Updated Sat, Dec 07, 2013 by gunky
Elves occur in one form or another in nearly every fantasy game ever made. Indeed, along with magic, swords and goblins, elves more or less define the high-fantasy genre. You can thank Tolkien for that. He was not the very first to write about them, but his ancient warrior-poet elves, abstracted from Norse and Western European folklore, were so thoroughly detailed and richly portrayed that they continue to be "borrowed" by fantasy writers to this day. But each writer seems to take them further and further away from their roots, narrowing in on some aspect or other of Tolkien's originals and then being "that guy."
One aspect is their close ties to nature. Tolkien's elves weren't the tree-hugging, whale-saving hippies that some might make them out to be. They hunted game and rode horses just like the grubby men from the less awesome places of Middle-Earth. They made stuff out of metal and stone. They were fierce warriors. Incidentally, they grew magical trees in Lothlorien and lived in them, but they also built the Last Homely House in Rivendell and a bunch of old buildings in Hollin that fell to ruin. They weren't just tree-huggers - they were badasses with vaguely supernatural powers.
That doesn't stop some writers from depicting them as perpetual tree-huggers, though. Some even take it to extremes. We all recognize that the Sylvari in Guild Wars 2 are not Elves. But let's be honest with each other here: they totally are and we all know it. They're the epitome of the tree-hugger aspect, taken to the extreme and then made creepy. The Sylvari are not entirely opposed to violence - that simply wouldn't work in a video game; peacenik pacifism is usually limited to literature - but there's no denying that they do indeed love their flora. Perhaps they are more closely-related to Dryads or Wood Nymphs, but those various fey all fall under the umbrella category of tree-hugging elves.
At the other end of this spectrum, but equally extreme, are the Bosmer of the Elder Scrolls games. They are so tree-hug-alicious that their official state religion requires them to harm no plants or even to eat them. Instead, they are pure carnivores and use only animal products to make stuff. They make booze out of milk, wear only leather clothing and cannibalize their own dead. That's not something Elves did in Middle-Earth.
Of course, Tolkien's elves also exemplify two very negative characteristics of elves: self-obsessed moodiness and terrible racism.
The navel-gazing male model is another fantasy staple that has a very strong appeal to the young female audience who haven't yet outgrown the "bad boy" phase - damaged and "fixable," but also safe. He will talk about his feelings - sorrow, mostly, because that's how elves roll - and he's amazing and graceful and dangerous with his weapons, but he won't steal your stereo or get drunk and punch holes in your walls. He'll write poems about loss and sorrow and the moon, and then kill some Orcs, Legolas-style.
Elves wear their sorrow like a fashion statement, the same as the emo kids from a few years ago. And just like the emo scene, that moodiness gets real old real fast, and then it's no longer interesting. It's just aggravating. Go to the Grey Havens and shut up already.
On the other end of that scale are the overly-capricious manic fey - Elves so aggressively cheerful, all the time, that it's unlikely such a species would survive for very long in a world with Dwarves and Orcs. Or laws of physics. Tolkien's Elves walked a very fine line in this respect - on the one hand, you had characters like Galadriel and Elrond, who were 4srs 24-7. On the other hand, you had the merry jerks who pranced around in the woods near Greenhall in the Shire, singing their tinkly songs at Frodo and his Hobbit homies who were attempting to keep away from the black riders and rolling silently.
Elves are also probably the biggest racists in the entire fantasy bestiary. It's not the kind of low-brow hate-group racism that involves staging loud and disgusting protests, but the very polite kind that is even more disturbing because the tone makes you think it might not be such a terrible thing. Elves quite plainly believe themselves to be axiomatically superior to the other races. Perhaps it's because they live longer, or they are more in-tune with nature, or they are prettier and taller and slimmer, or they're better at magic, or their culture is way older than anything else ever. But whatever it is, it surely makes them think they are way better than everyone else. In fantasy literature, the often-used term is "haughty," but what it boils down to is something a lot uglier than high-bred haughtiness.
The Altmer of the Elder Scrolls are a prime example of this. Queen Ayrenn, leader of the Aldmeri Dominion in Elder Scrolls Online, claims to have "no hatred for the races of Man," but goes on to describe them as impatient children that are dumber than High Elf babies. In other words, "It's not that we hate you; we just believe you under-beings are too stupid and backwards to do anything correctly." They're not really much better in any other setting, either.
Elves are usually more fun to play than Humans. In essence, they encapsulate the entire experience of the fantasy RPG, in that they are everything we wish we could be. They look like us, only hotter. They live forever. They're smarter than us, and better at the things that make high-fantasy-genre games awesome. They are the bread and butter of the escapist. And they're slightly more accessible to the average player than the other staple fantasy races, because they're not short or beastly. At least, not physically. But if you want to play one, be prepared to recite a lot of poetry about the sun and moon and trees and sorrow.
Got a pet peeve about Elves? Let us know in our comments!