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I’m climbing up a steep mountain path, rough steps half-buried in snow, a cliff face to my right and a valley to my left. At the top of the mountain is a jumbled stone ruin: an archway, a broken tower, a low wall with an enormous statue of a dragon perched atop it. Out of breath from the climb, I turn left to survey the view, a gorgeous sunset sinking below the clouds above a landscape of peaks and forested valleys. As I turn, movement catches the corner of my eye – something rising, unfolding. I turn to look.

It’s not a statue.

There are a few moments in my personal video gaming history that are crystallised in my memory as truly awesome, and that was one of them. I’d been playing Skyrim for sixty hours at that point, at had probably killed a dozen randomly generated dragons, yet still hadn’t realised that there are a couple of high eyries scattered across the map where you’re guaranteed to find one. I thought I’d just stumbled across another random ruin, and the dragon was so motionless, so slate-grey, that I genuinely mistook it for a statue.

These are the moments where Skyrim succeeds – moments where it takes your breath away with something wholly unexpected. Every player is impressed the first time they encounter giants in the game, or when they first catch a glimpse of Whiterun down on the plains, or when they first see the northern lights. Skyrim’s greatest achievement, by far, is the beautiful world it has created for the player to explore. I find the debate about whether video games can be art tiresome, since they so clearly can be, and the creation of gorgeous landscapes in games like Skyrim clearly proves that.

What I find frustrating is that, despite having crafted one of the most fantastic wilderness settings ever seen in a video game, Skyrim continually forces you into dungeons. This is a hangover not just from old Elder Scrolls games, but from the origins of the RPG genre itself, the 1970s-era tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons. The reason dungeons appeal to game designers is the same now as it was then – they’re easy. They’re linear, enclosed environments, simple to design and control.

I think that’s lazy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a bandit cave or an ice cavern or a sunken Dwemer city; dungeons are intrinsically less interesting than fighting out in the open air, in the weather, with a view. There are a number of aboveground locales in Skyrim, which follow the same formula (kill everyone) as the dungeons do, but which are at least more interesting places to be: hilltop forts, valleys, camps, islands. I don’t think it would be much harder for the programmers to put a heavier emphasis on these locations, and trim dungeons to a minimum. Nor do I believe there are many gamers who care about dungeons in purely traditional terms. Much was made of Skyrim’s “radiant” system, which – when you are randomly assigned a quest – will try to send you to a dungeon you haven’t visited before, so that you travel across fresh landscapes to get there. The irony that upon arrival you’ll be forced into another repetitive dungeon was apparently lost to the developers.

I don’t find the dungeons boring. They’re as addictive and compelling as anything else in Skyrim (to a point, anyway – as with any video game addiction, I’ve had mine abruptly wear off, and now I’m pushing myself to finish the main quest). I just think it could be better. Skyrim, for all its overwhelming beauty and post-game hype, is fundamentally the same game as Morrowind or Oblivion – just with a better combat system and much, much better graphics. You’re still venturing out into the wilderness, clearing out caves and ruins, and staggering back to town laden down with jewels and riches to fob off to merchants who must dread seeing you walk in the door every other day. Aside from the main storyline quests, which dabble in originality, there’s really very little variety in a game like Skyrim. Well over 95% of quests involve fetching an item from a dungeon for someone who’s too much of a pussywillow to do it themselves.

As I said before, this is still somehow compelling (for a while), and I can’t blame the development team for wanting to stick with a winning formula. Maybe that’s why I chose to focus on the intrinsically dull nature of dungeons, and urged them to create more above-ground quest locales. Skyrim has other problems, after all – Tom Bissell has a particularly good review in which he singles out how the game terribly delivers what’s actually a very rich and detailed story. Until I read that, I hadn’t realised I felt vaguely guilty about skipping through endless lines of dialogue because I’d already read the subtitles.

The point he concludes with, about imagination, is also worth considering. Skyrim exists in an unhappy gap of realism – not realistic enough to feel like a truly immersive world, but too realistic to use your imagination. My favourite fantasy games, when I was growing up, were the three Playstation iterations of the Final Fantasy series, because they deliberately funnel you through certain segments of the world and let your imagination do the rest. This is an entirely separate thing from the difference between a sandbox RPG and a traditional RPG. The city of Lindblum, in Final Fantasy IX, is really only a few different neighbourhoods with a pre-rendered backdrop of thousands of buildings – but it works. It feels like a busy, bustling fantasy city. Solitude, on the other hand – the largest city in Skyrim – is quite plainly a “city” with about two dozen citizens and a handful of buildings, all of which you can enter, and all of which are basically the same. Much was made of the fact that in Skyrim, if you see a place, you can go there. That’s not necessarily a good thing. If there’s an Uncanny Valley for fictional worlds, Skyrim firmly sits in it.

