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How games creators are using fantasy as a force for liberation

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“Where are the wizards?” my cousin asked me, half an hour into a family screening of Braveheart. I saw where he was coming from. The film has all the trademarks of high fantasy: battles on green hills, warriors wearing chainmail and carrying wooden clubs, an absence of modern technology and a strange antiquated vernacular. There was going to be no magic, I explained; the film was simply set in Scotland in the Middle Ages. His disappointment was palpable.

On surveying my collection of fantasy movies and video games the next day, I realised that almost all of them were set in a place that resembled 13th-century Scotland, from The Lord of the Rings to Skyrim to Game of Thrones. Given that fantasy is the only genre that gives writers unlimited creative licence to dream up the wildest worlds, why do we see the same tired clichés deployed time and again?

The modern fantasy mould was cast by JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, a pair of British medievalists who studied together at Oxford, and, following the ideology of their times, concocted societies that were divided by race. The fact of being an elf, dwarf, human or orc defined your morality and physical abilities — and racial difference could be justification enough for war. Today’s fantasy mega-IPs such as Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and games from Monster Hunter to The Witcher all follow in this tradition. They are steeped in European mythology and centre on white heroes.

‘The Witcher’ adheres to the conventions of fantasy gaming

Games are unusual in that their fantasy draws liberally from Japanese mythology as well as European, a result of that country’s pivotal role in the industry’s history. Yet other mythological sources, be they Latin American, African or Arabic, have been ignored except when they prove useful as window-dressing for western developers. This is a loss for gamers from those cultures and for the richness of fantasy itself.

Now this is finally starting to change with the emergence of game developers outside the conventional industry hubs who are weaving new fantasies from the quilts of their own history and myths. Earlier this year, Mexican studio Lienzo released Aztech: Forgotten Gods, which imagines a sci-fi world where the Aztecs were never conquered. Raji: An Ancient Epic incorporates Hindu mythology and draws inspiration from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Maori developer Naphtali Faulkner created the stylish Umurangi Generation, a photo game set in a near-future New Zealand. Meanwhile, Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan and the ambitious upcoming game The Wagadu Chronicles both explore complex African mythologies.

In an image from a video game, a giant mechanoid creature shines spotlights on a small human figure
‘Aztech: Forgotten Gods’ imagines a world where the Aztecs were never conquered

These games are important because they challenge the fundamental conceits of many fantasy games, which critics point out often closely echo European colonial history: arrive as a powerful white outsider in a foreign land, extract resources and establish dominance over locals. In a recent talk on this topic, game writer Meghna Jayanth listed “imperial fantasies” common in gaming narratives, including: “the idea that the only worthwhile way to be in the world is a conqueror, that changing the world is the only interesting way of being within it,” and “that freedom and agency for oneself necessitates choosing for others.” She supplied an alternative framework with her work on Sable, a gentle game that draws from Arabic iconography, casting players not as singular heroes but as one in a world of many wanderers, all seeking their own path.

This move to counter the colonial DNA of fantasy doesn’t end with gaming. It’s also apparent in films such as Black Panther and the works of authors such as Saladin Ahmed, NK Jemisin and Marlon James. These creators understand that humans have a magic power: the ability to imagine possible worlds in which we might find liberation. Yet dreaming up alternative societies brings a responsibility to avoid replicating the ideologies that resulted in so much oppression and inequality in the real world. Fantasy can only shape our future, they argue, if we renegotiate its colonial terms.

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