I’m going to take a quick diversion away from mechanical aspects of role-playing games to talk about something else very close to my heart: Genre.
Apologies. This is a long post. I’m afraid I got on my ranting horse and took it for a bit of a ride…
I’m not going to go into detailed dictionary definitions or analysis of the origins of the word. Nor am I going to dwell on the distinction between Genre and Setting, other than to acknowledge that “Fantasy” isn’t so much a genre as a broader label in which a wide range of genres can exist. No, what I want to talk about is the apparently inexorable descent to a single unifying genre and how this is damaging to story-telling and the bounds of imagination.
The Assassin of Middle Earth
What has sparked this off for me is the new console game, Middle Earth: Shadows over Mordor.
Now, to check my prejudice from the start, I’m what could be described as a soft-core gamer. I’m usually a few years behind the latest thing and prefer to play slower-paced games that I can engage with on the sofa on my laptop, such as CRPGs or Civilisation, rather than shooters and action games. I am also a big Tolkien fan, a long way short of the buffs of the Tolkien society for sure, but nonetheless a keen reader of his works.
By all accounts, Shadows over Mordor is a pretty good game. Maybe even excellent. For the reasons I’ve said above, I’m unlikely to play it myself, but it sounds like it could be a lot of fun. Except that it has no place in Middle Earth. For me, this is a big thing.
Don’t let facts get in the way of story
No place in Middle Earth? That’s a bold statement! I have two main issues. The first, judging from the game synopsis (thank you Wikipedia), is that the premise of the game itself is something that makes no sense based on the setting and cosmology that Tolkien created. This includes, amongst many others:
- The game’s protagonist is a Ranger stationed at the Black Gate. The story is set between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, c. TA2941 and TA3017, but the Black Gate was reclaimed by Sauron’s forces some time before TA2002, at least nine-hundred years before the timeframe of the game.
- Mordor is not yet a barren wasteland in the game, which may conceivably have been true before the War of the Last Alliance (Second Age 3434), but certainly not true at any point in the Third Age.
- The main character comes back to life to seek revenge, despite Tolkien explicitly stating that Beren was the only human ever to return from death. He is revived by the wraith of Celebrimbor, one of the Noldor Elves. But Elves cannot be wraiths – after death, their souls return to Valinor, either dwelling with Mandos or re-embodied if they choose (see here and here)
OK, the reality is that these factual changes don’t really matter that much, other than one thing: if you need to change the facts to tell your story, why set it in a world that has such a strong predefined history? Just create a new world in which to tell your story: it certainly didn’t harm the sales of the Dragon Age games.
What is the “Middle Earth” Genre?
More significant to me than the factual questions around the setting is the question of genre. In any creative work of fiction, the writing doesn’t just describe a place, it also provides a description for how that world operates, how characters behave and interact. In other words, what sort of stories can and do take place. Nothing in Tolkien’s writings suggest that Middle Earth is a world where protagonists sneak around Mordor slaughtering and torturing Orcs to avenge their families. On the contrary, Middle Earth is a world where great power almost inevitably corrupts and where the exercise of strength can never do more than merely delay the ultimate victory of evil over good. In the end, Evil is only defeated because the humble (Hobbits) exercise mercy (both Bilbo and Frodo staying their hands when they had the opportunity to slay Gollum). These fundamental tenets are the genre of Middle Earth and for any creative work to be consistent with Tolkien’s creation, they need to reflect this. It’s why the Numenoreans could never destroy Sauron; it’s why Aragorn or Gandalf could never wield the One Ring; it’s why a flight of eagles would never be able to lead a commando raid to drop the Ring into Mount Doom: the exercise of strength alone cannot win. This, more than anything, is Tolkien.
What is also important to recognise here is that Middle Earth is more than just a setting or a place. Middle Earth was designed in a specific way, with a specific cosmology, with unique mythological metaphysics that support certain kinds of stories. In the case of Tolkien, Middle Earth is integrated with the genre in a way that isn’t true with stories set in modern day Earth. The use of stealth, murder and torture to extract revenge can never lead to a positive ending within Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as Turin Turambar can attest.
The Action Movie Genre
For me, this comes on to a wider problem of Genre recognition across mass media and consumer culture. Increasingly, it feels to me that public criticism is dominated by a single genre that perhaps can be best described as Action Movie. We don’t question when a hero leaps from a burning helicopter onto the back of a moving car, taking a couple of gun shot wounds as he goes, punching through the rear windscreen of the vehicle to drag his opponent out. The impossibility of the human form to withstand this sort of punishment is an inconvenience.
However, just because most Action Movies are set in something approaching the real world, doesn’t mean that the genre is any more real. In the Action Movie genre, people can accomplish acts of impossible stealth, kill without guilt or hesitation and torture with impunity because the end justifies the means. However, that doesn’t justify bringing those tropes into other genres on the basis that although equally impossible, they are somehow more “realistic”. This is like mathematicians talking about different sized infinities – the infinity of odd numbers is bigger than the infinity of prime numbers, but both are still infinite. Instead of using different genres to tell different stories, we risk retelling the same stories but simply in different settings.
Genre rules are fundamental to telling certain types of stories. The horror genre require protagonists to act in ways that are distinctly illogical, yet the power of those stories relies on that. Noir has its own distinct set of bleak narrative rules that allow us to create dramatic stories. Romance requires impossible coincidences and a sense of optimism to bring about powerful positive emotional states. The Superhero genre has been particularly targeted by this genre normalising, as if somehow Superman killing General Zod is a better story than a near omnipotent having to work twice as hard to find solutions consistent with his commitment to the sanctity of life.
Genres in Gaming
I suspect there is something fundamental about the human imagination that makes it easy to accept impossible individuals, but harder to imagine that the rules of the world around us can be different. Bringing this back to RPGs, one of my favourite games of all time is Torg. This classic 1990s game not only brought together individuals from different settings, but had rules to embody different genres within the one game world. Some gamers couldn’t handle it. They had no problem with the idea that Wizards, Pulp Heroes, Cyber-warriors and Victorian Occultists could co-exist with their incumbent physics-breaking powers. But they struggled to understand why, in the Fantasy world, guns didn’t work. It’s a relatively simple chemical reaction, and the game rules were explicit that the laws of physics weren’t any different, so why wouldn’t the bullet fire? Because Genre. Genre trumps the laws of physics every time. If it didn’t, John McClane and James Bond would both be long in the grave. You believe a character can heal from critical injuries over-night, why can’t you believe a gun won’t fire?!
The idea of using rules to emulate different genres is something that is now widely accepted in table top roleplaying, from Ron Edward’s System Does Matter through to myriad indie rule sets that support very specific types of stories.
We can burn down the Haunted House at the first sign of something eerie.
We can strangle the Bandito in his sleep before the high noon showdown.
We can give Batman a sniper rifle and watch Gotham’s crime rate plummet.
But how do any of these things enhance the stories we’re telling? By trying to apply a single genre to different settings, all we’re doing is telling the same unimaginative story, using the same unimaginative solutions to different problems. I’m also reminded of Robin D. Laws “something he always says”, regarding the drive in modern mass media to turn Iconic Heroes into Dramatic Heroes and by doing so changing the very nature of the stories that they tell.
It’s by accepting differences not only in the characters, but the world in which they exist, that we can tell different, exciting, creative, challenging stories. As the author Saladin Ahmed said on Twitter, not using violent solutions is the essence of heroism in the Lord of the Rings. Finding a way to make that into a core mechanic, now that would be creative. That’s a game I’d definitely play.