Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Why I don't like Grimdark

On his tumblr, Steven Attewell was asked what he thought of Grimdark. His answer deserves being quoted in full: 
Let me just say at the outset, I used to LOVE grimdark. Huge fan of Warhammer (both 40k and Fantasy), read all of the “groundbreaking, adult” graphic novels of the late 80s/90s, bought as many of White Wolf’s RPG books as I could, even if I almost never got to play them, and so on and so forth. But, and I don’t mean this at all in a condescending way, I matured out of it. This stuff that had spoke to me when I was a teenager was less appealing now that I’m in my early 30s.
A lot of this of this comes from the way that my personality works. I’m fundamentally an academic and a policy wonk and a reformer, which means when I see a bad situation either in real life or in media, my mind immediately goes to how it could be fixed, how it can be improved - I look at Westeros and start thinking about economic development plans, after all. Grimdark, however, requires stasis in order to maintain mood and atmosphere and setting:
“Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned.  Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war.”
You can see the contradiction there. 
Another big part of this is my realization, after a while, that grimdark is ultimately just as as sterile and fomulaic and predictable as its opposite. If the universe is always doomed, if the bad guys are always going to win, then there’s no dramatic tension, no possibility of surprise or innovation beyond a point. 
One of the truths I feel I’ve stumbled across over the years is that the essence of good storytelling isn’t found in extremes, but in variation. No matter whether it’s grimdark or its opposite, too much of the same thing leads to habituation and a decrease in effectiveness. The result is either apathy or a constant arms-race of intensity that eventually becomes ridiculous.
Man, do I hear you. I never was a fan of Warhammer, either 40k or Fantasy, but mostly because I came too late to the party. I went through the same phase Steven describes here: from silly Dungeons&Dragons fare to the grim stuff. In fantasy terms, this was of course the Drizzt Do'Urden storyline (yes, D&D, but you see where I'm getting to) and the Drenai-novels of David Gemmel. Looking back at those, it's almost ridiculous how bad this stuff was, how formulaic and how - ultimately - silly. But my 17-year-old me was totally infused. This seemed deep, seemed to be edgy, have meaning, etc.

As Steven, I also dove deep into the White-Wolf stuff. I had played fantasy roleplaying games since late 2001, and in 2003, I first took part in Vampire: The Masquerade. Never the tabletop, though, I only played it live. But boy, did I go into it. It seemed incredible. Great writing, a fascinating, rich world, and of course different shades of morality. You are playing the bad guys, and it feels good (we played mostly Sabbat, enhancing the effect). Again, looking back at it now let's "pretentious" come to mind as the attribute of choice, but tell that my adolescent me. 

This stuff did inform my worldview to a certain point. When you're a young student, where you're part of the radical movement (revolution against capitalism!), the whole dystopia of a dark camarilla controlling the world with help of all those shady business connections and government organizations you distrust anyway isn't a great leap. It fits. 

But for the same reasons that Steven stated - a changing worldview and simply getting older - I lost my interest in Grimdark. The stories were always the same, and White Wolf had the tendency to overwrite their worlds to the point of suffocation and then to reset them, so that the gradual change to Vampire:Requiem was as good a reason as any to leave for more interesting shores.

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