George RR Martin obviously plays Dwarf Fortress

After spending the last entry gushing about expanding Vampire: the Masquerade‘s various archetypes,this time I’m going to be talking about narrative. Specifically the consequences of its lack and the impact that lack has on those who interact with it.

Take A Song of Ice and Fire. The series can be quite easily described as a fantasy epic, but it follows precisely none of the standard fantasy narrative conventions; characters that can be (loosely) labelled as “protagonists” are as frequently brutalised and killed as other characters, jolting you out of the comfortable feeling of knowing exactly who will be standing at the end of it, which I found a refreshing change of pace.

It also doesn’t have much of an overarching narrative. Compared to, say The Lord of the Rings, which also has an ensemble cast, there’s very little hints at where the story is going, or how it will resolve for various characters. The other obvious comparison here is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but I can’t make an accurate one because I haven’t read that particular saga yet. Either way, this makes the whole structure of ASoIaF compelling – it draws you in because you have no real idea what will happen next. You can get your hopes up for various characters to either do well or get their comeuppance, but there’s no guarantee that this will happen, at all.

I think this is the case because characters and their fates aren’t especially pertinent to the overall sweep of ASoIaF – Martin is telling the story of families, wars and continents, with characters only really incidental to this grand scheme. Yes, they have goals and hopes and dreams, but whether they achieve them or not is not actually important to the overall story. What is important to the story is the movements of large numbers of armed men (and occasionally women), the shifting political plays of a few major players, and the armies of impending frozen doom likely to descend from the North at some point. The books seem to make a point of playing up this stupidity at various points, yet you realise that the necessities of the world are brushed aside by selfish human nature. And because no-one is the protagonist-darling of the setting, the story is dependent on no-one to either stand against this or show that it is definitely the case (although I have my suspicions about Jon in this regard).

Another series of novels that has this sort of structure is the Gormenghast trilogy, because for  at least the first two books it’s not out to tell the stories of the individual characters, but of the whole castle. The closest thing to a protagonist is Titus, and the stories of the sisters, Prunesquallor, Flay and Swelter, the Professors and to a large extent Steerpike only really intersect with his on the most basic of levels. And yet the castle rumbles on, the books creating an impression of an ecosystem as much as they do anything else. As far as a centralised plot goes, you’re left scrambling around for details, but in terms of vivid characters and the feel of a place, the series is fantastic. It sucks you in in a way that a plot that you’ve already known for ages (Joseph Campbell, I’m looking at you) and are largely just going through the motions with never really does.

The extreme of this sort of thing is visible in games – roleplaying games as a whole tell the story of a group of characters, and while there are likely to be individual narrative arcs going on and questlines and so on, they don’t have to have any overarching structure. Games can be “sandbox” or plot-driven, and the ones I’ve tended to find most fulfilling are the ones that can go anywhere, because you’ve got to be ready for anything, and think on your feet. The ones where I kind of know where they’re going early on because I can follow the narrative structure lines can be fun and exploratory in seeing how the variations can go, but they’ll rarely be the big stories that I’ll remember.

There is also a potential for the idea that I’m finding these types of thing satisfying because they’re things that I can build without fear of being railroaded down a particular pathway by the narrative, and I think that’s kind of the point. Even where I can’t build stuff of my own because I’m reading a book I can still have theories that could go either way because the lack of a central narrative means there’s that bit more uncertainty, and everyone is free to die because there’s no protagonist as such.

And then there’s things like Dwarf Fortress. Dwarf Fortress as a game takes this sort of thing to its extreme, as explained really eloquently by The Foldable Human. Dwarf Fortress is a mind-bogglingly complex sandbox game, and one where there’s razors mixed in with the sand. Dwarfs will die, things will go wrong, and your fortress will eventually burn. But it’s incredible fun watching it go down, and teasing little stories out of the mandala of events is one of the main joys of it. In fact, it’s spawned its own library of Let’s Play narratives, the most famous of which being a thing called Boatmurdered, “an epic tale, incorporating hordes of belligerent dwarf-eating elephants, floods of biblical proportions, flaming puppies, and more hilarious pranks. After many goblin raiders and elven traders were fried with floods of lava, there was a brief period of tranquillity. Then one of the last few dwarves, unhappy from the recent defacement of a masterwork engraving, caught fire and started a fist fight with another dwarf (setting it on fire too), causing a tantrum and insanity spiral that eventually destroyed the whole fortress. To be fair, she’d given plenty of warnings that she was becoming unhinged, such as attempting to drink from the magma river and making numerous engravings depicting dwarves on fire, elephants killing dwarves, and a carving of a carving of cheese.” Because there’s no central narrative, you can become invested in particular events of your fortress to a huge degree, because you’re given the freedom to do so. It’s spawned die-hard fans who write books and wikis on the thing, and all without the need for any sort of plot. It’s similar to the appeal of The Sims; make your own world and stories, because no-one does it for you.

And I feel that fantasy as a genre has shown the odd sign of learning from this, but as a whole really doesn’t. There are lots of character arcs frequently intersecting, but I find I can often tell how a book is going to go purely on the narrative signposting. I remember Dan Brown is a particular offender in this regard; having Digital Fortress I then read into Deception Point and, on meeting a particular character, knew straight away what his role would be in the narrative. With things that don’t have a central story, that sort of prediction and ensuing lack of investment (because a feeling of fatalism sets in) won’t happen, and you start hoping things will happen rather than knowing they will. That sort of thing needs to happen more often in writing, I feel. Writers need to play more Dwarf Fortress.


About Aramithius

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I enjoy exploring it in various ways.
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