Sunday, March 4, 2018

Gaming the Grey

A recent article on EN World got me pondering the contrast of black-and-white vs gray in modern fantasy.  Because the author (Lew Pulsipher) seems to me to be spot on in many ways ... but also slightly off in some ways.

Now, obviously my position is going to be highly influenced by my philosophy of balance and paradox: surely here is a custom-tailored debate for my outlook.  Obviously I must be on the side of gray, right?

But not so fast.  Recall what I said quite early in my inaugural Baladocian post:

But what I mean when I speak about “the Baladox” is that I believe in balance and paradox.  Not just that I believe that they exist, but that I believe everything in life is ruled by those two principles.  That the world is not black and white, but that sometimes it is gray, and sometimes it is both black and white and the same time.  And, recursively, sometimes it’s sort of halfway between gray and both black and white at the same time, and then sometimes it’s black and white and gray, all at once.

Now, that may sound sort of hand-wave-y, but it actually applies quite nicely in this situation.  What the author (and nearly all the commenters, for that matter) are trying to do is divide the world of fantasy (and/or fantasy roleplaying) up into either black-and-white—where the bad buys are inarguably evil and the good guys are purely good—or gray—where everyone is a little bit good and a little bit evil, and the “bad” guys are just those who lean more to one side than the other, or perhaps it’s even up for debate whether anyone is a bad guy at all.  But the problem with this is that entire argument is a stark dichotomy which doesn’t track with the actual reality.  Look at the simple examples that everyone there is using: the Lord of the Rings vs Game of Thrones.  Lord of the Rings is obviously black-and-white, with Sauron representing ultimate evil and the only good orc being a dead orc.  Whereas Game of Thrones is obviously gray, with the Kingslayer being both a oathbreaker and murderer, and also the savior of an entire city, and where it’s easy to root for “bad” people like Tyrion or the Hound, and far more difficult to get behind “good” people like Stannis or Robert Baratheon.  Except that there’s a big problem with this analysis: it completely ignores the Night King, who is no less purely evil than Sauron, and the political situations of Gondor (including the madness of Denethor) and Rohan (with the machinations of Wormtongue).  Hell, even Saruman, who does some pretty awful things in the Lord of the Rings, is not completely evil.  There is plenty of gray in the Lord of the Rings, and plenty of black-and-white in Game of Thrones.

Which is not to say that these two examples don’t lean pretty hard toward one extreme or the other.  There’s no denying that the the gray is pretty much background material in the Lord of the Rings, and the black-and-white is just there to shake up the gray and keep it interesting in Game of Thrones.  So on the one hand you could claim that I’m merely quibbling over matters of degree.  But I think it goes deeper than that.  I think that humans, with their inherent need to simplify things, wish that they were faced with a stark, either/or choice in this area.  But the fact is, we’re not.  Like everything else in life, the choice between black-and-white or gray is not between two poles, but rather a spectrum.  You can hew close to one end or the other, or you can stick closer to the middle.  It’s entirely up to you.

But I think this debate is oversimplified in another dimension.  Because we’re very specifically talking about fantasy here.  There are other types of literature out there, and we needn’t make the same choice for every genre.  Sometime I feel like people want fantasy (including some offshoots, such as horror or superhero stories) to conform to the level of gray shading that we’re seeing in modern dramas such as House of Cards or Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy.  There’s been a tendency in this area to take antiheroes to new heights.  And, personally, I like it—I’ve enjoyed all three of the examples I just gave.  But a drama set in modern times is very different from a fantasy.  For me, there’s nothing wrong with choosing shades of gray for one genre, but preferring a bit more black-and-white for others.

