Monday, April 23, 2012

Fantasy and Reality: Grounding and Novelty

Dragons aren't real, but their components certainly are.
"Fantasy" and "reality" are two concepts that seem like they should be totally at odds. They're practically conceptual opposites - one's about adherence to an existing system, the other is the rejection of that system. Realism is stodgy and boring, fantasy is flashy and exciting. Realism is grounded and tangible, fantasy is floaty and immaterial. The idea of caring about realism in a work full of dragons and wizards and griffons and demons seems ridiculous to many people, because we've already gotten past the point of "reality". Things aren't realistic in one sense - why should they be realistic in any other?

Yet most fantasy, most notably Tolkien-derived fantasy, draws its ideas from myths and legends. The thing to remember about myths and legends is that at one point people thought they were how the world worked. That's what makes them myths and legends and not just "stories". People thought that dragons were real and that they lurked over the next hill - nevermind that they hadn't seen one themselves, because they hadn't seen a lot of things themselves. The same is true of explorers and their understanding of the world. To an explorer, a sea serpent was no more impossible than a giant squid, a gryphon was no less unfeasible than a rhinoceros, and so on. The only difference between "what might be" and "what is" was the proof of their own two eyes. Despite this, if we were talking about a fantasy work that included such fantastic beasts, the general assumption is "all bets are off". Further attempts to call for realism would be undermined by the fact that there's already such creatures in the work.

Fantasy and reality seem like they're at odds because they represent different things - fantasy is imagination, reality is limitation. Yet we can experience reality much more coherently and clearly than we can experience fantasy, because reality is a manifold sensory experience and fantasy generally exists only in two senses. Therefore, the combination can make a more meaningful experience: taking the creativity of fantasy and making it more tangible by connecting it to things that we can understand in sensory terms. The duality of the reality/fantasy concept is actually pretty easy to explain. Think back to your childhood, to any time you spent exploring in the woods, in a cave, or in your backyard. Think about the feeling of potential - you're a child, you don't know how the world works yet, there could be anything behind the next rock. The experience is exciting because you're exploring in a very sensory manner - there's sights, sounds, smells, tactile sensations (including temperature and kinesthetics)...the process of "exploring" for a child combines the very real, very tangible "actual life" with the unlimited potential of "fantasy".

Ashitaka's curse has more impact when grounded in the physical nature of a bow.
Reality is Familiar
"Reality" consists of the familiar things that our brains can connect to on a visceral and tangible level. Having objects and people behave realistically allows us to draw upon our own experiences and understanding of materials and events, which helps us immerse ourselves into the experience. We know what stone is, we know what wood is, we know what steel is - and if we can use that knowledge to add depth to the work, the work prospers. Movies and games are an audiovisual medium, but humans have far more than two senses. Drawing in something as basic as the sense of touch or smell can make a work respond better in the confines of two-sense expression.

Reality exists to serve as a familiar base for what's going on by providing tangible materials and sensory experiences similar to those found in real life, and ergo our own lives. While the creatures and objects of fantasy are "unrealistic", their composition is often formed of realistic elements. Dragons aren't real, but they have scales like a reptile, leathery wings, and breathe fire (among other things). All of those elements exist in reality, and thus the composite formed by that sensory data informs the audience's understanding of a "dragon" even though dragons aren't real. While it's possible to intentionally try to avoid real materials to get a more "pure" form of fantasy, such materials will exist at most in an audio-visual format, and as such cannot connect or resonate with the audience.

Understanding the value of realism should not be a measure of absolute adherence, but rather understanding which bits of realism will give you the benefits you're looking for. Realism provides increased tangibility and coherence, and those simple things will open up a world of new design options and possibilities. For example, the simple act of conveying damage more realistically will create greater empathy and tension in a narrative. Having characters behave sensibly according to their personalities reinforces the fact that they're supposed to be "real people" that the audience should care about. Adding factors like weight and fatigue to a game's climbing makes the act of climbing more tense and more emotionally connective. Realism helps audiences understand things that do exist in reality but can't exist in fiction as they are shown it.

LOTR went out of its way to make its world tangible.
A lot of very effective but relatively simple techniques are founded in just making things more realistic. It's why the original Star Wars movies tend to feel more tangible and evocative than the prequel movies - because the full-CG sets of the prequels just don't feel like something you can touch. When characters start jumping out of flying cars and doing ridiculous stunts it stops feeling like a place you could actually be and starts feeling like a goofy cartoon. In many cases such CG is defended under aesthetic grounds, and that's fine - aesthetics are a matter of opinion. But the objective reality is that realism has very concrete and identifiable benefits, and rejecting realism should be weighted with the benefits you'll be getting from doing so.

