Archive for February, 2008

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The Origins of Fantasy

February 29, 2008

I just finished watching The Worlds of Fantasy, a three part TV series on BBC4 exploring the history of fantasy lierature, you can view it here on the BBC iPlayer for the next 5 days, although I’m not sure if people oustide the UK can access it (somebody put it on Youtube, please). The first episode deals with children’s literature and children heroes, Harry Potter is naturally included although not as much as the beginning of the programme smight imply, and also Alice (in Wonderland), Peter Pan and lesser known heroes From Alan Garner’s books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service) and Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels.

I don’t think I’m alone in looking forward to the episodes that deal with adult oriented fantasy (expecting to see lots of Tolkien, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Peake and Howard, would also be nice to see Weiss and Hickman, but I’m not holding my breath [see my last post]) as anyone who’s read my blog will know that I think fantasy is a genre is still far too strongly assocaited with kids.

The argument underlying this epsiode was that fantasy emerged in the 19th century alongside a romanticised notion of children as pure and naive beings and as the twentieth century progressed the heroes of these books became more like the children or teens of their respective times. Okay the argument was a little more subtle than that, in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels written in postwar Britain the four heros used slang that was apparently decades out of date, but what their jaunt through the wardrobe did do was make the trauma of wartime displacement into a form of comforting nostalgia where the battle between good and evil was fought between magical beings and the inevitability of triumph was not in question. Clearly it was much easier to write this after the war than during it when the outcome was less certain. In this light Harry Potter with its nostalgically old school setting is a great comfort to kids and parents alike who are scared to send their kids outdoors for fear of stabbings and paedophiles!

It’s hard to be objective about this episode as I was happy enough that this genre was getting any coverage at all, what bothered me was that the childhood themes they discussed could be applied to non-fantasy childrens’ literature, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven share the naive and romaticised spirit of adventure as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories and show some infighting between the children in the group, yet they are set in an idealised but very recognisable Britain. When it did get to grips with fantasy as a style, it focused on the writer’s motives so we got a lot of sniffy complaints about C.S. Lewis’ use of Christian allegory and a bit about Lewis Carroll’s desire to present childhood innocence, but not why he chose fantasy as a vehicle for this message. We get even less on J.K. Rowling’s or Philip Pullman’s reasons for using the fantasy genre, which would be very interesting to hear about. Alan Garner mentions out of body experiences and using his imagination, but doesn’t describe his clear fondness for the British and Welsh mythology that permeates his work, nor the landscapes in which his books are set.

The whole thing felt a little safe for BBC4 (i.e. middle class, highbrow) – let’s focus on general historical themes that normalise fantasy literature, rather than focusing on what makes it so different to other fictional genres. What makes the series feel even more BBC4 is the fact that they’re focusing only on fantasy litertature and not other mediums such as film or games that if anything have helped bring the genre popularity with much broader audiences than books alone.

These issues aside, I wonder what they’ll make of adult fantasy literature? Howard’s stories reflected their time only in as much that they were part of the pulp fiction trend of over the top and violent stories with tough macho characters. Maybe the rich settings of characters like Conan and Bran Mak Morn gave them a sense of authenticity and heritage that was lacking in the typical macho lead which cried out to young men in Depression era America. Was it any coincidence that Tolkien was keen to construct a mythology for Britain just as the Empire was sliding away? Moorcock was inspired by the 60s counter-culture, his heroes had more in common with Howard’s than Tolkien’s often brooding and of dubious morality, but his wrtiting was generally more cerebral and often lampooned the stables of the genre itself. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what they come up with.

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Who’s the biggest geek?

February 28, 2008

I excitedly posted about the soon to be released World of Warcraft Minis on my guild forum a few weeks back, to which I got only one response. So I was pleased that Rock, Paper, Shotgun dedicated an entire post to the subject. What was most apparent was the seething ambivalence that surrounds spin-off merchandise. Many of the responses in the comments section displayed a distinct for not buying tie-in merchandise and a n admission of shame if they claimed ever to have boughti it. Even, the author of the piece, Kieron Gillen sheepishly admitted he was snobbish towards fiction based on computer game IPs.To save you reading through the comments here are a few that stood out:

“The only bit of supplemental games related cruft I’ve ever bought outside of my callow teens is the new Warhammer 40,000 Dark Heresy rpg game book thing. No intention of ever playing it, just liked loved the background fiction it presented in its words, pictures and layout. It’s really quite classy, and, as a result of being so impressed, I’ll probably wind up accumulating all the other background books as they dribble out over the course of the rest of the year. Curiously, and this references the peculiar snobbery about the whole business, I’d never buy any of the novels or other frightful tat, though.

