A treatise on crappy genre writing wherein we posit the existence of millions of dollars to be made off of these people, if only we knew how to lower our standards

This is a very long and rambling post about fantasy/sci fi literature and how most of it is terrible.  I’m hiding it after a jump so as not to make the front page of my blog really long, and to hide all the cool points I’m losing for posting this.  Still, if you have thoughts on the matter, I’d love to have a discussion about it.  I’m out of college, I can’t take comp lit classes anymore, so to the Internet I turn.

My position as an aspiring creative writer and as a 20-something American male places me at an interesting cultural intersection.  On the one hand, I like things like this:

While on the other hand, I enjoy things like this:

Now, these are obviously very different art forms.  The former is a beautiful novel and one of my favorite books.  The latter is a brilliantly-designed video game.  However, both fall into the “fantasy/sci fi” genre of art.  This genre, by and large, seems to carry low expectations in terms of characteristics we apply to more “sophisticated” art.

For the most part, I don’t get excited by crappy fantasy/sci fi.  I avoid it and I don’t spend money or time on it.  But millions of people do.  Careers, and millions of dollars, have and will be made off of creating crappy fantasy novels, or overwrought sci-fi action films.  There are times when I feel I could do this, but I can’t see the path forward because I’m blinded by good taste and standards.  I can’t write a phrase like, “Kul’thar saw the tortured spirits of the ElderOnes writhing in the ebony blackness of the Ur-Void,” without snickering.

I don’t think I’m alone in getting excited when a novel or story in the “fantasy/sci fi” genre crosses over into the category of sophisticated or beautifully-told storytelling.  Examples:

But am I part of a tiny minority in this category?  One so small that it is not only unprofitable, but also unpopulated?  Do consumers not want elegant storytelling and characters they can empathize with in this stuff?  I don’t mean to suggest “no blockbusters starring Vin Diesel.”  I mean simply that this is a niche that scratches no itch.

This brings us back to Starcraft 2.  As a game to play against other people, its gameplay/mechanics are terrific.  But there’s a plot involved, and writing and cutscenes, and those are really terrible.  Risible sci-fi hokey schmaltz filled with epic bad guys and symbolically-hollow good guy martyrs, a vague Civil War motif, and truly awful dialogue.

My reaction is the same as to any big blockbuster.  The studio spent millions of dollars and manhours on the product.  Why not have a decent script?  Is it so hard?  Or is it a calculated artistic decision to make the writing terrible?

I’m finally getting to the point here.  Blizzard, in its savy attempt to deepen the user’s experience with the game, has posted artwork, backstory, video clips, and short fiction on its website.  I made the mistake of reading the most recent short story they published.  It’s 9 pages long, and can be found here.

In short, the story is terrible.  It’s basically a video clip written down, with cliche action scenes interspersed with a middle school boy’s notion of an emotionally damanged main character.  A quote:

Suddenly, and most certainly unexpectedly, a whole barrage of thoughts invaded Isaac’s head: he thought about the fact that no amount of apologizing, soul-searching, quiet reflection, and seemingly interminable time since the incident at Gamma Dorian had eased his conscience. He thought about the Kel-Morian miner who had died with his guts hastily stuffed back into his body, his only concern being that of the family he was about to leave behind. He thought, though he hated to admit it, that maybe not all Kel-Morians were animals.

The inside of his brain was a whirlwind, but the one thing that hit him like a meteor was this: he had sought forgiveness from the families of the victims, but he himself had never forgiven the KMs. It was always so much easier to just keep on hating them… to not even think of them as human.

Maybe this was his chance to make a difference. To balance the scales, to atone, just as Zeke Turner had said.

Trust me, if you knew the context, that would read even worse.

My views on this writing is pretty clear.  But the six pages of comments on this story are overwhelming positive.  The identities of the guilty have been retained to punish them.  Some samples (click for bigger view):

So this brings us back to the question.  I’ve always suspected that this is a case of the writers being bad writers.  But maybe this is intentional, and that many of us, or the vast majority even, don’t want this sort of stuff to be well-written.  They don’t want Jim Hero, Our Man In Space, to have nuance.  If this is the case, then my desire to consume and create art like 2001 and The Once and Future King puts me on a path to an artistic dead-end.  This is a lesson to learn sooner rather than later.

I would be curious to hear your input, patient reader of this very long post.  Whether you are a fan of fantasy/sci-fi material, or you avoid the stuff.  Is the niche for emotionally-resonant literature and film that exists within these genres tiny?  On a fundamental consumer level, are we looking for simplicity from these stories, and are we turned off by nuance?  Is this hangover art, and we need a cheesesteak and a Coke, not honeyglazed salmon with mushroom risoto?

There’s not much of a tradition of comments on any of these posts, but I’d love to start a conversation about this.