Skyrim is still a good game – even a great game. But none of that has to do with the dungeon-spelunking, merchant-hassling, dialogue-skipping leftovers from two games ago. When I remember playing Skyrim, I’m going to remember riding my horse across the snowy plains beneath the northern lights, rotating the camera to take in the view, hearing the distant rumble and seeing a dragon fly across the moon – knowing, above all else, that I was free to go anywhere, see anything, and explore my heart out. I’m going to remember swimming between icebergs in a lonely, frozen sea, hearing a growl and looking up to see a polar bear rearing up at the lip of a berg. I’m going to remember glimpsing a distant campfire in a snowy forest at night, and approaching it to find that it wasn’t a group of welcome travellers who would take me in, freezing and injured as I was, but instead a camp of violent giants herding mammoths. I’m going to remember seeing a redwood trunk fallen across the edge of a colossal waterfall, and deciding to ride my horse across it, only to encounter a hidden bandit archer halfway that I had to gallop down upon, and knock off the edge, into the misty depths.

All of these things involve random exploration of the surface world. It feels wrong to criticise Bethesda when they’ve created such an amazing world, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a better potential game in the Elder Scrolls series, somewhere down the line – one where they stop resting on their laurels and giving each game a facelift, and instead tear up the rulebook and create something fresh, fun and new.

Previous Convictions by A.A. Gill (2006) 270 p.

There’s not much to say about this that I didn’t already say in my brief review of A.A. Gill Is Away. Gill is a travelling journalist (as opposed to a “travel writer”) who pens short articles that are both very funny and very serious. This compendium (which at least three separate people mistook for Bear Grylls’ autobiography; personally I think he more closely resembles Ralph Fiennes) sees him wandering around Glastonbury, reflecting on Edward Hopper, examining the wonderful contents of the Royal Geographic Society, seeing somebody murdered in the slums of Haiti, training to be a bush guide in South Africa, and much, much more. Each chapter is titled with a location, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a travel piece – ‘New York,’ for example, is about gyms:

The great misconception about gyms is that they’re palaces of vanity, theatres of self love, where the shallow preen and pump in front of ten-foot mirrors with devoted narcissism. Actually, it’s precisely the opposite. Gyms vibrate with self-loathing and doubt. The mirrors mock. People come because they’re disgusted by or frightened of their bodies. Going to a gym is an admission of failure. It’s the realisation that you’re not forever youthfully regenerating. Your body isn’t a temple to fun and fornication anymore; it’s a decrepit, leaky, condemned shell that is decomposing faster than you can shore it up.

Gill is one of the best, funniest, and most honest and most distinctively voiced journalists working today, and all his output is well worth reading.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009) 516 p.

Criticism of the Harry Potter series comes in all shapes and sizes, but the one that I felt I most agreed with was a piece by Maria Bustillos I read in The Awl a while back, which argued that:

…the general awesomeness and favoriteness of Harry Potter and his friends is mostly arbitrary, the result of the chosenness itself, rather than of effort or application. Harry Potter is just naturally fantastic at flying around on a broom and conjuring illuminated stags up out of his soul and things, Hermione Granger is just naturally the most brilliant student Hogwarts has ever seen, and so on…

..It is a horrible thing to be teaching children, that you have to be “chosen”; that the highest places in this world are gained by celestial fiat, rather than by working out how to get there yourself and then busting tail until you succeed.

A.S. Byatt, in The New York Times, said:

Auden and Tolkien wrote about the skills of inventing ”secondary worlds.” Ms. Rowling’s world is a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature — from the jolly hockey-sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from ”Star Wars” to Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper. Toni Morrison pointed out that clichés endure because they represent truths. Derivative narrative clichés work with children because they are comfortingly recognizable and immediately available to the child’s own power of fantasizing…

…Some of Ms. Rowling’s adult readers are simply reverting to the child they were when they read the Billy Bunter books, or invested Enid Blyton’s pasteboard kids with their own childish desires and hopes.

For the record, I enjoyed the Harry Potter books quite a bit, though I think they’re overrated, precisely for the reasons Bustillos and Byatt point out. The word I would use is “infantile;” despite trimmings of danger and excitement and adventure, they are ultimately about childhood fantasies and daydreams, about how great it would be to go “study” at Hogwarts. The universally-reviled saccharine epilogue of The Deathly Hallows is proof positive of this; with the threat vanquished, Harry Potter’s life becomes a sort of fuzzy, perfect daydream.

