Monday, 23 May 2011

On the nature of fantasy

I have just read two novels by R Scott Bakker and very much enjoyed them. If you enjoy books by Joe Abercrombie and GRR Martin these should be right up your alley.

I next read an article by Bakker called the Skeptical Fantasist which I felt was relevant to us MMO players. In the article Bakker argues that epic fantasy is the other side of the coin to science fiction - that where sci fi uses science to explore the future, epic fantasy uses science to explore the past.

What's that you say? This guy thinks Hobbits are derived from science? That's nuts.

Or is it?

The sciences they and other epic fantasy tropes derive from are anthropology, sociology and human psychology. Humans have a tendency to explain the universe and we do so according to specific and identifiable rules. The Bible is based on the cultures of the people that wrote it, our affinity with Elves and Rangers is based on a cultural weight that those tropes possess that far outweighs completely original and distinctive creatures.

The best MMOs, like the best epic fantasy novels, select and refine those tropes. We see Elves Goblins and Wizards as anthropomorphic representations of the past; we see Space Marines and X Wings as anthropomorphic representations of the future.

Further it's by adhering to these tropes and refining them that games best appeal to us. Games based on unfamiliar creatures and weaponry will have less appeal because we are wired to accept the familiar even if intellectually we know it's nonsense. That's why we don't see games based on the work of China Mieville and Michael Moorcock - their tropes are too original, unfamiliar, and obscure.

Rift designer Gavin Irby recently said:
Actually, it's been very useful. One of the cool things I get to do as a designer is created new cultures, with their own languages and mythologies.

Having a strong background in anthropology, history, and languages turns out to be really valuable.

Interesting eh? Although we see ourselves as individuals what we like can be extrapolated and delivered to us. Of course we already see advertisers doing this online - all those Like buttons are to collect information to improve product development and advertising.

Now this doesn't mean that competent game designers will never give us anything original. There are plenty of unexplored tropes that would make great games. How about a Sherlock Holmes MMO, requiring players to exercise deduction and intellect? Sure third party sites revealing solutions are a problem for that style of game but that's a technical hurdle. How about a UFO MMO? XCOM had a lot of fans back in the day. How about MMOifying the Romantic Novel genre? Spurn v Seduce pvp ladies and gentlemen, red roses are a weapon in the right hands!

But I think what it does mean is that we'll never see a mainstream game where the ffrggnn of the Planet Xredfg have to use their Nurghyst to Xmorgify the Qeff of the Anterwunni. And if you're a game designer you probably should avoid making such a game.


  1. "we'll never see a mainstream game where the ffrggnn of the Planet Xredfg have to use their Nurghyst to Xmorgify the Qeff of the Anterwunni"

    Oh man, and here I was still holding on to the hope of an MMO based on Neal Stephenson's Anathem.

  2. I've been digging deeply into X-Com as I design a new game, incidentally. It was a huge game in my personal gaming history, and I think it has a lot to offer modern game designers.

    I'm also a big fan of Tolkien's work. Worldbuilding is a fantastic exercise, and honestly, as a designer, I want to build on those rock solid foundations, rather than just throw together a bunch of nonsense. As a player, I appreciate that dedication to the fiction, as a designer, it makes design fun.

  3. @ Melmoth Even a highly original novel like Anathem uses select cultural tropes (ivory towers, E. T.s). And of course a niche game or an indy can be made about anything. The problem with your proposal is probably as much commercial as anything. Would someone want to commit to paying a licence fee for a somewhat valuable IP to make a game that only 30 000 people would want to play?

    @ Tesh I think what XCOM did better than any other game was fear. I played it on a friend's PC after everyone had gone to bed, the house quiet the lights out. Damn, it was spooky. I literally jumped out of my seat frequently.

    As for Tolkien it's no accident that the creator of the modern Fantasy archtype was an expert in ancient cultures, a University Professor. Epic fantasy is a highly intellectual discipline that has quite profound academic rigour even though at a glance there's nothing especially intellectual about sweaty-hewed Barbarians hacking people's heads off. It is one of the worst understood disciplines in modern life.

  4. Epic fantasy is about creating myths and legends for a modern audience - anthropology, sociology and psychology are (in part) about studying myths and legends and why they're important to us, so they're a good fit.

    Bad fantasy confuses the trappings (swords, sorcery, gods, dragons) with the nature of legends, and the result is "adventures of an asshole with a sword who kills stuff for loot" or "unbearable angst of being a teenage girl with added unicorns". Note that you can do legends with different trappings - Star Wars and Babylon 5 are both mythology with SF trappings.

  5. That's exactly the point, well said Tremayne. It's because all fantasy gets lumped in with the bad fantasy that the very real academic discipline is obscured. People, especially game designers, are prone to give us bad fantasy because they don't even see the intellectual rigour that lies beneath the tale-spinning and the world-building.

    The Draenai are a perfect example of this.

    And Bakker argues that all sci fi is essentially anthropomorphic, is myth-spinning, even though the origin of the myth might be scientic research. Tachyons and nanites are examples of this - the trope of what these things are in science fiction bears only a passing resemblance to the actual science. They're now tropes that are hard to break - if you use tachyons as a travel system rather than a communication or weapons system it would feel wrong to most science fiction readers.

  6. I tend to keep (good) SF and (good) fantasy separate in my mind because I regard SF as being about "exploring ideas" while fantasy is "telling legends".

    The "exploring ideas" stories appeal to the intellect. The make us think about the impact of technologies or new comcepts or the path not taken in history (which puts alternate history books firmly on the SF shelves).

    The "telling legends" appeals to something more primal and emotional. It may be that the reason fantasy is so poular is its one of the last places in popular culture where people can see what it is to be a hero - and we need heroes.

    Of course, when you get a story that explores ideas about the nature of myths and legends, it gets REALLY confusing - c.f. Dune, or S.M. Stirling's more recent Emberverse books :)

    As for the Draenai - eeurrgh. They are the perfect example of a marketing decision driving a half-assed retcon. THat was the point where I decided that WoW lore wasn't really worth following in detail. Not only were Blizzard making it up as they went along, they were willing to junk what they had already established on a whim. As a writer I can't work like that, and I don't have much regard for a writer who does.

  7. The problem with that approach is that you have to classify a lot of what the world sees as science fiction as fantasy. Star Wars certainly, probably Firefly, arguably Star Trek.

    You could of course argue that any sci fi that uses made up pseudo-science is bad but I don't think that holds water. You end up becoming a literary Gevlon, ie "it's trash and people buy it because they're morons."

  8. Star Wars - definitely fantasy (incidentally, I went along the SF Eastercon this year for the second time in my lfe, and one panel discussed the impact of Star Wars on SF - some of the attitudes there verged on "lynch mob").
    Firefly - it's a western. Joss Whedo wanted to write a western but they made him put spaceships in it :) Arguably closer to fantasy as westerns are the mythology of the USA.
    Star Trek - I let that slide under the wire as SF. The intent is usually to present ideas and make people think (it's just they often aren't very GOOD at it).

    If there's a lot of pseudo-science then it's not hard SF, but SF as a whole is a much broader field than hard SF, and there's scope for playing fast and loose with the technological details in the service of story. If I want to write about the effect on society, of a cheap, easily available immortality drug I don't have to go into details of HOW it works - I just need to write about a world in which nobody is going to get a promotion at work ever again.

    Therte's also a valid category of escapist/entertainment fiction that neither tells a myth nor really explores an idea. I don't have a problem with stories that fall into that category as long as they are well written and aren't mistaken for the other two categories.