Because I’m going for the longest post ever here, and because it’s revelent, AND because I took the time to paint this together into one .jpeg, here is Penny Arcade’s take on the subject.  They did these comics in January 2009, and I think they’re both hilarious, and spot-on.  I more or less identify with Tycho’s reaction at the end of it all (click for bigger view):

from Penny-arcade.com

8 thoughts on “A treatise on crappy genre writing wherein we posit the existence of millions of dollars to be made off of these people, if only we knew how to lower our standards

  1. Nick

    A few points.

    – Most pertinent to your career aspirations, I think the market for well-written games is, if anything, growing more main-stream. I’ll mention three – Portal, BioShock, and Braid. Though these all came out two or three years ago, they are still talked about reverently in internet circles, specifically for the quality of their storytelling. Obviously gameplay is king, which is why Portal is the best of those three games (though it arguably had the best writing also), but I think a lot of people who aren’t twelve year old Blizzard fanboys wouldn’t mind a well-realized story in the middle of their super-fun game.

    – As someone who reads fantasy for substance, you may have missed out on the fact that a big reason a lot of us read fantasy is for some sort of escape. I tend to like the better-written and more emotionally resonant escapes, but a good deal of the reason I’m a fantasy guy is to get absorbed into the workings of an entirely different and fantastical world. This is the main appeal of video-game fanfic – people get to read about their favorite virtual worlds and get re-absorbed into them. Just because that is a Starcraft marine, it is orders of magnitude more interesting than other marines. They have ordered those marines around and made up their own little stories about what those marines think about when they’re not in battle. They are looking for the most “epic” scenarios involving their favorite units, and they will thus invest really stereotypical writing with all the drama and suspense they want to bring to it. They have escaped from their life into their favorite world, and if there is the barest thread of a plot there, that’s all they need. This probably also goes for the writers of those stories. They are happy when they get to describe a sweet scenario the way the visualize it in their head without having to produce a 5 million dollar cutscene.

    I think the moral here is that bad writing is bad writing, and it is everywhere. Do Robert Ludlum fans care that all the plots are overwrought? No, they want to see how The Operative worms his way out of the clutches of A.X.I.S. Industries (omg they’re backed by the FBI???!?!?) Do readers of the SC fanfic care if they are reading the description of a cinematic? No, they want to see firebat v marauder. Do Mario players care how the Princess gets captured this time? No, they want to do some excruciating but fun platforming. But for every 1000 shitty stories, there are a couple good ones, and they are the ones referred to as “art”, and strangely enough, I bet the most artistic video games get the widest audience of any major media outlet. Artsy books sell ok, but not great. Artsy movies lose the box office every time. Artsy painting get viewed by an appreciative elite. But “Shadow of the Colossus”? “Braid”? These games has a surprisingly large audience of people willing to pay attention to them and debate what they mean.

    Now I’m rambling. Point is, don’t give up the dream, and people like to read about “sweet” “epic” shit, but that doesn’t mean people don’t like to read about the human condition.

    1. nmirra Post author

      Good point about how the fanfic reader has invested imagination and emotion in his marines, and a Starcraft marine is thus more interesting than any other space marine. I guess from that point, you can write a crappy story or an amazing story, and it will resonate. Blizzard doesn’t write good stories because either they can’t, or because they realize that their energies are better spent elsewhere, and it only takes the word “firebat” to get their core audience lubed up.

  2. Weiss

    I wonder if part of these reason that people eat this shit up is because it’s like fast food. It’s quick, easy, and to the point. Fill my mouth/mind with deliciousness and I don’t care how good it is for me. “artsy” sci-fi, as you call it, requires a longer build up, a more critical, intellectual eye and just more investment in general. I would say people don’t have the time, but I think they do. I just think they don’t want to spend it on that. Immediate fucking gratification.

    Also, is “Never let me go” a good sci-fi book? Never read it…

    I had another thought about all this but I forgot. If I remember I’ll post again.

    1. nmirra Post author

      That’s part of my underlying question: do the vast majority of readers interested in sci-fi/fantasy not want a gourmet meal, and those readers (eaters) who do like gourmet not want sci-fi/fantasy? Or, to untangle the analogy, is there a market for a healthy, environmentally-conscious fried Oreo?

      I’d say Never Let Me Go is sci-fi, but the science fiction is so deeply buried in the story that you only get glimpses of it here and there. Either way, though, it’s an incredible book.

      Also, thanks for reading my blog, Weiss.

  3. zack

    I think that blizzard writing is so bad because it’s so far removed from what makes a blizzard game good– blizzard does not make 1 player, story-driven rpg’s. It makes games where gameplay is king and everything else just needs to show up to be called ‘awesome.’ I’d wonder how much of Blizzard spends on writing– probably not much, because they make insane profits without good writing, and I can’t imagine what good writing could add to their already disgusting reputation in the gaming world.

