Thursday, April 5, 2012

How do we take fantasy seriously?

I recently had a conversation with my friend William Gibbons about fantasy (@ashwara on Twitter, if you'd like to see the actual discussion). In that conversation, he said:

Graphic novels are getting more literary recognition but still the only ones accepted by The Academy are historical ones like Maus and Persepolis. But fantasy and adventure stories are never considered literary, even in terms of novels. Aside from the occasional reading of the hobbit or Lord of the Rings. Sci-Fi gets a bit more respect due to dystopias.


We developed this conversation a bit and came to a bit of a conclusion about it. The question here is this: "Why isn't fantasy taken seriously?" And yet the question, or its phrasing leads us to the general area of its answer. What isn't taken seriously? Fantasy and adventure stories - stories of escapism that lack consequence, where there's no sense of cause-and-effect and no way to really empathize with the characters as being real people. They're stories that are meant to feel good, not stories that are meant to remind us of real, depressing things. What is taken seriously, and why is it taken seriously? Stories like Maus and Persepolis (and I'd add Crecy to that list, too) look at real events, albeit through a somewhat aesthetically-distorted lens. Dystopian sci-fi ostensibly looks at plausible events, even if they're somewhat exaggerated. Even "Watchmen" was sort of a realistic look at the Superhero genre, and I'd say that it's the most well-regarded superhero comic for that very reason. Illogical things are not taken seriously, and logical things are. Things that apply to the real world are taken seriously, things that are there only to serve as an escape from reality are not.

Art, as it generally stands, is about evoking emotion and/or gaining a better understanding of the world we live in. The two examples of "acceptable graphic novels" provided were Maus and Persepolis; the former is an animal-centric retelling of a real-life holocasut experience, and the latter is an autobiographical story about life in Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution. The value of these two examples are clear: by reading them, you are learning something about reality, something about other cultures, and something about people's experiences. While I'm sure they received a great deal of praise due to their aesthetic styles, I believe that such things are secondary concerns even in the eyes of the people who judge them. What makes them "art" is the experiences they convey, and how effectively they do so, more than the technical execution of the setup.

But surely works that are somewhat escapist or unrealistic can still teach us about the human condition, or about empathy, or about other real aspects of life? There is a term I am going to use here in response to that idea. That term is "chaff". Chaff refers to the parts of a story or setting that get in the way of its basic relevance to reality - the factors that prevent it from being applicable to our own lives or the lives of others. For example, if Avatar is a movie about the beauty and wonder of aboriginal cultures and how cruel it is to opress them for their land, then the conditions of the concept - the illogical planet, the nonsensical virtue, the ridiculous "internet hivemind" - are chaff. You cannot use Avatar to judge actual history, or actual aboriginal relations. It is so different, in so many distinct ways, that you cannot use it as a reflection of real history or real cultures. If your understanding of Native American relations and Manifest Destiny is founded on "Avatar" as anything but the most basic starting point to get you interested in real history, you might as well have not watched anything at all. If you wanted the lesson that the European colonial treatment of aboriginal races was cruel, you'd have been better off watching a movie about aborigines instead of a barely-related black-and-white sci-fi romp.

In many cases, the basic idea that a realistic story isn't enjoyable is itself founded in ignorance. "The Tuskegee Airmen" is "Red Tails" without all the chaff, and it's a much better (and more respected) movie because of it. They took away the black-and-white morality, the cliche dialogue, and the high-flying action...and replaced it with, you know, actual plausible things. Pilots whose discrimination isn't overcome in a single action, individuals who aren't either wholly good or wholly bad, actors whose characters resemble the lives they're supposed to be teaching us about and not some made up Hollywood protagonist. And that was what got the movie praise, because it depicted something in a way that actually taught us about it instead of fixing everything so that the racists and the nazis get what they deserve and the black pilots fly away happily in the end without a care in the world. You can learn something from Tuskegee Airmen; you can't learn anything from Red Tails apart from the general message that "racism is bad".

