In 2011, millions of people decided they’d rather spend time in bleak, cold, war-torn, socially backwards fantasy worlds than their own.
HBO’s Game of Thrones told us “winter is coming,” odd for a show that debuted in the spring. But in the the world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the series of novels on which the show is based, seasons can last many years, and it certainly feels like our own world has been stuck in a kind of winter for some time. Perhaps it’s better to escape to a place where the snows have yet to descend from the north than to remain where the blizzards have already blown in.
Now, escapism comes in many shades, and much of what gets labeled with the term is hardly so. Harry Potter retains our reality, offering only a hidden facet for a chosen few. World of Warcraft and other consuming social games rely on interactions with real human beings. Both distract from this plane of existence, but never truly abandon it. A television show, which occupies an hour a week and invites social viewing, can’t offer real escapism either. But a series of thousand-plus page novels surely can.
The Game of Thrones show not only served as prelude for this summer’s release of the hotly anticipated A Dance with Dragons, the fifth novel in the series, but it also enticed droves of viewers (me included) to start reading the books from the beginning. The fantasy epic is a phenomenon, giving rise to memes, theories, forums, and fan fiction. The fanbase maintains a tense relationship with its author, hoping he won’t kill off a favorite character or die himself before he can finish the series.
But what most makes Ice and Fire remarkable is the vastness and depth of its setting. Each book rivals the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in page count, and since narration occurs through the eyes of roughly ten characters per installment, readers get a grand tour of the continent of Westeros and the lands beyond. Each character explores a different aspect of Martin’s world, submerging readers in as much of its culture and history as possible while still advancing the plot.
They reveal an image of a grim and largely hopeless place. Thousands die at the behest of lords who care less for their subjects than for titles. The honorable lose everything while the devious prevail. Magic exists, but causes more suffering than wonder. For all its dragons and zombies, Martin’s world operates mostly like our own.
And that only serves to strengthen the illusion; once you suspend your belief to the standard degree for fantasy, Martin asks for little more. Reading Ice and Fire is an intensely isolating experience because it’s so easy to lose yourself in the setting. During my reading, when I could pull myself away from the actual text, I found myself thinking about the books constantly. I tried to discern the motives of duplicitous characters, untangle the web of alliances between noble houses, decipher the significance of historical events, and predict what might happen next. I got mad when I couldn’t find good maps of the eastern continent. The series’ huge and energetic online community shows I’m not alone. Martin’s imagination may be a dark place to reside, but it doesn’t matter: these books invite total immersion. And that, apparently, is exactly what people want from their fantasy.
In its first weekend of release, Bethesda Softworks’ role-playing videogame Skyrim sold seven times as many copies as its predecessor . Its visual similarity to HBO’s Game of Thrones is striking, as both emphasize a cold, snowy, mountainous north. But the more salient connection here is the elaborate level of detail in the province of Skyrim, where the game takes place.
Players can follow a main quest line, but Skyrim is at its strongest when you simply venture off in a random direction and let the game surprise you. It surely will: its world is dense with towns, dungeons, camps, and ruins, all full of characters, quests, and treasures. Accounts of such adventures proliferate online, like a fight with a dragon that concludes with, “so awesome,” or an encounter with Artificial Intelligence that illicits a “ho lee shit.”
The scale and complexity of the Skyrim province befits a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game, where thousands of players inhabit the same world at once. But massive though it is, Skyrim is offline and single-player. Every instance of the game’s world is meant for one person only. That’s why players feel such a sense of ownership over their charcter’s actions, to the point where they write about their character the same way they would their real life. All these factors — the free-form adventuring, the density of content, and the solipsistic setting — make Skyrim extremely absorbing. Players sink dozens of hours a week and hundreds of hours total into the game, and still leave stones unturned.
The worlds of A Song of Ice and Fire and Skyrim are rich, vivid, expansive, and solitary. They offer whole new realities to explore for hour after countless hour, but only alone. But such is the price of true escapism. When our reality loses its appeal, all of it must be left behind to find a new one.