Let’s talk about something: the same thing, over and over again. There are specific narratives, settings, characters and tropes that we see repeated in games to the point of instant recognition. Overdone game settings are that way for a reason: they sell, and they are easy to make. And since they won’t exactly go away any time soon, let’s take a moment to vivisect some of the worst offenders.
Norse myth and Vikings
This one is for people who don’t want to even try to imagine new things. Instead, they’ll reuse the myths of people who lived and died millennia ago, changing nothing because changing is a slippery slope to creating. Why would you want to create if someone else already did? Ragnarok, Yggdrasil, broad axes, ravens: anyone above the age of 12 instantly recognizes these things, and maybe that’s why they’re such an easy sell.
There is an even worse version of this, and it’s the All-Gods setting. This less common premise puts players in control of their deity of choice across most human myths and religions. Making a game like that shows the developers’ dedication to being the best at not coming up with absolutely anything. A try-hard award in not trying, if you will.
It is the tragic mark of a great writer that their work can shape and uniformize everything that comes after them, and J. R. R. Tolkien was a great writer indeed. Since his genre-defining books, fantasy fiction has stagnated in open adoration of their established tropes. Instead of new things, fantasy fans get dragon recolors. And they love it, which is the problem.
The trend of unoriginal, repetitive fantasy settings is so enduring because it is fan-enabled. Fantasy players don’t want new things, they want the stuff they already know. Magic: The Gathering players are willing to accept that two animals mixed together count as a new fantasy creation, and then roll with that premise over and over again. Once the bar has been set this low, why would anyone working on new fantasy games bother to come up with anything?
It’s wartimes and you are the good guys
This one works under the essential premise of real life war – that there are good guys – and many of the most successful franchises in gaming history fall in this category, so we can’t blame developers for essentially printing their own money by making the same thing over and over again.
Military games have their highs and lows, and many actually manage to inject plenty of humanity into the thundering clusterf*ck of glorified genocide they offer as gameplay. But regardless of how much they emphasize or de-emphasize their moral ambiguities, most war games try to eventually wash the player’s hands with the same recycled fallacy: that they are either a victim of circumstance, or fighting for the faction that’s on the right side of the issue.
Ironically, the Warhammer 40,000 universe, one of the most over-the-top wargame settings ever, is also the one that gives its players the least amount of feelgood bullsh*t excuses. The default Good Guys of 40K are the Imperium of Man, a fascist megastate hellbent on grasping the reins of the universe and deleting as much life as possible in the process. You can get busy doing that, or you can play another game.
Off-license Aliens / The Thing fanfiction
Speaking of iconic sci-fi franchises of the 80s, the makers of this next type of game grew up with them and will not let you ignore that fact. These developers would much rather copy-paste references from their memories than make something original for the next generation, like John Carpenter and Ridley Scott did for them.
You can recognize these games… well, immediately, but also by their “clever” re-use of names and phrases from the source material. There’s always a character named Bishop, or a company dedicated to Building Better Worlds. The writer thinks they are sneaking in a cool homage for other lifeless meta nerds to enjoy, but in reality they are creating a Wilhelm scream moment that reminds players once again that they’re not experiencing a new story, but rather trudging through someone else’s predictable nostalgia.
This was never meant to be mainstream in any way, and it wasn’t until a few years back when jaded nerds everywhere started ham-fistedly jamming recognizable Lovecraftian symbols into basically anything.
The problem with Lovecraftian game settings is not that they’re overdone, but rather chronically misused. Lovecraft’s horror is about the impotence of humanity amid the unfeeling entropy of the cosmos, but game devs use his IP to make their sh*tty zombie games stand out from other sh*tty zombie games. Lovecraft’s troubled childhood, personal insecurities and warped, racist worldview informed stories of profound nihilistic terror. This somehow translates into “Tommy gun some squid monsters while wearing a fedora” in every game that sells itself as Lovecraftian.
One of the most notable exceptions is Bloodborne, which did Lovecraftian horror right by using one simple trick: actual effort. The game’s writers didn’t just copy Lovecraft, but rather engineered a new universe using Lovecraftian principles. Lovecraft’s stories of abstract existential terror were born out of his own overwhelming fear of the world outside his door, and the people who inhabited it. Bloodborne roots its own original mythos into themes like childbirth and disease, which connect with the human psyche effortlessly and cause unease through recognition. The game’s setting grows from there, forming a complex network of narratives, secrets, tragedies and legends that swallow the player whole.
Bloodborne‘s reward for this is the same as Lovecraft’s: countless lazy copycat creators, churning out soulless imitations as they try to claw their way up the pedestal of the dead god.