Thursday, 31 January 2019

The Hidden Fortress and Bludgeoning Down the Fourth Wall

As time goes on I come around to George Lucas. If you watch the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD with the Director's commentaries turned on (trust me: this is actually riveting - possibly even better than just watching the actual films) you grow to like him. For all his flaws, his heart was resolutely in the right place: this is a man who merely wants to tell good stories that people will like. There may have been a large element of fluke in the success of Episode IV, but there was also method behind the madness and a considerable amount of craft. Sometimes, that boils down to a willingness to indulge in sheer theft, but there's even a craft in that - if you're going to steal, you steal from the best, and you don't get much better than Kurosawa Akira.

A New Hope steals heavily from The Hidden Fortress. (So did The Phantom Menace, but you don't mention the prequels if you want to build a case for the defence for George Lucas.) It steals elements of plot, character, and theme. But it also steals the setting, in a sense. The most important lesson George Lucas learned from The Hidden Fortress is: any story set in an "alien" or unknown setting is better without infodump. The Hidden Fortress was made for a Japanese audience and it doesn't bother to explain anything to do with Japanese history or culture as a result - it assumes the audience would know it already. Western audiences don't understand everything, but that doesn't matter - they just get caught up in the story.

Star Wars doesn't indulge in infodump, unless you count the sketch provided in the opening credits. It doesn't waste time explaining who the Jedi are, what the Clone Wars were, what the Empire is, and so on. It just tells its story and the audience follow along, either filling in the details themselves or merrily ignoring whatever background fluff is alluded to. There's no slack in it as a consequence - it is pure narrative verve.

This seems like a simple thing, when you realise that George Lucas is one of the few people to have ever learned it, and even he forgot it when he came to make the prequels. I just spent a few hours in my local city centre bookshop looking through the SF/Fantasy section and trying desperately to see if anything might grab me. None of it does, because almost every book repeats the same mistake. You flick to the first page of the book proper (all such books have an annoying "Prologue" or "Prelude" nowadays - authors don't have the confidence to just begin at the beginning), and what do you get? 99 times out of 100, it's an opening sequence in which the viewpoint characters indulge in strange interior monologues setting the scene for the reader. You don't get pure narrative. You get a narrative in which the characters are constantly making unnatural asides to a reader who they aren't supposed to know is there.

Here's an example of what I mean, taken from the very first page of the Andy Hoare's Rogue Trader Trilogy (available here), Rogue Star. It is not the most egregious example one could think of - just a common-or-garden example of what I am from now on going to call "Bludgeoning Down the Fourth Wall":

‘Helm, seven degrees pitch to starboard! Number three’s mis­behaving again. Deal with it.’
Lucian Gerrit, rogue trader, turned his back on Raldi, his helmsman and resumed his vigil at the bridge viewing port. His vessel, the heavy cruiser Oceanid, felt cold to him. The after-effect, he knew, of so long a voyage through the empyrean to reach this far-flung system at the very border of the Emperor’s domains.
A jarring shudder ran through the deck plate, felt in the bones more than heard.
‘If you can’t compensate for a grizzling plasma drive, Mister Raldi, I can always disconnect one of the waste ingestion servitors and see if it’s capable of making a better show of it than you appear to be. Do I make myself clear?’
If the helmsman answered, Lucian wasn’t in the mood to hear. Though a ship to be proud of, the Oceanid was long past her prime. Even in a space-faring culture in which vessels remained in service for centuries, even millennia, she was old. Her homeport, Ariadne Halo, had fallen to alien attack in Lucian’s great, great grandfather’s time. All her sister ships were distant memories. She was the last of a long line. Much like Lucian himself, in fact.
Where once a deck crew of dozens had attended to their stations in the crew pit, now half of Lucian’s crew were hard-wired servitors, each mumbling an impenetrable catechism of the Machine-God. Vacant-eyed and drooling, each monitored a single aspect of the vessel’s running. Vessels such as the Oceanid relied on their like, for many tasks were beyond the abilities of a man to perform. Yet, over the years, the availability and quality of competent crewmen had diminished to such an extent that Lucian was forced to rely on servitors. Though essential in many roles, the hideous machine-corpse custodians were no substitute for a man when it came to obeying orders in a crisis. Each knew only its allotted purpose, and would remain tethered uncaring to its station even were it to burst into flames.Raldi, one of the men of flesh and blood, rather than carrion and oil, onboard the Oceanid, called out. ‘Sir, we’re beginning our run on the rendezvous point. Provided we don’t pick up any ionisation we should be within hailing range.’



See what I mean? The chances are that if you have read much SF/Fantasy fiction you have read an opening passage like this a thousand times, and you have probably grown used to it, but take a moment to look at how unnecessary it is. What is this passage actually doing? At most, it is three lines of dialogue - which are themselves totally unnecessary. All that has happened is that a spaceship has arrived somewhere for a rendezvous. It could be dealt with in a sentence. Everything else is setting fluff that can come out much more elegantly in dialogue or simply through inference.