I mention all this because Lev Grossman’s brilliant novel The Magicians is often described by people as “Harry Potter for adults,” which is like describing His Dark Materials as “Narnia for adults” – I get where they’re coming from, but they’ve completely missed the point. The Magicians does more than simply draw on the inspiration of Narnia and Hogwarts and throw in some sex and violence; it’s a deconstruction and subversion of the themes at the very heart of those books. And it does so without – for lack of a better word – “blaming” them. (Indeed, he named Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix one of the ten best novels of the last decade.) Grossman knows there is nothing wrong with a childhood fantasy; The Magicians is simply a book about what happens when a child painfully outgrows those fantasies.

The Magicians centres on Quentin Coldwater, an intelligent and bookish Brooklyn teenager (and avid reader of the fictional Fillory series, a stand-in for The Chronicles of Narnia) who feels out of place and dissastisfied with his life. He discovers his potential for magic when an interview for Harvard turns into an entry exam for a secret magician’s college called Brakebills. The first indication this is something different from a Harry Potter knock-off – beyond Grossman’s more mature writing style – is the quick pace of the book; Quentin’s entire five years at Brakebills is covered in the first half of the novel, but The Magicians is perfectly paced, and this never feels inappropriate even for a reader subconsciously expecting a Rowling template.

Fantasy, by its very definition, is a genre about fantasising – about imagining, exploring and enjoying a created world for sheer escapism. Harry Potter and Narnia embrace their magical worlds whole-heartedly, danger and all, in the vein of a child’s flight of fancy. These books never question the rightness and the “reality” of their worlds; the humdrum human world becomes a distant memory. The Magicians much more honestly explores the implications of such a discovery, of leaving the world behind for something you assume will be better, and of becoming an agent of intense magical power. There is an absolutely excellent scene, about a year into Quentin’s time at Brakebills and one fifth of the way through the book, which tosses his naive fantasy out the window in one of the creepiest and most gripping passages of fiction I’ve read in some time (even before the chapter’s stunningly disturbing final sentence). You’ll certainly never look at The Son of Man the same way again.

This was the kind of disaster that Quentin thought he’d left behind the day he walked into that garden in Brooklyn. Things like this didn’t happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along the way came back to life at the end of the book. Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like filthy, freezing water through a busted dam. Brakebills felt less like a secret garden and more like a fortified encampment.

Much later in the novel, and in his life, he experiences violence up close for the first time:

As a teenager in Brooklyn Quentin had often imagined himself engaging in martial heroics, but after this he knew, as a cold and immutable fact, that he would do anything necessary, sacrificing whatever or whomever he had to, to avoid risking exposure to physical violence.

But The Magicians isn’t just an arty, literary genre deconstruction. Grossman is a talented creative writer, someone who was clearly drawn to fantasy in the first place in order to create the fantastic – from a fountain that shows the reflections of another fountain in another world, to an abandoned city with locked doors where one can only barely see through darkened glass at the mysterious contents, to sleeping aquatic dragons (“the largest and oldest known dragon was a colossal white who lived coiled up inside a huge freshwater aquifer under the Antarctic ice cap, and who had never once in recorded history spoken to anyone, not even its own kind.”) This is partly why it’s such a beautiful accomplishment: it deconstructs the fantasy genre while still relishing in it, and showing what it’s capable of. Despite (or perhaps because of) being a novel about how fictional worlds would not be the wonderful dream we imagine them to be, The Magicians is always fun and enjoyable to read. (Quentin is, by definition, a depressed character, but has a cynical sense of humour that prevents him from ever being unlikeable).

There is a mis-step in the ending, in just the last three pages. Grossman ends the novel on a positive note, which would have been OK if it hadn’t been quite so unexpected and at odds with the hundred or so pages prior to it (similar, in fact, to the way John Wyndham usually ended his novels). But there is a sequel, The Magician King (in which this ending would have been better inserted at the beginning), and I’m sure it will deliver.

The Magicians is a really wonderful book: at once subversive and creative, funny and sad, enjoyable and moving. It’s a novel that realistically explores the wish fulfillment stories of Harry Potter and Narnia and countless other children’s books, and instead examines what it means to have your expectations disappointed, and your concept of who you are tarnished and broken – a world where, magical or not, you’re just another unimportant fuck-up in an uncaring universe. Dazzling, magical, perceptive and masterful, The Magicians is one of the best and most important fantasy novels of the last decade.

Archive Calendar

June 2012