A Question of Difficulty

I have been watching the new HBO series, Westworld, with great interest. I am not a huge fan of the original book, but I like where the series seems to be headed so far. One of the ideas that they have flirted with in the show is the difficulty that people want with their gaming experiences. So far the show has not delved too deeply into it, but it is an interesting discussion, and worthy of our time.

How challenging should a piece of entertainment be?

This question applies to both gaming and writing. It is not a matter of quality in my mind; often a more accessible book or game is better polished and better made than one that is incredibly difficult or dense. Something too simple can lack any real depth.

The best answer that I can give is that it depends on the target audience of the work. An introductory or broad audience work is less difficult than one that is meant for experts.

What I see out there, however, especially in games and large publishing companies is very different from this view. The tendency not toward challenging the reader/player, but rather to create a work that appeals to as broad a base as possible. The idea behind this view is that a game or book that appeals to more people will sell more, just like any other product. This is largely born out over the short term, but questionable in building a long term audience for a property.

To illustrate my point I am going to talk about two games, Path of Exile and Diablo III. I have reviewed and discussed both at length on this blog, and I like using them because they both have similar pedigree in that they were made with the success of Diablo II in mind.

Diablo III is a commercial juggernaut. It might not be the top of Blizzard’s list, but it certainly rakes in a decent amount of money. It is far more accessible than Diablo II in many ways and is designed to appeal to newcomers and old players alike, but many veteran players found it too simplistic and repetitive and far, far too easy. Despite some glaring design flaws, I do like D3. It is not a difficult game at all, although Blizzard does offer some modes and endgame content that offer more challenge in an attempt to carve out as large a swath of players as possible.

Path of Exile is a more difficult game because it is aimed at a seasoned audience that is looking for a greater challenge. Death in POE is punishing at higher levels, even outside of hardcore modes. More interestingly, players are expected to make informed choices about how they advance their character: in POE it is possible to make characters that are sub-optimal and hard to fix them without substantial effort. The flip side to this is that a veteran can create very powerful characters and even search out unique/unusual builds.

In examining these two games it is obvious that Blizzard has come up with a winning sales strategy, but might have hurt the brand. I feel the same way about some elder scrolls games which lose nuance (I’m looking at you fallout 4 conversation system) as they are simplified for wider audiences. Path of Exile on the other hand has a smaller audience, but they are fanatically supportive of the game and the company that makes it.

Recently, difficulty has made something of a comeback, I think. As people have become more and more familiar with genre fiction and games their appetites have deepened. There will always be a need for introductory works with broad appeal, but those are likely to be dominated by companies with deep pockets. On the other hand a challenging work, if of sufficient quality, can help build loyal fans.

RPG Building: On Dice Mechanics and Consistency.

I was actually referencing this post for a project I am fiddling with, when I realized that it was better than what I was working on and switched over. That got me to thinking about dice mechanics in general again.

I am also reading Ready Player One, which has a lot of D&D references, so that helps as well.

The player should always know what dice they are rolling. It speeds up play and increases confidence in novice players. It seems like a stupid point, but so many games are bogged down in dice pools (older) or fancy, custom dice (newer) or finicky mechanics.

D&D is a good example of this in action, especially after 3rd edition. Most rolls are resolved with a single toss of a d20. It becomes reflexive at the table. I feel 5th edition actually stumbles a bit with this since you must figure out advantage before rolling, you cant just drop the d20 and be certain that it holds. Minor quibble, but I do think it holds.

Some of the player’s rolls in a d20 game are other dice, but these are fewer and tend to be damage rolls or percentile rolls that the player has control of and are very easy to keep track of. After 3e it is also important to note that all high rolls were positive rolls for whoever was acting. This mean that seeing high numbers on your dice always made you feel good, even before the final resolution.

Contrast this with another of my favourite game systems, Champions. This game dominated my youth, since you could play almost any genre and make very interesting characters if you were familiar with the system.I still have my 5th edition Champions in my book-case, and while the game is complex, it opens up universes of play with amazing depth.

