So we recently brought up how Asheron’s Call 2 died twice during the winter seasons, with the second one being a double funeral with the original AC. But WB Games still holds the trademark and copyrights for the franchise, at least until 2022.
Practical, grounded Andrew says this is just the way of the world: never share anything unless you’re going to get cash, and lots of it. Businesses aren’t your friends, IPs can be recycled, and rights holders can at minimum prevent competitors from rising up.
But wishful Andrew, who is writing this today, says WB Games knows Dereth might have some use in 2021. Let’s take a look at what makes Asheron’s Call still relevant, both in terms of world-building and its game design legacy.
Going boldly where a few others have gone before
If I were going for an elevator pitch, here’s what I’d say:
“Look Warner Bros, you can make an original IP for your next game title, use another movie/show tie-in, or you could use Asheron’s Call. The established lore is practically usable as is (and already has established crossovers), the trendy ‘season passes’ other games have are like monthly updates the AC fanbase is used to, and community events are what made Asheron’s Call stand out. Your next game will mostly likely have those features, so why not use an established IP to also gain access to a gaming community that would be thrilled to do testing and give feedback? They already run their own servers, so you know they can not only test content but help create it. Making your own IP is a lot more work, and an established but well known-one means you’re more at the mercy of fans with high expectations.”
You can ask a million people the same question and get a million different answers, but I’ve always found that, even between the two vastly different games, there were a few things that Asheron’s Call 1&2 fans mention about the series. I would say these are lore, content-focused monthly updates, flexible character creation and progression, and GM-led community events that impacted the game’s overall story. Those all feel like trending features, but I don’t exactly feel like we get all of those from the same game. For today, we’re going to stick with lore and the IP.
Let’s start with the counterpoints: It’s an old game IP that was never that popular. It was the redheaded step-child of a genre that’s being broken down into smaller, less massive bite-sizes and selling better than ever in that form. And non-basic fantasy doesn’t sell as well as elves and dwarves, so why bother trying to reinvent the wheel?
But let’s flip that now. Think Guardians of the Galaxy or Big Hero Six. Small IPs, footnotes in the comic book world, but massively successful after executing some tweaks, and these comics did some original things before Hollywood got its hands on them.
I’d argue Guardians worked because general audiences love quirky characters, and Avengers showed how to juggle multiple heroes as an ensemble hero movie, but mainstream audiences just didn’t know something like that existed whole sale. I’d also argue Groot and Rocket were similar enough to other tropes but flipped: the talking tree isn’t really wise or talkative, and the cute animal is not into “cute,” to say the least.
Similarly, Big Hero Six was an ensemble group but ugh. I admit that I like Fred and Go Go Tomago’s comic-book pasts for very personal reasons, partly because they addressed things outside of typical Japanese culture in the eyes of the west (the Ainu people and Utsunomiya City). Still, most of the cast, naming conventions, and abilities feel borderline offensive, probably because it was an “Asian” hero group made by caucasian men for caucasian readers (don’t worry, you can try the reverse out and cringe about that too if you want).
Disney and Marvel tried to change this and a lot more, and while I personally would have done things differently, I’d argue that the companies probably saved a lot of time by adapting existing characters and plot points than creating something totally new. They also ensured that the very small Big Hero fandom would at least be interested in seeing how things got adapted. Again, I was never a huge fan, but I knew enough that I could preach the good word about it and even fire up my students who were living in Utsunomiya at the time.
Asheron’s Call is quite similar. We’re seeing more diversity in games, stronger female characters that are less sexualized, and stories with complex politics. That describes the AC series quite well, and it should be no surprise. Mass Effect and Dragon Age, two series that I would argue that push diversity and gender politics, both recently got teasers at the 2020 Game Awards, and head AC loremaster Chris “Stormwaltz” L’Etoile was involved in both of those IPs. I’d argue that as he became less involved with AC, fans noticed the stories slipping. WB could rectify that by bringing him on board at least for some consulting, if not restore him to the head of the ship.
Race beyond humanity
While a lot of games ignore lore in favor of mechanics, I’d argue that Warner Bros in particular would do best to work with a game that could translate into something cinematic. I know that may be getting ahead of ourselves, but given WB Games’ penchant for games based on TV and movies, making a game that could be worked into something watchable just seems like good business sense, especially as “choose-your-own-adventure” movies are on the rise.
