroad storyline, but honestly I’d take the pseudo-morality system of a good sneaker game (e.g. Thief or Hitman, where the moral imperative is “figure out a subtle, non-confrontational solution or you’ll get mobbed and killed”) over “nice guy vs. depraved sadist” morality systems any day. I have to hand it to The Witcher and Dragon Age for doing pretty good job in this area, although you’ll notice that neither of them is a sandbox game.

    But I think we’re off topic here: the original post is about setting, not character interaction. I’d be sort of interested in a list of great games with original or rarely-used settings where the setting really contributed to your enjoyment of the game. That means no dark-corridor-space-alien shooters, no modern-day sneaker/shooters, no elves+wizards, no WWII games, no comic book superheroes. Even games like The Witcher, whose setting I really enjoyed, are too close to standard elves+wizards to qualify for this list.

    I’ll start the ball rolling:

    Grim Fandango
    Beyond Good and Evil
    Vampire: Bloodlines
    The Sims (seriously)

    and two I haven’t played but would like to:

    Shadow of the Colossus
    Heavy Rain

    I’m really having trouble thinking of more, and most of those are really old…

  • Calibrator said,

    Well, let me start my Game Collector program…

    – The Thief series has a fairly original scenario, which began with a medieval setting with tech, magic and fantasy bits strewn in. The setting of the later two games is a bit different but still doesn’t qualify as being a Tolkien rip-off.
    The games obviously struck a cord with many players so that fan missions are still being released (note that the first two Thief games are more than ten(!) years old). I *do* attribute that to the varied scenario as neither the first Deus Ex nor the second System Shock have such active communities.

    – Full Throttle follows Grim Fandango closely, IMHO. It’s a rather easy game but that isn’t the point right now.

    – The “Soul Reaver” series has a pretty unique gameworld which seems to be populated with vampiric races only.

    – “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem” (on Gamecube) has several settings, some of which aren’t standard

    – The “Pikmin” series on Gamecube for a unique strategy setting (also see the old “Battle Bugs” on the PC).

    – The “Professor Layton” series on the Nintendo DS. Puzzle games but with outstanding presentation.

    – Also on the Nintendo DS: “Hotel Dusk: Room 215”. A graphic adventure on the border of being an interactive story-book.

    – Voodoo scenario used in action games: “Shadowman” and “Akuji, the Heartless”. The first being multiplatform and more conventional, the latter being an outstanding game on the first Playstation and no level is located in the real world…

    – Definitely the “Oddworld” series with it’s own game world: Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus being prime examples, while Oddworld’s Stranger is more or less a modified Western scenario.

    – “The Neverhood” and “Skullmonkeys”

    – The “Tenchu” ninja games for various consoles. Stealth games but not exactly in a modern world.

    – Similarly, you can’t accuse the Assassin’s Creed series for being modern (the first happening at the time of the crusades, the second in the Italian renaissance.


    – “Scrapland” – a futuristic action-adventure set in a world populated with robots.

    – The “Summoner” series of RPGs, especially the second one “A Goddess Reborn”.

    – The “Little Big Adventure” series from Adeline Software.

    – The “MediEvil” series for the Playstation. How many games have some sort of Halloween scenario?

    – “Vagrant Story” on the first Playstation. A dark fantasy scenario, very polished.

    – The “Shenmue” series – located in a modern Japanese/Chinese world, but no shooter or sneaker. Rather graphical adventures with beat’em up and dexterity tests…

    – And generally all games from Benoit Sokal (Syberia, Paradise…), while happening in modern times, have a certain atmospherc quality about them.

  • McTeddy said,

    All I have to say is “Operation Darkness”

    Not all World War 2 games are call of duty, some can involve a unit of Lycanthopic soldiers facing off against those gosh darn Nazi’s and their demonic undead forces.

    I will follow that will Eat Lead: The return of Mat Hazard. This game crosses the line of attempting to hit EVERY stereotype at the same time. It has wizards, 2D nazis, cyborgs, zombies, and a man with spikey hair and a sword far to large to carry who can only speak in text boxes and act through menus.

    Unique settings do not always mean unique experiences, and vice versa.

    I’d rather a game be in a stereotypical Orc and Elf society, yet focus on the political injustices as each race strives for peace… than in a universe where the Blorgish forces invade the Keputin capital and can only be defeated by engaging in an FPS combat.

    Lack of unique experiences is a far bigger problem than settings.

  • Picador said,

    The Thief series …

    I had thought about including Thief, but I sort of felt like it was still a little too close to Tolkein to illustrate my point clearly. Yes, the games are amazing and the original setting contributes significantly to their appeal. So maybe Thief belongs on this list, even though it treads very close to wizards+warriors.

    A lot of the other games are also great examples (Shadowman, Oddworld, etc). I should have stressed that i’m primarily interested in action/adventure games, though — if we start bringing in puzzle or strategy games, I think it’s safe to say that those genres actually do a much better job of providing a variety of settings.

    Speaking of adventure games: The Longest Journey probably belongs on the list.

    Unique settings do not always mean unique experiences, and vice versa.

    Absolutely. This list excludes a lot of terrific, original games: Demon’s Souls, Dead Space, Indigo Prophecy (the first half), Oblivion, The Witcher, Deus Ex, System Shock, etc. Many of these games even have original settings — they just trend too close to the hackneyed settings listed above to warrant inclusion on this list. E.g., Dead Space is an original setting with a well-executed history and mythology, but it fits exactly into the “dark corridor demon-alien shooter” genre. Demon’s Souls has a wonderful, original dark fantasy setting with no elves in sight, but it’s still “fantasy” in the Tolkeinesque sense of “recognizably medieval European setting where warriors and wizards fight monsters with swords and magic”. Indigo Prophecy looks a whole lot like Silent Hill looks a lot like Penumbra, i.e. “modern survival horror”. And so on.

  • Picador said,

    How about this as a litmus test for the kind of games I’m looking for:

    Imagine you’re playing a game and somebody asks you about it. When you describe it, does it sound interesting, or does it sound embarrassingly stupid?

    Original game setting: “Yeah, I’m playing this great game set in the Mexican land of the dead, where everything is this crazy art-deco/Dia de los Muertes art style, and you run around solving puzzles as a sort of afterlife bureaucrat skeleton guy.”

    Unoriginal game setting: “Yeah, I’m playing this terrific fantasy RPG. I’m, like, a tough fighter guy, and I fight evil wizards and monsters. I have a really cool sword. And a hot elf chick sidekick who can shoot arrows. But, like, the writing and gameplay are really good. No, really. Why are you leaving?”

    Original game setting: “It’s called Fallout. It’s set after a nuclear war, but it’s got this goofy 50s retro-kitsch nuclear-scare propaganda vibe to it, with radioactive monsters and religious cults built around old cheesy Americana from before the war.”

    Unoriginal game setting: “It’s called System Shock. It has some really amazing RPG-shooter elements. Amazing range of activities and ways to develop your character. Terrific level design. It maintains tension throughout the whole — what do you DO in it? Oh, you run around in a space ship and shoot these flesh-monster alien things that… where are you going?”

  • Let’s Get Out of Middle Earth | Cymons Games said,

    […] moment I sat down to write this my RSS feed notified me of an update on the Rampant Coyote blog that summed up my point pretty much word for word. I’m going to claim a psychic collaboration […]