“Fantasy”: A Useless Label

I had an interesting discussion with a friend today, and I figured I’d share the basic point of it.

Basically, I have a bugbear when people act like all the things we call “fantasy” are directly comparable. They are not. Saying that all things that use invented settings are similar is, at best, a useless classification. I could easily argue that ALL fiction takes place in an invented setting, because authors are themselves interpreters of the world they see, and the outward expressions of their observations are each unique inventions. If such an ambiguous thing is the defining feature for a set, it’s not a very useful defining feature.

There are many different kinds of stories that are lumped under the term “fantasy.” Some of them are genre stories that could happen in any setting, but because they tap all the fantasy genre boxes, they are called fantasy. Some have completely unique, invented worlds where the author has created a setting that is streamlined toward expressing deep emotional truths about the way they experience reality. Some are basically just normal drama stories, but they have a single werewolf so they’re suddenly “fantasy.”

And in this pile of things which we mark with the basically meaningless label of “fantasy” there is some high art. The most obvious of these is anything by Tolkien (whom I greatly admire/worship). You can argue whether or not your preferred piece of literature is high art if you so desire.

Now, I want to clarify some things. Almost every time I start talking about “high art” or “pop art” or the like, people start thinking that I’m making a value judgement. That is not the case. All art is created with purpose and is intended to be considered, understood, and possibly loved by its audience. The difference between “high art” and others is that with high art, the artwork is intentionally derived from and adds to an existing cultural heritage* and metanarrative.** There are loads of excellent art pieces that don’t do this. Pieces that are created to be experienced as is–to communicate on their own without the need for a deep understanding of the tradition that it sprang from. My personal favorite art pieces can do both at the same time.

So basically, what’s been bugging me is when people compare Tolkien to something like, let’s say, Terry Brooks’ Shannara . Tolkien obviously influenced the ideas in the Shannara stories, but they are created with a completely different purpose, and based on completely different literary traditions. Shannara is rooted more in thrillers and mystery novels than in the myths and fairy stories that inspired Tolkien. Shannara doesn’t make strides in exploring the literary sources from which it sprang. It just tells you the same ideas that existed before in an entertaining and amusing way. The art of Shannara isn’t the art of invention–it uses the inventions of other people. Its art is the art of story telling, the ability to display these ideas in such a way that people will happily spend their time considering them.

Shannara and Tolkien are not the same things. They were created for different reasons, and with different goals. A superficial similarity in that they both include dwarves, elves, and swords is insufficient to say that they are “the same kind of thing.” Comparisons can be made between them, but those comparisons must take into account these inherent differences, and acknowledge the fact that these are wildly different art pieces. The most fascinating thing about comparing them shouldn’t be their similarities, but that we see any similarity at all.

When we stop doing these meaningless groupings, we can start talking about things that actually ARE similar and actually start having some useful discussions. If nothing else, I’ll get better automated book and film recommendations on Amazon and Netflix.

 

* In much of art, “high art” is relegated to a SPECIFIC heritage and metanarrative that has been selected by boring rich people in order to mark themselves as separate from the “lower class” (aka poor people), but I won’t get into that here.

** That makes me wonder (and I’m very literally just pondering out loud now), what would a new story that explores and advances the tradition that Tolkien spent his life working on look like? I think it would have to experiment with and question the very core ideas of the tradition itself. It would have to experiment with the concept of “secondary worlds,” explore the relationship between mankind and divinity, and ask questions about things like magic and what that word really even means. To qualify as “high art,” these stories would need to intentionally address these ideas (and others, this is not an exhaustive list by any means), and attempt to add to the conversation. Simply repeating the arguments would not be enough.

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On the Reality of Fantasy

I was wandering around the internets when I came across this quote from Hayao Miyazaki (Golden Times, English translation from RocketNews24).

You see, whether you can draw like this or not, being able to think up this kind of design, it depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life. If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it. Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves. Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people, you know. It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans.

This got me thinking, and the problem is more widespread than just anime. I get the feeling that in some ways, all fantasy media is headed in a direction that is more navel gazing, more insulated, and more distant from reality.