Certain problems may arise with realism, however. The first potential problem is that unless the work is totally realistic, decisions about what's real and what's not are going to be on the author's hands. When realism has been suspended in the past, it's not going to cut it to say "hey, we can't do x element, it's not realistic".  When you say that regenerating health is okay but female protagonists aren't, the audience can pretty much tell what your agenda is.The second potential problem is that if you're talking about what's real and what's not, it's your onus to know what's real and what's not. When you start making mistakes or bad calls about what's possible and what's not possible, then it detracts from your work. In some cases this is nitpicking, in other cases the entire premise can be founded in faulty concepts. Whether or not the audience cares is going to depend on who, exactly, the audience is.

I think a big problem with "realism", though, arises from the fact that people don't really understand the range of what it entails. When you hear "realistic shooter", the assumption is generally "brown and boring". When you hear "realistic fantasy", it's much the same. As I tried to show people in one of my previous articles, "real" and "stylistic" can go together perfectly well. The problem is not actual "realism", but the implications foisted upon the concept by its misuse. You can have a brightly dressed character in a colorful environment and have it still be totally realistic as long as you know which cultures and environments to draw inspiration from. It's a question of knowing how systems work and what they mean, not a matter of aesthetic limitations. Realism is a set of tools to use for emotional effect, not a set of principles to blindly adhere to.
"Boringly realistic"?
Fantasy is Creative
Hercules' Hydra was a "puzzle boss".
The "fantasy" part of the concept brings with it creativity and novelty. We have a pretty good understand of things in reality, and while there's always things we don't know, it gets kind of boring just dealing with "real things" over and over because we already basically understand them. The ostensible value of "fantasy" is that it brings in scenarios and situations that we would not normally encounter - impossible creatures and magics that provide new information for us to pore over and digest. Well-done fantasy treats its elements logically and factors them into the narrative: what would things be like if we had x? How would we deal with y? Fantasy allows for a dynamic that wouldn't be possible in a purely realistic world.

Our brains constantly seek novelty; it's just part of what we are as humans. It's why we get bored. When we're talking about realism, there are a lot of things that we can cover - far more than most people actually give credit for - but there are limits. The advantage of fantasy is that in many cases you can come up with creatures or places that would just be outright impossible in real life. The player can set about attempting to understand this new content through trial-and-error; one of the charm points of early D&D was that most players didn't know the monster manuals by heart, and thus actually had to figure out how to defeat enemies. Most monsters are designed in a sort of "puzzle boss" manner: yeah, trolls are huge creatures that hit really hard, but the actual exciting part about them is that they regenerate unless you expose them to fire or acid. The process of "it's growing its parts back, what do we do", followed by a trial-and-error exercise, is part of the process of discovery, and that's what makes exciting gameplay.

Clash of the Titans did pretty well representing this element of fantasy (naturally since it's a mythology-derived work). It did this by using monsters as catalysts for exploration rather than simply "combat obstacles". The problems and solutions that arose within the story were only possible because of fantasy, but the application of logic and critical thinking is what makes them interesting to watch in the first place. Medusa is not a "real" character by any stretch of the imagination, but the rules of her existence and the way Jason maneuvers around it is compelling to watch because it involves active thinking and discovery, not just brute strength. It's a scenario that doesn't have an equivalent in real life, but thanks to fantasy it was able to happen. That doesn't mean it wasn't grounded - hell, mirrors are real, after all - but the fantastic elements played off of the realistic elements to create a tangible solution.

Dungeons are unrealistic, but offer unique dynamics.
It's not just monsters, of course - fantasy is full of places and things that seem impossible in real life (though real life shouldn't be undervalued in that regard), and the inclusion of those elements allows for more meaningful exploration. Dungeons, tombs, labyrinths, ruins...all things that exist in real life, but at most on a fraction of the scale of fantasy. The reason they're bigger is because that means there's more to interact with - more puzzles to solve, more traps to avoid, more monsters to kill. This plays into the sense of discovery: "what's around the next corner" has a much broader answer when you're not constrained by "things that exist in real life". An ancient dungeon full of still-functional traps and gadgets isn't totally realistic (apart from a few exceptions), but it's a gameplay experience that you can't get within the bounds of plausibility. That doesn't mean it can't take benefits from realism, but the basic concept just isn't realistic in and of itself. Again, we break from reality to deliver something novel.

Heck, even something as simple as a geographic switchup can create new dynamics and new situations. There are only so many plausible matchups with real-world situations; games like Ace Combat use familiar technology but mix them into new political and geographic scenarios. This can be expedient for gameplay purposes ("we want to have WW2 but with 1990s technology") and for narrative purposes (the ability to tell stories with new and exciting starting points). The point is that fantasy and non-realism in general can be used to make new things happen, and in many cases those new things are going to provide gameplay or narratives that aren't feasible within the boundaries of reality.

Of course, one of the common problems with fantasy as an actualized genre is that there's so much repetition and so many reused ideas. "Tolkien-esque" fantasy is so common now that it generally doesn't feel fantastic anymore. It's identified as "fantasy", but only because that's the genre we're used to putting things like elves and dwarves and orcs into. As an actual fantasy concept, there's no longer a sense of discovery or novelty regarding those things. They've been used so many times and in so many ways that it just seems ridiculous. The reliance on established tropes undermines all the benefits that fantasy should be providing. We see a troll and we go "oh, a troll, better kill it with fire" because we've seen them so many times before. There's no sense of discovery and experimentation, just a puzzle we've already solved a thousand times.