Champions used six sided dice exclusively. The problem is that they vary both in number rolled, how they are counted, and even whether high rolls or low rolls are desired. This is a flaw in an otherwise superb game, it introduces needless complexity for simple dice mechanics in an already demanding system and really does not gain anything for it. Mutants and Masterminds recognized this, snivved some of the ideas and added a simpler dice mechanic, and it does quite well.

Then again, sometime you can simplify too much. The old White Wolf dice pool systems had a variable number to get a hit on each die. The newer ones count a 7+ as a hit, which cuts out a lot of the flexibility in the earlier systems in favour of a trivial gain in ease of use. It is not hard for a player to count successes from different numbers, especially if high rolls are always good, and the number of dice rolled is consistent.

Anyways, I was thinking about this and then I realized how awesome a Yahtzee style dice mechanic would be for an RPG. I’ll be in my bunk.

Review: Yes! Shakespeare

Shakespeare-Logo-345x350

I even like the logo they came up with.

One of the guys in my Saturday game with invited us to watch a play that he was in. (naturally, the best night to go turned out to be on game night, but that’s the modern weekend for you…) Initially we decided to go just to support him, because that’s what friends do. We bought the tickets, arranged who was going to take care of Ronan and fit it into the schedule. All I understood going in is that the play was about high school kids learning Shakespeare, and that my friend was playing Hamlet. The first part sounded, well… kind of like a Jack Black movie, one of the not so good ones; but my friend as Hamlet was something I wanted to see.

To say that I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement.

First off, my friend Ayden, was excellent as Hamlet, displaying both dramatic depth, and since the play pokes fun at the way we all relate to Shakespeare, comedic timing. This was not the surprise, however, although I did feel that he outdid himself.

For a cast mostly made up of high school students and young adults, I thought every single person performed exceptionally well. There was energy, enthusiasm, and effort behind every performance and, because of the play’s structure, almost every character and actor had a moment to shine. The consistency of the acting speaks well to the direction. I did not notice any serious miscues and the players were able to keep the dialogue flowing smoothly and believably, which is tough when you are quoting Shakespeare one moment and then breaking into song the next. It was nice.

But, the biggest surprise was the play itself. Yes! Shakespeare was written by a pair of local teachers. The goal of almost all modernizations of Shakespeare is to show that his works remain relevant. Yes! Shakespeare does this better than most, juxtaposing and even blending famous scenes from the Bard’s best plays with the dramas that many young people have to go through, from young love to broken families. The writer’s love of Shakespeare, and teaching, drips from every scene.

For all that, Yes! Shakespeare worked for me because it was entertaining. The writers, director, and the actors never lost sight of the idea that they were there to show the audience a good time.   I was brutally tired and nodding off before the play started, but by the third or fourth scene I was getting into it. For all of the serious points that were being made, relating the bard to modern life, the play was humorous and wacky, and really went the extra mile to keep me interested.

The ending of the play was quite clever, with the main characters resolving their troubles in a class monologue “exam” using some of the very best of Shakespeare to get their points across to each other. I loved it.

This, more that anything, was the best homage to Shakespeare that a playwright can offer, because, despite the serious intellectual content of his plays, the Bard himself emphasized the value of keeping your audience entertained. You cannot reach a spectator who is dozing, after all.

The Two Diablos: D&D, Game Mechanics, and Design Philosophy PART FOUR

The first two articles in this series dealt with the differences between Diablo II and Diablo III, two of my favourite computer Action RPGs. The third post discussed how the systems clash between the Damage and Primary Attribute systems and the Itemization system and how Blizzard had to work hard to fix the gameplay contract, namely a game based exciting loot drops that provide the primary means of customization.

In this post I talk about another gameplay contract: namely that of the sequel. D3 is the sequel to D2 in the franchise, but many players point to other games as spiritual successors, and some even feel that the story line in D3 does not mesh at all with D2. But that is jumping ahead of myself. There is an even more basic question that must be answered here:

How much does a sequel owe to the original?