“I used to read D&D fiction before I came to the realization that it was mostly quite dreadful.

“I once made the mistake of Wiki-ing Dawn of War. Having never played anything in the 40k universe outside of the rather thin on the ground (story wise) Space Crusade when I was about 10, I spent the next few hours clicking around and soaking it all in. That I was actually supposed to be revising at the time was of no concern. Cracking stuff, in a very cliched, popcorn way”

“And the miniatures? Maybe. I’ll see how I feel when they do come out. It’d be nice to have a one of Thrall (<3), but spending money on things I’ll only ever look at seems a bit banal.

As I admitted in my post about Warcraft fiction, I’ve felt exactly the same kind of condescension towards game based novels, but I’m still curious as to why that’s the case. My first thought is that sci-fi, fantasy and gaming are all subjects that are looked down upon by mainstream society. Yes gaming is gradually pulling itself up, but there is still a fair majority of genrally middle aged and up types who don’t get it and the popular media still portrays it as the passtime of choice of the lonely antisocial teenage male. Fantasy is accepted if it’s for and about kids, but the second it’s aimed at adults it’s seen as the choice of lonely antisocial twenty or thirty something males. So given the lack of credibility with which these genres are taken it’s as though the fans make up for it by creating a strict hierarchy of the credible and the uncredible. It very much reminds me of the ‘Geek Hierarchy’ diagram that was floating round the web a few years back. I’ve helpfully added a new box to it…

The quote above that most caught my eye was the last one “…but spending money on things I’ll only ever look at seems a bit banal”. This statement in a world where the album artwork from Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’ album is expected to sell for £2.5million. Is it that for a generation of gamers anything that isn’t programmed with AI and immersively interactive isn’t considered worth paying for, or is it an extreme form of conservatism in the vein of Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’? To filter Benjamin’s argument down to its basic point, he suggests that because the traditional artwork was unique in space and time it was unarguably ‘authentic’ and that the act of reproducing it so any old person could have a replica hanging from their wall and that this ineffect reduces the ‘aura’, in other words the authenticity, of the original. The strange thing is that computer games are commodities, digitally reproducible commodities at that, they are far from being unique pieces of artwork. But to be fair authenticity is a relative term, after all a unique pice of art is still a manufactured work. Authenticity in popular culture refers to the most original medium, in the same way that film adaptations of novels are usually seen to be inferior to the novels they’re based on. Books and models based on games are seen to be inferior to the games they’re based on. Perhaps the reason why is that these kinds of IP extensions are seen by the fans as milking the franchise, by dispassionate third parties in order to make money and therefore because they’re commercially driven as opposed to passionately created  they threaten to dilute the original work. And perhaps the other fear is that once you start buying the spin-offs you won’t be able to stop, but that’s another story.

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Games vs Books and Films

February 10, 2008

I’ve either got to write shorter posts, or learn to write faster, as by the time I get round to posting nowadays my subject matter tends to be weeks old. In this case it’s an article Gamasutra wrote about from way back January 10th. Thankfully Gamasutra and Cameron Sorden at Random Battle have also recently posted on the whole story/narrative subject, so it feels a bit more relevant to talk about my take on this one.

 
So way back in January, Tom Carroll compared the stories of Halo 3 and Lord of the Rings, a bit unfair you might think, but an interesting approach all the same. Unsurprisingly, Lord of the Rings won the contest, because in Tom’s opinion Halo 3 failed to satisfactorily tie up its storyline. Having not yet played Halo 3 (I have so many games I need to play/complete at the moment it just isn’t an option), I have to take his word for it. But is that really the definition of a good story: that it has a satisfactory resolution?

