Friday, October 19, 2007

Future Fantasy?

Amongst my first RPG experiences - computer or otherwise - was one of the all-time greats: Ultima IV. To this day I'm still perplexed by how much I love that game despite my absolute frustration with it. The Virtue system was SUCH a bugger and distinctly UN-fun at times. Take the one NPC who asks you if you're The Avatar, where if you say yes you lose Humility, and if you say no you lose Honesty; either way demolishing your avatarhood (avatarship? avatarosity? avatarliciousness?). Bad designer, bad bad bad!

That is to say, I never won the damn game. Eventually I was so fed up that I traded it to a school chum for Ultima I, just so I could see more in the series and, hopefully, learn that they weren't all so diabolical.

I was dumbstruck by Ultima I. In the Ultima IV world I was used to, the height of technology was a hot air balloon. In Ultima V (which I didn't have at the time, but had heard about), glass weaponry was the new hotness. But Ultima I? The Ultima that took place years - if not generations - before the ones I was already familiar with? Oh let's see...lightsabers, laser guns, and a freakin' SPACE SHUTTLE, complete with combat against baddies that bore a striking, low-res similarity to TIE Fighters!

As a Star Wars fan, I'm perfectly OK with the notion of mixing a little Sci-Fi into my Fantasy story. Not in every game, of course, but I have great fondness for Star Wars games, the Wizardry series, and especially Alternate Reality.

I haven't played all the Ultima games, and I don't pretend to know all the lore, but I've played Ultima I, I understand that Ultima III involved a demonic supercomputer, and then IV comes along and it's all gone. Geographically-speaking, Brittania didn't change into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, though there was undoubtedly some continental shift taking place. How does a whole planet just devolve? So far as I know, there was never a lore explanation for this, nor do I know of the people of Brittania ever recovering from this technological debacle in generations to follow. What was so bad about the fantasy/sci-fi mix? It made Origin a lot of money!

I'm often amazed at how accepting we are of our fantastic worlds never evolving. It isn't just gaming worlds, but literature as well. Gandalf roamed Middle Earth for thousands of years with nothing but horses and carts at best. Belgarath (a personal favorite) can recall an approximate 9000 year existence, during which time the height of technological development seemed to be a well-kept international highway. Harry Potter's wizarding world developed right alongside muggle technology, yet considers telephones to be quaint and silly compared to owl post, despite the fact that phones provide instant communication while owls require time to fly.

And that, dear readers, brings me to EverQuest 2 and the world of Norrath. I admit knowing essentially nothing about fare inspired by the EQ MMOs (Lords of EverQuest, Champions of Norrath, a handful of novels), but we have a 1000-year timeline to look at just among the 3 MMOs currently out there: EverQuest 1 set the zero-point, with EverQuest Online Adventures set 500 years earlier, and EverQuest 2 set 500 years later.

Scholars abound, so it would be hard to argue that Norrath is in a dark age, yet all but one of the races shun technology in favor of manual labor and/or magic. The one race that truly invents are the Gnomes, and I'd argue that even they haven't changed so much. In EQ1 there was already a subversive, self-aware element hanging out in the caves under Ak'Anon, and the big change is that the Gnomes got their asses SkyNetted out of their home city. The Tinkering skill of today offers more options and toys than the EQ1 version, but on the whole it seems surprising that in 500 years, such technology hasn't led to the production of, say, a personal computer.

I could certainly understand if the experiences of the gnomes dissuaded the rest of the races from embracing the art of robotics, but what about some intermediary steps between discovering metal alloys and artificial intelligence?

Explosives have been discovered, but no one (gnome or otherwise - come on humans, innovate!) came up with the idea of a slugthrower? Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of gunplay, but from a sociological-lore-writing standpoint, I don't understand why authors/designers shy away from letting their societies develop.

Personally, I think societal advancement over time could provide really interesting options for the EverQuest license. In a gaming genre much maligned for focusing too much on fantasy while settings like sci-fi, superhero, or even modern-realism go widely unused, I'd love to see the true FUTURE of Norrath. Let's brainstorm!

EQ2010 - Elves, dragons, and magic mix with politics, mafia, and machine guns (at least in Freeportopolis) in a gritty modern-day setting. Sound like Shadowrun? Well, it should. The Shadowrun-style genre is basically non-existent in the MMO world, and that should really change. Since Microsoft seems content to stay out of the MMO market and just make Shadowrun into a lame shooter, another company should pick up the slack.

EverQuest 5399: The Final Frontier - What would the world and universe be like if both magic and technology kept growing and evolving into the space age? Alien forms aren't a totally new concept in Norrath, so what if there's more to their invasion methods besides a wearisome "dimensional portal?" Phaser Gun or Fireball Spell - you decide!

EQAftermath - Far into the future, the races of Norrath went to war and destroyed just about everything, including their entire record of history. The remnants of the races start to form small societies again, but technology is setback to medieval at best, and even magic is more scarce than before. (This would be handy when EQ2 characters are up to level 200, soloing Nagafen, and the fantasty genre needs a healthy reboot :)

So what do you think, fair reader? Should fantasy worlds evolve over time into the future just as the real world does, or should modern and sci-fi stories only be based on their own independent backgrounds? What else would be a fun new take on the world of Norrath? Any Photoshoppers wanna make some FutureEQ box art?


Danny Nicholson said...

Taking the fantasy world and blending it with sci-fi sounds a lot like Warhammer 40K which took the basic warhammer fantasy worlds and shot them into space. Would be interesting to see that develop in other game worlds too.

I would guess the "logic" behind a pretty static fantasy world is that if in our timeline we needed to better our world (and also wage war) through technology and through that made some important technological discoveries that moved us forwards... Norrath relies on magic which fills those gaps, so there is no need for better technology (except for the gnomish tinkerings)

But yeah, a Cyberpunk Norrath could be quite cool. Especially if the gnomes ever get the Matrix working....

Almeric said...

Ooo, I forgot all about 40k. That IS, in fact, a great example of a fantasy world actually "evolving" in its own timeline.

A gnomish "net" of any sort would be SO awesome. I'd love to see them start putting plug implants into their heads and jacking-in to a zany online hacker environment. Considering they made a replicant-duck just for fun, I could only imagine the ways hacking and security programs could manifest themselves in a VR world....