I will admit that I was pissed off that D2 did not have the same classes as the first iteration of the game. My initial complaints, however, were drowned in a Tsunami of awesome new features, combined with reverence for the original game that I knew and loved. D2 was more or less everything I loved about D1, but with better systems and a sweet skill tree to boot. Once I understood the new classes, I saw why they did away with the old. It was pure evolution.

Many people feel that a sequel to a beloved game should stick to improvements on existing systems and save the real innovation for new things (like the skill trees, set items, and sockets added in D2) and not rock the boat too much.

Others are obsessed with originality, and feel that every iteration of a game, even a sequel should strive to be new and different. These critics fear the stagnation that comes with sticking to a tried and true formula.

Both sides have a point, of course. If a sequel strays too far from the original it risks offending fans, on the other hand stagnation seems to be the order of the day with AAA games like Call of Duty and Assassins Creed turning out very, very similar games at a yearly rate.

In the end, a sequel should strive to stay true to the original but it must also try to make improvements in the series.

Is Diablo III a true sequel to Diablo II and why do I keep referencing D&D?

While I love D3, it is not a true sequel to D2, and I feel it breaks the gameplay contract by straying too far afield. D3 changed too many core systems and has an entirely different feel to character creation, leveling, story, and even the role that items play. While it doesn’t bother me, I can see why it upset a large number of people who loved the older games.

I am a huge fan of Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t play the game much anymore, I prefer homebrew systems, although I still own books from every edition. Nonetheless, D&D opened up the world of role-playing games for me, and kindled my interest in fantasy, so I love the game. (For the record, I think 5th ed D&D is a great edition for new players and nostalgia driven fans, but that is a different tale.)

Most of the editions of D&D follow a very similar evolutionary pattern, with relatively changes with each new version of the system. Obviously some players preferred the older editions, but as a whole each one felt like a natural progression from the last; even if you did not like where that progression went, you could still see where it came from.

Not so with 4th edition D&D. 4th was a major departure, leaving behind tried and true systems in favour of radical new ideas like encounter and daily powers, healing surges, and so on. Gone were the days when the fighter was defined by being the guy with the high attack value and multiple swings. Interestingly 4th ed also introduced the idea of each class having a primary attribute that mattered more than anything else on all their powers.

Sound familiar? There is no direct connection between D3 and D&D 4th but the design philosophy is very similar. Let me break it down:

  1. Fear of sub-optimal character builds: Both D&D 4th and D3 are afraid that a player might gimp their character by building it wrong. This is where the primary attribute and damage mechanics prevalent in these games come from: they are meant to prevent a player from playing a barbarian who puts all his points in charisma and is not as effective as a strength based barbarian.
  2. A desire for “smooth” gameplay experience and power curves: the statistical analysis that goes into both game is pretty impressive — it has to be because bucking the curve in either one results in a character that is either too weak or game-breakingly powerful. In D3 this is handled by allowing the player to shift difficulties, while in D&D 4th it is up to the DM to be aware of it. Because these systems are so tightly wound around having a certain character efficiency at a certain level they require special systems to cope with outliers. A good example is in D&D 4th where campaigns without magic items must compensate characters with special bonuses to hit and damage so that they can keep up with the expected curve. In D3 they replaced the old normal/nightmare/hell difficulty progression with player selected difficulty, which gives an entirely different feel to the game. When I say replaced, I mean it: D3 originally had a normal/nightmare/hell progression system (with a new level, inferno tacked on… badly) but it scrapped this in favour of a player controlled system, partly to compensate for outliers. In D2 players who bucked the power curve could simply progress at their own pace, but this is a less effective control in a game where DPS is so rigidly defined.
  3. Rigidity of Design: This is the real kicker. Both D&D 4th and D3 are rigidly designed games. Their basic systems are not flexible at all. In creating a polished, balanced experience they have filed off some rough edges that actually had real design purpose in their predecessors. A good example of this is levels in D2 versus levels in D3. In D3 Levels mostly act as a control — unlocking new powers and determining what level of gear you can equip. In D2 Levels were a core framework, directly determining how powerful a character was by offering precious skill levels and attribute points. As a core system levels advanced beyond the difficult of most areas in the game, allowing even the most casual of players to eventually conquer a difficult area by leveling up. A corresponding example would be hit chances in D&D 4th. Prior to 4th the fighter classes enjoyed a much higher attack bonus than other classes, allowing them to reliably land melee attacks, even on higher level creatures. Mages and Rogues were compensated with other abilities such as massive damage spells or exceptional skills and positional attacks. In 4th everyone has very similar damage potentials, hit chances, skill levels, and the general utility of spells just disappears. Most of the flavour and a lot of the flexibility are ground off in order to satisfy design goals of smooth play, balance, and safe builds.

