• Yes But No But…

    by  • October 11, 2007 • Fantasy • 0 Comments

    In a response to my post about RPGs killing fantasy, Jeff Vandermeer asks, ‘Isn’t it just about characters and plot?’

    Well, yes and no. Novelists will always have the upper hand over games. The characters will be richer, the plots more complex and intriguing, and there will…or rather, should…be some level of meaning and subtext that makes the whole experience worthwhile.

    The point is, if the area they’re writing in is so degraded by over-familiarity, characters and plot aren’t enough to provide that sense of ‘otherness’ that fantasy readers require. But Jeff is already working in a completely different area of fantasy.

    On a slightly different tack, M John Harrison quite rightly expresses no interest in that obsessive level of world-building detail that gamers demand. Which is interesting, because in his excellent ‘Viriconium’ tales from a few years back, he created a fully-realised world with a few brush-strokes. What some people don’t realise is that books are a collaboration between writer and reader – both bring something to a story, and both help realise the world through the power of their imaginations.

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    0 Responses to Yes But No But…

    1. October 12, 2007 at 4:58 pm

      I’m inclined to think the most profound difference is that fantasy books can offload much of the hard work of filling in a background onto the reader.

      In a game, on the other hand, nothing exists that you can’t see. Unless a game has very crude graphics indeed, the fact that an artist has had to program in what the world looks like actually gets in the way of filling in those blanks (which is part of the fun of fantasy – visualising this other world). Even if a player were inclined to make up their own stories about what’s happening off-screen, it’s a damn sight harder than imagining what’s happening off-page.

      Which is why a few words describing a city can be worth a thousand (or more) polygons drawing up bits of it.

    2. October 12, 2007 at 9:53 pm

      “Well, yes and no. Novelists will always have the upper hand over games. The characters will be richer, the plots more complex and intriguing, and there will…or rather, should…be some level of meaning and subtext that makes the whole experience worthwhile.”

      Once again, this is not always the case. These generalizations harm the real thrust of your opinions, which I believe is worth debate. But when you lump Video Games, MMORPGs and Tabletop RPGs into the same category you make a not uncommon error that makes you seem uninformed about the topic you discuss.

      Check out some indie tabletop RPGs like Polaris or Shock and you’ll see what I mean. These games help you make literature, and worlds as potentially rich as any novel, in my experience.

      Finally, the use of myth in fantasy has a negative effect on the genre in many cases, I think. How many books can you see celtic myth crammed into the story without being sick of the Nth time you see the same archetype expressed slightly differently? Overreliance on mythological archetypes hurts the genre, more perhaps than any peripheral fantasy-fan hobby like RPGs.

    3. October 13, 2007 at 11:55 am

      I lump video games, MMORPGs and tabletop RPGS together not because I believe they are the same – and I absolutely accept the point you make about RPgs like Polaris. I lump them together because their function is the same – the same as all games – experience.

      Fiction has a different function, and that’s why you can’t directly compare them. I can’t agree with you that games can make literature, for this particular reason. They’re apples and oranges. Richness of character and setting doesn’t alone make literature. What does, is meaning – what the story is really about, beyond the plot, or what writers call sub-text, the truth beneath the setting. Writers use their characters and environment to convey this idea – the characters and the environment aren’t an end in themselves.

      No game can do this, because they are designed to produce a different end result. They are not truly ‘authored’. Which doesn’t make them lesser in any way – just a different animal. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    4. October 14, 2007 at 11:59 am

      “I lump video games, MMORPGs and tabletop RPGS together not because I believe they are the same – and I absolutely accept the point you make about RPgs like Polaris. I lump them together because their function is the same – the same as all games – experience.”

      Okay, I have to resort to Indie games jargon here to explain something, so my utmost apologies if it’s a bit obscure. In the early days of the indie game movement, there was a lot of discussion about play-styles and something called “Creative Agenda”. Creative Agenda is functionally what an individual participant desires from play outside of social interaction with friends – what the person actually gets from it being an RPH rather than a boardgame or whatever. People started to define and categorize these types of play, and while I find the theory as relates to players somewhat useless, with reference to game design it’s useful.

      So, “experience”, as you said, seems particularly associated with what gets termed “Simulationist” play. Most Sim play involves getting immersed in a character, trying to realistically depict their responses and emotions and the world they live in. That dovetails nicely with your take on RPGs, and is totally appropriate to this sort of gameplay.

      However, one of the other categories of play is “Narrativist” play. Many modern non-traditional games focus on encouraging “Nar” play, which is characterized by an attempt to make a story during play and usually by lose character-ownership and no or changed GM roles. Games like Universalis and Polaris are good examples of this, and this is the sort of game I’m talking about – games where the focus is one of story rather than immersion in character.

      “Fiction has a different function, and that’s why you can’t directly compare them. I can’t agree with you that games can make literature, for this particular reason. They’re apples and oranges. Richness of character and setting doesn’t alone make literature. What does, is meaning – what the story is really about, beyond the plot, or what writers call sub-text, the truth beneath the setting. Writers use their characters and environment to convey this idea – the characters and the environment aren’t an end in themselves.”