Are elves "fantastic" or "familiar" at this point?
In the early parts of The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee had never seen an elf; the prospect of meeting one was almost magical to him. Once he'd been around them for a while they no longer seemed particularly impressive - they're certainly graceful and wise, but they're now just another part of the world. Therein lies our (fairly direct) metaphor for the reader. When Tolkien created elves based on Norse mythology, they were new and interesting, and made readers want to learn about them. Their culture and civilization conjured up new ideas and new aesthetics that didn't work for mortal humans. Now we have so many types of elves that the concept is essentially meaningless apart from "pointed ears". The value of fantasy is in novelty and creativity, and relying on established things undermines that. In fact, the idea of novelty and creativity is why a lot of fantasy fans don't like realism: because fantasy is about exploring new things, not being stuck in old ones. Yet at the same time, they often don't recognize when tropes have worn out their welcome and are themselves serving as impediments to new things.

For fantasy to truly take advantage of its best features, it needs to be new. We like fantasy because it gives us an opportunity to experience new things that aren't part of reality. It lets us put our brains to work on puzzles and problems that wouldn't arise in scenarios constrained by reality. It relies on its content being new and fresh because the value of "fantasy" is found in mental stimulation. To that end, fantasy needs to stop getting caught up in what it already is and start putting more thought into what it could be. It needs to be more than just a strange or unrealistic aesthetic and start making use of the values that made people like it in the first place.

Everything but the magic is tangible.
Fantasy & Reality Intertwined
Both fantasy and reality have their benefits in a work. Reality grounds, fantasy expounds. Fantasy makes impossible structures and unbelievable creatures, reality conveys them in a manner that the audience can connect to. Fantasy is the castle, reality is the masonry. Eliminating fantasy from the equation limits the opportunity for new and exciting stimuli for the audience; eliminating reality means that those new stimuli are just weird, abstract things that don't feel tangible at all. There's reasons to have both, and they don't necessarily cancel each other out.

Think about the success of a franchise like Game of Thrones: the concept is largely realistic in its construction, but makes use of specific unrealistic elements for greater effect. The baseline of "realism" makes the things that aren't realistic more meaningful. The reward for this dynamic is a far greater level of societal acceptance than fantasy media has received in the past; not since Lord of the Rings has fantasy been as mainstream-acceptable, and LOTR was itself fairly grounded. It's not a question of "high magic" or "low magic" though - rather, it's the conveyance of elements within the universe. It's easier to make convincing costuming than convincing CGI; believable magic effects are possible, but they're much more work than believable prop design.

Game designers often talk about the feeling of exploration in "kid in a backyard" terms like the scenario I described earlier. It's the idea of pure, childish exploration, a search for novelty and interesting things. It's what drove Shigeru Miyamoto to create the Zelda games. It's what's inspiring the upcoming Dragon's Dogma. It's the feeling of "I'm actually walking through the woods, and I don't know what's around the next corner or what I'll find". Reality reflects the memory of actual physical exploration - of walking through the woods, touching the bark of trees, feeling low-hanging leaves sweep against your face, listening to the sounds of rustling undergrowth and bird calls.Fantasy reflects the sense of discovery you felt that is hard to recapture with "real things", because "real things" at this point are so familiar to you. As a child, you were probably happy just finding bugs or old coins - as an adult, those things are so familiar that you need something new to interact with.

In short, the two elements of "fantasy" and "reality" connect heavily to each other. Fantasy isn't tangible and comprehensible without reality; reality might not be as exciting and novel without fantasy. Fantasy shows us exciting new worlds, reality connects us to basic concepts of understanding and empathy. We use the fantasy to escape, we use the reality to make the escape seem real. Each has their own set of benefits. The idea that they are necessarily at odds doesn't help anything - it just displays ignorance of what both are truly capable of achieving.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

How To Write Empowering Female Characters

Nonsensical design, or empowering ideal?
A few months ago I posted an article called Project: Representation asking for people (primarily women and minorities) to provide descriptions of what they thought would be an idealized representation of their race, sex, or other status identifier. This was in response to two major things. The first was my own uncertainty about my already-established idea of "to write female characters well, just write them like men". This was the idea of characters being defined not by their sex or race, but instead by their personality, career, etc. The potential problem with this was that "have everyone be like white men" might not be the best option, and actual women and ethnic minorities might have some traits that they thought were important or central to their identity.

The second issue was one of idealization. It had been argued by some that a busty, beautiful female character was to women what a buff, handsome male character was to men - a tool for escapism, and a representation of the ideal figure or body type. I had heard this argument be challenged due to the underlying issues surrounding representations of men and women, especially in comics. Men are there to be "awesome", women are there to be ogled. The designs of female characters are not appealing to women, because their figures, appearances and personalities aren't actually their "ideal". Many women seemed to be uncomfortable with the representation of women in comics because it felt like they were there solely to be sexy, and they didn't have the agency or justified representation that most male characters were assumed to.

