Fantasy, RPGs, Innovation, and Bile

October 7th, 2007

Ariel, the webmaster (which is what spiderman should really have called himself) of myself and several other authors, has drawn my attention to an interesting debate.

Mark Chadbourn a fellow Gollancz author and a very nice bloke has made a post about the impact of RPGs, particularly of the multiplayer on-line variety, on fantasy, and how the resulting leaking of fantasy concepts into the mainstream is making it more difficult for fantasy authors to be original, especially when these online worlds are more immersive, more detailed, beautifully realised down to every blade of grass.

“Fantasy authors – and all the thousands of would-be fantasy authors out there – need to wake up. They’re being squeezed out of the territory they have occupied for the last hundred years or so. They can no longer count on the fact that they’re the only visionaries in town, or the only explorers charting the fringes of the imagination. They’re being supplanted by a much more dynamic and agressive breed.”

I don’t find this worrying, myself. I’ve played a hell of a lot of computer games in my time, though not so much of the MMORPG variety. I enjoy them hugely, some probably have been an influence on the way I write. But they’re very different experiences from reading, and if they’ve increased the potential market for fantasy, I think that can only be a good thing.

These games are written by huge teams, with vast budgets, aimed at the biggest possible markets, and as a result usually are rather bland and cliched, taking as few risks as possible. I don’t think it’s too difficult for an author, who by the nature of his medium is free of the need to worry about every detail, to come up with something that offers a different experience. I think we, the fantasy authors, can find a way to co-exist with our every multiplying video-game brethren. There’s always a need for good writing, in video games as much as anywhere else.

It’s true that, with these games, and the Lord of the Rings movies too, the tropes of fantasy have become even more widely and instantly recognised. But to me, it’s precisely the familiarity of those tropes that is the point. When everyone’s expecting the same old same old, even small deviations can be interesting and surprising. In fact small deviations are especially interesting, because large ones break that sense of familiarity and leave the reader feeling disorientated, let down, and, often, bored.

Jonathan McCalmont responded over at his blog SF Diplomat, by turning the question on its head. I think it’s safe to say he’s not a fan of fantasy, particularly of the epic, post-Tolkein kind that we’re talking about here:

“The MMORPG market, much like the world of fantasy literature, is one that operates on the basis of narrowed horizons. In the world of console gaming, the lack of innovation has reached such a point that any change is treated as earth-shattering. The best example of this was a gun in Half-Life 2 that allowed you to lift things up at a distance. To my eyes this was a new swirl of icing on a cake largely unchanged since the days of doom, but to gamers everywhere it was an innovation.”

I totally agree. The first-person shooter is an area with way too little innovation, as the rather disappointing Bioshock seemed to me to prove. But it’s interesting that it’s also a genre of gaming that is even more overrun with the tropes of bland military sf than the RPG is overrun with the tropes of bland epic fantasy. I think video gaming as a whole is prone to the bland, but it’s nothing to do with an ‘infection’ by fantasy. Much more it’s because – as with the blandifying of movies – it’s becoming increasingly a corporate big business with vast teams and huge budgets, and that set-up does tend to push things in the direction of the mediocre. He goes on to say:

“The same lowered bar holds sway over innovation in the mainstream fantasy and RPG markets with any fresh deviation from Tolkienian roots seen as an innovation and sufficient grounds for fans of the new work to sneer at the fans of other works (this was something I learned from my run in with George R. R. Martin’s fans… to me the books appear to be yet more tales of battle, magic and great men but to the devoted fantasy fan these are worlds away from other works featuring battle, magic and great men).”

I’m not convinced he learned anything from that run-in with Martin’s fans apart from how to turn his comments off on potentially incendiary posts. This is exactly the same as claiming High Noon and Unforgiven are identical films because they both feature gunfights, six-shooters and sherriffs. They are both small-town westerns, yes, but a world apart in their presentation of character, their investigation of morality, their approach to violence, right down to the manner in which they are shot and edited. Both great films, incidentally. Likewise, Martin and Tolkein both write epic fantasy, but their approaches are nothing alike. Martin was an innovator in his use of realistic dialogue, in the gritiness (a term that has itself become a cliche, but still) of his world, in his ruthlessness towards his characters, in his tight focus on single points of view to tell the story. Epic fantasy can be bland and derivative, for sure, but to fail to notice the difference between Martin and Tolkein is poor criticism.

“The problem here is that the vast majority of fantasy fans simply have no interest in innovation. If fantasy authors were to hear Chadbourn’s rallying cry I suspect that the result would be a decrease in sales across the genre. The problem is not with the world of RPGs or lazy authors, it is the audience and until someone finds a way of evolving the tastes of that audience, the market will reward the writers who are able to pleasingly re-arrange old ideas and not those who present us with new ones.”

