What Makes a Game Epic?

Contains minor spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

What makes a game epic? Dragon-slaying? Not necessarily! (Pictured: a group of four fantasy heroes battling a large, electric-white dragon from Dragon Age: Awakening.)

What makes a game epic? Dragon-slaying? Not necessarily! (Pictured: a group of four fantasy heroes battling a large, electric-white dragon from Dragon Age: Awakening.)

A great many games, particularly in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, seek to be epic in scope, or evoke a feeling of epicness. It’s an elusive quality because simply making a game very long or very large isn’t usually sufficient, and what makes a game epic may vary from person to person. One thing that I associate with epicness is not only the passage of time, but physical and emotional journeys, as well as change. Change is the key thing there: spending fifty hours in a static world doesn’t feel epic to me, which is why most of the Final Fantasy games that I’ve played don’t quite work for me on that level.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the first game I played that truly felt epic. And the epic moment wasn’t sealing away Ganondorf, or the heartwarming and fairly silly montage of happy Gorons and Kokiri at the end. That first real moment of awe came when I stuck the Master Sword back in its pedestal and left the Temple of Time as a ten-year-old child once more. What was so epic about that moment was the reminder of how much had changed over the course of the game. Ocarina of Time is one of very few games that has the guts to create a beautiful world, introduce the player to it, and then completely destroy it for the bulk of the game–and unlike Okami or Ocarina‘s successor, Twilight Princess, things don’t get magically all better once you finish a dungeon or defeat a monster. But going back in time in Ocarina is bittersweet: it’s wonderful to see Hyrule whole and happy once more, but upsetting to know what will become of the beautiful land and its people, with small hope of preventing it. Ocarina gracefully sets up the stakes of this epic quest, something few games accomplish.

But change doesn’t have to affect the entire world to be meaningful–it doesn’t even need to be physical. The change can also be mental or emotional, a sense that the character you inhabit has evolved or grown. No game I have played accomplishes that as well as Dragon Age: Origins. In the world of Dragon Age, Mages are dangerous and feared, and so have to go through rigorous training, which is capped off by a trial where the Mage has to prove she or he is able to resist the control of demons, or die. My first character was a Mage, and the beginning of the game involved overcoming her trial (called a Harrowing). At the time she was sheltered and naive, a wide-eyed idealist, talented but knew only a few spells. Over the course of fifty hours of play time, she changed, not only becoming more powerful as in most RPGs, but growing in character and personality: she made friends, broke a curse, slayed a dragon, fell in love, executed a war hero, been to hell and back. She saw the world in its beauty and brutality, grew up, became more cynical. So toward the end of the game, when someone mentioned her Harrowing, I had a real sense of scope for a moment, of how long ago and, more importantly, different things were at the beginning of the game. Everything had changed.

For me, in order to invoke that sought-after “epic” feeling, a game has to work to show me its scope; for me it is not so much badass moments of slow-motion Ogre slaying, but in quiet moments where the game shows me something or a character says something that makes me think, “Wow, that was so long ago and so far away, and so much has changed since then.” I think a game has to go beyond simply being long, and put players on a real journey. What about you? Do you enjoy “epic” games? What games live up to this label for you, and why?

About Alex

Alex posts some of her sewing projects and cosplays on her Tumblr; you can also find her babbling about sewing and games and Parks and Recreation on Twitter.
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39 Responses to What Makes a Game Epic?

  1. rho says:

    One of the things that really makes a game epic for me is the feeling that the choices that I make really make a difference. If I feel as if there’s a single story that’s already been written and that I’m just along for the ride, then it doesn’t evoke the “wow” factor for me.

    In a way, that’s a bit of a double standard, since the story that I’m along for the ride with may be epic in scope, and I might describe it that way if it were presented in another medium. Ocarina of Time (and other Zelda games) fall into that category for me, I think.

    Dragon Age doesn’t. I winced a bit at some parts of the epilogue of Dragon Age, thinking “ack, that was my fault! I should have handled that situation differently!” I had the power to change the world.