Empowering, or bland?
In Project: Representation I tried to get a sense of what attributes would define a good female character, or a good minority character, besides being a "good character" in a neutral sense. Each issue raised its own question that I wanted answered: firstly, "is it better or worse to make a minority character devoid of any cultural traits in the name of avoiding stereotyping", and secondly "what sort of character or traits would you find empowering?" Unfortunately I only had a few respondents, none of them female, so I wasn't really able to get a good sense of what people actually wanted. The few people I asked directly gave me the relatively common-sense answer of "it depends on how it's used in context".

This article by Vivienne Chan (click this link it is the basis of the rest of the article) answers a lot of my questions more directly, at least in terms of one person's perspective:

"Everyone – and I do mean EVERYONE, male or female – is going to have a different answer to “what makes a great female lead in a video game."

The things that Miss Chan describes as being her own ideal are things like:

"...shamelessly beautiful, almost to the extent that it can be offensive.  She would have long dark hair, she would be tall, and she would be athletic with slamming curves."

"...her ability to beat down enemies – women and men alike – without breaking a nail, and she would do so wearing whatever the hell she thought was the best thing to wear at the time, whether it be a skimpy catsuit unzipped to her navel or full body armor."

"She would be charming and intimidating at the same time, and will make no goddamn apologies for who she is or what she stands for."

"Screw the “muted” attractiveness that Jade from Beyond Good and Evil brought to the table – I want a lady who is unapologetically gorgeous and is comfortable in that skin."

What's funny about these examples, to me, is that it feels like if I saw this character in a game or a comic, I'd assume it was designed by a man, and ergo assume it was sexist. The classic idea of an ostensibly empowered female character who is drop-dead gorgeous and "kicks ass" and is charming and capable and powerful and self-motivated...well, that seems kind of cliche in a shallow quasi-feminist "Joss Whedon" way, doesn't it? But it's something that a woman wants in this case, very specifically in fact. It's her own terms for what would define a character that she would want to be like. There must be some element that separates her desire from the offensive cliche. Let's examine each element of what Miss Chan wants in order to come to an understanding of how their context and presentation can influence the end result.

Issue A: Character Agency And Self-Determination
One of the most easy-to-identify things in this description of an ideal character is that the character exists on her own terms. She is not subordinate to anyone, she is not weaker than anyone, she is not chained by anyone or anything. The things she does are under her own terms: she "wear(s) whatever the hell she wants", she "will make no goddamn apologies", she is "unapologetically gorgeous and is comfortable in that skin".

These are traits that exist in many sexist characters, but the problem with those characters is that it doesn't feel natural for them. It feels like a justification, because the actual issue is that they're like that because it's something that the author finds attractive. The influence of authorship creates a scenario where a character with such a design cannot be considered neutral, because there's so much obvious justification there for shallow, sexist desires. When Starfire talks about how great being nude is, it's difficult to address that as a legitimate character trait because it feels like an empty excuse for the artist to draw a nude character.

In such a scenario, the character's agency - even if it exists in-universe - is unpleasantly overtaken by the author's control. A female character who kicks ass and chews bubblegum and does a billion slow-mo kills in a slinky nightgown or catsuit (Aeon Flux, Resident Evil, Ultraviolet, etc) is not traditionally thought of as empowering because behind that concept is the lurking terror of a creepy, objectifying male writer or director. Even though "the writer" or "the director" don't exist in-universe, their presence is felt strongly enough that it's nearly impossible to think of such characters as being "a woman exhibiting agency". When a female character wears immodest clothing, or has large breasts, or is attractive, it's attributed to a male designer.

As a result of this, there's been a feminist cultural backlash against characters who possess those traits no matter what the conditions are. The real problem is why they're showing skin, or why they're attractive - something I've tried to illustrate in many of my previous articles. Alyx Vance is praised because she's somewhat plain and dresses modestly, which ostensibly makes her feel more "real" and "empowered", but in terms of her behavior she's still a sycophantic second fiddle to her silent protagonist companion. Saber from Fate/Stay Night is praised because she wears a modest dress and armor, but her design is still a very blatant "kawaii anime girl". The Last Psychiatrist wrote multiple articles on how Katniss from the Hunger Games is ostensibly empowering because she dresses modestly and has a bow and arrow, but in the actual narrative she does almost no "empowering" things. How characters dress or look isn't the problem - it's why they dress and look that way, and what it means in a meta-sense. Miss Chan identifies this fallacy by noting that she doesn't want to be someone who possesses "muted" attractiveness, she wants her ideal character to be legitimately attractive.

