Where have all the elves gone?

That is the question gamers and the people who love elves are bound to ask this Fall as they take in the latest crop of big-budget video games. Since the 1970s, dragons, orcs, wizards and dwarfs have been staples of interactive entertainment yet, there are hardly any top new games in the traditional fantasy mode this holiday season.

Instead, 2007 has been dominated by perhaps the deepest line-up of science fiction games ever.

It started in August with the sleeper hit BioShock, which can best be described as intelligent sci-fi noir (genetic engineering in 1940s big-band style). Then, last month came the pop culture juggernaut Halo 3, the epitome of mainstream action sci-fi (men with huge guns saving the galaxy from an interstellar menace). Between now and Thanksgiving, gamers will see gothic sci-fi in Hellgate: London (demons invade post-apocalyptic London); the first major science fiction online game in years in Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa; and the magnum opus-cum-space opera Mass Effect.

In orbit: BioShock brings noir to sci-fi.

The most obvious question is, why the shift? But it may be more salient to ask why most video games are set in so few genres to begin with, and whether that’s changing. After all, most forms of entertainment draw consumers into an experience they could not actually have in life.

The difference is that books, films and television shows are more often set in some approximation of the real, contemporary world. Yet, many of the best video games take place in fantasy and science fiction worlds meant to have as little in common with reality as possible. That may reflect games’ strengths and weaknesses as a storytelling medium.

The one thing that makes electronic games unique among entertainment media is choice, or agency. In a game, the star of the show is the consumer, not a celebrity on a screen, stage or playing field. A gamer does not merely have to identify with the protagonist of someone else’s story; the gamer actually gets to become that alternative identity, if just for a while.

“When you’re making a video game, you’re trying to give the player special experiences and abilities that go beyond the everyday as much as possible," said Casey Hudson, project director for Mass Effect, a new science fiction role-playing game to be released in November. “You want to be able to give somebody an experience where they can leave behind their everyday life."

But all the snazzy technology that has done so much to make gamers feel as if they are somewhere else has done little to populate those fantastic virtual realities with believable, nuanced storylines.

In that sense, outlandish settings have long distracted players from noticing a dearth of old-fashioned storytelling.

Game makers have been employing more writers recently, hoping to improve storytelling.

As for the wave of science fiction games this year, that is probably just cyclical. Look back at 2004: Elves were everywhere. The Lord of the Rings trilogy had just concluded, and in gaming, the very popular World of Warcraft fantasy was sweeping away the competition.©2007/The New York Times

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