The Gameplay Contract of Sequels

Ultimately a player expects a sequel to be faithful to the original. IP aside, D3 is as guilty of being unfaithful to the original design as 4th edition is. Both games are good in their own right (yes, some people like 4th, get over it), but just play differently than their predecessors. The design philosophy is simply too different. Both D&D 4th edition and Diablo III were influenced by the reigning king of fantasy games at the time: World of Warcraft which needs the systems that they embrace (builds, smoothness, rigidity) to handle the needs of a very different player base.

D2 and D3 are both Isometric Action RPGs with cool randomized loot, but that basically describes the genre that Diablo built. Many games that have been created since are evolutions of D2 while if I took away the name and the visuals I doubt you would recognize D3’s pedigree. The game’s systems are radically different and thus it is easy to see why some people who truly love D2 just feel betrayed by the sequel, even though it is a really fun game. It just isn’t faithful to the original, is it?

Review: Bloodborne and Boss Battles, A Lesson in Focus

Bloodborne's Vicar Amelia

Bloodborne’s Vicar Amelia

My latest gaming obsession was From Software’s Bloodborne. A friend of mine is an enormous fan of the Dark Souls and Demon Souls games and always suggested that I play them. The main draw of these games, at least on the surface is that they are very difficult, brutal. and unforgiving. Since I play games mostly to relieve stress it was not an easy sell to me, and I avoided playing them.

I picked up Bloodborne, after watching a release trailer and gameplay trailer, without realizing that it shared this pedigree. The mix of steampunk and horror elements intrigued me, and I thought it would be something my significant other and her eldest boy would enjoy.

Needless to say I enjoyed the game and made sure to put in an hour or two every night until I finished, often at the cost of sleep. Bloodborne is tough, but if you put the time and patience into it, you are rewarded; enemies that once mauled you now become your prey. Areas that seemed inaccessible and foreboding become familiar and easily traversed. As you learn and your skill and knowledge of the world grows you experience a real feeling of power, for the most part.

There are some bumps along the way. Some people get hung up on certain bosses or get stuck in certain areas. Vicar Amelia smashed me into the ground more times than I care to count, until I realized that the key to beating her was to be more aggressive. Suddenly the mantra that I often read in comments about the game — ‘remember: you are the hunter,’ made sense to me. Bloodborne is ultimately about the hunt, understanding and stalking your monstrous prey and patiently bringing down. It was clear sailing after this realization, at least until Martyr Logarius and The First Hunter.

Despite the fact that I prefer slower paced, strategic games Bloodborne absolutely hooked me. All due praise to Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team.

Ultimately what makes the game so good is its razor-sharp focus on doing one thing really, really well. Bloodborne distills the idea and form of the video game bossfight down to base elements and then builds an entire game around each carefully crafted major nemesis. The sometime beautiful and often creepy areas serve to help characterize the bosses who lord over them. The monsters, traps, and other obstacles serve to build tension between each major encounter, and give you a chance to try out new tactics or warm up your thumbs. The lore, history, and even the very loose story all serve to accentuate the battles. Even the various weapons, tools, and tactics that can be used to build a surprising array of characters (although less than Dark Souls I’m told) merely exist to provide an array of options for you to attack these monstrosities.

For a player of moderate skill like myself, beating a Bloodborne boss means dying, often more than few times on tougher bosses. Each boss has his own set of moves, points where he will be weak, and things that you absolutely most watch out for. Only then can you dance, and win. While I found some bosses frustrating, that only made beating them all the more rewarding.

