Orcs Must Die is a great indie game in which, as the title says, you kill a lot of orcs. Buy it, play it, it’s well worth it. But why must it be orcs that die?
Why not someone else for a change?
Orcs are the age-old enemy of many fantasy settings, from the cruel creatures of Tolkien to the wonderfully ludicrous space orks of Warhammer 40K. Pointy-eared wise elves, machine-loving gnomes and flinty dwarves are also regulars. Why? Why are vampires always in vogue? Why does Cthulhu keep popping up out of the woodwork? What’s with the endless love of dragons? Or certain superheroes? Or space-trading scifi? Or zombies?
It’s got a lot to do with the culture that we’re exposed to when we’re young. Orcs, vampires, dragons and so forth are archetypal images which become signifiers, symbolic images which convey a wealth of emotional association by virtue of their presence.
The culture that we live in has literally millions of choices at our fingertips, most of them bad, and so the use of a signifier acts as a helping hand. Your choice might be good or bad, but at least you know what kind of thing it is you’re buying into before you buy it. If you know it’s a game about orcs then you know it’s probably humorous in particular way and that helps you decide if it’s for you. You have a relationship with that signifier.
And as a game maker, understanding signifiers is crucial. They are a very powerful tool for tapping into existing niches and building a marketing story. There’s a reason why Skyrim is all about dragons and Game of Thrones too. These signifiers mean something to hundreds of millions of players, whereas the race you invented last week does not.
If Robot Entertainment had invented a race of their own (let’s call them ‘tantos’) and created a game called Tantos Must Die, then it would mean nothing to anyone. Chances are that that game would have a much harder time getting traction simply because of a lack of recognition.
It might seem unfair, but that’s the world we live in. The innocence of the founderwork age is long gone and has been replaced by the complex and coded landscape of the masterwork age. Gamers are now an educated audience with 1000 times more choice than ever before, and games have long left their infancy behind. The lesson that Orcs Must Die teaches is that if you want to resonate with an audience then you need to speak its language.