Miss Chan wants her ideal character to be attractive because "being attractive" is something that makes her feel more powerful and more capable. This reasoning is perfectly sound and accepted when discussing male characters. Nobody says that Snake or Dante or Batman are objectified because they're attractive, since the greater context of those characters is that they're attractive on their own terms. It gives them social power and influence, rather than making them objects of potentially undesired attention. Namor hangs around in a speedo because it makes him feel powerful and desirable, not because he feels obligated to do so by society. Nobody will ever accuse Namor of "asking for it" because of the way he dresses. Nobody will drug Namor's drink and call him a slut. Miss Chan's description of her ideal character's attractiveness has the kind of meaning to it that an empowering male character's attractiveness has: it gives them more power, more control, and more self-esteem. These are the things that define the difference between "sexy for one's own purposes" and "sexy because someone else forced me to be".

There is a very fine and indistinct line between "being sexy because I want to be" and "being sexy because you want me to be"; many women dress attractively and revealingly and find it to be perfectly empowered, while many others feel forced and uncomfortable with it. The issue is not what is worn, or how someone looks, but why they look or dress that way. When female comics characters are almost unilaterally made into gorgeous women with unrealistically large breasts, it doesn't feel like it's empowering them, it feels like "that's what the male artists want them to look like". When Miss Chan says she wants her ideal character to be drop-dead gorgeous, that's because it gives her character more control, more influence, and more power - the kind of things that make a character "escapist" to begin with. They are part of the central concept that a character who is empowering should have agency, should be in control of their own fate, and shouldn't be shackled by other people's desires or demands.

Issue B: Masculine and Feminism, and the role of Diversity
One of the issues that was present in Project: Representation is the fact that the standards used to determine a sensible character seem to be very masculine in nature. A character who is depicted as being capable of agency often does it in very masculine ways because the traits we think of as being "empowering" are traditionally associated with masculinity. What I wanted to get at with some of my questions was "how would you make a female character who exhibits agency while still possessing feminine traits that you think positively of?"

We get characters like Vasquez from Aliens who are "empowered" because they're total badasses. They're physically strong, they curse openly, they kill things and enjoy the hell out of it. They exhibit almost entirely masculine traits, but just happen to be women. That's great, because it breaks down gender lines: nobody's gonna say Vasquez can't do the job, look how tough she is. However, the inherent problem in this is that characters who are "awesome" or "badass" are basically masculine-by-design, whereas characters who are "weak" or "submissive" are showing largely feminine traits. The pre-existing roles show their influence by glorifying behaviors associated with masculinity and vilifying behaviors associated with femininity.

Now, if we were going to get truly gender-neutral, the traits we value aren't honestly that bad. It's the grouping that's potentially problematic. Masculinity includes power and strength and self-determination, but it also tends to include less desirable traits like aggression, denial of emotions, and abrasive personalities. Similarly, femininity in its classic definition implies submission and physical weakness, but also positive traits like empathy and care. It's easy to draw up lines based on assumptions of gender, but the actual issue is that the traits themselves need to be addressed individually as positive or negative traits.

Miss Chan attempts to balance these traits by taking the best of both - her ideal is "caring but ferocious", "charming but intimidating". While this might seem somewhat cliche for a "badass female character", I can think of male characters who've pulled it off without a problem - with Chris Redfield in RE5 being the most obvious example. Chris is not rough, abrasive, rude or crass. He's thoughtful, he's caring, he's empathic, he's emotionally available, and he's also a huge muscled-up badass who punches the hell out of boulders. Nobody (or nobody I know) thought less of Chris for not being an asshole, yet "be an asshole" is sort of implicit in the idea of a tough, manly, masculine soldier-man character - the gruff, power-armored anti-hero who takes no shit from anyone and is totally badass and does all the stuff you'd wish you could do if you were also a jerk.

I like characters, male or female, who take things seriously, and are taken seriously. I like characters who dress like they actually have a reason behind it, who are pragmatic and logical when it comes to decision-making, who behave professionally when the time comes. Part of why female characters like this are a big deal is because it feels like many "female badasses" ultimately aren't taken seriously, or aren't actually that capable. When a female character puts on utilitarian armor, it feels empowering because it's their choice. They have a reason to dress like that, and it's a professional one. The aspect of "the author wants them to look sexy" is removed, and it's replaced with "the character wants to protect themselves", which gives the character a greater sense of agency.

But at the same time we need to acknowledge that many women do, in fact, choose to dress attractively of their own volition (though separating them from women who feel forced to dress in such a manner is difficult). The issue is that when such characters show up in fiction, it could be either their own reasons or the author's reasons. Again, going back to Starfire, if you take her seriously she's pretty empowered - she doesn't care what other people think, she's extremely comfortable with her body - but at the same time she feels hollow because those things seem to be more like justifications for the artist rather than actual character traits.

When feminine traits are made part of a feminine character, the part that it's crucial to identify is: "is this what the author believes all women are like?" In many scenarios it seems like the answer is "yes", because there's not enough diversity to offset it. If you have a reasonable number of strong, capable women, then a female character who is weak and submissive feels more natural because it's her as an individual, not her as a representative of her gender. The same is true of all "feminine" traits - if you have enough diversity that such traits don't feel forced, the resulting product is more natural. It's part of treating women like "people", instead of some weird subset of humanity who all somehow behave the same even though there's over 3 billion of them.

