July 2021: What Fantasy Taught Me
By Russell Eccleston
Black Dog recently finished our run of a play I wrote, ‘The Curse Of The Sapphire Blade’. I wrote this during the first lockdown when I was feeling pretty bummed about the world (an understatement) and it cheered me up, initially that was all I wanted it to do. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to take it any further. Fantasy is something that I’ve always wanted to write but never had the confidence, I worried about people mocking me for this odd world that I had created. However now that we have come to the end of it, I’ve realised how fulfilling an experience it has been. And it made me realise a lot of things about fantasy as a genre.
Fantasy as a genre has always held a super special place in my heart. I remember as a young child watching my brother and his friend play Final Fantasy on the playstation and being totally in awe of the composition of it all. The characters, the story, the setting, the music, the intensity. It all seemed to come together and create something that was, for me anyway, really incredible.
After that sparked my interest in the genre my parents bought me books, lots and lots of books. I remember over summer holidays, losing myself in the inventive, sometimes frightening worlds that were brought to life between the pages. Worlds that brought my imagination to life and made me believe in something bigger than myself.
Then in 2001, The Lord Of the Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring was released. My parents took me to see it and I fell in love. I ran around the house for weeks (years!) wielding a plastic sword and pretending that I was Aragorn. I created my own characters, my own stories, elaborate, twisting narratives that weaved and culminated into a climactic ending (Which often involved me getting very sweaty and tired fighting an imaginary opponent). Fantasy felt like my whole world growing up. Between Final Fantasy, Lord Of the Rings, The Elder Scrolls, Warhammer, Game Of Thrones, even Harry Potter (It has magic, elves, swords, goblins, basilisks and dragons, prove me wrong).
When I became old enough to play videogames, that became the new obsession. Final Fantasy was the shit. My parents bought me a copy of the 6th game for my birthday and I was made up. I used to replay the opening of 7 over and over again (Mainly because I was pretty rubbish at it and didn’t understand how to play). Final Fantasy quickly became my favourite franchise and I could sit for ages just flicking through the little booklets that came in the game cases just so I could read the character descriptions.
However, as I got a little older, my interest dwindled, I remember telling two of my friends at school that I liked Final Fantasy and getting slated for it, I got told it was a ‘girls game’ (Whatever that means?) and that the action in it was boring. Honestly, that put me off. My love for it died down. I was worried about being seen as a nerd, or being mocked for something that I enjoyed, so I put the games down. I tried to play other things, but nothing really did it. Nothing created those worlds that I loved in quite the same way. Regardless, I barely touched another Final Fantasy game until I was 20.
I made it to university, I was a bit older, the people around me seemed a bit more sure of themselves. I went home and found my old Final Fantasy 7 disc and thought why not? Let's play this again. Little did I know it would open the flood gates. It all came rushing back, everything that I loved about it as a kid, I felt like I was home. Before I knew it I was digging out my old collection and playing through them one by one. Through replaying them I realised something, these forms of media that I had been absorbing since I was a child, they were all trying to tell me something, they all had a point.
FF7’s antagonistic Shinra corporation, a corporate superpower who provides energy to the people by draining the planet. They are literally killing the planet for the benefit of a small few, and I never saw this as the allegory for what it was, I never understood the game was trying to make a point. LOTR has often been drawn up as a comparison for fascism (even though Tolkien refuted this), with the dark lord Sauron vying for power so that he can make the world a ‘better’ place, but in doing so, ironically makes the world much worse.
The real life parallels aren’t even the biggest takeaway for me. For me it’s the characters and the theme I see running through all of their narratives. Friendship, and yes I say this in the cheesiest possible way. Cloud in FF7 struggles through his identity crisis with the help of his childhood friend. Aragorn turns to his men in the face of certain death and whispers the words ‘for Frodo’. Zidane from FF9 breaks down to his party after facing the reality of his birth. All these characters had to deal with extreme situations and they made it through because they weren’t alone. They had their friends right there with them. It’s all about connection. This was the biggest lesson I think I learnt from these games. These characters struggled through adversity and found the determination to keep going in the face of overwhelming odds.
I know this is true because when I look back nostalgia tells the truth. It’s not the stories that are the main event, it's the memories. It’s my sister reading me Harry Potter before bed, It’s during the summer in an attempt to escape the heat of the indoors, my brother carrying the TV out to our garden with an extension cable and then helping me play through Final Fantasy. It’s my Dad sitting and watching Game of Thrones with me every week and us discussing the books, it’s having LOTR movie marathons with my Mum that would last literally all day because the films are painstakingly long. It’s going round my best friend's house because he just bought an xbox 360 and me watching him play The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion in awe for about 4 hours straight. It's me and my friends playing multiplayer in Fable 2 for hours when we should have been revising. More recently it's my partner and I playing through a game called divinity in co-op mode with a glass of rum in our hands.
These are the main things I remember, not the stories themselves, but the people I shared that time with. These characters, they teach friendship, they teach communication, they teach teamwork. They teach you that you’re never alone, no matter how much it might feel that way.
This was something I wanted to convey in ‘Sapphire Blade’. I wanted these characters to have very real problems that could only truly be solved by working together. Friendship and co-operation had to be such a large part of it because for me that is what fantasy stands for. That is what it represents. As well as you know… magic and dragons. During the process I often felt like we as the cast and crew were going on our own little adventure, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to work with and they accepted my nerdy little world with open arms. For that, I’m incredibly grateful.
So often the phrase ‘Find something that you are willing to die for’ is thrown around. I don’t like this phrase, it's too finite, too limiting. I prefer the phrase ‘Find something that you are willing to live for’. Find something that you care so deeply about that you would face down the ends of the earth just so that you could see another day. The will to live trumps all. That is what fantasy taught me.