Why is it bludgeoning down the fourth wall? Because it constantly reminds the reader that they are reading a book, rather than immersing them in the story. It is an endlessly-repetitive Brechtian distancing effect which reminds the reader at every turn that they are not part of the world which the characters inhabit. By explaining everything, the author sets the reader outside of the narrative and prevents them losing themselves in it.

For counter-points which do not bludgeon down the fourth wall, I direct you to The Book of the New Sun, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, A Clockwork Orange, and the Helliconia books. (And, it is worth adding, that there are elegant examples of infodump in the hands of skillful authors when the book self-consciously presents itself as a story told to the reader by the author: The Hobbit, The Face in the Frost, and The Chronicles of Amber.)

23 comments:

  1. I assumed you were going to bring it back around to rpgs, but that didn't happen, perhaps because its too obvious a point to make.

    It seems to me that old-school gaming does this, or at least OSR stuff does, by presenting settings through hints and references in random tables and monster descriptions, rather than lengthy chapters of backstory.

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    1. Yeah. I felt like I have blathered on about that point enough times, but it is definitely true.

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  2. A similar point can be made in the video game world regarding lengthy intro cinematics or tutorial segments. The fragmented worldbuilding of Dark Souls is a popular topic of analysis, for example.

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  3. Terrific post! I always get the impression that Kurosawa's earlier films are 'lightly placed' historically (unlike, say, Kagemusha, which deals with actual battles), in the same way that the Westerns that inspired them were. And I think they're all the better for that: "a time of chaos" or "the Wild West" are terrific settings because we don't need any explanation for why there are bandits, rival gangs or competing armies. The clue's in the name.

    The "As you know, Dave" trope seems to be as old as generic sci-fi itself. I gather that Kim Stanley Robinson has made a few rather eloquent defences of the infodump, though I haven't read them or his books. I suppose it can be artfully done occasionally.

    The gaming point here, I think, is that player *discovery* is always better than "pre-loading" the players. They always forget that stuff anyway, unless they've been fed one-line rumours (preferably written down) - or at least that's what I find. And of course, they need never know that their discoveries didn't exist until they stumbled upon them.

    My favourite example of a *successful* infodump is "The Shadow of the Past in LotR". When I was a child, it was one of several chapters that I reread regularly, along with "The Uruk-hai", "The Tower of Cirith Ungol" and "The Bridge of Khazad-dum".

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    1. Definitely - infodump works best if it is one character telling another stuff he clearly couldn't know. The genius of "The Shadow of the Past" is that Gandalf tells Frodo things he doesn't know but never lapses into "As you know, Frodo..." while also not revealing too much (who Strider is, etc.). It's perfectly pitched.

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  4. In my experience I've found that settings which are too overly detailed on backstory/lore are the hardest and worst settings to run unless the players are well enough versed into it.

    That, however, bring the problem of continuity which is a whole other problem which I call the 'Star Destroyer Toilet problem'which I'm sure has many other names but I chose to name it as such due to the joke that I'd never be able to run Star Wars without someone going "UM, ACKSHUALLY, THERE ARE NO TOILETS ON THE 4TH DECK OF AN IMPERIAL STAR DESTROYER *Mouth Breathe*". An exaggeration of reality and fandom, sure, but a real problem nonetheless.

    There is a very delicate balance to strike between having no setting explained (or even planned out) and even the GM having to check their notes and having to bash their own skull with infodump. I've found that explaining things organically in dialogue or when needed is good especially if the players aren't expected to know everything anyway.

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    1. Yeah. I guess in the hands of a great DM it can work. MAR Barker running Tekumel for example.

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  5. I have this a silly idea of writing a book set in the modern world, but giving exposition on completely mundane things and information everyone the audience should know. As well as writing about human anatomy and psychology as unusual, and describing things elements of our world as if they were fantastical and improbable. All to imply that the book is written by some alien perspective. I wonder if a book with that gimmick already exists.

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    1. You could argue that James Joyce did this.

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    2. See also Craig Raine's A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.

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  6. Sci-fi is probably the hardest genre for me to GM since there's generally such a massive gap in knowledge between what PCs know and what players know and this gap can be hard to bridge. I know I've been tripped up before by not knowing basic stuff my old idiot in the setting should know.

    Star Wars does just a wonderful job of bridging that gap by very very efficiently telling us everything that we absolutely need to know without bogging us down with a bunch of exposition. IIRC a lot of this is due to Marcia Lucas being an absolute genius at editing and cutting out a bunch of crap to make it really sing.

    What also helped was that Star Wars was stitched together out of a lot of familiar things so that people could understand the context of what people were talking about even if they were using unfamiliar sci-fi terminology that's never explained. Star Wars is basically a Flash Gordon story about Samurai riding hot rods fighting Nazis in a Wild West Casablanca (plus a bunch of other stuff) how he made all of those fit together so seamlessly was incredible in that it made it easy to extrapolate everything since it seemed familiar while still having the whole setting feel fresh since it was a new combination of elements. Some of the best world building ever done for its sheer efficiency.