      Right! This is absolutely something that some indie games manage to do! For example, the game Shock: Social Science Fiction is actually designed to have characters and setting address a Theme or Social Issue in the way that only the best sci-fi manages to do, through the lens of fiction. This game, and others like Dogs in the Vineyard in particular, are designed in such a way that the “sub-text” or theme of the game is not obtrusive, but is existant in all of the play surrounding the game.

      It’s not surprising you’ve not encountered these games, though. They are a very recent development in gaming. Traditional Tabletop RPGs like D&D and White Wolf games, and really the vast majority of the hobby totally fit your explanation. There isn’t usually cohesive story, theme, or sub-text. Some people (in gaming) think that this is a weakness of Trad games in comparison to Indie or Non-traditional games, but I just tend to think of them as different things.

      “No game can do this, because they are designed to produce a different end result. They are not truly ‘authored’. Which doesn’t make them lesser in any way – just a different animal. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

      I have a compromise. How about “98% of games can’t do this.” Because some games can – I’ve played them – and they do it pretty damn well. It’s a very small subsection of an amazingly tiny hobby, but it’s got growing influence on gaming and passion for group story-creation.

      If a group-authored story is not really authored, then where is the line drawn? I’m a big fan of The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, for example. It’s an excellent book/series of books and isn’t hurt by more than one person being involved, so why can’t games also be designed to help a number of people create fiction? Just because the mode of story is different doesn’t mean it can’t hit the same targets that prose fiction does.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to read my comments and respond, Mark. I’m finding the discussion thought-provoking and very stimulating. Thanks for that!

    5. October 14, 2007 at 12:16 pm

      Pooka, you make some great points there, and you won me over with the Illuminatus trilogy (one of my personal favourites too)! If two people can write a great book packed with insight and meaning, why not three, five or ten? Certainly in the TV industry, where I also work as a screenwriter, great, meaningful series like The Sopranos have one creator, but are really the products of several ‘authors’.

      I’m happy to be educated about the indie games. If they can truly provide thematic and sub-textual substance, then that really is a great leap forward. My own gaming (mainly video) has declined because I’ve come to feel most of it is simply designed to pass time rather than enrich the user’s life.

      I’m good friends with a very senior games designer at a multinational games company who is demoralised by the industry’s failure to build on its rapid economic growth in any substantive creative way. Most video games are derivative of works and ideas in different media and, in his opinion, until it can regularly produce truly novel ideas it has no right to be seen on a par with book publishing or film. But that’s another debate!

    6. October 14, 2007 at 9:11 pm

      “Pooka, you make some great points there, and you won me over with the Illuminatus trilogy (one of my personal favourites too)! If two people can write a great book packed with insight and meaning, why not three, five or ten? Certainly in the TV industry, where I also work as a screenwriter, great, meaningful series like The Sopranos have one creator, but are really the products of several ‘authors’.”

      Absolutely! I think the only difference is that these games make a collaborative story that you tell real-time. I suppose it’s more akin to an odd mix of traditional oral storytelling and parlour games.

      I had the great privilege to meet Bob Wilson some time ago. He was a funny, clever fellow even when the post-polio forced him into a wheelchair. I was saddened that he had to solicit donations from fans online in his last weeks in order to pay for hospice care, but heartened that his fans came through so overwhelmingly.

      As an aside – The Sopranos was great, and had some amazingly affecting moments. I always felt like they never really did the characters justice, like their stories remained untold somehow. In some way I also think that was intentional.

      “I’m happy to be educated about the indie games. If they can truly provide thematic and sub-textual substance, then that really is a great leap forward. My own gaming (mainly video) has declined because I’ve come to feel most of it is simply designed to pass time rather than enrich the user’s life.”

      Yeah, I totally understand where you’re coming from with regards to video games. I also have stopped playing them, because I started finding my creative writing and RPG playing to be more creatively edifying.

      These non-traditional games are really interesting (Using the term non-traditional to avoid confusion, since not all indie games are non-traditional). I’ve filled these comments with enough blathering about them, I think. :)

      “I’m good friends with a very senior games designer at a multinational games company who is demoralised by the industry’s failure to build on its rapid economic growth in any substantive creative way. Most video games are derivative of works and ideas in different media and, in his opinion, until it can regularly produce truly novel ideas it has no right to be seen on a par with book publishing or film. But that’s another debate!”

      Totally agree. But that industry is very much in it’s infancy, and like any young kid with more money than sense, it’s making stupid decisions. In 30-odd years, I don’t doubt that Video Games will be doing amazing things with story as well, and I look forward to that day.

    7. October 15, 2007 at 6:53 pm

      What I remember most about fantasy novels are the characters and what happens to them, for fantasy rpgs the amusing situations I get into with my friends (or the great or annoying systems). Although they run races in similar universes they have completely different finishing lines.

    8. October 15, 2007 at 8:10 pm

      You’re right, of course. I’m interested to see there is a strong correlation between gamers and readers. A lot of commentators reckon the former is eating into the latter.

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