Sunday, August 17, 2014

Thoughts on Contemporary Fantasy Artwork

This is a response to a google+ conversation I had with Erik Westmarch here. My reply felt a bit too long for a Google+ comment so I thought I'd put it over here on my blog instead. Let the controversy begin.

Previously Erik had written:
It's more than just power escalation within the game. That's an issue too, and I like 5E's solution to flattening the total sum of bonuses you can get, but that's really not the problem with the art.

The problem with the art, in my view, is exaggeration. The very size, musculature and abilities (why are his eyes glowing?) are exaggerated in a way I associate with certain comic book style artists.

Here's a picture that's supposed to be Conan which is just over the line for me:

The muscles and the ax are way too exaggerated. More than they need to be. That guy is easily twice the size of Schwarzenegger, who was already huge in the way only massive amounts of steroids can produce.

And why do that? Is this guy really not intimidating enough?


This Captain America

Not this Captain America (Seriously. That guys head!)

You can also see this progression over time.

Here's Elminster in AD&D 1E

And by the time you get to 3E Elminster (who's a wizard, I note) has shoulders as broad as Sylvester Stallone for no apparent reason

And then by the time we get to Pathfinder, Wizards look like this, apparently

I mean, what the hell? How heavy is that globe at the bottom of his staff? Why even have a glass globe on the bottom of your staff? What's with the retarded posture? Is it supposed to be cool?

E-gads this is sort of frustrating because I don't have the words for it. Maybe Zak S or another of the talented artists in the OSR could put it better. But I want PCs that look like real people in extraordinary circumstances, not comic book characters posed for the camera in the middle of an action shot.

I guess I didn't express myself well enough the first time around - my point was that the inflation / exaggeration (which are part of the same problem) in the game has a parallel in the artwork over time. It's a difficult point to express easily. They're not directly linked, but they are a product of the same emotional drive - to One Up the previous thing. In one case it's the art work, in the other case it's the in game stuff. In both cases I think the Impulse to Inflation is a product of cultural trends that are more pervasive than in just RPGs.

This exaggeration of RPG Art can also be seen in movies as well as comics. And my guess is contemporary novels, too, but I haven't had time to read much contemporary novels lately. I think this points to a cultural phenomenon, and not just RPG artwork.

What it strikes me as off the top is that it represents our culture's shift away from a simpler more peaceable mentality toward a flashier, gaudier, and more power-oriented society. People are attracted to (at least it is assumed they are, and certainly the cultural decision makers are) a bigger, more bad-ass, more violent vision of ... well, in a way, of whatever. Everything is flying to the extremes. I mean we have Sharknado now.

Um.... um... uh... WTF is that?!
It's taken two steps beyond the absurd. And if I were a psychoanalyst I think I would be noting that it's probably a result of some pretty significant neurosis at the cultural level.

I expect that these are debatable points, but I think there's something a lot less friendly about the current strain of culture, and that the former epoch was somehow more down to earth, and emotionally easier to deal with at a personal level. I mean, if I stumble on the wizard from the earlier epoch I'm probably inclined to be a bit wary, perhaps, but curious enough to sit down for a cup of tea with that guy and try to learn something. By the time we get to the Pathfinder Wizard I'm staying hidden behind the tree and praying that thing doesn't notice me.

Another point you alluded to is that the new construct, as represented by the outlandish stances of the overwrought Characters may be expressed most succinctly as "Poser" style. It gives the impression of people posing. They are posers. And as such they're fakes.  Or at least they appear to be standing in poses that we associate with posers.   But then again ... if you were bristling with the purple coruscanting energies of the Wild-Wierd, you might have to cock your head back, arch your fingers and spread your legs wide so you don't get blown over, too.  Possible.

What I am more interested in is a sense of down-to-earthness in our gaming. Sure it's fantasy, as some people will argue, and therefore "not realistic" to begin with. But the wall between fantasy and reality should be hazy, not stark. When I play for immersion I don't look to suddenly get zapped into comic book land. There is a certain gradual shifting from the real to the unreal and back again that makes fantasy actually immersive. The kind of fantasy that makes wizards into Hyper-Powered Combat Artillery Units for the purpose of blasting out 100 dice of damage per melee is not the same fantasy as George MacDouglas, or Tolkien, or any of the great fantasy writers produced in years gone by.

I think our contemporary styles with their garish over-the-top displays of power and gaudy reliance on Ultra-this and Omega-that create world visions that one can view with two raised eyebrows and say "oohhhh" and "ahhhhh"... but, can you really find yourselves immersed in those worlds? Maybe. I supposed there must be people who do. Or maybe not. I don't have any way of assessing that at the moment. I'd be curious to know, though. I suspect that Gamism would more likely have replaced immersion, and since for Gamists there's no expectation of immersion to begin with, they simply don't think there's anything else to be gained from the art style other than "oooohhh" and "aaaahhhh", and "ok I rolled a CRIT!". Possibly.

Not that there's anything wrong with Gamist style.  It's just different.  And maybe when D&D took a turn (pretty early on) towards the Gamist side of the spectrum, the artwork naturely took the turn with it.  Possibly.

The Narrativist style, though, is in it's way, a more subtle beast, trying as it does to illicit immersion.  And for that the atmosphere, and the artwork supporting it, should be more subtle.  More old-fashioned, if you will.

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