And fantasy (in addition to horror and superhero literature) is one area where there’s a distinct advantage to black-and-white.  A story in which good and evil are clearly delineated leaves no ambiguity about who to root for, and no question about whether the protagonists have “won” at the end.  If the evil was defeated, that’s a victory.  If not, then hopefully there’s a sequel in the works, because otherwise it’s a bit of a bummer.  And, again, there’s nothing wrong with a good tragedy, especially in a modern setting.  I shan’t give any direct spoilers for Breaking Bad, but let’s just say that the conclusion of that story was positively Shakespearean.  And I loved it.  But that’s just not what I want out of fantasy.  I want the good guys to win in the end: I’m willing to wait a while for that to happen—three movies or so is about right, but I’ll settle in for the long haul of seven books, if the story’s compelling enough—but, in the end, dammit, the good guys need to win.  Is that realistic?  No, of course it isn’t.  It’s FANTASY.  It’s not supposed to be realistic.  When I want realism, I’ll watch something realistic.  Or science fiction, perhaps: I’m way more tolerant for shades of gray and tragedic outcomes in sci-fi.  But fantasy needs to feed my need for a world where the bad guys are easy to identify and the good guys are destined to win.  Otherwise I could just stay in the real world.

Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy Game of Thrones, because I do.  I like the show more than the books (blasphemy, I know), because the books are even more tediously, drearily gray, but even the show can get on my nerves sometimes.  “Stop freaking fighting each other, you idiots,” I will often say to the screen.  “Listen to Jon Snow.  He’s the only one with any brains.  White walkers are coming to munch on your brains.  Morons.”  I have a similar love/hate relationship with The Magicians (I’ve watched the first two seasons of the show, and am about three-quarters of the way through the first book).  It’s obvious that somebody read Harry Potter and said, man, these kids have way too little sex to be teenagers, and then promptly went off to write their own version.  And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all: by being a direct contrast to Rowling, Grossman not only provides a completely different take on the vagaries of a magical eduction, but is able to pose many really interesting and profound questions.  For instance, in the book especially (and to a lesser extent in the series), the characters wrestle quite often with boredom: if you can provide all your basic needs with the flick of a wand, then what do you actually do all day?  It is, in many ways, a meditation on the contrast between those who have to work hard just to feed themselves and those who are wealthy enough to afford leisure time, and then what happens if you have nothing but leisure time.  So there are definitely intriguing aspects.  But sometimes I find my mind wandering, or I simply throw up my hands, because there’s never any clear concept of who the real enemy is (or, rather, it’s more that, whenever you think you know who the enemy is, you later find out you were wrong ... mostly).  To me, this stumbling around, never able to figure out exactly who the bad guys are, is just not that entertaining in a fantasy setting.  In other settings, okay.  But, to me, fantasy is different.

So, whether we’re talking about books, or movies and television, or roleplaying games, I think the question of black-and-white vs gray is a false choice.  In reality, you will end up with both; it’s just a question of which one you will choose to emphasize more than the others.  Now, in a roleplaying context, I’ve already done an entire post on choosing a playstyle and, not surprisingly, two of the options were Lord-of-the-Rings-style and Game-of-Thrones-style.  (The third choice was Conan-style, which is sort of a variation on black-and-white, where the “good guys” are defined as “you,” and the “bad guys” are defined as “anyone who gets in your way.”)  As a GM, I pointed out that it’s important to get your players on the same page; personally, I prefer to let everyone vote on what style they prefer, preferably with lots of discussion.  But, as a player, I’m always going to vote for Lord-of-the-Rings-style.  I love the epic quest, with clear goals and crystal clarity on who the ultimate bad guys are.  A little bit of murkiness on the lower-level baddies can be fun—I love a chance to figure out how to turn the #2 “bad” guy and make them a good guy double-agent—but up at the top, I want Sauron, I want Voldemort, I want the White Witch, I want the Dark One, I want the Night King, I want Lord Foul, I want the Wicked Witch of the West and the Red Queen and Captain Hook.  You can tell me about the tortured childhoods of these fiends all you want, but I will only be listening with half an ear.  These are the Big Bads, the faces of ultimate evil, the pullers of strings and wielders of dark energies.  These are the people whose defeat is worthy of an epic quest, and that’s what I’m in it for.

So, whether as participant (as in fantasy roleplaying) or merely audience (as in fantasy literature or cinema), I like to see my good and evil clearly accentuated in a fantasy context.  Throw me a little gray here and there, but mostly black-and-white.  Fantasy is one of the few genres that can support that sort of dichotomy, divorced as it is from what we see in the real world, so I say: take advantage of that.  Keep the heroes valiant and the villains despicable and we’ll all get along just fine.

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