And how was Red Tails defended? It's "fun". It's "exciting". Perhaps. Is it relevant? Is it valuable? Maybe less so. "Fun" and "Serious", while not necessarily in conflict, often detract from each other. A sacrifice made in the name of "fun" takes its cut from "serious". Red Tails sacrificed its seriousness in the name of fun, and it suffered for it. For every character turned into a 2d cutout, for every battle made into a CG setpiece, for every event turned into a cliche story point, Red Tails' seriousness suffers - and, relatedly, so does the audience's opinion of it. Because Red Tails isn't Star Wars. It's a movie that's meant to be applied to real life, real people, and real history. You're telling a story about actual heroes, not fake ones, and you cannot do the same things and expect the same results.

The closer a story is to reality, the more effect it can have emotionally and culturally on its audience. A story that teaches us a lesson is doing so under the general pretext that the "lesson" is something we can carry with us in our real lives, or something that teaches us about a part of the world that we did not know about. Unrealistic stories are fun and escapist, but that's the point - they're supposed to reflect something else, not reality. You're not supposed to "learn" anything from Star Wars other than a very general "be a good person", and even that is mitigated by the fact that good and evil are solid, distinguishable concepts in the Star Wars universe. It's great fun to watch, and it makes you feel good about yourself, but you can't learn from it. If you try to learn from it, you will be tragically misinformed. Let's not even get into what most games consider to be a passable story - try to take a lesson from World of Warcraft or Fable and see how far that gets you.

And therein lies the "problem" with most fantasy: it's meant to be a fantasy. There's no logic or reason or real-world application behind it 99% of the time, it's just there to "look cool" and "be fun". That's great if you want to enjoy yourself in a world of your own creation, but can you really expect people to take it seriously? Most fantasy worlds would collapse if they made sense - the very existence of magic totally changes the rules of technological development in ways most fantasy authors wouldn't even dream of. It took hundreds of years to develop forges large enough to create plate armor (which is far easier to produce than mail), and "producing fire" is among the simplest tricks that most wizards, magicians, warlocks and sorcerers across fantasy can do. When you can reshape the laws of reality to your liking, what point is there in swords and shields? How am I supposed to care about this world when the people who live in it don't care?

There are (as far as I know) two major fantasy series that are taken seriously by critics and audiences. The first of these is the Lord of the Rings trilogy; the second is Game of Thrones. These are, tellingly, both very low fantasy - the magic is subtle and rare, if it's present at all, and it's really closer to "history" or "mythology" than what we generally term as "fantasy". Gandalf doesn't throw fireballs or lightning bolts, and most problems are overcome with grit and determination, not sorcery. The moral that Lord of the Rings teaches is about simple, normal folk overcoming obstacles through their courage and their own motivation, not through open power or sorcery. With a few exceptions, Game of Thrones is practically not fantasy at all. Despite being the foundation of "high fantasy" works, the most famous work of medieval-derived fantasy is in fact incredibly non-magical by comparison. It's very hard, in fact, to find any examples of "high fantasy" in movies; even more escapist films like Conan the Barbarian are relatively low on the "fantasy" scale. That's not even getting into countless historical-derived works, from Shakespeare to Kurosawa, from Kingdom of Heaven to Gladiator, from The Messenger to Excalibur. These things get by as "art" pretty much scot-free unless they go out of their way to be abjectly terrible. It's easy to see, therefore, that more historical or "realistic" works are more common and more respected in movies because it feels so much easier to take them seriously.

By contrast, low fantasy shows up very rarely in games; games prefer the razzle-dazzle of powerful spells and giant oversized swords and big plastic pauldrons bigger than your head. Could you take Dragon Age seriously if it was a movie? Could you take a look at the image on the right and really tell me, to my face, that yes, you could take that seriously? I'm going to assume your answer is no. I'm going to assume that your reaction to the plastic armor and the PVC knives and the pointlessly exposed skin is at best "well it's fun" and at worst open mockery. It's so intentionally ridiculous and impractical that the idea of the character wearing it being serious just seems impossible. If she was serious, why would she dress like that? Doesn't she want to, you know, not die? Are we in a medieval world here, and if so, where did she get those materials? Where did they come from? Oh, they're just sort of there?