Disclaimer: I really enjoy a lot of modern fantasy. I read Brandon Sanderson all the time, and I play fantasy games almost constantly. Many current fantasy creators are extremely talented, and I tip my hat to their abilities. That doesn’t mean that the current state of the genre is above criticism, though.

My criticism is that modern fantasy fiction is being written for and by people who have a hard time with reality, and fantasy is their catharsis. This is shown in how these stories use fantastical elements to abstract away and simplify reality, or how the protagonists often have super powers (or super features) that make them “better” than the normies.

While part of the point of fantasy is to talk about reality using symbolic or abstract metaphors to simplify otherwise difficult ideas to express, I feel like many of the abstractions in modern fantasy simply blur reality rather than illuminate it. Rather than put an idea in a new light that makes it easier to see, these abstraction simply paint over the stuff that the creator doesn’t want to deal with. Are the realities of intergender relationships too hard? That’s fine, have your protagonist take three wives and have nobody care. Is it too inconvenient that in your medievalist setting that information spreads slowly? No big deal, just have a wizard make fantasy email. Are you stuck in a situation with no rational way to the conclusion you want? Better write a fantasy where your characters can become gods whenever you want.

The problem with this is that it makes stories boring in (at least) two ways.

The first is that when all conflicts are solved by godlike powers, there’s basically no stakes. The drama is completely gone. Even in stories where you KNOW the protagonist is going to succeed, even the satisfaction of finding out HOW they succeed is gone. In a better story, the slow revelation of new information, new aspects of the setting and characters creates an ongoing trail of discovery. In worse stories, the people who are “supposed” to succeed simply gain the ability to do so (or in some particularly stupid stories, had the ability from the beginning) for no rational reason.

The second problem is that it creates art that is meaningless. This is similar to the problem of coming up with “original” ideas. If an idea is completely original, completely disconnected from prior experience, then it’s going to be basically meaningless. This is because meaning only comes from connecting new experiences to previous ones. Likewise, if the creator uses fantasy to gloss over human experiences–either because they don’t understand them or find them too difficult–then that removes a connection between the creation and experience. It makes it harder for the fantasy creation to be meaningful.

This may, however, be simply a symptom of wider cultural trends than a problem specifically with fantasy. As humans amass into larger and larger groups, and streamline our lives with technology, by necessity we have to simplify the kinds of interactions we have. To do otherwise would be to live in an increasingly and unmanageably complex world that we are not equipped to handle. Abstraction is used to save us from ourselves.

Perhaps that’s all this boils down to then, the improper use of a necessary tool. Let’s leave it there for now, and I’ll let that thought simmer. Maybe I’ll make another post later.

Awakening

Water was everywhere. Clouds overhead unleashed a deluge, and the dark, churning ocean mirrored them.

She was wet. Her hair clung to her face, and water lapped around her ankles. She lay on something solid, and her hands felt gritty.

Her boat strained against the storm. The single sail had broken loose and was fluttering in the wind. She managed to grab hold of a ragged length of rope, a part of the sail’s broken rigging, and wrapped it around her arm. She steadied herself against the mast as she struggled to bring the sail back under control.

Hot oppressive sunlight beat down on her, and as she flexed her aching muscles, she felt her tight and stinging skin. She heard the sound of small waves lapping against a shore, wind blowing across the sea, and shore birds calling to each other. The smell of briny water filled each breath.

She was thrown to the deck as the boat lurched up toward her. The horrible sound of wood creaking, twisting, and breaking reverberated through her body. Waves crashed over the deck, and the boat stayed beneath them. The waves swept her from the deck, spinning her down into the water. Her feet scrambled beneath her, and she kicked off the rocky reef that her boat had struck. She bobbed to the surface and took a breath before another wave buried her again. 

She licked her lips. They were completely dried out and the skin was starting to crack. Her eyelids flickered open and squinted into the bright evening sun. She tried to sit up, but only succeeded in raising her head slightly. She was lying on a beach she had never seen before, the wreckage of her ship washed up all around her. Groaning, she rolled onto her belly, and pushed herself up. Slowly, she shifted into a kneeling position and tried to stand. Her legs wouldn’t hold her, and she fell back onto the sand, panting. She closed her eyes and lay still.

