Fantasy Fiction: Does Genre Dictate Form? – by Sarah Callow

Inspired by our 2021 theme (Short-Form & Long-Form), Sarah discusses the historical traditions of Fantasy literature and the gaming industry’s venture into short fiction.

Whether writing in the short form, such as novellas, short stories or flash fiction, or long form multi-volume epics (or something in between), all authors must make a choice about length. Often, however, it can seem as though the conventions of genre dictate the terms of storytelling.

Fantasy is often associated with long form writing. The fellowship of the Ring, the first instalment of JRR Tolkien’s landmark the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was published in 1954. Ever since, epic fantasy has dominated. Long form continued to set the trend for fantasy literature from the late 1960’s through to 1990 with Ursula K. Le Guin and her Earthsea quartet, the first book of which, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), is now regarded as a contemporary classic. The epic still leads the way for fantasy literature in the present day with Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher saga, consisting of two short story collections and six novels. As well as the as yet unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin (on the page at least; HBO’s TV adaptation Game of Thrones having concluded in 2019), which already stands at five books or seven volumes; A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons each large enough to warrant division into two parts.

Long form allowed space for each of these authors to explore in depth and with careful attention to detail the fantastic worlds they conjured and the rich characters with which they populated their lands. With her distinct prose style, Le Guin draws the reader so far into her character’s minds that it is a pleasure to explore her world at the length she describes it. Sapkowski paints a picture of daily life in his that is so dark and real his reader can almost smell it. While Tolkien, with his passion for language, has time to regale his readers with songs and poetry, each one a beautiful creation of its own and it is the long form that allows Martin to develop such clever use of perspective, following all the ripples created by the actions of his many characters, which is the hallmark of his work.

In short, the long form gives writers room to develop their unique style. In fantasy, and many other genres, it is style that helps a writer stand out amongst a plethora of peers and is what brings readers inside a vast, sometimes bewildering story world.

Fantasy is no longer a genre belonging only to the page, however. Since the advent of video games of the role-playing variety (RPG), stories have been encoded and digitally delivered to players rather than readers. Video games allow writers, or developers, the ability to engage their audience in a plot and engulf them within the story in a way traditional writers cannot.  

Electronic Arts’ Dragon Age series sets the player at the heart of the narrative by facing them with countless plot and moral choices, many without an easy solution. Bethesda Softworks craft such visually breathtaking and interactive environs in its Elder Scrolls series that it is easy for a player to become absorbed in the game world. Both these techniques captivate a player for hours on end and can be hard for literature to compete with.

As a storytelling format, video games do have some drawbacks. Players have the ability to reload and try again after opting for a plot point they no longer wish to follow. Gameplay mechanics can also restrain developers from taking characters on too transformative a journey and even the longest game will normally have a plot shorter and less complex than a novella. Consider Ubisoft Entertainment’s Assassin’s Creed. The linear game, inspired by Vladimir Bartol’s novel Alamut (1938), is around the midpoint for length, with an average playtime of 39 hours. Yet it only contains three story beats, two of which are fairly obvious twists. Instead, much of the player’s time is taken up with other activities, such as combat and problem solving.

Bridging the gap, games studios have begun to turn to the written word, penning short stories to accompany games. Obsidian Entertainment with publisher Paradox Interactive, released the traditional fantasy RPG Pillars of Eternity in 2015. The same year, Obsidian’s website hosted four short stories written by the games own writers: Eric Fenstermaker, Paul Kirsch and Carrie Patel, and featuring characters from the games. These are still available to download for free. A fifth short story, The House of Wael by Chris Avellone was released in 2016 but was only available to backers of the Pillars of Eternity II fundraising campaign who pledged $50 or more.

Another example of this recent trend in the games industry comes from the world of trading card games (TCGs). Since 2014, Wizards of the Coast, publishers of the Magic: The Gathering TCG, have shared online a collection of short stories, by various writers, all taking place with their characters in Magic’s fantasy realms. In September 2020, a five-part episodic short story by AT Greenblatt and four ‘side stories’ by Miguel Lopez, AZ Louise and Brandon O’Brien were uploaded to the free to read collection, coinciding with the release of the Zendikar Rising expansion.

All these auxiliary fiction releases could be considered a part of the marketing campaign for their franchises. Yet, these are pieces of literature, crafted with the level of care demanded by the intricacies of a fantastical universe.

By using short form the writers were able to focus on conjuring vivid scenes and setting the mood of their story world, rather than the slow unfolding of a multi-layered plot. For many of these stories a single reveal or simple fleshing out of an attitude and tone is enough. It suits the intentions of the pieces, which are often one amongst several. It can provide fans with a little more depth to their favourite characters, while prospective players get a taste before they purchase (both video and card games can be surprisingly expensive). Keeping within the constraints of the short form, writers also learn to deliver a narrative voice and pace that remains consistent from one piece to the next, as well as across pieces by multiple authors.

The question of form can be difficult for writers. With benefits to both long and short form, the answer is not always apparent. Considering the works of other authors can be key. As an example, novelist and playwright Lord Dunsany (1878 – 1957), often cited in fantasy circles as the lesser known father of the genre, produced a wealth of writings, both short and long form. His two best known works; the short story collection The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and the novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), as well as his drama collection Five Plays (1914), are excellent examples of just how well fantasy, and the oral traditions of myth and folklore that first inspired the genre, can adapt.

Fantasy stories have always been constructed in both short and long form. Genre does not dictate form and neither does format. Some video games are (very) interactive short stories, others, like Dragon Age, have gone on to include multiple games that follow a single narrative, reflective of the literary fantasy epic. A change in form can be innovative. New is not always better, however. The long form epic is equally valid today as it was for Tolkien. What is important is that the form and format chosen suit the creator’s intentions, allowing emphasis to fall on the correct aspect, whether plot, character, story world, narrative voice or any other element of a writer’s craft.

Links to Short Stories Mentioned:

Pillars of Eternity short stories: https://eternity.obsidian.net/eternity/media/stories

Magic: The Gathering story archive: https://magic.wizards.com/en/story?source=MX_Nav2020

About the Author – Sarah Callow:

Despite studying Law, graduating in 2014, going on to take the New York Bar examinations, I developed an all-consuming passion for video games and overwhelming desire to pen fan fiction. I have subsequently been on a journey that has led to my undertaking the MA in Creative Writing at Surrey. I am looking forward to learning all about games writing in the fascinating new module in 2021. Some of my favourite authors are Terry Pratchett, George RR Martin and Jorge Luis Borges. Next on my reading list is Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline.

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