Heck, you can even go back to the complaint with League of Legends that sparked my article regarding it. It wasn't that "sexy women" existed in the game, it was that nothing but sexy women existed in the game. While male characters were diverse in size, shape, and background, the accusation being made was that the female characters in the game had a much smaller design range, which strongly suggested an agenda. This idea was backed up by the artist's rebuttal: making a character too strong or muscular would make them "not like a chick", which is outright fallacious. Of course it would make them "like a chick" - the only thing that makes someone "like a chick" is whether they're of the female sex. Women range from skinny to fat, from undefined to super-muscular, from supermodels to bodybuilders. That diversity is shown for the male characters, but the problem is that the female characters don't have it, and that's bad design. It shows that the designers implicitly associate "female" with "sexy", and that's straight-up biased.

Case Study: Kharma
I would like to conclude by telling you about a female wrestler in the WWE named Kharma, because Kharma's design uses and illustrates a lot of the points I just discussed.. This is Kharma.

To explain to you why Kharma is great, here's the rest of the WWE women's division. Please keep in mind that while male wrestlers in the WWE are "superstars", female wrestlers in the WWE are "divas".

Divas are not taken seriously. They don't have to wrestle as well as their male counterparts because "wrestling ability" is not why they're hired. Kharma is the first female wrestler in a long time to be taken seriously. When Kharma's music hits, bad things happen. She is one of three female wrestlers in the history of the Royal Rumble to actually participate in the event, and one of the other wrestlers (Beth Phoenix, who is very capable in her own right) tricked The Great Khali into kissing her so she could pull him over the top rope. Wrestling is not normally great for women's rights, is what I'm saying.

Here's a clip that basically illustrates the difference between Kharma and every other diva:

So first there's the normal Divas match, and it's a mess. The wrestling is bad, the selling is bad, and all the announcers care to talk about is "lol look how hot they are". The crowd doesn't care, because the match is terrible, just like all Diva matches are terrible. Then Kharma's music hits, and the crowd is ecstatic. The announcers go out of their way to sell the audience on how powerful Kharma is, not how attractive she is or how cute she is. That's the kind of reaction that a male wrestler gets; hell, even her music is a man's music, because Divas tend to get peppy pop themes, not ominous, rumbling rock. The reaction she gets is "oh shit", not 'aww, how cute". She comes out with badass music, she cleans house, and she leaves, just like a badass male character would.

This is empowerment. She's a female wrestler, and she's taken seriously. She's powerful. She's in control. She doesn't feel like a person who got her job as a wrestler because of her irrelevant attractiveness, she feels like a person who got her job as a wrestler because she kicks ass. And the crowd loves her. The problem with the Divas division isn't just that it's shallow and sexist, it's that every Diva is like that, and so it turns into "if women are going to wrestle, this is what it has to be like". Kharma is different in every way and she's still positively received, and if there's ever been a sign that the WWE can expand their women's division to include actual serious competitors on the same level as their male counterparts, she's it.

And the thing is, it's not just a question of how people dress or act. The WWE Superstars are a diverse bunch, and their clothing (like superheroes) ranges from full-body suits to basically a speedo. So it's not a question of skin, it's a question of why the skin is there. There's not really a suggestion that Randy Orton wears a speedo because he's trying to appeal to the huge male fanbase, he wears it because he wants to wear it, just like Namor. The real problem with the Divas is not that they're sexy or that they're scantily clad, but that they're not taken seriously by anyone, and wrestlers like Kharma are a way to try to undo that. If the WWE wants to follow up on this they should hire a bunch of female MMA fighters and have them start doing clotheslines and dropkicks and other high-velocity, high-impact moves that can be sold well.

The key to writing a female character well is to make her make sense in-universe. The more diverse and multi-faceted your universe is, the more believable she will be as a character. The more believable she is as a character, the more easily she can be accepted as being an independent individual with some sense of agency and self-determination. There are no traits that specifically make for a good female character, because "good" is a manner of representation and context, not a manner of who or what they are.

The same is also true of writing good male characters.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Analysis: Berserk

One of the best-known "dark fantasy" series, and the progenitor of the realistic style that would find its way into Demon's Souls, Kentaro Miura's "Berserk" is a bit of a two-faced animal. It's one of the most realistically rendered and "gritty" manga series ever made - it's been overtaken in recent years, but at its time it essentially stood alone. It uses the aesthetics and concepts of 15th/16th century Europe (and later the Ottoman Empire) to make a very believable, very tangible world. It's well-known for its bleak setting, grim storytelling, and gory, over-the-top action sequences.

On the other hand, Berserk's strange obsession with out-of-place lightheartedness and "joke characters" changes the dynamic of its darker aspects. Out of the current protagonist lineup, half of the characters are, in essence, jokes - two pun-cracking, reference-making faeries and two children who inexplicably survive all the things that kill grown adults. When I say "jokes", I mean "jokes" - like, "Genie from Aladdin"-level "jokes", just taking things from pop culture and slamming them halfheartedly into the narrative. It's hard to get a sense of how serious the manga is meant to be because it keeps changing its stance. But let's start by looking at its good aspects.