And yet most fantasy looks exactly like that, and it's okay for what they are. Games are meant to be fun, aren't they? Let's not drag this down with serious stuff. That's fine and dandy when you're using games as escapism, but, you know, it does pretty handily explain why nobody takes it seriously. No matter how much overwrought lore you put into your game, no matter how many deep sidequests you attempt to make, no matter how hamfistedly you shove romance where it doesn't belong, the fact of the matter is that nobody takes fantasy seriously because the people who make fantasy don't take fantasy seriously.

You see, people don't necessarily know what "real" is, but they can tell what "fake" is. They may not know exactly how plate armor is made, but they can tell when it looks like it's plastic. They may not know how heavy a sword is, but they know when it's made of rubber. They may not know the exact mechanics of fencing, but they can pick out a generally fake-looking fight. They don't need absolute 100% adherence to the rules of reality, but they know what "metal" is. And fantasy designers actually don't care about that stuff. It's not their prerogative to be realistic; they're here to make fun things that look cool for enjoyable games. And that's fine. But it's not serious, and it's not going to be treated like it's serious.

There are, of course, the occasional bold attempts at serious materials or themes. Planescape: Torment treated fantasy like an actual alien world for once, and based its theme around the beliefs that make a person what they are. It did so with a lot of chaff, of course - "belief actually literally makes things change" being the biggest one - but the concepts it addressed about finding your own path in life can still resonate in reality despite that because it's largely philosophical, not magical. Final Fantasy Tactics based its plot around feudal politics, with a succession crisis being resolved through a bloody civil war, but that quickly and unpleasantly devolved into "there's a big scary evil bad guy, kill them to save the world!" What stayed with fans was not Altima but Delita - the low-born king who backstabbed his way to the top and yet, despite this, lost everything important because of how he'd gotten there. The chaff got in the way of a genuinely interesting, and potentially respectable, story. Games like The Witcher and Demon's Souls take stabs at the realistic aesthetic for dramatic effect, and can certainly be taken more seriously for it - but they alone simply aren't enough.

We don't need to talk about what "fantasy" needs. Fantasy has its guidelines set for it: people take Game of Thrones seriously, they take Lord of the Rings seriously, and they take historical material seriously. If you want fantasy to be taken seriously, start treating it like a logical world instead of an escapist fantasy. Draw from myth and legend if you want to include "fantasy" elements, because the key thing about myths and legends is that at some point, people thought they were real. People thought that dragons and monsters and gods and magic were real even as they tilled fields and mined ore and smithed metal; they didn't say "hey, there's magic in the world, I don't have to do anything!" When people throw around terms like "it doesn't have to make sense, it's fantasy", they're only helping to explain why nobody thinks of it as a mature form of expression. The answer is clear: stop saying that. Forever, if you can.

We do need to talk about how gaming needs to get involved in that, though. If gaming is going to mature as a medium - as some argue it should - then it needs to stop getting caught up in its over-the-top escapism and start addressing real problems and using real history as a guideline. If you want to say something about reality, use reality as a base to say it. I keep coming back to Dragon Age, but there's reasons - it wants to "say things", and it fails every time. It wants to talk about conflict and sacrifice and oppression and freedom, but it cannot do so because there's simply too much chaff between the concepts and the realities. Dragon Age is an escapist fantasy world where you can get in a million fights and quip about it while you casually brush the blood off your armor, but then it's also a serious world where mages are oppressed by religious fanatics and I'm supposed to care. It's a world where people dress like real humans never would, do things real people never would, and then try to tell me about kings and successions and what am I supposed to make of it?


