Bows or blasters? Swords or lightsabers? A once-great country on the brink or a galaxy embroiled in war? Sci-fi or fantasy? These questions have baffled the minds of most over the past few decades, and whichever camp you chose, you’re probably sticking with it at this point. But when it comes to gaming, which background can give us the best RPG experience?
The reason I choose to ask this question now is that we are on the eve of the release of Starfield, a game that until a few weeks ago would have been the only RPG anyone had thought about for a while. Then comes Baldur’s Gate III, a long-awaited game, sure, but one that dipped out of Starfield’s way to get an earlier release date. What a marketing choice that was, because now we not only have a new GOTY contender, but a title that somehow manages to raise the stakes even higher for Bethesda’s new game.
Should Starfield meet all expectations, which is a bit optimistic if we are honest, we will not only have a debate about which of the two is better, but also which genre provides the greater RPG experience. Usually, fantasy often associated with having the stronger RPG roots. Dungeons & Dragons, one of the most famous RPGs of all time, is based on fantasy and allows you to take on the role of whoever you want. The trope with fantasy is that it allows you to virtually live out that magical dream job, where you can live in a land full of whimsy that exists as a version of medieval Europe without all the terrible diseases and poor quality of life that made that period pretty hellish to live in. The RPG genre feels at home in fantasy. In games like Skyrim, Baldur’s Gate III and Elden Ring, you experience worlds unlike your own and often become the most important part of them. The scale is more realistic in fantasy, perhaps not in terms of what you can be, but certainly in the world you can explore. It is just one country, one land mass, which is easier to understand and then fill with more detail. Also, character creation often lets you go a little wilder. Of the races you can mostly choose, you can be anything from a cat wizard to a demon man in the games I mentioned above, which can be preferable to many sci-fi games where you end up just being a normal guy or gal living in a universe where cool aliens exist (looking at you, Mass Effect).
Fantasy feels like it offers us a little jump into a much more awesome past, something that attracts many people. Unlike sci-fi, which can push some away with all its scientific jargon, it’s very easy to understand simple things in fantasy, like stabbing people with the pointed end of your weapon and if you have a beard, you’re automatically a wizard or a dwarf. That doesn’t mean fantasy is necessarily superior for RPGs, because sci-fi certainly brings a lot to the table. As I said before, sci-fi is great for giving you a sense of incredible scale. Just one glimpse of Starfield’s planets will let you know what I’m talking about. Instead of one space that might have a few biomes, you can instead explore dozens of worlds for the first time, see things that are truly otherworldly and have none of that homely sense of fantasy. Where a magical world offers a kind of escapism, flying off to a distant galaxy offers a glimpse into what our distant future might hold. I doubt we’ll discover Mass Relays in the next 100 years, but that’s kind of the point of the fiction part in science fiction. We experience incredible technology, and sometimes even abilities that try to be explained by science but are in fact just magic, and it’s all drawn from the imagination of what the future might hold.
I don’t actually believe that fantasy or sci-fi offer a superior experience to RPG players. As we saw with Baldur’s Gate III, even something that sounds niche on paper can draw millions if the game is well made. Neither sci-fi nor fantasy could really exist without each other, and they draw from similar tropes and settings all the time. Whether you just want to wield a sword and armor or you want to shoot everyone who ever thought you were a bad person from 5,000 miles away with a mega-death laser, the essence of both sci-fi and fantasy is escapism. They make you jump away to a place that will probably never exist in human history, let alone our lives. You often go to fantasy or sci-fi to get rid of realism, although sometimes you get realistic renderings in these genres, but essentially what you’re looking for is another world, another place to go, and I think both genres build on that brilliantly. Whether you prefer futuristic fun or are fond of casting spells, it’s hard to argue that sci-fi or fantasy really win. Both have made incredible marks in the RPG genre and I hope they both continue to bring out the best. We shouldn’t want a battle between Starfield and Baldur’s Gate III, but instead hope that they can be incredible games that exist together.