The Fantastic in Fantasy – Kypros
This week, I’d like to analyse the relationship between the fantastic and a fantasy world in more detail. Last week, we looked at the first requirement of the fantastic as defined by Todorov, from a creation perspective. This week, we’ll start by looking at the last two requirements. After we finish with the fantastic, I want to talk about Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope in relation to creating a video game with a clear set of “natural laws,” but that’s for another week!
the doubling of form and content
“Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader’s role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work — in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character.”
We’re going to ignore, for now, Todorov’s judgment of “identification” as naive reading, because a video game’s principle formal element is character-player identification.
Firstly, Todorov identifies here that a sensation of the fantastic is enhanced if a character is hesitating along with the reader. This doubling effect causes the fantastic emotional state to be a theme of the work, instead of just an effect of the work.
As has hopefully been obvious to this point, the War of 3 Civilizations is entirely invested in the thematic exploration of the fantastic. In this game, Kevin and I want to explore “what is belief, and what drives people to it?” The fantastic is, in many ways, the site of belief, where empirical evidence is no longer sufficient to satisfyingly explain a situation.
For a satisfying fantastic sensation, we require the balance of character and reader suspension: in a video game, this becomes a complicated issue because the player is an audience-actor hybrid. They do not only decode as they do with most art, but actively create. As a result, this doubling effect is beyond crucial. We want the character’s perceptions and the player’s perceptions to effectively mimic each other: the player has access to nothing that the character doesn’t, and vis-vers-ça. We want the limits of the game-world to be the limits of the fictional world. When a player comes across an invisible wall, locking them into the play space of a game, they do not consider that invisible wall some magical effect. Indeed, for the most part, they ignore it. In our situation, however, we cannot accept this order of events. How can we establish the natural laws of the space with invisible walls and narrative points. Indeed, as the character should technically speaking be free to roam around the world, the player is going to need to sense the same illusion of freedom. If the player can’t freely roam, the connection between the character and player suffers and the fantastic moments will become more difficult to cultivate.
The perspective of the player becomes a complicated issue. One way of accomplishing this doubling would be a tight lock into the first person and the utilization of an amnesiac character who is piecing together their past as the player is doing the same. This was used in Amnesia and Shadow of Chernobyl to create moments of apprehension. The sort of experience we wish to facilitate, however, doesn’t necessary “fit” the first-person experience. The issue becomes again, how do you formally allow a player to see the limits of a character and the world if they can click between them, control characters, and are acting as an omniscient puppet master presiding over a series of characters. One way of dealing with a party, of course, is allowing the player to usher commands to their party but not take control of them. This complicates game play, but also better “locks” the player into the subjective (fantastic) experience of the character they are controlling.
rejection of metaphor
“Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as “poetic” interpretations.”
This requirement is problematic in fiction, but downright weird in gaming. As such, it’s a fun place to really tease out the differences. What Todorov means here is that the text has to convince the reader that the situation unraveling isn’t just a rhetorical device or a metaphor, but rather that it’s actually happening to the character. A small scale example: “Derek huffed, wondering where the goblins who steal his socks hid them this time.” Generally, if you read this in the middle of a normal book, you’re not going to think: “Oh, in Derek’s work there’s sock-stealing Goblins.” Rather, the sentence exists as a metaphor to extrapolate on Derek’s situation. The fantastic needs to convince you that it isn’t a metaphor. If that sentence was in a fantastic novel, something about it would need to convince you that goblins might be stealing my socks.
When talking about video games, the readership isn’t expected an artistic experience, and question emerges: do people read anything in a video game metaphorically? Or poetically? Or does a gamer assume everything that is shown is happening directly to the character? Because a gamer is acting their character, everything feels real. Nothing seems poetic. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the general rule. As such, in video games I would say that the third requirement shifts, and the audience needs to reject reading strange and supernatural events as bugs, scripting errors or formal limits in technology.
As an example, let’s return to the invisible walls: they are read a technological limit, because the programmers simply can’t create the entire world. It would be like describing the entire world in a novel. However, are there ways to get the player to reject reading the limits of the space as a formal limit, and instead read them as a limit of natural law? Setting the game on an island helps us on this front, but more may be useful. It could be expanses of desert where mirages occur, or rainforests littered with poisonous hallucinogens.
When I talk about 3 Civs again, I’ll talk about how we’re fostering the sense of ambiguity in our introduction sequence, as it serves as a good example of our thoughts on the product more broadly.