    If I had to commend one game for epicness, I think I’d have to go with Alpha Centauri and its sequel Alien Crossfire. 4X games have so much scope to be epic, given the vast time scales they often cover, but most of them are fairly devoid of story and character. Alpha Centauri was the first one I played to combine the experience of seeing a world develop with good characterisation and plot, and oh boy did the choices you made there influence how the game finished. 12 years on and I still never tire of it.

    • Alex says:

      It’s funny, one of the (many!) things I love about Dragon Age is that doing what may seem like the right thing at the time doesn’t always mean things will turn out for the best. It’s kind of realistic, and that’s where it shows how it was influenced by George R. R. Martin. But you’re right, that sort of thing doesn’t really lend itself to epicness. (Then again it would be a whole lot better if the ending weren’t so buggy!)

      I have repeatedly heard such good things about Alpha Centauri, I will have to look it up one of these days.

      • rho says:

        On my guild’s IRC channel, when several of us were playing Dragon Age at once, one of the commonly heard shouts was “argh! you can’t make me choose!” It’s not just that there were choices that seemed right but later turned out to be wrong; there were also times when none of the choices were appealing, but you had to try to figure out the least worst option anyway.

        Alpha Centauri is great, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who likes 4X games and doesn’t mind graphics that are a decade out of date. It’s also pretty spiffy on the diversity front as well. The original game has 7 factions you can play as, and their leaders are split 4:3 male:female, and all of different nationalities. Actually, I think I’ll stop raving about it in comments and think about writing an entire entry about it. :D

    • 8mph Ansible says:

      … Alpha Centauri… ?

      *charges at you for a hug*

      Now if only I could get it working on vista. =(


  2. DM says:

    That’s definitely what made EQ have an “epic” feel to it. You spent so long in a few places that you could look back and see someplace you were literally months ago and think “wow, I have really grown.” You’re so right about Ocarina of Time; there’s such a poignancy to the time as Young Link after you’ve seen the darkness of future Hyrule. Hopefully Dragon Age is a sign of comparable things to come!

    • Alex says:

      Yeah, this is one thing MMOs generally do well, combined with the sheer challenge of accomplishing anything, by the time you’re a 75 Summoner in full relic, that is some serious time and some serious change happening! I was definitely reminded of my time in FFXI while writing this XD;;

      That knowledge of the darkness to come in Ocarina carries over into Majora’s Mask and is expanded upon–the initial three days are annoyingly difficult, so it’s almost guaranteed you will run out of time on your first go. From then on you know exactly what will happen if you don’t rescue Termina before the three days are up. With that creeptastic moon visible wherever you go, it’s even more chilling and sad in Majora’s Mask (which I am going to write about ONE DAY… that is the game I basically started a blog for two years ago, but I’ve never gotten around to actually writing about it -.-;; ).

      • DSimon says:

        Yes! Majora’s Mask! Very epic and sad! Yes, yes, yes! I’m so glad to see the game community going back and realizing how brilliant that game was (I’ve seen mention recently of it here and also on Experience Points).

  3. Jayle Enn says:

    I think one of the only games that I would describe as ‘epic’ is actually a series: Ultima. Not the MMO, but rather the arc from Ultima IV through VII, where dozens to hundreds of years pass between games, and things have changed in many ways, but you can still recognize elements of what came before.

    Games like Baldur’s Gate or Mass Effect don’t ever feel epic to me. Sure, you end up saving the Known World(s) from some profoundly terrible fate, and probably marry a [space] princess at the end, but so what? The presentation of the world itself is almost never deep enough to elicit more than a vague sense of satisfaction. You’ve traded one set of genre themes in for another. The citizens of Generica (formerly known as Dystopia) cheer you.

  4. Alex H says:

    I unfortunately couldn’t read the whole article because of the Dragon Age spoilers (I’m likely to pick it up at some point) but I think this illustrates the need for a game specific, critical language for games. Epic feels like such a loaded term, whether you take the stricter literature usage or the looser film version. Either way doesn’t truly capture the spirit of what I think Alex is pointing to here in the Game space, something that I would say is truly unique to the medium.