Here are the some of the highlights of how this game gets video game bossfights absolutely right:

  • Easy Return: The path to a boss in Bloodborne is often arduous. Death can be punishing and even the most trivial of enemies can kill you if you get cocky. Traps await you. Death awaits you. And when you do fail you have to start all over again. Check-points are few and far between. However, if you carefully explore a level you will be rewarded with unlocks that will open a swift, relatively safe way to the boss. This removes the element of frustration of without making the level easy. It also means that once you are fighting a boss, you can focus on that boss, without any distractions. After all, for all but the best players, you are going to have to die to learn how to beat the boss. The game is focused around the bossfights and it is smart enough to give you the tools and the paths to do the same, once you get to them.
  • Toughness: Many games make bosses very, very tough. A long fight has an epic feel to it, at least on some level. None of the Bloodborne bosses are particularly tough in terms of hit points, at least not compared to bosses in other games. Instead they are fairly tough, and really, really dangerous. Much of your time is simply spent dodging and watching the boss, looking for the right approach. On the other hand when you finally do find a way to connect with a boss without getting mulched is always satisfying, sometimes viscerally so. Many of the bosses have weakpoints that will leave them vulnerable to massive, ugly attacks if you hit them correctly. I vividly remember knocking Vicar Amelia to the ground with a blow to the legs for the first time and just how satisfying that was (even though she killed me a moment later). Spreading out the satisfaction of harming your enemy throughout the fight instead of saving it just for the end creates a memorable experience without dragging it on.
    • I was especially pleased to see that changing stages did not erase my progress on the health bar. I hate killing a boss in other games only to have it get some new form with full health.
  • Visual Clues: Bloodborne forces you to look at the boss while fighting it, to watch for the wind up of attacks and to concentrate on finding a weakness. These visual clues make sure that you see every detail of the boss and the wonderful animations instead of concentrating on elements of the UI or some other part of the game. The best part about the clue design is that it makes sense. If you watch the way the boss moves, your dodges become intuitive. Never once did I feel that an attack telegraph me into the wrong response, which is quite a feat.
  • Multiple Approaches: I have a confession to make. I never mastered parrying, the use of an offhand firearm to stagger certain bosses. This made some fights much harder than others, but I never felt forced to learn. Many games shove mechanics down your throat, but bloodborne lets you fight your own way, even if it is sub-optimal and still beat the boss. The only thing that isn’t optional is learning to watch and respect the boss before destroying it.
  • Boss Design: The Bosses in Bloodborne are all unique, with many of them presenting fairly unique and odd challenges. They do share some similarities, such as at least one stage where they gain new, powerful moves after they lose a certain amount of HP, and the ability to smite the unwary with ease.
    • The Shadows of Yharnam: This Boss fight pits you against three shadows that initially look like ring-wraith’s from the Lord of the Rings movies. The shadows each specialize in a different set of weapons and a different range of combat. As you damage them they gain new powers. Despite being fairly easy to kill individually, managing these three is a bit of a juggling attack.
    • The Blood-Starved Beast: This guy gets poison on some of his attacks later in the fight. Considering how hard he hits to begin with, poison seems like overkill, but you had better learn to manage it.
    • Micolash the Host of the Nightmare: A madman that you have to fight while running through a maze, Micolash has some deadly attacks later on but is a real pushover in close combat which is at odds with a lot of the brutes in this game.

All in all I would say that Bloodborne is worth the hype, at least if you can stand a little obsession and frustration.

Understanding Red Glory

It looks like my next book, Bloodlust: Red Glory will be out in eBook format on Wednesday (or at least submitted to Amazon on that date, sometimes it takes a while for it to propagate). With that in mind, I will be concentrating on discussing and promoting the book for the next few days.

Red Glory is a return to a more unusual format. Readers of my books will be familiar with the basic structure from Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale and Bloodlust: Will to Power, where each chapter is set around a match in Gavin Valcoeur’s career in the arenas of the Domains. Red Glory follows that basic structure, with most chapters being centered around a match in the arena.