    Another point that I notice are that two of the books you noted are not traditionally thought of as true scifi/fantasy. 1984 is great, but it’s political, allegorical, and socially conscious. The Once and Future King is a book with similar trappings as certain kinds of fantasy, but doesn’t really follow the patterns of other fantasy books. Neither book, I think, excels in what i think is the uniquely great aspect of sci-fi/fantasy (imaginative, escapist world building). If I want to read a book about real people that feel real things, I’ll read a book about real people set in the real world. Lots of people list Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, etc as their favorite kind of sci-fi author, but I’d argue that these guys don’t really do Sci-Fi– they use the conventions of Sci-Fi and warp it back into real literature that’s meant to give the reader another look at the world that they actually live in.

    If I read a book about magical warriors who are shaping a new empire, I don’t really want the book to spend a lot of time doing political allegory or delving into the nuanced emotions of the characters– I want to imagine a world I’ve never seen where dudes fly around shooting metal at each other and shaping the future of the world while fighting armies of giant blue men controlled by men with spikes in their eyes. (i’m reading this book that krefting gave me that is one of the most terribly written things, I’ve ever read, but the author is so imaginative and awesome at world building that i’m ok with it, and am enjoying the book)

    those are my thoughts.

    1. nmirra Post author

      You’re right, Zack, that 1984 isn’t the kind of imaginative escapism that we want from sci-fi books. I’d argue it is escapism, but it’s horrifying escapism. Once and Future King, however, is definitely an escapist fantasy novel. Its world is as fleshed out and enveloping as any fantasy novel I’ve read.

      You’re also right that Blizzard has no incentive whatsoever to improve its writing. I just wonder if somebody in that company doesn’t have standards, though.

      I think the kind of emotional realism and attention to literary craft I want to read and write is still compatible with the world-building escapism of sci-fi/fantasy. Once and Future King is one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. I’d say Harry Potter, Dune, and Lord of the Rings get there at times, plus of course Vonnegut. I imagine Philip K. Dick might, too, but I haven’t read him.

      To continue the metaphor habit of this conversation, perhaps it’s a matter of constructing an escapist story that has something for both demographics. Sort of like a Volvo sportscar. It can’t be too safe and practical without losing the sportscar allure, and it can’t be too fast and sleek without making it unsafe. But a good writer/car manufacturer can get both in there to satisfy most folks.

  4. Pingback: link: bad video game writing | My Web Presence

  5. Will Piovano

    I may be a little late to this post, but I felt the need to comment because I feel like I am reading my own thoughts and worries. 🙂

    I know exactly what you mean, nmirra. I am a huge Blizzard fan and games like Diablo and Starcraft are part of what inspired me to write my own stories when I was a kid, create worlds and memorable characters. But I also enjoy ‘sophisticated’ fiction, as you call it, be it Nabokov or Shakespeare or Blake.

    I share your disappointment with game writing, and SCII in particular. It is worth noting that Blizzard’s lead writer is Andy Chambers, who was, before Blizzard hired him, one of the lead designers on the Warhammer 40K universe. If you’ve ever dealt with it, you’ll know that it’s science-fiction at its most over-the-top. Very fun, but very, very cheese steak.

    A previous poster mentioned Bioshock and some other titles. I would add Bioware as a developer, and Mass Effect 2 in particular, as examples of much better writing. It’s not T.H.White, but I believe characterization is a form of ‘sophistication’, and the game handles it quite well, while staying true to a Star Wars-esque, Campbellian hero’s-journey universe.

    But back to your main point. Yes, I have long worried about the existence of a niche market in good genre writing, and do on a daily basis. It is what I like to write, after all, and every writer, no matter how much s/he denies it, wishes to have an audience.

    I happen to think such a market exists, but that it’s not quite where you expect it to be.

    There is a convergence happening now between genre fans who enjoy more ‘sophisticated’ fiction (not sure it’s the word I’d use, but let’s use it for now) and readers of mainstream literature who enjoy an outlandish plot. Two examples are Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

    Both of these books are examples of genre, the former something of a mishmash disguised as mainsteam, the latter a fairy-tale for adults. Because they are not advertised as fantasy/sf, mainstream readers pick them up, and to enjoy them for their plot as well as their prose.

    When I read these books, I am reminded of the famous dictum in economics: consumers don’t know what they want. It’s true that publishers need to market their books to sell them, but a lot of great work was written with no market in mind. Nobody asked for epic fantasy before Tolkien wrote LotR, nor was there any itch for novels when Cervantes penned Don Quixote.

    Of course, I am not claiming that your book will single-handedly carve out a new market’. That’s too much to hope for, but happily, I think the new market you are looking for is already emerging. It’s not ‘better genre’, but rather ‘plotted mainstream’. Check out guys like Chabon to see pulitzer-prize winners turning to the Dark Side, and Mitchell for literary fiction swelling with bursting imagination. These might not sell millions like Grisham, but enough to allow them to be full-time writers.

    In the end, I agree with those who say that you should write what you’d want to read, and that if you love it, chances are someone else will. 🙂


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