  5. 8mph Ansible says:

    Hopefully in before someone starts bringing in the Joseph Campbell. =p

    “Epic” can feel like a loaded word nowadays, mostly because how it’s used and overused and deterioration of its usage–is what I’m feelin towards it–when the latest, static, flashy, thoughtless-action, blockbuster-inducted product can be deemed the title and agreed as thus.

    Heh. But off the top of my head and what hasn’t been mentioned yet, I put Shadow of the Colossus and the first two Professor Layton games here in the U.S. as epic. I say that because to me, they establish the character as part of an expansive world that always has and always will be bigger than them. In most games the character is–or becomes–the center of the universe they exist in with the world contorting around zir and them even standing over it.

    Now that I talk about it, it feels amusing in Shadow of the Colossus in that the valley has long existed without Wanderer but he tries to force his life onto the valley which has existed without him SPOILER though in the end becomes a part of itSPOILER.

    And Professor Layton? Kinda has that, someone you speak to and then go about your separate matters feels. Like you briefly talk to anyone, maybe for directions or information or to share something with (maybe a puzzle =p) then both parties go back to their own bubbles. At times you make take part in a larger event, if only because your shenanigans briefly intersects with theirs, but once you leave them or they’re done with you they go back to lives without Layton being a real foreground piece in it for the most part, just some dude they met.

    But this is just me.


  6. Laurentius says:

    I have 3 games that i would call epic:
    “Little Big Adventure aka Relentless Twinsens Adventure” – epic for colourful and interesting world to discover – sheer magic.
    “Final Fantasy VII” – i know not very original but still epic for world ,characters and twisted story.
    “UFO – Enemy Unknown” – epic for defending earth from alien invaders and so many strategies levels.

    ps. i also love Alpha Centauri – it’s was so great idea for giving factions very different personality and approach to developing on this new planet.

    I can’t call DA:O epic b/c i find bioware formula seriously lacking: all this choices that suppose to be making game epic i find more and more meaningless: one – my character has no psychology at all and can make all choices and changing behaviors like having completly different perosnalities : one second to be friendly and caring ,next to be nasty and ready to make any atrocity. What is more although i can make choices that changes the world, my character seems to be not affected by them ie. SPOILER : my character became real friend with Alistair but later on i decided to give Loghain chance of redemption so Alistair left the party, so is my character sad,broken, or even mood b/c he has to sacrifice frienship over duty ? Ok, I ,sittingn front of computer screen , maight be sad but looking at my character’s calm face and going on like nothing happen kills it for me.

    • Alex says:

      Yeah, the lack of a reaction to events–particularly tragic ones–is a criticism I’ve heard a lot. If you’re going to have tragic outcomes, they need to pay off, just like the happy ones.

      I disagree that that the ability to drastically alter your character’s behavior at any point is a bad thing, though. That freedom is essential for roleplaying (and I think it’s safe to say DA: O was made with roleplayers in mind). I suppose the game could be written to “guess” how the character is being played, but what if it guessed wrong? What if a character ends up going in a direction neither the developers nor the game anticipated? The organic nature of tabletop roleplaying is difficult to reproduce in a game, but having that choice is essential, or it can’t happen at all. BioWare offers the choices, and it’s on the player to remain in-character, if that’s something she or he cares about. (Whether your choices then play out realistically is a whole other problem, see above.)

      • Laurentius says:

        I know games like DA:O are made with role-playing in mind, but what i don’t understand is why it won’t help me roleplaying. DA:O is like tabletop gamemaster that lost control over the game and is allowing players to do whatever they want. I can try to play realistically but if i want to switch my character for example from being selfish to helpful it just matter of two mouse clicks, it has no weight. If i play selfish character for 60 % of game time it should be hard for me to make unselfish choice. And definietly game should help me role-playing like good gamemaster: by giving my character some personality and adujst it due the course of the game according to my choices and events. ( like DA:O meeting character from Sims)

        • Alex says:

          (Some major Dragon Age spoilers in this comment, for folks reading along.)