The disadvantages of that kind of structure are obvious: it requires a hell of a lot of fight scenes, and such a rigid structure can get in the way of narrative flow. However, many readers enjoyed the episodic, predictable build of the story moving from chapter to chapter almost like a TV series or a connected set of short stories. I decided to return to this for Red Glory, which is another story about the arena, but instead of following a single Gladiator, I follow six fighters seeking to win the ultimate prize.

At its heart Bloodlust: Red Glory is the story of an event. The Grand Championships themselves are a character in the story, at least that is how I see it.

After finishing Bloodlust: The Shield Maiden, I sat back and reflected on what I have wrought and written. The Grand Championships are barely covered in Bloodlust: Will to Power, despite being the pinnacle of the whole series. Gavin gets inserted into them purely through the will of the people and the manipulations of others. In the first books the readers only get to read about his involvement in a single match in the whole event, and in the interludes where Sadira fights Karmal. In retrospect those few chapters do not quite capture the epic scope of the Grand Championships.

Some events shape the societies that celebrate them. The great religious pilgrimages. The state of the Union and massive election campaigns in the states. The moon landings. The Super Bowl, The Olympics, and the World Cup. Each of these events brings the far flung reaches of the civilizations that birthed them together, uniting even the most diverse peoples for a time. They also exhibit particular characteristics. The Olympics foster a sense of fellowship through competition, bringing nations together through sport, but sometimes this competition becomes more than sport. Meanwhile the Super Bowl and the World Cup are rowdy, flashy events where the corporate sponsors are very much in evidence. These attributes give grand events a personality of sorts, which is something that inspired me in Red Glory.

I have already written of how the Great Games are a violent collision of sport, hero worship, and politics. The enemies of the Domains are humble by its Gladiators in ritual combat. The Gladiators, in turn, perform to gain the favour of the people, which is the only way that any Gifted will ever be trusted enough to join the ranks of the Chosen.

But I felt the need to further characterize the games, to breathe life into the Grand Championships. The Grand Championships are the pinnacle of the arena, an event that defines the Domains of the Chosen. Bloodlust: Red Glory is the tale of this event. The Gladiators, the Chosen, and the Citizens, victors and victims both, are caught up in the tide of feverish expectation. Like all such events, the Grand Championships take on a life of their own, crushing some and bringing prosperity to others. It touches everyone, even those who are repulsed by the vicious underpinnings of the fighting grounds. Defining this event in detail gives the reader a better idea of the culture of the Domains.

In the end I needed to write Red Glory to better define the Domains for the series to come. The Domains are modern in some aspects, and we all understand imperialism, but the bloodier aspects of the arena are harder for us to grasp. At the heart of it all lies the fear of the Reckoning, and the covenant that the Chosen made with the people of Krass to survive. Underneath all of the bread and circuses, what can we learn of them?

Corruption, Pollution, and Modern Fantasy.

Blight DA

Blighted creatures from Dragon Age

Blight, pollution, and corruption are a pervasive element in modern fantasy. I began to track the idea while reading one of Roberts Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, while playing Starcraft and Legend of the Five Rings. It struck me as interesting that the Blight in Jordan’s series, and area of corrupted land from which Trollocs and other monstrosities issue was so similar to the creep, the sludge that formed in the territory of the Zerg, a monstrous alien race that used mutation and adaptation to overcome their enemies. Both were dangerous, alien areas, obvious “through the looking glass places” as well as being fantastical. But we can find plenty of places like that in Fantasy Fiction. Digging deeper, however, it is the element of purposeful corruption and pollution that link these two, and many more, together. Further thought uncovered a rich theme that permeates modern fantasy.

Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is seminal in this regard. While the elements of corruption, blight, and twisting land and creatures can be found in Tolkien and older works, Jordan codifies them exceptionally well. In his world the blight is a region, similar to Mordor in that it is corrupted, poisonous, and home to monsters and all manner of evil. The Blight stains the world in a similar fashion to the way that the male half of the Power is corrupted by The Taint. Both are a source of conflict. The Blight births monsters and poisons the land, The Taint makes it so that male channeling eventually leads to madness, birthing monsters in another fashion. Both are purposeful corruptions, manifestations of the will of the Dark One in the series.

