Where have all the nonhumans gone?

Bernie Anés PazWritingLeave a Comment

I grew up on a very different kind of exposure to fantasy than most people. That was partly thanks to Daeluin, the roleplaying forum I joined as a kid, as well as my mixed interest in both eastern and western fantasy. For me, fantasy had always been a richly magical thing, full of impossible civilizations and their impossible creations. Even the people were impossible themselves most of the time. For me, that was simply the expectation.

This had a lot to do with some of my early dives into fantasy, then the kind of video games I started playing when my interests took me to that medium. Video games for me mostly meant JRPGs, though I played many regular RPGs as well, and it was pretty common in these games to many kinds of races; Freya from Final Fantasy 9, the beast tribes of Fire Emblem, sentient dragons in Dragon Riders of Pern, and of course all the usual human+ races like dwarves, elves, and orcs.

Freya is one of the most iconic characters of Final Fantasy

They were portrayed better in some worlds than others, sadly. For instance, I love how even the standard races drip with personality in Warhammer, and in fact, Warhammer has the honor of owning my favorite iterations of orcs, elves, and dwarves to this date. Dungeons & Dragons is a close second, though too many of the more interesting races took forever to be playable (and even then were only homebrew content for a long time).

Today, however, these races are all but gone in popular fantasy. A Song of Ice and Fire featured humans almost entirely, with dragons and the Walkers taking a backseat for most of the series. Joe Abercrombie and Brandon Sanderson’s novels are filled primarily with human characters, with maybe a race or two added for subtle yet distant flavor. Mistborn and Elantris had only humans, actually, and Stormlight Archives has the Singers and sprites but that’s about it (and they’re both very human in a lot of ways despite Brandon’s best efforts to make them unique).

The Skaven

Of the current novels being turned into TV series, at best we have human+ races. Hobbits and elves in the new Lord of the Rings adaptation, again dwarves and elves in The Witcher. Just humans and their little animal soul-pals in The Golden Compass, with a very few rare exceptions (the polar bears!). The best hope here will be The Wheel of Time, but a lot of the nonhumans are rare or are enemies or aides rather than actual characters.

I mean, I get it. I understood why this is the case. A lot of human+ races are just lazy. Elves are just perfect humans when you get down to it; long-lived, beautiful, wise, forever young, and the greatest warriors and wizards. They are noted mostly by that beauty and grace, but also their pointy ears. So clever, so unique! Then there’s the issue of modern politics and social concerns.

The overuse and laziness of human+ races has done a lot of harm.

You only need to big yikes once at the racist background of H.P. Lovecraft and his works to realize why the creation of other races (even monstrous elder gods) can be a dangerous pit. You might very well end up creating problematic replacements for certain real-life nationalities, societies, and cultures. And if they’re already that recognizable, why bother making them nonhuman anyway? Making aliens seem alien to us is tough, which is why so many sci-fi aliens are also just kinds of humans, down to even being humanoid. Look at Mass Effect, Star Trek, or Star Wars. Yes there are exceptions, but even in-world they tend to be exceptions. How many Hutts do you see taking center stage in Star Wars compared to the humanoids?

So where have all the nonhumans gone? Thankfully, the answer seems to be into video games. I say thankfully because I absolutely adore fantasy races despite everyone else being content with very human worlds. I can play Warhammer Total War 2 and drown myself in something standard-ish like the High Elves of Ulthuan or some of the more unique races like the Skaven or Lizardmen. Divinity Original Sin 2 let me play as unique variations of elf and dwarf, but also as undead (which is surprisingly rare…) or a lizard. I chose the lizard.

There’s something refreshing about pattering around on clawed feet, tail waggling with arrogance, and being all cold-blooded and lizard-like. “Ha, I’m a lizard!” I would say, then some arse would show up and be like, “You dumb lizard!” I would proceed to breathe fire as my indignant response, burning away their hopes and dreams, and things would be good again.

Kind of shocking they’re not more common as a playable race.

I actually normally play humans though, believe it or not, but I do like veering into the more interesting options sometimes. I, however, despise playing miniature races (so no gnomes, dwarves, hobbits for me), but you know I still love seeing anything that’s nonhuman as it makes the world feel more vividly fantasy and fresh. Warhammer tends to do this well, with each race having a long history and almost unrealistically isolated identity that gives Warhammer races a lot of colorfulness.

So it’s not all terrible, I guess, but I still find it strange that more contemporary fantasy has shied away from nonhumans. In fact, having elves and dwarves is generally a great way to keep someone from reading your book, judging by reactions on Reddit. That’s weird to me, but then fantasy itself is a weird landscape right now. It’s freaking frustrating because I really wanted to see an evolution of fantasy races, not a dissolution. I love all the standards as well as the more unique creatures often regulated to being monsters/pets like sphinxes, griffins, lamia, lizardmen, centaurs, sentient constructs, and so on.

Luckily for me, even though TV and novels are dumping the nonhumans, they still seem to be quite popular in video games. I think I can live with that, though it brings me to wonder why it is that gamers seem more tolerant about nonhuman races than those who watch TV and read novels? I suspect it might have something to do with most RPGs actually being JRPGs, but hey, food for thought.

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