          I guess my question is, what specifically are you looking for? How would this be implemented?

          Because you seem to be saying your choices should be limited based on how you initially define your character, and I see that as hindering role-playing rather than helping it (unless you mean helping in the sense of the game telling you how your character should behave, which I don’t like, as I discussed with Bakka below). In my original post I talk about how my character changed, and how meaningful that was to me–not allowing me a full range of choices would have hindered that growth.

          Here’s an example… my first playthrough, I played a fairly selfless character who was interested in doing the right thing in any situation. However, she fell in love with Alistair, and made several selfish decisions based on that. She endorsed Anora to be queen on her own, instead of marrying her to Alistair, which would have been the best thing to do, and she also took Morrigan’s deal at the end. But if I had been locked in as a “selfless” character, those options would not have even been available to me, even though they made complete sense with my character. Currently a game isn’t capable of interpreting those sorts of nuances in characterization. (Unless this isn’t what you’re suggesting at all? I’m not sure.)

          It’s easy to suddenly become a selfish jerk, yes, but it’s not completely without weight: it will affect your companions’ feelings toward you, and they may leave or even attack you. The other consequences you face are personal–if you break character, it may not keep you from finishing the game, but it may cheapen the experience. That’s what I mean by “it’s on you to stay in character.” I mean, if it matters to you to stay in character, then you shouldn’t need the game limiting your choices because you’ll stay in-character anyway.

  7. Bakka says:

    I agree completely, Alex, that emotional journeys and change are both essential to making a game feel epic. To that I would also add moral complexity. I need to feel not only that the choices I make matter, but also that the moral values expressed through those choices are not black and white but also contain shades of gray.

    I think DA:O did this, because as rho mentions above, some of the choices that you make turn out differently than you would like, and sometimes you are faced with no good option. Also, your choices are not clear-cut and might affect the different NPCs differently. Sometimes you cannot make a choice that will make all party members happy, and you have to decide whom you will hurt.

    When the first Fable came out I was really excited to play because I study ethics and the game was specifically marketed for its moral choices. I was really excited to see what those choices were. But I do not think it did moral complexity very well, and I did not end up finishing it. First, the only choices were too clearly good or evil, which is not how the world is. Second, as my character became more of a “good guy” he got lighter and glowed, and as he became more of a “bad guy” his skin got darker. I could not take the racial-connotations behind that. My SO and I were playing together and when we were changing equipment on our “good” character and saw the union jack underwear, that was enough to make us put the game down and never pick it up again.

    • Alex says:

      Totally agreed. The whole good/evil meter is played out to the point of being completely uninteresting. As Justin McElroy from Joystiq put it, in those games you aren’t making a bunch of moral choices, you’re only making one choice at the very beginning: whether you’re going to be good or evil. And that’s it.

      DA: O is far, far more interesting, and this better system always reminds me of an old comment on Feminist Gamers, where MPG proposed a game where there are no good choices, using the example of a farmer who has to choose whether to defend his farm and family from monsters, or the local village, and so on. That comment has stuck with me for a while, and it’s interesting to see a game finally try out those ideas.

      It also increases the roleplaying aspect. In games like Fable and even Mass Effect, I’m not really going by what my character would do in a given situation, but what the game is telling me what a good person would do. Whereas in DA: O I was constantly working through my character’s individual personality and what she would decide given her background and experience. Now THAT is roleplaying!

      Although, I do enjoy Fable anyway ;P

  8. koipond says:

    Technically, what makes an epic and epic is that you have a hero that goes forth, achieves a goal and returns a changed individual. One of the better books on that is Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.

    This has been your, “using a degree in Literature” moment.

