- Faërian Cyberdrama:When Fantasy becomes Virtual Reality
"To say that the works of J. R. R. Tolkien have influenced the [computer role-playing game genre] is akin to saying that the Big Bang influenced the universe."—Matt Barton1
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."—Clarke's Third Law 2
Without so much as a shadow of doubt, J. R. R. Tolkien single-handedly revolutionised (if not created) the genre of fantasy with his extensive ouvre of Arda, most notably in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. The success of his narrative world is evidenced by the many copycat fantasy novels his trilogy sparked. What these Tolkienesque writers seem to ignore is his theoretical foundation and personal view of Fantasy as artfully expressed in an essay about the aesthetics of fantasy fiction, called simply "On Fairy-stories."
Apart from the lifetime of education displayed in the essay, the beauty of Tolkien's ars mythopoetica piece comes from the vivid defence of the power of imagination at a time when accusations of escapism were quite biting in the wake of the Great War and in the shadow of a new one, connected by the rise of the modern industrial society. But what its author perceived to be the soul-sucking mechanisation of life (and death) in Europe in fact turned out to be the very tool that enabled the emergence of the most consistent form of experiencing narrative worlds: computer games.
The connexion between "On Fairy-stories" and computer games is especially thrilling since it has been noted that works like The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings "paved the way for a new type of game, one that would allow fans to go beyond reading and actually enter worlds of fantasy to play a role in their own adventures" (Barton 19). If the impact of Tolkien's narrative works on computer games is indeed as strong as Matt Barton would have us believe, the theoretical essay of Tolkien should have similar correspondences with the theories surrounding the virtual worlds we inhabit today.
Far from the nightmarish visions of humankind enslaved by machines, recent tools of simulation have proved highly valuable in developing more expressive and immersive kinds of stories, which have made us more aware of ourselves as a thinking and feeling species. In fact, it shouldn't really come as a surprise that Tolkien's idea of an enchantingly [End Page 35] coherent fictional world can be grasped best in theory by the discipline of ludology/game studies, a field devoted to the study of both analogue and digital games: Tolkien was, albeit unwittingly, a key propagator of that revolution through his notion of sub-creation, the elvish skill of fantasy. To show how this could be possible, we need to point out the similarities between the concept of Faërie and virtual reality, and Faërian Drama and computer games, as well as to transpose a religiously inspired theory of fantasy fiction unto a medium thriving on technological innovation.
Interfacing the theory of Faërian Drama with ludology also opens up the possibility of an integrative, interdisciplinary theory of aesthetics that stems from the power of the fictional world to present itself to the human imagination in ever more immersive manners. Furthermore, game designers can benefit from using the aesthetics of Faërian Drama to enhance their fictional worlds and allow their players a greater sense of freedom and agency by empowering the player to alter narrative threads and see its effects in the game-world. But the most haunting effect of Tolkien's fairy-tale aesthetics remains its uncanny anticipation of full-blown virtual reality, an outcome that is all the more surprising for Tolkien's conservative Christian world-view.
The whole of "On Fairy-stories" is centred on the idea that fantasy should be understood etymologically, and the etymological chain points towards a coherent theory of make-believe in the human mind. Among others, the OED reveals two, equally important meanings for the English word fantasy: the better-known sense of "imagination; the process or the faculty of forming mental representations of things not...