Monday, 24 October 2011

Children's stories?

When I was 17 my English teacher said to the class: "The Hobbit is a great book for children and The Lord of the Rings is a great book - for children."

It was his attempt to steer us back to the established literary world of Shakespeare and Joyce and Orwell. And it was pretty successful, LOTR went from being wildly popular among us to being something we'd grown out of.

Looking back now I think he was wrong, that books aren't really for children or adults but there can be a childishness about them, an accessibility, an escapism that may appeal in general to a demographic but there's no hard and fast rule for individuals other than those which we form ourselves.

So what rules have I formed for me, myself and I?

The first is consistency. A story needs to operate in a world with clear principles. In a Tarantino film you know what will happen when people start losing it. And it's part of the story running through his oeuvre, his collection of work. In Tarantinoland when people get cross they shoot each other. It's kind of charming in its predictability, it's how his world works and it adds to the appeal.

In the latest Fry's Planet Word Stephen interviewed Peter Jackson who said this of Lord of the Rings:

What Tolkien did great with his stories and especially his use of language was that he treated them as historical.. that was a door that we entered when we went into the movies, that this isn't made up, it's not a piece of gobbledigook set on the planet Zog or some such thing. Every name, every place name, every plant name that Tolkien wrote about he based on some form of language. It was a language that sometimes he created himself it was an archaic old middle English form of language

F: like an oaken shield

J: yeah. Everything meant something, everything had a reality, it was almost like he did literally create history.

And of course he literally created a history, after his death his background notes on the fantasy world were published as a book almost as long as his trilogy.

I grew up reading heroic fiction. Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Gemmell, Cherryh, Nevyn, all full of wonderful heroes in lovingly realised worlds. Consistent worlds. Worlds that didn't make sense in relation to our world but which did make sense in relation to their own world.

To many people, including my English teacher those are worlds that are childish and trivial, but the power of stories is their effect on the hearer and everyone hears the same story differently. You can't tell another person they're wrong to be inspired by something, it's their call.

If any readers are inspired by Pandaren then good for you. Best of luck to you, I wish I was.

The reason I'm not is that, rightly or wrongly, I've seen WoW as a continuation of a story that began in my cot, a continuation of the bedtime fairy tales, the teenage sword and sorcery, a lifelong love of alternate escapist worlds. Each world varies but within itself it has consistency.

WoW has exhibited a tendency to play games with that consistency, to undermine it and surprise you. It's a gimmick that goes back to Warcraft 1. It's a gimmick that's actually quite pervasive in WoW but for the first time I think the gimmick has overtaken the world's consistency. If a quest giver in vanilla sent you to kill ten orcs with a Rolling Stones reference it didn't overpower the adventure of fighting to save the village. Nor do I think the Taurens were immersion-breaking, it's a fantasy trope that goes back to Theseus. But increasingly WoW has jettisoned the underlying theme of a fantasy world at war for more and more jokes and silliness. I don't like the holiday events, it's an intrusion of this world into the fantasy. I don't like panda-people as heroes. I don't like the purchasable My Little Pony or the children's TV zaniness of the goblin starter area.

And it's a shame that I don't because if I did I would have more fun.

Fortunately people are making games for me and people like me. Eve is rather dark, so are forthcoming titles Prime and This Secret World. Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings both do a great job of capturing the feel of their original authors' works.

So as the blogosphere draws lines in the sands over WoW's inclusion of pandas I respectfully wave to those capable of seeing the fun in head-kicking panda people in the bright shiny Azeroth future as I head towards grimmer shores.


  1. I think you should differentiate between "dark" and "consistent". While I don't have a problem with dark or light style, I absolutely want my games to have a consistent style. Don't mistake this for consistent lore, which is great, too, but not as important as the style.

    Otherwise, this post could have been written by me. Thanks :)

  2. I really like this post. Gotta agree with Nils too, it articulates really well some of the reasons he's covered.

    I am curious, with all the people drawing lines in the sand like you said, does anyone think there was a good way to implement Pandarens into the game world? Nils mentioned in his post recently that, for example, goblins were silly but they had some serious themes on the inside. With Pandarens it is reversed. I find that true, and wonder if they could have done the same they did with goblins.