She awoke to the sounds of someone moving nearby. She blinked her eyes open and found  a young man with long blonde hair and a simple green tunic over a white shirt looking down at her. He sighed with relief and smiled at her when he saw her eyes open.

“What a relief!” he said, “I thought you’d never wake up!”

Sunset

The wind was blowing hard over head, but down between the shoulders of two ridges, he was protected. He followed the bottom of the ravine, and dark, harshly broken boulders spread out around him. Broken shale crunched and skittered beneath his feet. The quickly fading light of the late evening sun did little to illuminate the dusty red landscape.

He crested over the highest point in the canyon and looked down into the valley. The word valley may be overly ambitious, he thought dryly, as the space below was really just a small, relatively flat area between three mountains. One rose directly to his left, its peaks reaching to incompressible heights, and another, smaller one was further off to his right. Straight ahead, disappearing into the haze, lay the last.

He squinted, straining to see what lay in that haze. A walled city, barely perceivable from this distance, was built up against the foot of the far mountain, and, just beyond that, lay the dark fortress. Just as he managed to pick it out from the dimness, a light turned on in one of its many towers. That was followed by another, and then many more. A floating constellation against the darkening mountain.

“Well,” he sighed, “there it is. The last place any sane person would ever want to be.”

Luckily for him, sanity was not a quality he had been cultivating lately.

Rain

Dark clouds roiled overhead and drenched a grim tower, its walls slick and glistening from rainwater. It stood on a precipice, overlooking a mountain pass, a stoic sentinel for the land that lay beyond. It was here that the last remaining defenders had come, and they gathered on the round topped turret to keep watch. Some stood looking outward, crouching beside the crenellations, others rested with their backs against the stone fortifications. Rain water ran down their weathered, cragged faces, and they cast furtive glances at the sky and each other, looking for an answer to the question they all feared to ask.

Their pennant banner fluttered in the wind, snapping back and forth. Lightning raced across the sky and illuminated the valley beyond. Each time the lightning glowed, the watching guards would strain their eyes for any hint of movement. The seconds stretched into minutes, and the rain played a plinking little tune on their helmets. One of the men shifted his weight to lean upon his spear, and its wooden shaft thudded softly against the stone.

“There,” one of them said, pointing out into the valley. The others crowded over and leaned out for a better view.

The next lightning strike illuminated it, closer than they could have feared. The dragon had come, its scaled wings beating the storm winds into submission. The guards scattered, some shivering with fright, some glowering with a feral determination, all taking cover behind the tower’s fortifications. They gripped their spears tightly and awaited their judgement as death descended.

Dwarf Fortress: A Case Study in Game Design

Dwarf Fortress: A Case Study in Game Design

Dwarf Fortress. If you’ve heard of it, you’ve probably heard of how hard and unapproachable it is. What I find more interesting about it is how it has shed many of the things that people have come to expect a game to be. At the same time, it remains one of the most captivating game experiences ever created. For a long time now, I’ve wanted to write something about it to share some thoughts on why that might be.

The first thing that people notice about dwarf fortress is its graphics and UI, or, that is to say, its complete lack of graphics and UI design. Most people have come to expect games to be at the vanguard of user experience, and graphics and games seem to exist in a world where one cannot be without the other. It’s at this first barrier that many people are turned away from the game.

But the graphic and user experience aren’t the only (or even the most fundamental) assumptions about games that Dwarf Fortress forgoes. It does without things like creating “choices” for the player, designing mechanics to let the player feel powerful, or creating reward loops to manipulate the player into feeling good about spending their time playing.

Now you may be saying that Dwarf Fortress has all of these things, and it’s true that all of these things exist in the game. The fundamental difference is that these concepts aren’t placed there intentionally, but are instead emergent properties that come from a much more deeply important goal for the game. The most important thing, the thing that captures the attention of its fans, is the huge volume of narrative space to explore.

