I’m given to understand that the first step anybody makes toward becoming a writer is the “fantasy fulfillment” stage. If you ever were or are an aspiring writer, you must have at one point written or at least thought of writing a story about you and your friends (or characters representing you and your friends) going on adventures as pirates or detectives or superheroes or something like that. Everybody indulges in wishful thinking at some point, and since the golden rule for writing is to “write what you know,” it’s easy to put yourself into the shoes of your protagonist and indulge yourself.
We see fantasy fulfillment all the time in movies, books, video games, all media of entertainment. The reason Twilight has been such a huge hit is because it allows young girls to indulge in the fantasy of being sought after by superhuman studs. And I’m sure the reason B-level action movies are so popular isn’t because people just think cuts and bruises are awesome. It’s because they like to imagine themselves being the kung-fu master and beating up the poorly written stock villain.
The reason I bring this up is because almost every video game out there is about fantasy fulfillment in one way or another. Most of the big-name mainstream titles let you act like a spy as Solid Snake, or tear monsters apart with your ridiculous chainsaw gun thing as Marcus Fenix, or save the universe from an alien invasion as Master Chief. Lots of combat to appease our lust for fantasy violence.
Some games don’t look like fantasy fulfillment at first glance, but most are. For example, take Super Mario Bros. I don’t imagine many people fantasize about being Italian plumbers and jumping on turtles, but strip away the paint job and you have a story about the everyman on a quest to save the princess from the big bad guy. Even Plants vs. Zombies lets you indulge in the fantasy of leading a battalion of troops, except in order to be kid-friendly the troops are plants and the baddies are already dead.
And even the games that are considered more artistic and meaningful are guilty of this as well. Look at Ico. A boy rescues a girl and defends her from bad guys. And I love Half-Life 2 as much as anyone else, but think about it — it’s about a scientist who rallies citizens together in defiance against a totalitarian regime. That’s got to be the perfect fantasy material for nerds like me. It’s like if 1984 was reimagined as an action movie.
Many people often say that all games are about realizing a fantasy. While they may be correct about most games, I don’t think they’re correct about how the medium inherently works. I think we’ve locked ourselves into this mentality, and until we get out of it it’s going to severely limit the kinds of stories and concepts we can explore in games, and in turn cripple gaming as an artistic medium.
The only recent example I can think of for a game that doesn’t seem to involve fantasy fulfillment and can be considered artistic is Portal 2. There’s no combat, so you won’t find any fantasy violence. You’re not on an epic quest to save a kingdom (or anyone, for that matter). There’s no sexy young lady for you to seduce. If there is any fantasy fulfillment involved, I didn’t notice it.
And that’s not to say Portal 2 isn’t an absolutely fantastic and brilliant game. It’s just that instead of power fantasy, the entertainment comes from humor and wit.
I feel I should clarify that I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any games about fantasy fulfillment anymore. It’s fun to indulge every now and then. I’m pretty sure part of the reason I loved Deus Ex is because it satisfied my fantasy of being a Jedi ninja by letting me sneak around in the shadows and backstab unsuspecting guards with a lightsaber. But I think that as an industry, we can strive to do a little more than that.