Steamworld Quest: The Psychology of Fantasy

If you ever get into studying narrative, one of the things you realise is that nobody really understands what’s going on. Stories are obviously compelling, and there are a bunch of competing theories about why that is, but there’s no master framework. We haven’t hit the kind of ground-level unshakeable assumptions that we can build an entire system on. People come at it from different angles, different perspectives – there’s the evolutionary stuff, about how stories are a really efficient medium for communicating information; there’s the cultural stuff, where stories are studied as speaking to a specific shared identity or self-image; and there’s the psychological approach, where stories are conceptualised in terms of the effect they have on an individual psyche. When we talk about video games as power fantasies, we’re tapping into that third approach, where the appeal of the story is thought of in terms of the player’s psychology. We talked about this last week, with Horizon Zero Dawn – it’s a power fantasy in that your character is the most important person in the world, and everything revolves around them and their actions. Today, I want to take a bit of a different approach to that psychological perspective, and talk about how it applies to self-conscious goofy humour. Let’s talk about Hand of Gilgamech.

SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is a 2019 medieval robot deck-building game, part of the decade-long SteamWorld franchise, where a bunch of robots cause hijinks. The franchise to date includes a mining game, SteamWorld Dig, a space pirates game, SteamWorld Heist, and this medieval swords-and-sorcery thing, where a group of adventurers pursue justice after a raid on their town. From the outset, this game is pitched explicitly as a story, as a fiction within the fictional universe. It’s a bedtime story being told to a robot child by a robot dad, who I think was one of the characters from Heist. Right off the bat, this story-within-a-story framework gives the game an element of self-awareness. It can point out tropes of the fantasy genre, or draw up exaggerated parody characters called Guild Master Gainz. You obviously don’t need the bedtime story framework to do those things, but they make the game feel more cohesive, more justified.

In a sense, this parody or self-aware storytelling is a form of having your cake and eating it too. It’s recognising the silliness of the whole affair, and then still doing it anyway. Where Cabin in the Woods is a horror film that makes fun of horror films, Steamworld Quest is a fantasy game that makes fun of fantasy games. From a psychological perspective, those two poles of thought are represented by the two main characters: Armilly and Copernica. Armilly aspires to be a hero and join the hero’s guild: she is entirely wrapped up in the fantasy genre, and recites sodden, overacted fantasy lines: “The majestic pose! The pride of a great deed oozing from every cut of the chisel!” Armilly’s pure, simple joy gives us space to find our own joy in the genre. She represents a sort of permission, telling us we’re allowed to enjoy ourselves. At the same time, her over-sweetened enthusiasm can cross the line into embarrassing cringe – which is where the second character comes in.

Copernica is an alchemist sort of character, who casts spells and elemental magic. Where Armilly is a day-dreamer intoxicated by the fantasy genre, Copernica is a brutal cynic, often flatly undermining or mocking her friend. When Armilly gives us the line above about a statue of the famous Gilgamech, Copernica replies, “Ugh, those statues are literally everywhere…”. Where Armilly is excited, Copernica is unimpressed. It’s that basic pairing of joyful idiot and cynical brainbox that we see more broadly throughout our media – it’s Kronk and Yzma, Scar and the hyenas. But here, the pairing gives the player space to engage in and draw back from the fantasy genre. We alternate between Armilly and Copernica, getting sucked into the fantasy and being above all this crude genre nonsense. And crucially, the two roles feed into each other. Armilly sometimes makes you cringe, prompting the transition from enthusiasm to cynicism, into the Copernica mindset. At the same time, Copernica functions as a sort of lifeline for the player, as an assurance that we can enjoy the fantasy without worrying about getting lost in it. If we feel embarrassed, or too invested in the dumb fantasy, Copernica offers a refuge of ironic distance to which we can retreat. The assurance of cynical distance actually allows us to relax more fully into the fantasy, because we know that cynicism is always nearby. Each pole therefore pushes us towards the other, offering an entwined opposition where the two emotions rely on each other rather than being in any sense genuinely antithetical.

And here the different lenses start to show their points of divergence. From a genre lens, we could point at some of the classic markers of post-modernism – the strong sense of irony, the deliberate artificial constructedness of the world (for instance, in how goblins are rebranded coglins, because they’re clockwork), and the pastiche of genres (with robots thrust into a fantasy setting). The psychological lens, however, might prompt a different question. Why not just enjoy fantasy? Why do we have to have this ironic, cynical distance from it? It almost feels a little insecure – like an unwillingness to genuinely, whole-heartedly engage with something without this protective layer of cynicism. Why is that? In one reading, there’s a sense of lost innocence, of enthusiasm belonging to a time gone by. Again, this whole story is framed as something being read to a child. The player can be identified with the story-telling father, world-weary but trying to recapture something of the magic seen by his kid. That feeling could be identified with any number of factors – the over-saturation of the fantasy genre, broader trends of irony within postmodernism, the pervasive sense of loss in a post-9/11 world – and ultimately, the psychological lens might be insufficient to fully investigate that question. It can identify irony as a potential marker of insecurity and fear, but the explanation for that draws on a wider range of tools. Each lens on its own ultimately bears a similar insufficiency. They’re perspectives, rather than the whole picture.

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