Rat Races: Oddball Character Species in Role-Playing Games

A couple days ago, I felt like I wanted to play Guild Wars 2 after a hiatus of over a year. I had tried returning before, but it never lasted more than a day – I found it difficult to jump right back in, when I had once been quite good at the game, but now all my skills were rusty and it felt like I was playing for the first time, only with level 80 characters.

This time around, though, I figured, why not create an entirely new character, and start (mostly) from scratch, giving myself the opportunity to re-learn the game in an environment and with character properties best suited for it. So, that’s what I did.

As I pondered about the kind of character I wanted to create, I started wondering – as I had done several times already in the past – about the near-exceptionless habit of featuring a certain type of character race in games such as Guild Wars 2. There often seems to be a race in the general family of anthropomorphic rodents or other weird creatures, usually small in stature. This game’s entry to said family would be the Asura, who don’t exactly look like any specific animal per se, but certainly remind you of an unholy love-child of a ferret and a garden gnome.

So I wondered, is there really such a popularity behind this sort of race? Have the rat-people become so synonymous with the general fantasy genre, like dwarves or elves have been for decades? In fact, it seems that these species are even more common these days – after all, Guild Wars 2 features neither dwarves nor elves, although the plant-like Sylvari can be seen as the game world’s equivalent of a wood elf.

I am aware that fantasy elements that were popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons & Dragons have been around for so long that developers want to create something more unique, something that hasn’t been directly borrowed from something that exists already, and is familiar to most gamers. But is there really so little left, that nearly always there has to be a rodent involved?

Another example is the Chua race from WildstarFirst of all, yes, Wildstar is a fantasy game, not science fiction; the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek tend to blur the definition of science fiction, and even those titles (especially Star Wars) are actually barely science fiction themselves. The fact that stuff happens in space doesn’t make it science fiction – it makes it space fantasy, or futuristic fantasy. If there’s no actual, functional science involved, then how could it be science fiction?

Alright, now, back to Wildstar. It is obvious that the developers have wanted to create a world that is uniquely their own, and make no mistake, the Chua are not the only non-ubiquitous race in the game. Although very few things actually strike me as innovative or unusual, at least there’s an attempt at it. But for some reason, the concept of “new races” always involves the anthropomorphic rat, or whatever they are in this case.

So to repeat my rhetorical question, is there really such a demand for these kinds of creatures in fantasy games? I know I’m not a big fan of them, but let’s say there’s a lot of people who do want to play as the little guys. So is the idea to cater to the needs of quirky players who do? Well, I like dwarves in games where they’re available to be played as. Where’s my dwarf in Guild Wars 2? I’m sure there’s a demand for that, too, but for some reason classical fantasy races are being avoided in games these days.

So, the obvious reason would be that developers and people who imagine these worlds want to be innovative and create something that hasn’t been seen before. I get that. But that’s sort of along the lines of my point: the rodents aren’t innovative. Even though they’re a bit different everywhere, it’s still a given that there has to be a race like that. It’s like having a game with a Dark Elf race and saying, “we didn’t just copy Tolkien. That’s not an Elf, that’s a Dark Elf.”

Then again, I suppose there has to be a small race in these games, since it’s pretty inevitable that there also has to be a big race, such as the Charr in Guild Wars 2. If a player doesn’t want to play as a big, clumsy behemoth, then it’s nice to provide the opportunity to pick the opposite.

Alright, this week’s entry was really more of a rant than an actual, informed blog entry… Tune in next week for something hopefully more coherent and relevant. Cheers!

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