Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Quality of Universe

I really like analyzing IP franchises for the kinds of stories they support, and the kinds of cultural baggage they are weighted with.

By "IP franchises" I mean things like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Mass Effect: universes that can support many stories. Universes with a lot of fanon. I guess it includes things like My Little Pony and Adventure Time and such, but I do try to limit my analysis to universes I've actually witnessed. I don't try to guess at the sorts of stories and baggage MLP carries, since I've never seen it.

When I say that a universe can carry a kind of story, I don't mean that it's the only kind of story that can be told, just that it's the kind of story the universe is best at. For example, Star Wars is best at stories of redemption and combating darkness - internal, systemic, or universal. Star Trek is best at stories that explore the breadth and diversity of life and culture. Both have other kinds of stories in them, but their iconic stories are of those types.

I've always analyzed universes like that, and I've enjoyed how those stories reflect on fanon. Star Wars has a fanbase very dedicated to the original movies because the fanbase wants stories like those: stories of fighting against darkness. Later movies had a weaker focus on that. If you read the expanded universe stuff, you can see much of it sticks very close to the core stories that Star Wars seemed best at, and nearly all the fanfiction does. Fighting darkness is very compelling, no matter where the darkness is found or how it is embodied.

Star Trek, on the other hand, has many fans but they rarely highlight the same seasons. I think this is because the best story type is "exploring diversity from the point of view of white bread mainstream culture", and that's a story type that evolved with each season along with cultural norms. So you get attached to the seasons that were closest to your cultural norms, and therefore tickled your concept of "diversity" most.

It's really fun to think on this level, although a lot of the thoughts are guesswork. You can certainly disagree with this kind of analysis, especially if you were struck differently by the same universes I've described. But one thing I have started to notice is that these universes, these franchises, they are more than just the stories they can support. They are also the baggage they bring with them.

What made me really start to notice this was the rapid-fire discussion of Mass Effect, Star Wars, and Super Mario happening on Twitter recently. All of these franchises have baggage.

Baggage isn't inherently bad. For example, Star Wars has light sabers as baggage. If you tell a Star Wars story that includes Jedi, it's going to include light sabers, and you're going to have to keep in mind that the Jedi can, you know, cut anything apart in a flash. It'll weigh on your mind and constrain your story, but that's not necessarily bad and, like all creative work, the right constraints can actually fire you up.

Not all baggage is as intentional as light sabers, though.

The easiest example of unintentional baggage is deeply ingrained sexism and racism. Especially with older universes, there's a lot of passive assumptions about sex and race. For example, Japanese game studios are still struggling to stop being total creepers in how they treat characters like Peach and Samus. American companies aren't doing much better, with the new Star Wars featuring a grand total of one new woman into the cast.

Racism is also part of the culture of many universes. Not introduced on purpose, but just incidentally as part of the culture of the developers that they failed to properly account for. Fantasy settings tend to have this worst.

The older a setting is, the more sexist and racist it tends to implicitly be. For example, in Tolkien's works, the good guys are all European white men. Whether Tolkien was racist or sexist isn't the point: the setting has baggage. Unless you actively rebel against it, it'll creep into every related story. This limits what cultures it can appeal to: as time passes, what we are willing to put up with changes, and that kind of exclusion is less acceptable.

More modern universes tend to be more inclusive, but they use a technique that will, in the long run, be equally problematic. This is the "generic diversity" approach.

As an easy example, in Mass Effect the human species is represented in a fairly diverse manner, especially in the later games. Decent spectrum of color, decent gender ratio, even a steadily increasing diversity of sexual preference.

However, this isn't a situation where a woman's point of view is represented, or a Hispanic point of view, or a gay point of view. Instead, they are all given the default point of view of the developer. That is, they are all written as straight white men, and most of the intercharacter relationships among the human cast are relationships straight white guys have, with the focus on the kinds of strife straight white guys tend to have with each other - that one coworker who's racist, for example.

All of the cultural pieces actually relating to being female, or black, or gay, or religious, or homeless, or poor - these are all given to aliens.

This doesn't mean the aliens represent the point of view of these cultures, or the people who have these issues. Nope, they still don't have much of a word in these games. Instead, the issues can still be treated in the same way as they have been for decades, just now people have a harder time calling you out on it because you've changed out the faces.

Not only is this lazy, it's also not very good at keeping up with the changing culture in the real world. The Asari and the Quarians both carry a lot of aging sexist and/or racist baggage with them. In time, those species will need to be completely reinvented to stay acceptable, let alone relevant. In fact, you can already see that happening with the Asari, whose representation grasps at dozens of different straws, some more unfortunate than others.

Although I say this is lazy, it's still 100x better than the exclusionary settings of last century.

Anyway, that's my own opinion on the matter.

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