What we need more of in games is "low magic". Games where people dress like they're actually wearing materials that make sense. Games where the rules of reality don't turn on when cutscenes show up and off where they're done (I'm looking at you, Magic Death Knife). Games where the plots are actually grounded, and not just quasi-grounded like DA:O or FFT did where the politics are just a backdrop for "oh no a huge monster that's threatening the world". We need actual politics, the kind of human-interest conflict that defined so many of Shakespeare's greatest plays and appeal to something more believable than a classic "big evil" antagonist. There are threats to civilization that you can display without conjuring up false boogeymen (the Mongols, for example), and even in cases where there aren't "absolute threats", you can use that as an opportunity for actual depth and moral ambiguity. The brilliance of Henry V, especially given its most famous scene, is that it's simultaneously very noble and very petty. Despite Henry's charismatic speech, the battle is ultimately one of an inheritance dispute between nobles. Henry speaks not of survival or necessity, but of honor and brotherhood - things that would hold men together no matter the cause for their conflict. That's human interest, with conflicting motives and goals and not just a simplified "here's how to fix everything" mindset.

I think the most telling issue is that games, to an extent, acknowledge the value of realism even if they don't care about it in the game itself. As mentioned, "realism" seems to turn on whenever cutscenes happen: a gunshot or stab in a cutscene is fatal no matter how many you've shrugged off in gameplay. Would they do that if realism wasn't important for taking a story seriously? Would a gun to the head matter if they treated it like they treat it in cutscenes? Then there's the ads for Halo: ODST or Mass Effect 3 or Skyrim that use live-action footage because, guess what, it feels more immersive and more real to us because it is more real. It draws people in by presenting a more tangible vision, because reality is where we actually live, and it's easier to draw upon our real-life senses than to try and abstract them through a thousand layers of falsehood. The more realistic things look, and the more realistic things behave, the easier it is for us to connect our own senses and experiences to it. Yet despite this "immersion" is basically treated like a buzzword, a demand made by whining grognards who don't actually care about having fun.

You know what game is really easy to take seriously? What game produces narratives that, in structure, strongly resemble actual historical stories and the works derived from them? What game has given me stronger emotional reactions through gameplay than most games give me through cutscenes? What game creates a narrative entirely THROUGH gameplay, while most games struggle to connect the two in a matter more meaningful than an irrelevant stapling?

I'm not going to stop until you understand.
Crusader Kings 2 is a game where "the rules of the game" are nearly inseparable from "the laws and customs of the period". Crusader Kings 2 is a game where, in the first ten minutes, my brother was conspiring to kill my daughter, and after an hour of playing that no longer seemed unusual. Crusader Kings 2 is a game where I murdered my own son so my daughter, the most gifted individual in the world at that point, could take the throne and lead the country to an era of prosperity. Crusader Kings 2 is a game where my rule collapsed under unfair circumstances and I died alone and despised as my own son deposed me - all because I'd been invaded and excommunicated by another ruler and didn't have the resources to fight him off. Crusader Kings 2 is a game where I stuck by my liege through civil wars and invasions and collapse because I felt that's what my character would do. Crusader Kings 2 is a game where every choice I made affected the overarching layout of the narrative, not just some throwaway dialogue with binary decisions. Crusader Kings 2 is a game where every time I play the game, I am creating a story - not experiencing, but creating.


It's frustratingly telling that, as Erik Kain described, the Game of Thrones video game is an irrelevant "role-playing game" instead of what I just described (i.e. something that fits its political concepts perfectly). It showcases exactly how people think about video games, especially licensed games: you have your gameplay over here, and you have your cutscenes over here, and they can vaguely interact I guess if you want to get technical about it. No borders pushed, no advancements made. Just make "game parts" and then make "story parts" and find some thematic concept to tie them together.

If you want fantasy to be taken seriously, I think we've found a place to start.