I’ve talked about narrative space in the past (I’ll do it again in the future), but for people who are confused by the term, here’s a brief rundown. A narrative space is the fundamental feature that defines a game and differentiates it from other narrative mediums. It is the collection of all possible narratives that can be created given a state, and a set of rules for interacting with that state. In other words, it’s the set of “world lines” through a game’s configuration space (if you’re into that kind of talk). In other other words, as you play a game, the sequence of events that happen in the game by interacting with the rules forms a narrative. The narrative space is all the different sequences that can come from playing a specific game.

In Dwarf Fortress, the number of different narratives to explore is ENORMOUS. It’s larger than any other game I’ve ever experienced, because the game creators have been specifically spending their time to make it that way.

This narrative space is where literally all of Dwarf Fortress’s value comes from. The game is given away for free, but there are players that find the game valuable enough to just donate money so development can continue. Remember, this is a game developed by two brothers, with no marketing budget, no graphics, and basically the same user interface as the vim text editor. Compare that to the many, many, many games on Kickstarter that fail to reach funding goals with the advantages of being pretty, and having a budget.

Dwarf Fortress shows us that many of the things that people believe must be designed into a game are really just emergent properties of a narrative space that has many compelling narratives inside it.

There is no system in Dwarf Fortress that was created to reward a player for doing specific tasks. Instead, the game models tasks and behaviors that are interesting to the players, and as players interact with the simulation, they are rewarded when things that are intrinsically interesting to them happen.

Many games assume that they must manipulate players into wanting to play more by exploiting reward circuits in players’ brains. In reality, players are motivated to play games because the process of voluntarily exploring the different stories that a game can produce, and finding the ones that appeal to the player is a feedback loop. The player chooses what to want on their own, then explores the narrative space to find it. When the player finds what they want, they feel so good that they go back to exploring the game. Repeat. The designers didn’t have to tell the players what to want, because the player just decided that something that was in the game was what they wanted.

The game doesn’t care about player choice, but in order to have a large narrative space, there must first be many different ways of interacting with the state. A large narrative space will necessarily give the player many different choices while playing. This is because, in order to create a larger narrative space, there must be more game interactions, that is, rules.

A metaphor for this is to imagine that a game is a two dimensional plane. The rules are the things that define the two axises, and specific game states are represented as points on the plane. Adding another rule to the game is akin to adding another axis to our spatial model. Now there are many different planes, and the number of different states was dramatically increased. The player has many more rules and interactions to play around with, narratives to choose between.

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It’s commonly accepted that a game should be designed in such a way to let the player feel empowered and assertive. Often this means that the game will be easily approachable, will allow the player to quickly understand it and how to do things, and has “easy parts” that are created purely to help reinforce the sense of empowerment.

Dwarf Fortress does none of this. Its UI is great for players who already know all the keystrokes, but it’s horrible for helping new players feel like they know what they’re doing. The game will often randomly throw impossible challenges at a player, and there are hundreds of little ways that a fortress can go belly up without the player noticing until it’s too late. Yet the word that players have chosen to describe all of these barriers and things that can go wrong is “Fun” (with a capital ‘f’). They really mean it, because they just keep coming back for more. With every new attempt, something new is learned, some previous barrier overcome, and it’s EXTREMELY rewarding. This can only happen because the designers decided to focus on creating a large narrative space over “balance” and “player progression”. Compare that with bland industry games where you know what to do from the beginning, and the only thing that changes is the size of explosions on screen.

In the end, playing Dwarf Fortress is an extremely fresh experience that really stands in stark contrast to the shovelware that dominates the AAA games industry. It’s a dramatic case study into what really matters in a game, and how to achieve it. Luckily, with games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it looks like some of the good ideas that inspired Dwarf Fortress are finding their way into the mainstream industry. Here’s hoping for a revolution in the way we understand games, and to the role that Dwarf Fortress helped play in bringing it about.

Reaction to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Reaction to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

My initial reaction to the E3 2016 trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild was to jump and down ecstatically until I had a stomach ache. Just from the trailer, there was so much see, so many ways in which this game was the ultimate fulfillment of all my hopes for the franchise. Needless to say, I am very excited for this game.