To me this both patronises and misses the point in equal measure. The majority of readers of any genre have little interest in innovation. They want to read/play/see something that’s just like the last thing they liked. That’s what a genre is. That’s what a popular market is. The same is true of crime writing, of chick-lit, of westerns, romance, black-ops action, and pretty much everything else. Sci-fi is perhaps the one exception because, more than any other, it is the genre of new ideas. But even there, anything very successful always spawns a great slew of unimaginative imitations, and the more successful, the more it’ll be imitated. Epic fantasy is, in book terms, extremely successful and so it tends also to be conservative. But that doesn’t mean you can’t offer something new while still working within the form. And it doesn’t mean that readers are too dumb to appreciate something new if you present it to them in a familiar framework, in a form that appeals.

Of course you need innovators. Of course you need the new, the bold, the wildly imaginative. There’s a daring romance to throwing caution to the wind, and it’s important to push the boundaries. But you can’t expect to shift shed loads of units that way, and you shouldn’t bitch when you don’t. Those who tend to achieve lasting commercial success are those who, like Martin, carefully combine a few new ideas with the familiar, and send the genre in a slightly different direction, usually spawning their own generation of imitators in the process.

The fact is, for the vast majority of readers (and I think I probably count myself among them), too much innovation is boring. Too much innovation is pretentious. Too much innovation is … wank.

Posted in opinion, Uncategorized by Joe Abercrombie on October 7th, 2007. Tags:

8 comments so far

  • What’s quite amusing on this score is that the works I’m pointed towards as ‘innovative’ are often nothing of the sort. I love China Mieville’s work, but I am puzzled by the people clamouring about how original he is. His urban fantasies don’t really go where Neil Gaiman didn’t fifteen years ago, and Bas-Lag’s originality is overstated (combining the established genres of steampunk and epic fantasy, replacing standard fantasy races with cactus-men and guys with wings etc).

    McCalmont’s biggest problem over the GRRM debate was that he didn’t read the books and attempted to make judgements with no facts to back them up at all. In fact, I am somewhat puzzled why someone who hasn’t even read LeGuin or Wolfe thinks they are well-read enough to make judgements about either science fiction or fantasy in the first place. A shame as some of his commentary, particularly about the disappointing BSG Season 3, is worthwhile.

  • Andrew says:

    Good points, however I can’t believe you mentioned “the rather disappointing Bioshock”!. I agree with the point about the gravity gun in HL2, and yes at its core Bioshock was the same old running and shooting from the Doom days. However there was so much icing on that cake, with the beautiful atmosphere, setting and the awesome plot twist half way through (would you kindly…!) that I think it really was innovative, compared to say Gears of War and any other game I’ve played in many years.

    While I’m here I’d just like to say how much I’ve enjoyed reading your first 2 books and am looking forward to the Last Argument of Kings next year. Also I’m definitely in the anti-map camp, I’m currently reading Paragaea by Chris Roberson and flicking back and forth to that map during every chapter when some new place is mentioned is getting VERY boring, but as you said, as a reader I feel like I HAVE to do it!

  • Juan Ruiz says:

    What’s Really innovation?
    As you said with Unforgiven or High Noon, if you tell someone about the movie, it’s six shooters, bad guys and so…
    This summer I read A War Of Flowers,and it was good, original, buy a fairy story after all. Fantasy books are a convention (as FPS games and Western Movies), and people who tends to read them we expect swords, and really bad guys, some swearing and good battles.
    Adam is right when he said about China Mieville, you can be original, but what’s really an innovations?????

    It’s the same as your books… what I really liked about them (among other things) is the way you portrayed your northern men, and how, at the end of the second book, they seem to me more “civilicezed” (damn word, I think I have it wrong) than the southern men… not because the belle savage or some other crap, but because at the end, their moral values were higher.
    Innovation… crap!! Original… yes…

    And with the FPS what I want is to shoot’em up, no some bizarre inner monologue as some corean cinema guys.

    And people who doesn’t read fantasy or SF tends to make it vulgar with comments as… oH! dragons, warriors and princess… the same crap… but they don’t say the same about Paul Auster works… oh, sad men (especially writers), unloved women and some ethereal plot… the same crap… ah okey, but that’s LITERATURE!!!

    I am tired of defending fantasy and
    SF (and I really like Auster), and tring to say… oh! it’s fantasy, buy it is innovative….
    No, it is not, maybe original, maybe not, inside the conventions, good written and damn fun!!

  • J.G.Thomas says:

    It’s all very well with critics saying the fantasy genre is becoming tired and needs to be more innovative, but how much innovation is too much?

    I remember picking up one of Ricardo Pinto’s books. One of the reviewer quotes inside championed the fact that there were no enchanted forests or magical rings in Pinto’s story, saying that stories such as his were the future of the genre.

    I didn’t buy the book. I put it back, because I DID want to read about magical forests and weapons. This is the best example I can think of innovation actually putting me off a book.

    Innovation ain’t all it’s made out to be.

  • Adam,
    Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. It’s all about combinations of elements in new ways, and whether or not you think of something as innovative often depends on what aspects of a story you most value.