    • Alex H says:

      I hate to break out the english nerd, but in order for it to be an “Epic” it has to be a story told in an oral tradition that begins en medias res and invokes the muse. so basically the Odyssey, the Iliad, beowulf, son jara, etc

      • Shil says:

        In the interests of being even more pedantic, Alex H, I have to respectfully disagree. What you mentioned is a very narrow and specific idea of a “epic”. It’s not even the literary epic as the classical Greeks would have considered it, since for them a text in the epic meter was an epic. They had scientific epics, historical epics, etc, because subject matter didn’t matter much to them in defining an epic. That definition does get a fair bit of play in English departments, but it’s hardly useful in considering the vast variety of epics out there. Especially if one considers epics from non-Western cultures, such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana from India.

        • Alex H says:

          Shil it’s funny that you mentioned that because I had a professor also named Shil who would agree with you (are you him???). However, that’s not the “literary Epic,” that’s the Greek Epic and we both know the Ancient Greeks weren’t the multicultural sort. Even so, dactylic hexameter may have been necessary, but wasn’t sufficient for a definition for them; coughing in dactyls all day wouldn’t suffice :)

          I think we *can* agree that all these definitions are way too narrow. And that we need a new word specific to video games! “Ocarina of Time is (what Alex said)!”

  9. Laurentius says:

    Reply to #15 Alex
    I’m looking for -since DA:O is cRPG- game that helps me role-playing b/c right now game leaves all role-playing “on players head”, it’s great if you can role-play your character in one go but what if i started playing, went halfway and had to stop it for two and half months, if i want to continou i quite posssible won’t remember what exeactly i was role-playing and game won’t help me in this at all. My computer character is blank page and will remain as such till the end. How to help player role-playing : give player character personality and emotions, not to be locked in them and to limit the choices and possibilities but to make them meaningful. ie. Selfish character making sacrifice. Right now SPOILER : if i had to answer the door when Alistair was leaving my team i wouldn’t even know that something has happened: my character has the same blank emotioneless face i picked for him at the start, he just lost the best friend that he went for so many tough situtation with and he is so calm and act like nothing happen wtf.

    • Alex says:

      Well I can definitely agree that the PC’s reactions should be more robust, particularly when something upsetting like that happens. It’s also immersion-breaking when the companions don’t make mention of it either.

  10. kingofys says:

    Don’t know about Dragon Age, but Bioware’s games are just losing my interest with every game, and can’t say why it may be just blandness, having multitude of choices doesn’t make for a good story I feel. But agree with the comments about ocarina of time, but would say that majora’s mask is even more epic, it’s because of all the little stories that are really poignant. That life goes on even though the world is going to end, and the hero is the only one that knows and can do something about it. It’s funny that the reward for setting everyones affairs in order is the ability to one-shot almost the last boss, from helping a couple elope to defending off ufos all their stories help to forge the ultimate mask.

    But the epic game that really stands out for me is Okami, it happens about that time about 15 hours in facing off against the big bad hydra, and then the game seems to open up at that point, not that it isn’t still linear just the feeling of more adventures to come and not really knowing what’s around the next corner,and where you’re going to end up. Majora’s mask had a similar feeling of such disparate storylines and characters. (maybe the word I’m looking for is episodic not epic :-) )

    That could be why Bioware’s formula is getting dull, always after the opening section, there’s always the 4 chapters to get done before the closing, and the player knows each chapter before hand and counting them off one by one.

    • Alex says:

      Heh, I fully admit to being something of a BioWare newb, my first game of theirs being Mass Effect, which I played last year, but I can understand why someone might have BioWare-fatigue. (Have you seen this? Hehe.)

      Majora’s Mask is so freaking awesome. Relating to what 8mph said above about Professor Layton, MM also has a world that goes on whether or not Link is doing anything, he’s not the center of the universe. And that’s one thing I really like about it.

      I dug on Okami a bit in this post, but it really is totally awesome. I loved that game, one of two games (I think) I’ve actually played 50+ hours of and still wanted more.

      Good picks!