9 comments:

  1. http://www.xkcd.com/483/

    I've read it on xkcd and from fantasy authors themselves (in interviews, etc.) that if you're not sure of whether to buy someone's fantasy fiction you should count the number of made up words on the first page or in the first chapter.

    Doing this should give you a good idea of the amount of chaff needed to support the story, which will be front-loaded expository detail most of the time, and therefore an indication of the quality of the story.

    The strictest implementation of this rule of thumb is to employ it like Old Man Murray's Crate Review System, and stop reading at the first occurrence of a made up word (that is not a characters' name). In how many RPGs would you get past the first cutscene while employing this rule?

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    1. On the one hand that's vaguely true (you still need place names and stuff) but on the other hand XKCD making that point is like Shortpacked making a point about how it's bad to collect toys.

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  2. Nitpicking, but mail is much easier to produce than plate. Mail is simply made from wires that have been wrapped around a dowel and cut into rings, and these rings are woven into armour. Drawing an ingot of metal into a wire adds a ton of tensile strength. Plate requires complex shapes, and screwing it up means a useless and fragile hunk of metal.

    The key thing is that that it's easy to fall back on the mental shortcut, where More Ornate Thing = Better Than. Mail has a more complex texture than smooth plate (ignoring the function of the fluting that goes into the best plate), which makes it easy to assume that it takes more effort to create. And that's why game designers give their characters ridiculously ornate armours and weaponry, to mark them as Better Than.

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    1. "Williams compares the cost of 12 oxen for a 9th century helmet, mail and leggings with the cost of only 2 oxen for horseman's plate armour at the end of the 16th century.111 At Iserlohn in the 15th century, a mail haubergeon cost 4.6 gulden while plate armour only cost 4.3 gulden.112 Kassa's archives (Hungary 1633) record a mail shirt costing six times that of a "double breastplate." These records also indicate the huge difference in labour involved. The mail required 2 months to be completed while the breastplate, only 2 days."

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    2. Googling that quote, I found that article (http://www.myarmoury.com/feature_mail.html). Interesting, it's more complex than plate > mail. The take home message was that it took a long time for plate to supplant mail. We're talking from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Paraphrasing the article, labour costs increased after the black plague, and larger more advanced furnaces and forges made plate both more economical and effective.

      So I was wrong about mail needing more straight up skilled artisans. Mail started out superior to earlier plate (the Roman segmentata), but as metallurgy improved, it got supplanted by more advanced and economical plate.

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    3. Yes, it's a question of technology rather than simple economics (as D&D would have you believe). Mail can be made in small forges because its components are small, but the process of making it takes a long time. Plate, on the other hand, requires large forges to make, but it's simpler to shape one big lump of metal than lots of tiny little ones. Hence, higher technology requirements, but lower manpower requirements.

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  3. I still think a game, book or story can have unrealistic things if their is at least a certain logic to them, and that human element to them, though I agree too many developers get lost in lowest common denominator and rule of cool.

    FF7 had some "chaff" and it still worked well.

    I don't know what FFt was thinking with that demon stone nonsense >_>

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  4. Today I was watching this speech -

    The Dragon Speeh Part 1 of 5 "Dream Well"
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_04PLBdhqZ4

    - where Chris Crawford is talking about games needing PEOPLE, and this is a fundamental aspect of creating games that can be taken seriously. If characters have feelings, and if they have all manner of facial expressions, and if there are real, tangible repercussions for what you do to them, and if there are real ways in which your actions have VALUE to your NPC allies..-- these are some foundational requirements of building games/game-engines that can facilitate those things you mentioned, like politics, and like honor.

    But, to build these structures takes a lot of work. And this basically goes ignored in the game industry, because games are created from scratch each time. You'd need to create a sort of general intelligence.. for those things like politics and honor having real substantial meaning to those game characters.

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  5. I loved this article, I was wondering if you have an opinion of the Dresden Files novels? The author Jim Butcher said that the reader/player/audience, can except anything, no matter how impossible, as long as a logical series of events bring it about.

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