    Well, I found Bioshock disappointing (and I may well comment on that specifically at some point). I didn’t say it was bad. Beautiful design and atmosphere, but all the hype had led me to expect something truly special in terms of gameplay, and from that point of view I didn’t even find it a good example of the genre. Claustrophobic locations in which every fight was a chaotic mess with monsters coming from everywhere. Lots of clever ways of fighting, but no time to ever really implement them.

    Yeah, originality is one element of what makes a good book. You need to bring something new to the party, but that can be a relatively small twist on a familiar theme, for me, as long as it’s done well.

    Plainly, how much innovation is too much is different for everyone. Some people love the experimental. But the mass market, especially that for epic fantasy, is relatively conservative. You can’t write something that isn’t epic fantasy at all and expect those people to buy into it. Why would they, however good it is?

  • Good points, Joe. I had two concerns when I wrote the original blog: that fantasy writers could be considered crap and cliched by association by clinging on to areas that had been devalued by over-use. And that fantasy is the literature of the imagination and should be as broad as such, so why shouldn’t writers use this as an excuse to mark out new ground.

    I didn’t really see it as a battle between commercialism and avant garde (or ‘challenging’). More that the commercial end of the genre could probably edge into newer landscapes, and give their readers new thrills.

    But I am glad that people are talking. There are always huge debates going on in SF, but the fantasy people rarely seem to get whipped up about anything!

  • Beefeater says:

    Just a quick jotting here as I’m posting from work. Apologies if I ramble a bit as I won’t have time to edit. Ditto for typoes.

    There’s a fair point to be made that overdoing the innovation within a genre can take away the qualities that make people like that genre, which is why serious genre publishers have such stringent guidelines on how series books are written. Mills & Boon readers would be justified in feeling a bit upset if they picked up the latest to discover that it was actually a gritty tale of drug abuse, broken families and life on the Glasgow street. Although come to think of it watching them find out might be entertaining in itself.

    Likewise good fantasy has certain characteristics you shouldn’t mess with too much. It’s great to innovate away from Ikea catalogue magic gewgaws, foozle quests, mysterious twinkly-eyed old men and suchlike, but if the first fantasy series you read was, e.g. K J Parker’s fencer trilogy instead of (also e.g.) one of the interchangeable Eddings series, you might well give up on the genre and never come back (you might also choose to lock yourself in a room listening to Leonard Cohen or Alannis Morrisette, but if that’s the case you are probably beyond help anyway). Eddings, for all the fair criticisms that could be levelled at his writing, hooks you and brings you in for more and it takes a while for it to become stale.

    Complex and clever fantasy that redefines the genre would have been wasted on me if I hadn’t started off with the nice, simple stories to draw me in when I was a kid (and indeed may still be wasted on me, but at least it’s my problem now and not the story’s).

    The other point I wanted to make is kind of more basic than Mark’s. Mark mentioned the tropes, stereotypes and conventions of fantasy and I agree these have been colonised by the computer RPG, but I don’t think there’s a serious risk, because games are so enormously limited compared with books – not because of what’s in them, but because of how we deal with what isn’t in them. The great advantage of a book, and one which is lost as soon as you draw or render a picture (and which becomes progressively more lost with each generation of improved graphics in games), is the reader’s imagination. Take Neverwinter Nights (1 or 2), or Bioshock – however good the graphics are, however compelling the visually-drawn story is, it’s impossible for me to fill in the blanks with my imagination because the game tries so hard to ensure that there are no blanks to fill in. It’s essentially sterile; a self-contained world, the boundaries of which I can’t cross, and it’s takes a tremendous and expensive effort by a whole team of people to create a new area.

    In a book, all I need to do is sketch in some of the background and the reader will fill in the details. And they will be totally different from one reader to another: the great central temple (that I never describe in detail) around which all life in City X revolves could be anything from a confucian shrine, a gothic cathedral, a blood-soaked ziggurat or a magnificent mosque, depending on who the reader is and what mood he or she is in. In a book, the detail only crystallises when the writer describes it; in a game, it has to be all there up-front (and ever more so the better your graphics are). Even now, I have a much clearer picture in my mind of Skara Brae from the old Bard’s Tale game than I do of Neverwinter from NWN2, despite the fact that the former was rendered with dodgy Amiga graphics and the latter with an up-to-date graphics card.

    Oh, and Bioshock was overrated. But if I’m honest the only reason I didn’t like it was that there’s no-one to talk to and no real life to Rapture, so the real problem is that it’s an FPS and not an RPG.

  • Mark,
    You’re totally right that the commercial end of the genre needs to move, at least a little way. And it was a great post you made in the first place to begin an interesting discussion. It certainly is true that MMORPGs are full of fantasy tropes. I wonder if the vast success of the Lord of the Rings films are partly responsible?

    Bloody Hell. Great comment. Agree with pretty much everything you’re saying. Maybe you sould do the posting and I should comment.
    However, I must strongly disagree that we need to move away from Ikea catalogue magic gewgaws, foozle quests, mysterious twinkly-eyed old men and suchlike. These are the things that makes fantasy GREAT.

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