Lets’ take a game about whoch ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ have come up a lot and one that I’m far more familiar with, Bioshock. Now, my personal feeling was that the end of the game wasn’t hugely satisfying for me as a player. The reason I’ve italicized the last point, is as Cameron points out on his blog, that the player’s perspective is different to that of a viewer. In a typical film or book, the main character is controlled by someone other than you, the reader. You may empathise with them, maybe you can’t stand them, but what they do is out of your control. The other feature common to films and books is that you see the story from the point of view of other characters, you get to see what they’re thinking or plotting, whether it is beneficial or otherwise for the main character. Bear this in mind, because I think this has a big impact on my opinions of Bioshock. Like most people who played Bioshock I chose to harvest the little sisters and although I knew it was technically the ‘wrong’ choice to make in terms of the moral choices you face in the game as a player I was still quite surprised at the end that showing me/Jack attacking and killing the little sisters. It’s not that I was hugely surprised by the ending itself, but rather by the lack of pointers I was given along the way.

Cameron makes some really good points in his piece about the nature of story in games/MMOs, particularly that stories in games are often experienced over a matter of days, unlike films that are usually experienced in a couple of hours, so players tend to forget or lose interest in the storyline. Even in films however, viewers are constantly reminded about the drive of the storyline. A few months back I read Kristin Thompson’s Storytelling and the New Hollywood, a brilliant and influential book the basic premise of which is that the classic three act structure.

Attributed to Hollywood is in fact in error, and Hollywood films are better thought of as four act structures. Apart from this, Kristin analyses in great depth the craft of a number of Hollywood films from the 70s, 80s and 90s, in particular how they guide the viewer both subtly and unsubtly so that the story and character actions within the story make sense. I’ll use Groundhog Day (read this for a bit of geek humour on this subject) as an example here, because it has one very clear main protagonist, Bill Murray’s character Phil, and because of the Groundhog Day ‘curse’ his character essentially has a ‘reload’ function, sort of like a computer game. Despite the elaborate time repetition feature of the film, the underlying principle of the story is that Phil has to learn to be decent to women, if he is to have a happy and fulfilling life. Via the responses of other characters the film ensures that the audience are always able to follow which of Phil’s actions are wrong and which are right. For example there are number of scenes where Phil in his attempts to seduce Rita gets to various stages of success only to make the wrong move or say the wrong thing, to which Rita responds by storming off or slapping him – very simple but effective actions that signal failure.

 

 My point is, why couldn’t the NPCs in Bioshock given me the same unsubtle hints about the direction that my behavior was taking me? To some degree the AI in Oblivion gets this right, NPCs react differently to your character if he or she has a weapon unsheathed or if he or she has a disease. Given the more closed nature of Bioshock, adding these kind of NPC responses should have been a lot easier. In a recent Gamasutra article Bioware CEO Ray Muzyka claims that “”In BioShock, the narrative is expressed in an observant way that you might miss it… but it’s a watercooler talk thing, you can discuss it.” But this is in the opinion of the mass market, not a good story. Every story contains subtleties, but as the outcome is dependent on the players in-game choices, the potential outcome of these choices should be more apparent.

I think it is these kinds of cues that can transform the quality of story in games. Pure sandboxes have limited if enthusiastic proponents (see Second Life) most people want to feel they’re part of something bigger and that they can have some affect on it – but they do need clues as to how they’re proceeding. And no, that’s not the way it works in real life, but games aren’t real life and they shouldn’t ever aspire to be so.

The greatest difficulty with the kind of moral story that Bioshock tells would be trying to put it in an MMO context. There is no pre-scripted end to an MMO, so it’s not easy to ‘judge’ a character’s/player’s actions, it’s expected that other players will do the judging rather than any pre-scripted response. I’ve read a few suggestions that tackle this issue in respect to WoW (although I can’t remember where). The idea that Alliance players could get reputation with Horde factions and vice versa was suggested, that would require opposing faction players to complete some very difficult tasks as emissaries for the enemy, I also assume that PvP would not be an option, maybe unless provoked. It would be interesting to implement this idea just to see how many players were willing to give it a go, or if loyalty to their faction outweighed the desire for some cool benefits and rewards.