Berserk takes place in a world largely akin to our own circa the 16th Century; like Warhammer Fantasy, each nation in the Berserk world is essentially meant to take the role of a real-world nation ("Midland", the primary nation in the series, was stated in an interview to be Denmark, while its enemy "Chuder" is designed around France). Berserk's world, in normal circumstances, is one of standard period intrigue - wars between nations, succession crises, arranged marriages, and so on. The technology and designs of the world seem to be largely conventional - plate armor, melee weapons, crossbows, and so on.

Berserk's "fantasy" element initially comes from the demonic Apostles, monstrous beings who are "created" when a human with powerful ambitions uses an artifact called a "Behelit" to abandon their humanity in exchange for greater power. The Behelit are the tools of another world, and the Apostles bend to the will of that world's rulers. Apostles are far stronger than normal humans, and many of them can destroy armies with ease; their rarity is what keeps them from wiping out the entire world. The Apostles provide the only real "unrealistic" element for much of the series, appearing even in the very first chapter. Later it is revealed that magic exists "normally" in the world, though it has been largely forgotten except by certain individuals. As the series progresses, the fabric of reality between the Apostle's world and the "normal" world weaken, leading to monsters like trolls, ogres, goblins and dragons appearing around the world.

Berserk's setup allows for a fairly grounded and justifiable "fantasy" setting. While most fantasy settings seem to be intrinsically at odds with themselves (i.e. "why is there medieval stuff when magic exists"), the fantasy elements in Berserk are outside the realm of normal human activity. The monsters in the series come from another plane of existence and are reasonably rare to boot, while "magic" in the Berserk world is practiced by a very small number of people. As such, Berserk is a setting with both monsters and magic, but it also explains why normal people behave realistically and have realistic levels of technology. The setting makes sense because Berserk's world is, for the most part, "real", and the fantasy aspects of the series act as intruders or exceptions.

However, part of the problem with this is that Berserk doesn't really exploit this to its fullest. Yes, the world is accurate to the period, but that doesn't reflect on its main cast. All the "accurate" stuff is there, but it's really just backdrop. There's a lot of throwaway panels with period-accurate costume and armor and designs but it's all just dressing because the main characters are essentially "immune to realism". The dramatic effect that realism could provide is negated by the fact that the protagonists essentially seem like something out of a Disney movie half the time, turning what could be a very useful narrative tool into basically just an aesthetic.

One chapter had a tagalong "normal" character, a knight in standard plate armor who had cause to ally himself with the group for reasons of self-defense. I invested myself more heavily in this knight than basically any other character because his life and death was of legitimate concern. The realism used in Berserk helped me understand that he was basically a normal man dealing with normal rules - how could he be expected to survive against demons and monsters? When he actually managed to at least hold them off, his victory felt earned because it stayed within the realm of believability. He used his environment and overcame his limitations, he didn't just get a free pass because he was a protagonist. That's the kind of benefit that realism could provide, but Berserk doesn't take advantage of it 95% of the time. The realism in this scenario would create tension for normal human characters, and Berserk keeps putting its camera on plot-armored protagonists.

Power & Contrast
A long time ago I wrote two articles about the concept of hardship in a narrative. The first dealt with the concept of "conflict" as a competition, the second had to do with authorial interference in a character's endeavor. Both of these are relevant to Berserk because on the one hand Berserk tries very hard to justify its main characters' power, and on the other hand it has a lot of scenes where victories feel hollow and pointless. The social hierarchy of characters' "power levels" says a lot about the series and how its different tones harm its overall concept.

The main character of Berserk is Guts, a man born into a mercenary unit who's fought essentially his entire life. His abusive adoptive father gave him an intentionally over-large sword and Guts chose to use it even after his death as a mark of character. His body is honed through decades of warfare and he bears countless scars and marks upon his body to show for it. Guts is established as sort of the apex predator of the Berserk world - the most capable and deadly man without any sort of magical aid or bonus, simply because he's spent his entire life killing. To improve his power beyond his human limits, he relies upon magical artifacts like the "Berserk armor" that allow him to do things physically impossible for normal humans. His sword can only be wielded by him because he's the only person with the sheer physique necessary to do it. All of Guts' abilities are the result of logical paths within the story: his lifestyle, his training, or his equipment.

While Guts has a lot of really over-the-top victories, for the most part they at least feel earned. Every victory wounds or scars him; he tires and becomes exhausted like a normal man. There's no sense that he actually would die, because he's a protagonist, but it definitely still feels like a challenge for him. It leaves its mark on him, and it's a big deal in-universe. Guts is the best warrior in the world, but it's not easy for him, it's just what he is.