  3. @ Nils, good point, I think both the lack of consistency and the fluffiness grate on me.

    @Straw Fellow the good way would have been to integrate them into the game before announcing them as a PC race. Murlocs for instance, if they had been the new race, they're at least undeniably a major element of WoW.

    I realise there were some hints at Pandarens before in the IP but using that to suddenly introduce panda characters is about as strong as using Haris Pilton to introduce Paris Hiltons as a playable race.

  4. Why didn't your teacher like modern fantasy like Song of Ice and Fire and Wheel of Time? What an elitist :P

  5. Actually I had a University professor who was even worse. He disliked all modern literature, believing it was a poor descendant of Medieval and Old English literature. He defined "modern" as from 1550 onwards and included Shakespeare in his contempt for "modern rubbish".

  6. I have noticed that English/ lit/ poetry majors that go on to grad school often seem to have a pretty strong dislike of fantasy, and the Lord of the Rings in particular. There seems to be a line of reasoning that goes "The Lord of the Rings is crap and is considered the best fantasy literature. Therefore all fantasy literature is crap."

    The fact that Paradise Lost, the Tempest, and the Greek myths are also fantasy literature does not seem to enter into the discussion. I suppose the argument would be that those are all examples of literature with fantastic elements, rather than fantasy literature. But then you could call most light fantasy either a romantic or adventure literature with fantastic elements, so it's a pretty meaningless distinction in my mind. And few lit majors seem to have a problem with other forms of escapist literature such as detective novels or westerns. I'm not sure why so much bile is reserved for books with wizards in them.

    Disclaimer: I know full well that this characterization does not apply to everyone that pursues an advanced degree in the liberal arts, and I apologize to anyone I may have offended by over generalizing.

  7. On a side note, some of the best writers I've ever seen attempt to include literature, famous quotes, stories of their childhood, etc in their blog posts.

    They tend to make them a lot more enjoyable. Well written and I liked how you presented the information.

    Even though I've quit wow, I would have loved to run around as a panda sitting on alliance. About damn time my favorite race made it into the game :D

  8. @Yeebo I think the bile came from seeing Dragonlance books top the bestseller lists while angsty novels about 2 gays living on the breadline in a bedsit sell less than 10 000 copies. Kind of annoying if you love the angsty stuff and think "everyone must read this!"

    Of course it goes back further to disdain for the cheaply published pulps of the 30s and disdain for sci fi. I'm afraid a lot of it is about the vested interests of professional "literary" writers, publishers and academics.

    @Marcko damn panda-fanciers get everywhere!

  9. The sad thing for me is that Warcraft, while not necessarily on a level with Tolkien's art, really did feel like a consistent world with its own rules.

    Outlands was otherworldly so it didn't disrupt this too much (IMHO). Wrath was elsewhere as well and very tied into the core lore anyway.

    Cataclysm was a deal breaker for me though. The world was broken up deliberately but then the players experience was so railroaded and speed up that the world around you is just a blur.

    Pandaria will probably do nothing to make this already messy situation any worse, but it won't fix it either. I actually 'drew the line at Goblins', the Pandarans are no worse to me. WoW is now so 'in your face' with the pop-gags and constant vehicle quests that I don't feel much like an adventurer in a consistent world anymore.

    My Draenei shaman sits in a depopulated Darnassus doing his inscription research and the world feels literally lifeless...

  10. When I was doing O-level English Literature (which dates me a bit!) my teacher insisted that all SF and fantasy was "3... 2... 1... blast off type rubbish". Since we had to do a project as part of the O level, I wrote mine on good and evil in SF and fantasy, using The Lord of the Rings, Dune and the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant as my main texts. I got an A grade, and shortlisted for the school English Lit prize that year... not bad going given that it's a school that turned out P G Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler and C S Forester in earlier years!

  11. @gamingsf Quite. I played through some of Warcraft 3 recently and it's a completely coherent and serious narrative set in a consistent world.

    @Tremayne Actually, DC lays claim to Wodehouse, Chandler, Forester and Stabs.

    Small world.