      • kingofys says:

        Ah yeah, that’s the article I was thinking of with the last comment, good linking, bookmarked it this time. Maybe I was a little too critical with the bland comment, would still like to play Mass Effect, moreso than Dragon Age. It’s probably that I know how much time that I need to invest and know Bioware too well to be surprised. Do wonder if they went totally with an episodic structure for Dragon Age, it would be much more accessible. And it does raise doubts about the Star Wars MMO, that the story must be completed before the fun starts.

        Forgot completely about Eternal Darkness before, it wasn’t a very good game, some of the mechanics were a bit clunky and it was short but the story and structure were epic. Two thousand years of time passing, sure there was only a few locations but they changed with the passing centuries, the cast of characters was really diverse, what other game has protagonists that are old, unfit, awkward, fearful, driven to insanity, definitely not the usual stereotypes. Each of them has a horrible end and then it falls upon to heroine in the present day to finally put an end to the horror, or else their lives would have been in vain.

  11. Shil says:

    Alex H :
    Shil it’s funny that you mentioned that because I had a professor also named Shil who would agree with you (are you him???).

    If the prof you’re talking about was at either VTech or Temple, then, yes, that’s me. If so, please remind me which class you were in. This would be an interesting coincidence.

    And yes, I agree about the definitions and their narrowness. Video games really do need terms of their own, though they’d probably also end up as problematical as literary terms tend to be.

    • Alex H says:

      Haha I went to Temple, I knew it was you Shil! I think it was drama course, I believe we might have talked some D&D?

      • Shil says:

        Serendipity! I think I’ve placed you now, Alex. It was the Masterpieces of European Drama class, and we definitely talked some D&D. I’m still rolling dice in my classes :)

    • koipond says:

      Isn’t it great when blogs bring people back together. Well, blogs and rusty uses of literature degrees.

  12. oliemoon says:

    Ahhh, Ocarina of Time. I know exactly what you mean when you talk about that bittersweet feeling of going back and forth between the old and the new Hyrule. What’s really impressive is that they managed to capture it all within one game. Similar examples that I can think of both have to do with sequels: Lunar 2: Eternal Blue and Final Fantasy X-2 made me feel really nostalgic for the previous entries when I played them because you go back to places that have changed since the first game. Seeing the broken down and land-locked Magic Academy in Lunar 2 made me feel really, really sad and it hit home how small my characters and their stories were in the grand scheme of things.

    • DSimon says:

      I had the same experience seeing Hollow Bastion turn from the lair of the Big Bad in the first Kingdom Hearts into a thriving reconstructed town in the second game; while keeping the same overall aesthetic, the place was transformed from “sinister” to “home”.

  13. Mantheos says:

    No one commented on my link. :( Okay. I do have an actual comment. I think there are many factors in games being epic. Slow-motion ogre slaying is one of those wow-moments, but it is, as Alex said, the great story and journey (both physical and emotional), that the characters go through that makes it epic.

    As for games capturing that epic “feeling,” one thing that is important for me is the music. If you played Dragon Age without the music, It would not have the emotional intensity that it does. Here’s another example: Star Wars. If you took the music out of Star Wars, it would not be as awesome as it is. A game is epic when it puts me in the world, and the music is a key part of that immersion.

  14. Gunthera1 says:

    For me the definition includes a well conceptualized world/environment. I want to feel like I know and understand the world of the game. But that can be done in a lot of ways. I love adventure games that have a lot of small details like an apartment with posters, books/magazines out on surfaces, and food in the fridge. The little details and descriptions of items really help me to understand the world and the characters. I also enjoy the varied and large environments in Okami. The changes in those environments as you revitalized the world really drew me into the game. Mass Effect and Dragon Age both do well in creating small environments within the larger world of the game that are distinct and well defined.

    I like worlds that are detailed and distinct enough that I feel like I really “know” that world as I play it.

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  16. Richard Naik says:

    There’s a feeling that shows itself whenever a game goes into “epic mode” for me. That’s when I know I can play for hours on end, or that I care about the events unfolding in the narrative, or so forth. Hell, it really just has to be something that grabs me for a moment and sticks in my memory long after I finish playing.

    So in short, if the experience of playing the game stays with me for any (good) reason, that is epic.

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