Asheron’s Call lore is strong and consistent, but because the fandom is small and established, they’re perfect for a test group: desperate for an update, passionate about the IP, vocal about what they do and don’t like, but small enough that a company like WB Games can handle them. I’d argue LucasArts and Disney did the same thing when they lived off of the original EU until George came back and did his own thing. As an old EU fan who can’t connect as much to the new CGI cartoon stories, I sadly still consume a good amount of content and am happy just to get a nod to what drew me into the fandom.
Strong, consistent compelling lore is hard to make and takes time, which is why it’s often easier to use an established IP than create your own. I honestly cannot recall any complaints about the game’s internal lore, only mechanics, and that’s across two games. That’s a very good sign when looking at an IP to take up. AC is also fairly modern feeling despite its age, so any modern modifications would be light. And it’s lesser-known so it’s easier to play with, kind of like the previously mentioned Marvel comic IPs.
There are no elves here. No dwarves. Oh, you could say the lizard-like, nature-worshipping tumerok/tonk are elves, but I’d argue tumeroks are objectively “other” rather than just angular humans. Yes, lugians are anti-magic, stone-loving engineers that aren’t fond of outsiders, but no one should accuse the giant, prehistoric-looking creatures of just being a dwarf trope. They’re familiar enough to not be completely alien, but different enough to grab attention, much like Groot and Rocket.
Like modern fantasy stories, AC gave each culture depth and complex politics. They’re not all united under single banners. For example, the tumeroks/tonk have a large faction who underwent body modification to look more human instead of reptilian, losing their tails and embracing more stone and iron-based architecture and weaponry. Like any good fantasy, we can see parallels between this and real-world clashes between new and old thinking, choosing to embrace a different culture, negative identification with one’s own culture while fetishizing another to the point of undergoing questionable body modification.
But it’s literally a human issue too. The Isparians (Humans) came from several nations, often in a tenuous alliance, but eventually the founding AC humans had their major oppressor from the old world also invade Dereth. I mean, yeah, they were blue-skinned humans, but they still fit with the overall world-building development: races/creatures with identifiable real-world counter-parts in terms of language, culture, and history.
That may not sound like much, but for ethnically and culturally mixed gamers – like my brother and I are – playing a western game that let us be “Middle-Eastern” or Asians who were something other than ninjas/samurai/ martial artists/Mech pilots? That was new. That was huge. The Gharu’ndim weren’t Muslims, Egyptians, Moors, Moroccans, or any other single North African/Middle Eastern culture, but rather a mixture of them. Like lumping together “Asians” or “Europeans,” some people will get understandably upset, but as a person of the world, I also know that cultures in certain regions highly influenced each other’s languages, foods, religions, and more. As someone who can untangle many of the cultures, I found AC’s lore was often my first step into new cultures, and to this day, despite no new lore being officially created, I’m still learning new things. Mu-miyah aren’t just AC mobs!
The game’s lore already makes it so you can have Game of Thrones-type political intrigue without having to hire a writer to go out and create a whole new world. Want to talk about slavery? Isparians were slaves to bugs for at least a few generations. Genetic engineering? You’ve got the Sclavus, a race of snake people created to serve the Empyrean, the former rulers of the world, who also created mostly mindless golems. And here’s the kicker: The empyreans often function as potential saviors and a potential threat.
That can be empowering in some ways. Want to talk about indigenous peoples? The Empyreans ruled Dereth long before humans arrived, but before humans, the Empyreans invited in the olthoi, who caused the destruction of the Empyrean culture. Sound familiar?
Free will vs. fate? Shadow and Virindi factions. Immigration conflicts? People born on Dereth vs. people portaled in from the old worlds. The lore’s like an empty playground just ready for a fertile imagination to make use of it.
Inclusiveness without pandering
Similarly, AC had strong female characters. Queen Elysa and Nuhmudira might barely pass the Bechdel Test, but both frequently save towns and human society, have “average” body types that aren’t overtly sexualized, receive multiple story arcs, plus participate in physical and diplomatic battles. There are still tropes, as Nuhmudira is a person of color and does “bad guy” stuff sometimes, and female “ninja-esque” character Ben Ten is “Asian,” but still with twists. Nuhmi was incredibly sympathetic despite her crimes of blood magic, and Ben Ten was a badass older woman.
