Genre Wars: Fantasy and Sci-Fi

First posted on June 22, 2011 in Games

Two genres I particularly enjoy are fantasy and sci-fi. These two genres are often compared as if they are two ends of a one-dimensional spectrum, but I don't really think that's the case. Some of my favourite games and TV shows combine tropes from both genres to create something more interesting than if they relied on a single genre alone.

Both sci-fi and fantasy fall under the banner of Speculative fiction, which also encompasses a few other genres such as horror and post-apocalyptic. The term covers pretty much any fiction that isn't based on reality as we currently know it. It's pretty broad, and the genres naturally have a lot of overlap between them - for example, Alien fits under both horror and science fiction.

But even knowing this, there's not a lot of discussion about the fact that the same overlap can (and does) exist between sci-fi and fantasy. I think this is generally because western media has a few common tropes that it follows pretty closely, and these tropes tend to make any cross-genre pollination somewhat difficult.

Fantasy is probably one of the most common genres in any fictional media. It covers a wide range, but let's try to find a reasonable definition for it. Wikipedia offers us this (slightly modified quote):

Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genre of science fiction by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific themes.

In popular culture, the fantasy genre is predominantly of the medievalist form. In its broadest sense, however, fantasy comprises works by many writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians, from ancient myths and legends to many recent works embraced by a wide audience today. • CC-BY-SA

Anybody unfortunate enough to have a conversation with me about the fantasy genre will be quickly informed of my dislike for the Medieval European Fantasy trope. My dislike comes from the fact that I feel like it's entirely overused in western depictions of fantasy in general, to the point where it's mentioned in the Wikipedia summary for the genre. In my opinion, the reliance on this trope is mostly due to several powerful influences: Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series, the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role-playing game, as well as the Arthurian Legend. I don't have an issue with these sources, but I do dislike the fact that everything else wants to copy them - I'd love to see more original fantasy settings.

Two other tropes that are often seen in western games are steampunk and superhero fantasy. These are reaching a similar point of saturation, but I would still welcome more games in these genres instead of yet another medieval game. Japanese developers generally have a wider range when approaching fantasy - likely because they have more influences to draw from. Aside from traditional Japanese fiction and the western Tolkien tropes, there is a lot of inspiration from Chinese fiction, such as Journey to the West.

All of this is, of course, personal preference. Most of my favourite fantasy worlds quite different from the Tolkien-style medieval setting, though there are still many parallels that can be seen between them all. Garth Nix's The Old Kingdom series is a world of necromancy magic cast with bells, and magic that is cast through a complex alphabet of characters. Myst involves people creating their own "fantasy" worlds by describing them in writing. Fate/Stay Night plays on the fact that fantasy fiction exists in the first place, allowing fictional (and real) characters, as they are depicted in stories, to be summoned to do battle in a modern setting. And those are just several examples of the wide range of themes that can be explored in the fantasy genre without needing to fall back to the boring old swords, wizards, trolls, and orcs.

Anyway, that's enough of fantasy - let's look at sci-fi. Unlike fantasy, which can theoretically be set in any time, science fiction is almost exclusively set in the future, or, at the very least, the present. Though in some cases there's no need to compare the setting to our own time, such as when the events happened a long, long time ago. Let's look again at the ever-helpful Wikipedia:

Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginative content such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life. It usually eschews the supernatural, and unlike the related genre of fantasy, its imaginary elements are largely plausible within the scientifically established context of the story. • CC-BY-SA

The Wikipedia page goes on to emphasise how difficult it is to strictly define the genre, so let's not concentrate too hard on nailing down any specific details. I feel that the most important part of this definition is the point that the science only has to be plausible by the standards of the story's world, not by our own expectations of reality. This allows the less likely topics such as time travel and teleportation to sit inside sci-fi, rather than pure fantasy.

Of course, explaining it this way leads us to a simple conclusion. Given a "science-y" enough explanation, anything can sound like sci-fi, even stuff that traditionally fits into the fantasy category. And, alternatively, without establishing some sort of scientific context, sci-fi topics can be considered pure fantasy. There are plenty of concrete examples of this happening, as well.

Mass Effect, has characters that can cast magic - however, it explains that the "magic" is actually the result of installing biotic brain implants. System Shock 2 does the same thing, calling them psionics. Alternatively, Harry Potter uses magic to explain many common sci-fi tropes such as teleportation, time travel, and mind reading. His Dark Materials explores parallel universes by using a knife to physically cut a window into them, rather than the more traditional approach of using sci-fi technology.

Which finally brings me back to the whole point of this post - fantasy and sci-fi aren't opposites. In fact, in many cases, the only thing that differentiates them is how the fictional elements are explained. If a background in science and technology is established, it's probably sci-fi. If the fiction is woven into the rules of the story's universe, than it's more likely to be fantasy.

We can even go a step further - there are plenty of cases where both elements are used simultaneously. For example, Chrono Trigger has plenty of fantasy tropes such as magic, swords, and wild critters, but it also has a lot of sci-fi elements, such as robots and time travel. To a lesser extent, the Final Fantasy franchise does this as well, mixing technology into the classical fantasy-style plot.

There's an interesting sub-genre of Japanese media that tells the tales of players in "full dive" virtual reality fantasy video games. I find this to be a quite pleasing combination of genres, as we get both the fantasy elements from the game worlds, plus the sci-fi elements that come from a world that has advanced VR technology to that point. Some examples are: Log Horizon, Sword Art Online, and Accel World.

Anyway, finishing up: fantasy and sci-fi are both very enjoyable genres, but I don't think they're opposites. However, a lot of popular fantasy and sci-fi fiction treats them as exactly that - inflexible adherence to popular conceptions of the genre. If more authors and screenwriters diverged from the boring old tropes and started combining the two genres more, I think we'd be better off overall.

Article changelog
  • 2011-06-22 - Initial post
  • 2015-10-23 - Basically rewrote the entire article