The Elder Scrolls or The Witcher series? Where do you stand? Are you the kind of player who likes to stand on a snowy mountainside at night and stare at a distant dragon silhouetted against the moons for an hour? Or do you want gritty moral choices and a story that reacts to them?
Skyrim is the latest in a line of wonderfully detailed sandbox games that allow you to wander to your heart’s content, roaming beautiful daisy-filled mountain meadows, and occasionally having your face ripped off by a troll. In The Witcher, it is assumed that everyone’s face is going to get ripped off by something or other – it’s only a matter of time – so you may as well live your short and brutal life to the full by getting a bit of sex and murder in as quick as you can.
These two very different game series are busy vying for dominance in the hearts and minds of videogame RPGers, and there’s been a lot of mudslinging between the two camps. But it seems to me that the which-is-best debate raging between their fans has parallels in fantasy fiction.
One type of player prefers the ability to roam, to take things at their own pace and simply soak in the atmosphere. The other likes a story told hard and lean, learning the world by implication and inference instead of having to walk every inch of it.
It’s the same with readers. Some read a book because they want to live in the world, to be swallowed by it, and they delight in the minutiae of the land that the author has created. Speed is sacrificed for detail, and the word count expands, but that’s okay: the more time spent here, the better.
Others want to be swept along through the story, carried on the wave of events, buffeted this way and that by plot twists and moral complications. They want a sense of the world too, but they prefer to glimpse it as they go speeding by, and let their imaginations fill in the rest.
There’s no right or wrong to it, although you wouldn’t think so by the amount of venom slung by some people defending their corner. They’re just different approaches to the same end: telling a story.
Imagine a sliding scale with Speed and Focus on one end and Detail and Immersion on the other. I know that whenever I write a book I have to make a conscious decision where it’s going to sit on that spectrum. (Anyone who’s read any of my Tales of The Ketty Jay (Retribution Falls, The Black Lung Captain and The Iron Jackal) probably knows which end they lean towards, but The Braided Path was way over the other end).
A book, like a videogame, can’t be all things to all people. If The Witcher was a less linear game, it couldn’t execute the story choices that it affords the reader. If Skyrim had better characters and a tighter plot, it wouldn’t have the freedom that it offers now. And yet both of them are great games in their own right, and both of them are giving us, surely, what we want: a fantasy tale, well told . . . although not necessarily told to our individual taste.
Genre has a hard enough time of it as it is, battling against the prejudices and preconceptions of people outside the field. So let’s be friends. Let’s accept that there are many ways to tell a story, and that we might not like some of them, but other people might. There’s thousands of fantasy stories out there; if we don’t like one, it’s not to hard to find another that we do. Because in the end, aren’t we all kind of on the same side?
Chris Wooding is the author of The Braided Path, The Fade and The Ketty Jay novels.