Asheron’s Call 2 was similar in many ways. Creatures we had taken for granted in the original rose up against us. The lugians “dogs” were warped into humanoids with a grudge, and the goblin-like Drudges took over the human capital, but eventually they became a playable race.
Yes, the genderless Virindi could be seen as Villainous Asexuals, but for me, a straight-cis-male, their desire to explore time and space while weirdly shackled to a homogeneous hivemind was captivating. The Virindi actually controlled what was one of the main factions AC2 players could join, which chose collectivism over the individual.
Conversely, the faction that compromised between the collective and the individual was led by a female “wizard,” Nalicala. The fact that Asheron’s “replacement” in AC2 was a woman stood out, but only because I thought she might have either been more than a student of his or possibly asexual (a word that back then I hadn’t learned yet) and just really loyal.
Remember, this was a game from the late ’90s/early 2000s, before certain people got bent out of shape when representation started reflecting modern societies and not just the majority of power/wealth holders. But I never felt I was being pandered to in Asheron’s Call. For me, it was natural that the “European” characters were lumped together: They traded religions, words, and even royalty. Same goes for the “Asian” and “Islamic” characters.
It made sense that the bugs had a queen leading them, and having a queen lead us against her only seemed fitting. And speaking of strong women, Nuhmudira could be a powerful mage because one of the first big bads was Aerfalle, a female undead mage. I can’t swallow light-weight Cloud Strife wielding his huge Buster Sword, but I know old ladies can do gymnastics, so an older female ninja who actually could blend into a crowd is more than believable.
AC’s grounded fantasy based on real-world cultures and histories – including tragic ends – have the weight of Game of Thrones plots but the wonder of Star Wars aliens. Bring in some diverse voices, and the current lore should give writers and devs more than enough ammo to tell stories that can appeal to both gamers and non-gamers alike.
Giving people something to talk about
Most of my current assessments and praise are coming two decades after the original game was released. These are things that I felt or sensed but never really gave words to until maybe six or seven years ago when I really started to look at things more critically. The racial and gender balance never felt like it was preachy, trying to right any past wrongs, update storytelling for a modern audience… it was natural. As I associated with a variety of players from different cultures, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations without explicitly discussing any of the above, I think this is a sign of how solid the lore was in engaging the community.
And it did. I’ve touched on this on my piece of the infamous Shard of the Herald event, but my group frequently discussed the game lore, and not in-character most of the time. Remember: Asheron’s Call addressed how and why players came back from the dead, but death was still possible at times, perhaps even preferable considering how long you could theoretically torture someone.
We discussed whether or not we should punish Nuhmudira, who had done so much for us but had also literally sacrificed humans to do it. We talked about our feelings about Asheron, an all-powerful seeming wizard who damned us to an alien world but only came out when things were bad, and about Elysa, who actually was one of us and had risked real death numerous times. We discussed where on the Order vs. Chaos spectrum we sat, joined separate factions, fought friends over those ideals, and reigned them in when they threatened faction balance and server health.
That is how a video game makes itself known to the world. The tragedy of Aerith Gainsborough, the surprise of recruiting your mid-game enemy in Chrono Trigger or Dragon Age: Origins, raising Clementine in Tell Tale’s Walking Dead series… creating worlds where you have big choices to make takes a game from being Monopoly to Mass Effect.
As Asheron’s Call actually allowed players the chance to change the story, WB could really challenge BioWare and other companies on the player empowerment front. I know some accountant might say, “But creating all those storylines that might not get used still cost money.” True, however, AC at least has branching realities as canon, much like comic books. You can do cross-over invasions or spin-offs, and since it’s WB, that can be through myriad media options: books, TV, games, movies, whatever. Start small, even, and see how people react to Dereth in the 21st century.
Of course, lore alone isn’t enough. We’ve talked about how strong Asheron’s Call’s lore is without WB needing to reinvent the wheel from scratch, but next time I’ll discuss how both games’ mechanics and designs were perhaps more suitable for modern gamers than the audiences they were originally designed for.