In the same manner, the Apostles are established as being far more powerful than normal men, but they're justified too - they're not normal, they're empowered entities from another world. The fact that Guts is capable of standing up to them is a testament to his experience, skill, and willpower. Both Guts and the Apostles are justified in their power, and the clash between them feels more important because it's built up as two groups (or one group and one individual) whose power makes sense within the world. Furthermore, groups of "normal" humans can overcome an Apostle or even Guts, in certain circumstances, lending some vulnerability to them. Even the other members of Guts' group take a justified secondary role in comparison to Guts, and if (or when) they have abilities that can help in an indirect way, they use them. They're definitely not as powerful as guts, but there's justifications - often magical - for why they're strong enough to hang out with him and not die.

So then here comes these guys:
Oh, gracious.
Puck (the fairy) and Isidro (the kid) are both bad characters, but they're bad for very different reasons. They share the reason that they both break from the seriousness and immersion of the narrative, but they do it in very different ways.

Puck is the primary instigator of the series' annoying references. He makes puns and turns into Yoda or whatever, and that's just sort of...a thing that's there. Like I said earlier, it's basically the Genie from Aladdin: he just sort of does that stuff and it doesn't really fit into the narrative or the world at all. It's purely comic relief, with no real need for explanation. Puck has always been a light-hearted character, but early on he at least served as a foil for Guts when it was just the two of them. Puck was light-hearted and idealistic, while Guts was grim and ruthless. Puck's character turned into a pointless sideshow around the time the other characters (including another fairy) showed up; since they were all basically "lighthearted, innocent characters", Puck really had nothing to do. He's still technically there, but all that Miura can think of for him to do is make funny faces in the background while other people do actual things. He's a bad character because he's just there to make distracting, pointless jokes.

Isidro, on the other hand, is bad because he detracts from the sense of tension in the series. Isidro is a normal kid in very extraordinary situations, and that could easily be used to regain a sense of power balance ("look how weak this normal kid is in contrast to Guts and the Apostles") as well as providing a character who can grow and develop more naturally as the series progresses. However, the fact that he needs to survive every fight means that he ends up being sort of unjustifiably strong or, at least, lucky. He doesn't really receive training from Guts, and while he gets a few little pointers here and there, he mostly seems to be surviving battles because...he's already survived battles. There's no sense of grueling improvement even though there could be fairly easily. He's just plot-armored and that's the end of that. I don't need to see him die, but if you want me to connect to the character, I need to feel like at the very least he's in serious danger and he's got to push himself to his limits to survive.

The problem with the kid characters in Berserk, not just Isidro but the other four major child characters as well, is that they seem way too invulnerable. Like I said, I don't want to watch kids die or anything, but if you have children as characters in a narrative where adults are being torn apart at every opportunity, there has to be an explanation. It stops feeling like "wow these kids are really special", which is what they're ostensibly going for, and starts feeling like "ugh these kids have super-thick plot armor and it's boring". Berserk is a world that should have child soldiers, and yet it has young heroes. It should have Newt, but they gave us Vaan.

The advantage that Berserk has with its detailed system of realism and justified strength is that the conclusions feel natural and don't detract from the story. When you have all this goofy meta stuff, it takes that away. You can't generate tension while also being outlandishly goofy. Humor is fine; if it's done in character, gallows humor can be some of the funniest stuff in the world. "Irrelevant humor" is not. In the commentary for Aliens, which I'm sure I've mentioned at least five or six times in previous articles, James Cameron says that the humor works because they don't "break" from the scenario: they're making jokes in the face of a very real danger that they understand and fear, and that adds weight and drama to their humor. Berserk's humor simply serves as a reminder that it's fake, which is a really bad thing when the rest of the work is there to convince us it's not.

If there's one thing I can still appreciate about Berserk, it's splash panels and background art. Berserk has some really great artwork detailing entire battles, castles, or troop formations with detail on every soldier and civilian in the frame. The problem with it for me is that those things would make for an interesting story - grounding the narrative in the lives of normal people - and it's just a backdrop for a fairly standard fantasy story about a group of mostly-invulnerable wanderers out to save the world. The advantages that realism could provide are neglected, but the realism is there anyways - for looks, if nothing else.

Demon's Souls had a super-powered protagonist of sorts, but it built up to it - you start out normal, and you end up abnormal. Berserk does that with Guts, but then only with Guts. The other characters get minor explanations for their increased abilities, but they're so single-issue ("I have a magic sword now, this makes me the best swordsman ever") that it just feels like a plot convenience to let them continue to hang out with Guts. What I'd like out of Berserk is more characters who feel realistically expendable, even if they don't die. The whole setting is meant to establish what a crappy, grim, unpleasant world it is, and then they sort of wuss out on depicting it when it comes to protagonists. Something more akin to a group of semi-disposable individuals following Guts (who can still be invulnerable, because he's earned it) would help establish the danger present in the world, allowing for some level of attachment and loss within the narrative. It makes the action scenes worth paying attention to; as it is now, I basically skim them. Why wouldn't I? Nothing important's going to happen. What reason do I have to not skip the unimportant pages?

Oh, right, because they look amazing.

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.