First of all, let’s just establish what the purpose of games is for me. Games are story generating engines. A good game is one where the player experiments with the game’s mechanics and stories shake out. Great games are ones that prompt the player to try hard to get the coolest stories, and rewards the player for their effort. To be clear, by “stories” I’m not referring to scripted in events that are placed into the game by a writer, but instead to the emergent narratives that are the aggregation of player actions and their results. This distinction is very important; a game that depends on having a script written into it for narrative has more in common with film than a “game” (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that).

Prime examples of these “story generators” are games like Minecraft, Civilization, Dwarf Fortress, and even chess. Let’s look specifically at Minecraft. It creates a huge story space by giving the player a simple set of things they can do: move, collect blocks, place blocks, and fight monsters. There are obviously other things on top of that, but even with these four simple concepts, you get the core of Minecraft’s gameplay. The player has a space to discover a myriad of stories involving the collection of resources, and turning them into whatever the player may value. For me, this usually means delving into deep caves to find building materials in order to build opulent, walled castles. Because the narratives are mechanically driven, Minecraft has a very large (practically infinite) number of permutations on the specifics of how a particular narrative may go.

At its core, the Zelda franchise is also designed to work in this way. This is easiest to see with the first game in the franchise, with its non-linear progression and utter lack of scripting to direct the player (and no, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” does not count as direction). This openness allowed for players to simply go whichever way they wanted, and create narratives out of the events that unfurled. Shigeru Miyamoto has always said that the central theme of the Zelda franchise is discovery, and it was one of the first games to show us that this discovery really meant the discovery of interesting stories that are enabled by the mechanics.

(That’s not to say that a lack of scripting is necessary for players to discover the narratives enabled by the mechanics in a game, per se, but it does make it easier. It’s much easier to explore and discover when you don’t have a fairy ringing in your ear, constantly reminding you that Zora’s Domain seems freakishly cold or whatever.)

While the handheld installments of the franchise always seemed to tack true to the original theme, on home consoles from Ocarina of Time onwards (excluding Majora’s Mask), this discovery of narratives took a back seat to stories that were scripted into the games. Development was more concerned with creating catered experiences rather than opening up a world of possibilities and allowing the players to find the enjoyment for themselves. This has been the biggest blunder that the developers of Zelda have ever made. The franchise that helped to invent the concept of emergent narrative had abandoned it, and it has felt stale and groundless because of it.

Luckily, it seems like Eiji Aonuma has always understood this premise at some level. The first game he directed was Majora’s Mask which had an (overly) ambitious system that was supposed to allow players to play and replay the game over and over to discover and rediscover many stories and their nuances. Unfortunately, that intention was not well signaled to the player, and scripted narrative RPGs like Final Fantasy were getting a lot of attention, so the genius of system was not well received by many players. After that, the narrative structures of the next three major console releases were basically clones of Ocarina with some tweaks this way or that to bring some game specific flair (admittedly, I loved the story of Skyward Sword. I wish it were a movie).

It seems that those days are behind us, however, as Breath of the Wild returned to the core theme of Zelda to breathe life back into the franchise. Everything that has been shown and said about this game reinforces that its purpose is for the player to discover all the different sequences of events that are allowed by the game’s systems.

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The first thing I noticed is that this game invites you to go EVERYWHERE. The first thing you see after leaving the area designed to make sure you know how console controllers work is a skyline that is practically a dessert menu of points of interest, just begging you to go and explore them. Next you learn that you can climb on most surfaces (and pretty much all outdoor surfaces) in the game. So there aren’t really any walls in the outside world, either, at least, none that can’t be overcome with some perseverance and a complete disregard for Link’s knees. This game doesn’t have a script it needs you to follow, you’re invited to find the stories that are inherently in it.

They’ve introduced myriad new mechanics including (but not limited to): Link’s new stealth abilities, his various powers that allow him to manipulate landscapes, a fully functional physics engine, reactive AI for NPCs, and a revamped character simulation that allows the environment to affect Link in ways it never has before. The interactions between these many systems create a HUGE narrative space in which to discover fun and exciting stories.

I could go on to talk about how these specific mechanics work to enable this huge narrative space, but I’m going to conclude for now by just saying that Breath of the Wild is the breath of fresh air that the Zelda franchise has been needing for a long time now.