Games, generally speaking, are not subtle.
What do I mean?
Well, I had a conversation with my pal Dave about this a few days ago, and I came to the conclusion that most games lack subtlety. Their settings, premises, and how the various elements of those things are introduced to the players/PCs is often over-the-top, blatant, and even crude.
Everything is Extreme!, like the music videos of the eighties. Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, RIFTS, and Shadowrun are perhaps the most obvious examples of this idea. The art contributes to this to a large degree, but also the commonality of the elements within. Spells, and Magic are everywhere, monsters appear in large groups, towering, skyscraper-like castles, and fantastically fashionably dressed characters abound.
I've noted in the past that this is one of the key reasons D&D, and the likes of it don't appeal to me. It isn't really very medieval. The bizarre, and glowingly arcane is so common place as to feel mundane. Every evil wizard, and dreadful monster is so much bigger, and more eccentric than the last that none of it seems special. There is no grounding in reality to judge the fabulous against.
I prefer subtlety. I like worlds that seem essentially real, basically normal, until you realize they are not, but at first can't put your finger squarely on why. As the wonder, and weirdness is revealed over time, you begin to have a new appreciation for not only that which is strange, but also for the comfort of the world you thought you knew.
This works better in some genres than others, though many games with similar genres, or even the same genres, can be approached subtly as easily as they can be flagrant, and unabashed.
To illustrate what I mean, let's look at the World of Darkness.
Traditionally, Vampire: The Masquerade is subtle. The world of the Vampires remains in the shadows. The people of the world are not aware a secret war of blood-drinkers in being waged just outside the edge of their vision. Battles between members of The Kindred are stealthy, secretive affairs.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse however, often seems over-the-top, and obvious. No, the world is no more aware of the Werewolves then they are of the Vampires, but the powers in the game, the way battles are fought, and such makes the supernatural parts of the setting seem very apparent. Werewolf campaign end up feeling like superhero games more often than not.
Vampires are quite, hidden, stealthy. Werewolves are loud, brutal, and right in your face. That's the point right? I suppose...
Marvel and DC aren't subtle. HEROES is. Often Superhero games aren't subtle, like ICONS, Champions, and of course Marvel and DC related ones. Aberrant isn't really subtle either. GODLIKE? Hmmm. Perhaps.
How about in Science Fiction? Star Wars, Star Trek, and even Traveller are not generally subtle. Cyberpunk could be, but often isn't. Hmmm. SF is tough. One might consider the film Interstellar subtle, maybe Blade Runner (at least partially) or perhaps 2001: A Space Odyssey, but a subtle SF RPG?...hard pressed to think of one.
Now I don't want to give the impressive I don't like the flashy, imposing set pieces, or crazy action of a mainstream blockbuster every once in a while. I absolutely do! I just wish we saw a bit more of the other approach in table top games. Right now Tales from the Loop is the best example of what I am thinking of, though even its default setting is a bit more transparent and less subtle than I'd like (as I posted last month, I would run it a bit differently than the book implies).
What about you? Do you think there is a place for subtle gaming? What settings do you feel come off as subtle? Is there a subtle Fantasy game?*
*I think maybe Ars Magica could be considered subtle, depending on how you look at it. Any others?