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High or Low? Fantasy in Dragon Age

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Dragon Age: Origins Lead Writer David Gaider and BioWare heads Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk have different ideas about what high and low fantasy is; which may foretell a genre crisis for the game.

Ideally, Origins is supposed to be a "new" kind of fantasy that does away with Zeschuk's dreaded "elves sashaying through the countryside" and brings to the fore real human drama (but with non-humans). To create that kind of fantasy, BioWare had to find a spectrum of existing fantasy to measure their game by.


"At one end we have Tolkien's [Lord of the Rings trilogy]," Muzyka explained,"and for dark, low fantasy, we're using [George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series]."

This confused me, because Martin's epic fantasy series is labeled as high fantasy, whereas low fantasy would be more like Conan the Barbarian. Either BioWare is cutting the scale short so they can stay focused, or they've confused Martin with Robert E. Howard.


"When you read [Martin's] stuff, it's not at all like Tolkien's stuff," said Zeschuk. "It doesn't have the traditional elements [of high fantasy]. The brutality of the world he created is extreme."

I object about the elements of traditional fantasy (c'mon — those books have knights and princesses and dragons and stuff), but I'll give the brutality argument to him:

*Ice and Fire spoilers* In the first book alone, a seven-year-old gets chucked out of a window in, like, chapter five and the main character has his head chopped off at the very end.*End spoilers*


That's the kind of brutality that struck a chord with Muzyka: "I was like, 'Wow, he just took away a character I really started to care about. Wow, that was emotionally impactful [sic]'." And that reaction is ultimately what makes him identify the Song of Ice and Fire as low fantasy.

Gaider, on the other hand, thinks that his bosses' definitions of high and low fantasy are "funny" at best. To him, high fantasy has to have "obvious magic" and technically Martin does. But "it's very, very subtle," so he could see where his bosses got the idea to label it low even if he doesn't agree with them.


There's a flaw in Gaider's argument, too, though. If magic has to be obvious in order for the fantasy to be "high," the The Witcher is high fantasy, surely?

Rather than talk his way out of that one, Gaider side-stepped. The skew between Martin and Tolkien still works for Origins, he said, even if it's not a clear example of the divide between high and low fantasy: "Martin's stories are character driven. The characters and their flaws drives the plot, where Tolkien is plot-driven. In that respect, [Origins is] leaning more towards the Martin side, where it's a human tale told within the context of these epic events."


"Dragon Age has elements of [Martin's brutality]," said Muzyka, "and has elements of the Tolkien-esque kind of fantasy as well. Which is why we're presenting it is something that's quite different."

Will Origins be a brilliant alchemy of fantasy sub-genres, or genre crisis in the making? The fact that the lead writer and the creators of the game can't exactly agree on what low fantasy is has me worried. The fact that Muzyka and Zeschuk think George RR Martin's series is low fantasy just because it's dark also has me worried. But what really bugs me is the thought that games can never not be low fantasy because it seems to sell way better than elves sashaying through the countryside.


P.S. That picture is from a scene in Song of Ice and Fire, drawn by Mike S. Miller — if you want Dragon Age: Origins pics, check out this post.