What Makes a Game Epic?

Contains minor spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

A great many games, particularly in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, seek to be epic in scope, or evoke a feeling of epicness. It’s an elusive quality because simply making a game very long or very large isn’t usually sufficient, and what makes a game epic may vary from person to person. One thing that I associate with epicness is not only the passage of time, but physical and emotional journeys, as well as change. Change is the key thing there: spending fifty hours in a static world doesn’t feel epic to me, which is why most of the Final Fantasy games that I’ve played don’t quite work for me on that level.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the first game I played that truly felt epic. And the epic moment wasn’t sealing away Ganondorf, or the heartwarming and fairly silly montage of happy Gorons and Kokiri at the end. That first real moment of awe came when I stuck the Master Sword back in its pedestal and left the Temple of Time as a ten-year-old child once more. What was so epic about that moment was the reminder of how much had changed over the course of the game. Ocarina of Time is one of very few games that has the guts to create a beautiful world, introduce the player to it, and then completely destroy it for the bulk of the game–and unlike Okami or Ocarina‘s successor, Twilight Princess, things don’t get magically all better once you finish a dungeon or defeat a monster. But going back in time in Ocarina is bittersweet: it’s wonderful to see Hyrule whole and happy once more, but upsetting to know what will become of the beautiful land and its people, with small hope of preventing it. Ocarina gracefully sets up the stakes of this epic quest, something few games accomplish.

But change doesn’t have to affect the entire world to be meaningful–it doesn’t even need to be physical. The change can also be mental or emotional, a sense that the character you inhabit has evolved or grown. No game I have played accomplishes that as well as Dragon Age: Origins. In the world of Dragon Age, Mages are dangerous and feared, and so have to go through rigorous training, which is capped off by a trial where the Mage has to prove she or he is able to resist the control of demons, or die. My first character was a Mage, and the beginning of the game involved overcoming her trial (called a Harrowing). At the time she was sheltered and naive, a wide-eyed idealist, talented but knew only a few spells. Over the course of fifty hours of play time, she changed, not only becoming more powerful as in most RPGs, but growing in character and personality: she made friends, broke a curse, slayed a dragon, fell in love, executed a war hero, been to hell and back. She saw the world in its beauty and brutality, grew up, became more cynical. So toward the end of the game, when someone mentioned her Harrowing, I had a real sense of scope for a moment, of how long ago and, more importantly, different things were at the beginning of the game. Everything had changed.

For me, in order to invoke that sought-after “epic” feeling, a game has to work to show me its scope; for me it is not so much badass moments of slow-motion Ogre slaying, but in quiet moments where the game shows me something or a character says something that makes me think, “Wow, that was so long ago and so far away, and so much has changed since then.” I think a game has to go beyond simply being long, and put players on a real journey. What about you? Do you enjoy “epic” games? What games live up to this label for you, and why?

Crossposted at The Border House.

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4 thoughts on “What Makes a Game Epic?

  1. Also, any game with Chuck Norris fighting Dinosaurs is automatically Epic.

    I find it somewhat ironic that Epic Megagames has never developed an “Epic” game, although their post-release support has always been Epic.

  2. Strangely enough, I feel that the Final Fantasy games were some of the first to feel epic to me, and because of the change that they invoked.

    First, while the world itself didn’t change much near the beginning, the world that I “had access to” changed tremendously. In Final Fantasy IX, say, once you complete a certain part of the game, you are unable to return to the previous areas. It gave me the feeling that I was far from home; that there was no turning back, and thus, that there was no resting until the epic task at hand was completed.

    But beyond that, as typical with FF games, once you attain the airship, you can revisit any area on the world map. It was always fun to go back to places (especially the “hometown”) to see how they’ve changed; most notably FF 7 and 8. It always reminded me feel that I’ve come a very, very long way.

    Of course, FF12 ruined all of that. You can warp to any town at almost any time. It was much less epic.

  3. I like to consider ‘epic’ in terms of immersion and ‘flow’, and how deeply it inspires commitment to a character’s progress and survival – far beyond accumulating the best gear. I think you’re right in how finding that sort of immersion in a game requires the sort of trials and challenges you face with the character – whether you’re into role-playing -as- the character or playing the character as another part of the game interface, the character is still the conduit into the game space. I think we become attached to that link, bond with it in individual ways, and become invested in their success or failure as our own success or failure.

    But I also like to consider games that give players choices to direct the character’s future and progress more immersive than linear progress from start to finish where decisions don’t drastically alter the outcome. Somehow, being ‘responsible’ for our character’s success gives us the sense of achievement that reinforces immersion, and that ‘epic’ flavour we want.

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