Video Games and Faerie

Dragon Quest VII revolves around the idea of a setting that ‘builds’ itself as you explore it.

The game starts you in a world that consists only of a rather small and unremarkable island. From there you travel back in time, exploring other land masses that once existed, and altering history so that they survive in the present, thereby expanding your world.

In a sense, we’re all marooned on that starting island. Physically, we live on a tiny speck in a universe that is mind-bogglingly vast, so vast that the light we see from the stars in the sky is already quite old. We’re already looking into the past when we gaze at the Milky Way. Hence why, in addition to the visible beauty of celestial bodies, space seems so fantastical to us: as J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out, vast distances of time and space seem to provide a sort of enchantment.

Spiritually we’re also often marooned. Modernity makes it difficult to believe in both, “things seen and unseen.” The idea that there is a supernatural order behind the natural is not one that contemporary culture is willing to embrace, except perhaps in its more superstitious forms.

And, indeed, although stories which deal in the fantastical tend to have a large popular audience, they tend to be scorned by the intelligentsia as being escapist and fundamentally childish in nature – an artistic abrogation of the duty to confront the real world head on. This criticism was observed by Tolkien more than half a century ago in his essay, “On Faerie Stories,” which I recently re-read.

An essential aspect of the faerie story, for Tolkien, is its relationship to our desires – we seem to have an almost innate thirst for the wonderful, and the faerie story allows us to imaginatively enter into the fulfillment of our tangle of desires related to it. Of these desires, Tolkien remarked,

Some are pardonable weaknesses or curiosities: such as the desire to visit, free as a fish, the deep sea; or the longing for the noiseless, gracious, economical flight of a bird….There are profounder wishes: such as the desire to converse with other living things. On this desire, as ancient as the Fall, is largely founded the talking of beasts and creatures in fairy-tales, and especially the magical understanding of their proper speech. This is the root, and not the ‘confusion’ attributed to the minds of men of the unrecorded past, an alleged ‘absence of the sense of separation of ourselves from the beasts’. A vivid sense of that separation is very ancient; but also a sense that it was a severance: a strange fate and a guilt lies upon is. [….] And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.

Operating at the heart of these desires, for Tolkien, is man’s own sorrow over his fallen state. The faerie tale expresses, in non-religious form, what is ultimately a religious desire for communion and immortality.

Dragon Quest VII and role-playing games in general are descendants of Tolkien’s work, having been inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, which in turn plundered heavily from The Lord of the Rings and its literary copycats.

And most of them are pretty second or third rate examples of what Tolkien would define as fantasy. The storytelling and world are often mediocre at best and unbelievable at worst; the abstractions of the game mechanics often shatter any illusions of realism, and even that realism itself is self-evident artifice compared to what a good book can accomplish with an imaginative and sympathetic reader.

Nevertheless, even third rate vacations to Faerie are worth defending. For here is one avenue where our longings for heroism, enchantment and a happy ending are given some degree of free rein – in a world that increasingly wants to choose despair. Here, at least, is a desire for narrative structure in otherwise aimless lives.

Of course, role-playing games are no more inclined towards virtue and holiness than any other hobby. But I agree with Tolkien that the escape involved in trips to faerie is the escape of the prisoner, rather than the flight of the deserter, and find it mildly heartening that it expresses some part of the imagination that isn’t too at home in jail. As another example, while I find myself increasingly bored with the glut of superhero movies dominating our theatres, I am nonetheless happy inasmuch as it shows that people still want heroes.

After all, you can’t complain too much about the taste of the bread you’ve got when you’re traveling through Mordor.

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