Tolkien’s use of corruption is subtle. I overlooked it when I first read the series as a young man. The ring of power corrupts, obviously. Mordor is blighted and twisted, like a festering wound on Middle Earth. His use of corruption is easy to miss when blinded by battles, thrilled orcs and undead, intrigued by lore, and bored by Bombadil. The first orcs, for example, are either twisted elves or attempts by Morgoth to copy the elves, failing due to his corruption, which is very interesting. It mirrors the corruption of Smeagol into Gollum by the ring, an idea that pursuit of certain ends can rob us of our humanity/hobbity goodness. The blight around Isengard (and later, more obviously around Saruman’s factory in the shire) is a direct reference to the pollution of industrial endeavors, linking wanton pollution to the more primal evil of Morgoth and his rebellion against Illuvatar and the natural order.

 The Zerg, from Starcraft, also make use of the blight. In this case they are an invading organism, an ecosystem that can corrupt entire worlds. This is definitely a pollution metaphor, but also a reference to urban sprawl. The creep spreads from Zerg buildings in the game, IIRC, changing the natural environment in the same way that North American suburbs seemed to swallow pristine wilderness and replace it with ugly strip malls in the 90s. The Zerg can also corrupt other creatures, including one of the main character’s Kerrigan. The organic nature of the creep and the Zerg gives their corruption a more diseased quality.

The Shadow Lands in Legend of the Five Rings, an old AEG role-playing game falls nicely in the middle as well. When Fu Leng, the Dark Brother, was cast down he fell into the shadow lands. The shadow lands are a blighted area that corrupts those who travel through it without protection. Monsters issue forth from within, terrorizing the empire. The Crab clan build a mighty wall to keep it at bay. The corruption of the Shadow Lands is both physical and mental. I probably like this one better because it was codified and examined by game systems and thus seemed very concrete.

There are many more examples of corruption and pollution in Modern Fantasy, including Grimdark where it is portrayed as inescapable, perhaps even the natural state of being. The Tyranids and Chaos from Warhammer games, the Vord in Codex Alera (purposefully similar to the Zerg), and the Dragonblight in the Iron Kingdoms are all among my favourite variations on the themes of corruption and pollution that can be found in Fantasy and genre fiction. So what does it all represent?

  • Disease (Ancient): Beyond even religion and mythology, the very idea of corruption and pollution can be attributed to the effects of sickness and infections on the human body, rot on our food, and other natural processes.
  • Original Sin (older): Every mythic structure has to explain the presence of evil. Original Sin is the one most familiar to western audiences, that terrible knowledge that corrupted Adam and Eve and led to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This original sin taints every living person. I’m not interested in the doctrine here, since it gets complex, but it does have a definite seed for the idea of corruption in fantasy fiction. Of course there are many discussions of what this means as a metaphor, and they all tie in nicely with uses of pollution and corruption within genre fiction.
  • The Fall (older): The Fall of Lucifer in Judeo Christian religions is another element that serves as the basis for the idea of corruption, blight, and taint. The origin is the same as original sin, but the metaphor is very different. Every order has a something that will rebel against it, causing chaos.
  • Pollution (modern): Anyone who has stared at the scum caused by river pollution or gazed out at the damage cause by a burst pipeline can see the direct correlation to corruption and pollution in fantasy. Industrialization is power, pollution is downside of that power, one that often gets out of control due to irresponsible greed. Oil is a good example, but far from the only one.
  • Radiation and Nuclear Waste (Modern): Be it the idea of a world changed by a nuclear event or the grim effects of radiation, our understanding of Nuclear forces has certainly influenced genre fiction. The idea of taint, and invisible force that sickens and changes, and the way that it is portrayed in fantasy owes a lot to studies of radiation.

Corruption and Pollution are a very strong set of themes for any genre fiction tale. Everything good comes with the potential of a little rot, corruption, or taint that can poison us if we let it fester. It is a metaphor for the rot that sets into human systems if they are not properly attended to as well as the moral rot that can occur if we do not exert a little self control.