That is indeed not what I meant.
I’m not saying that they need to “keep up” in some aggressive way where they’re constantly reading the latest thing, tracking trends and so on. But what you don’t seem to be getting is that fantasy and sci-fi and indeed SF generally have changed massively, improved massively in the last thirty years, and yet… an awful lot of fantasy and sci-fi in games, certainly the majority of it, is stuck, absolutely mired, in ideas, concepts, and aesthetics from the 1990s or earlier. That was a very long time ago.
The situation in creates is pretty depressing, and it just gets worse. I don’t think it’s too much to expect that a writer who wants to write a game in SF, whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi, might y’know, want to have read, say six newer books from that genre over the last THIRTY years - y’know, like their over their entire lifetime, rather than relying on some stuff they read as kids or teens, which was older then! Is that unreasonable? If even 50% of game writers/designers working in those genres did that, it would be a huge asset, I’d suggest, and make games feel a lot less decrepit and nerdy-in-a-bad-way. It’s not a matter of “Oh well they didn’t catch the latest trend so they suck!”. Literally no-one has ever suggested that. It’s a matter of “Wow, this feels like it’s trying hard to be a fantasy novel, but it’s a fantasy novel from 1993, not even 2003”.
Even good games suffer from this, quite often - Star Traders: Frontiers is locked into a very 1970s vision of space, all Jerry Niven and Larry Pournelle, but without even their daring, for example.
What does weird me out is that games in sort of “corner-genres”, where they’re not quite fantasy or science-fiction, and games which are driven, clearly, by visual designers rather than writers, often do a better job - look Arkane with Prey, which if it was an SF novel, people would be think was pretty cool, or equally their Dishonored series, which is super-YA-ish (you can at least literally be the YA in the second game), but is a good YA setting and has cool characters and great aesthetics and so on. But is that the corner-genre or is that that Arkane is full of cool people who like to live in the 21st century, rather than heavyset American nerds, who want to live in the 1950s or 1980s (very much skipping the 1960s and 1970s!). I dunno.
Not always. Plenty of games have decent stories at least. It’s not as hard as people make out. But you need two things:
An actual writer (or several) with some actual talent - some companies refuse to hire such people (looking at you, Bethesda).
A willingness to shape the story to the game and possibly vice-versa.
This is actually a very interesting question, maybe the most interesting one asked here (hence the bold). And I think part of it is cultural. If a studio is American, or German, or other Northern European, they are much, much more likely to be “stuck in the past” in terms of their SF/fantasy concepts and visual style and storytelling and so on. I’m not sure what about those particular cultures is causing that, but something is. British studios are in the middle (so many of them have read Pratchett or played Warhammer it’s hard for them to do “straight” fantasy I think). Studios from other places tend to be more daring (I don’t think it’s any accident Disco Elysium came out of Estonia, not America or Britain). These are only tendencies, not absolutes. Path of Exile has a fascinatingly modern and non-conformist setting I note, from NZ.
Part of it, especially in the US and Northern Europe, is this arrogant/smug opinion you hear from time to time:
“Oh fantasy, that’s all orcs and elves and dwarves and bearded wizards and young dudes on a quest for a magic sword, all fantasy novels have that shit! That’s what the genre is about!”
I’ve even heard people here say this, though not for four-five years, at least. It’s like, what the actual fuck? You would be hard-pressed to find a successful fantasy novel written after 2000 that had all those elements. I mean, if we really wanted to say “Most fantasy novels are like X”, then actually the game most similar to the highest number of modern fantasy novels is Dishonored 2. Like, that game, is actually similar, on multiple points, to a “stereotypical” modern fantasy novel, but that’s a whole other story (it’s also dissimilar in a couple of interesting ways). You often find magic, and you fairly often (but still in a minority of cases) find something that could loosely be termed an “elf” but that’s about it.
Publisher or internal studio influence factors in too, even in good examples. Obsidian did Tyranny, which was extremely modern, and Pillars is relatively modern, but JE Sawyer himself noted that Pillars has a bunch of stuff in it that he didn’t really want because the studio head (not actually involved in developing the game in any meaningful way) said “You’ve got to put elves and dwarves in!”.
But I think the question you’re asking here - “Why are they harking back so obsessively to 1950s-1980s - occasionally 1990s - era material?” is a valid one that I can’t fully answer. It’s not true in a broader cultural sense. The '80s revival was a thing but it was a totally different 1980s to this one, so that’s not it. It can’t just be age, because people aren’t the right age for that, though I think it’s maybe a factor.
I mean, will they? Reject it?
This is a real issue though. Skill is a problem, actually, because studios could hire more writers, and they could hire writers to specialize, particularly, in writing this kind of material. But it’s clear that if you limit the scope of a game, the relative quality of the story and writing tend to go up. Even in games with dubious writing like ME:A, when you get to the contained missions, instead of the open-world drivel, the quality of the writing and storytelling absolutely spikes upwards.
What strikes me is that you can tell good stories in the open world, but you need to make them into actual stories - games like Sunless Skies do this just fine. TW3 does it fairly well, but it just does the same thing over and over, in a way that it didn’t strictly have to. Hey at least it’s not “pick up these random letters scattered around the map”, eh, DA:I, ya fucker?
Visual, action, acting and score can absolutely save a mediocre script in a game. Very few games have more than a mediocre script.
You’re not getting here is that many games have outright bad scripts. That’s why people are meaner.
The other issue is that games tend to be LONG. This means that there will be more opportunities to see how crap the writing is. Again, this is a solvable problem. Hire people who are good at writing stuff for the style of game you’re writing. Hire people who can do that. But that’s not how the game industry works. That’s a choice the game industry is making, and it’s as legitimate to criticise that as any other decision.
I dunno. I re-read the first book of WoT recently and I’m not seeing many similarities beyond stuff that’s true of large swathes of fantasy novels. I guess the two similarities which stand out are:
A) Magic is policed/oppressed. This is very common in fantasy novels written after 1990, because, like, if humans were involved, magic WOULD be policed/oppressed, because it’s a threat. So I think that’s a weak similarity at best.
B) Darkspawn are superficially similar to Trollocs. But not really. Darkspawn are a lot creepier than the simple beastmen of the Trollocs.
I can’t really see anything else. The obsessions of The Wheel of Time are retrograde obsessions - strict gender divides/gender essentialism which tie into the mythology of the setting (not outright misogyny or anything - Jordan is weird in that he has very narrow ideals for how men or how women should be, neither of which prevents them being an important part of society, but strictly delineates what they should be doing - men are generally portrayed more negatively, too, but both genders are strictly limited), the “Just King” concept and a related obsession with “true lineages” and the idea that “blood will out” and so on, the inevitable 1970s/1980s Tolkien imitator deal where there was a modern world before this one*, and so on.
That particular one is of course folklore-influenced, but an awful lot of well-written fantasy is like that. It’s not really a “folklore vs fantasy” thing, it’s a “has the setting and its inhabitants evolved organically?” thing.
That definitely isn’t too pedantic, and it’s something that is an issue in written SF too, albeit more rarely.
* = That’s a whole other thing that’s very generational. When LotR came out in the 1950s and 1960s, both the public and SF fans had difficulty processing it and didn’t initially connect it to a broader fantasy tradition (shades of Harry Potter), and people frequently assumed it was far post-apocalyptic SF. I think all the shit Aragorn and others talked about how the world used to be better helped to give this impression. That faded, but it’s no accident at all that a lot of directly Tolkien-inspired authors in writing in the 1970s and 1980s (who thus grew up when such ideas were knocking around) have settings where it’s Tolkenian, but there’s a more direct reference to a more technological “world before”.