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  7. I suspect Lucas forgot that lesson when making the prequels because he'd never truly embraced it. I think early drafts of what became "Episode IV" were full of infodumps, and the opening crawl was particularly turgid. The finished product owed a great deal to its various editors (including Lucas's wife, Marsha), as well as contributions by friends of Lucas such as Francis Ford Coppola and Brian DePalma (I think DePalma in particular got the opening crawl under control).

    It was a lack of creative collaborators that made the prequels what they were.

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    1. I think he not only forgot it, but completely worked against it because all the allusions made in the original series that made it seem so deep and alive he had to go back and depict in exhaustive, and often disappointing detail in the later films. "The Clone Wars" for example, was a lot more evocative as a reference to the past than it ever was when it got shown in detail on screen. Feh.

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    2. And that's the most instructive Star Wars lesson of all. Don't colonise your empire of imagination.

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    3. Yeah, the prequels are kind of like 9 hours of infodump for the original trilogy.

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  8. Coincidentally I've been watching "The Hidden Fortress" the past few days with my daily treadmill walk. The Criterion version I own actually has a commentary extra with George Lucas talking about how Kurosawa influenced him.

    All I'll say otherwise is a GM could do worse than to emulate the two peasants (who inspired R2D2 and C3PO) in characterizing any hirelings the player characters might bring along. Such hilarious, endearing, unreliable little scumbags.

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  9. The first ten minutes of Star Wars set the gold standard for worldbuilding and exposition. When I write or introduce players to a new campaign, I always think "How would this have been done in Star Wars."

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  10. This is something that used to instantly make me think of William Gibson. He did such a good job of presenting a believable world by avoiding these infodumps and having the characters use slang - puzzling out the meaning from context was half the fun, I thought.

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    1. This might be a bit like pretentious fluff, but I think that works because it's how we're introduced to the world we live in. When we are children we learn to navigate the world gradually, picking up words and bits of context as we go along. Learning about the world through infodumps doesn't work particularity well without an interactive element. Classes that have you doing something are better than those where you are just lectured at.

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    2. I think that is basically right. It's the difference between learning a language because you live/work immersed in it, and learning one from books in a classroom.

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  11. While I am not going to defend the passage itself as it is rather banally written, let's say for the sake of the point I wish to make that we did indeed reduce it to a single line. Something like...

    "The starship had finally reached the rendezvous point."

    OK, cool. As a Science Fiction fan who has read many novels, seen many films and TV shows, and played dozens upon dozens of different SF RPGs I can picture this. Actually I can picture roughly ten thousand variations on this scene, many incompatible with each other.

    I could use some details. Enough to see what you'd like me to see. Enough to get a feel for the universe. Not an infodump but nor do I want no info at all.

    The author of a book doesn't have the benefit of a film's visuals. Of course you don't need to explain to me what the Jedi are or what the Clone Wars were. Obi-Wan Kenobi said he was one and he fought in those wars and there he is right in front of me with a sword made of blue light.

    To put it another way, if I picked up a WH 40K book, read the line I wrote above and assumed, "Well I know starships. I'll just have to assume this universe is the same as one of my favorite SF settings. Cool! It's like The Orville!", I am going to be in for an uncomfortable and rude awakening rather soon.

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    1. You can cut it down though, just strip out all the "as you knows", and you already get more of a focus on what the character cares about:

      ‘Helm, seven degrees pitch to starboard! Number three’s mis­behaving again. Deal with it.’
      Lucian Gerrit, rogue trader, turned his back on Raldi, his helmsman and resumed his vigil at the bridge viewing port. His vessel, the heavy cruiser Oceanid, felt cold to him. The after-effect, of so long a voyage, to the very border of the Emperor’s domains.
      A jarring shudder ran through the deck plate, felt in the bones more than heard.
      ‘If you can’t compensate for a grizzling plasma drive, Mister Raldi, I can always disconnect one of the waste ingestion servitors and see if it’s capable of making a better show of it than you appear to be. Do I make myself clear?’

      If the helmsman answered, Lucian wasn’t in the mood to hear. Though a ship to be proud of, the Oceanid was long past her prime. Her homeport, Ariadne Halo, had fallen in Lucian’s great, great grandfather’s time. All her sister ships were distant memories. She was the last of a long line. Much like Lucian himself, in fact.

      Where once a deck crew of dozens had attended to their stations in the crew pit, now half of Lucian’s crew were hard-wired servitors, each mumbling an impenetrable catechism of the Machine-God. Vacant-eyed and drooling. Though essential in many roles - for many tasks were beyond the abilities of a man to perform - the hideous machine-corpse custodians were no substitute when it came to obeying orders in a crisis. Each knew only its allotted purpose, and would remain tethered uncaring to its station even were it to burst into flames.

      Raldi's words finally broke through, one of the men of flesh and blood, rather than carrion and oil. ‘Sir, we’re beginning our run on the rendezvous point. Provided we don’t pick up any ionisation we should be within hailing range.’

      Delete