Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Weird, Strange, Surreal

Presence -by Berli Mike(flikr)
The current kickstarter campaign for Invisible Sun describes the setting as one of surrealistic fantasy.  It is worth taking a moment to compare this tone to that of the previous MCG core games -- Numenera and The Strange.

In a previous post, I compared "the weird" and "the strange."  I won't go into great detail recapitulating that comparison but it is useful as a starting point.

"The weird" represents the incomprehensible.  Characters in Numenera don't know why certain technologies work and it is basically magic to them.  Monte Cook has been clear, though, that it is technology and just not understood.  In this sense, the world works by rules the characters (and, maybe the players) simply don't know.  The result are unpredictable elements -- the weird.

The Strange relies on... well... "the strange."  Strange refers to the unlikely.  All of the setting elements work within a set of (albeit fictional) rules involving a dark matter computer network.  What the characters experience operate within a defined set of rules within the setting.  Something is strange, then, when it operates within the understood rules of the world but is unlikely or rare.

Where does that leave "the surreal."  Well, surrealism is a lot harder to define.  I have to admit that it is the surreal elements that draw me to the Invisible Sun setting (and, thus, the game).  Many will look at the art for the game and say "ohh... weird."  Well, not exactly -- or, at least, not precisely.

I should add that surrealism is an essentially contested term.  Many will disagree with any particular definition.  The term has been used in different ways in visual arts, film, literature, etc.  I will be greatly simplifying the discussion for a blog post - but I think the exercise will get people off to a useful start researching the topic if they choose.

It is worth considering the history of the surreal movement in art, in particular.  I may go into more detail on this in the future but a short introduction will work for now.  The horrors of the early 20th Century convinced many artists that the basic foundations of their cultures were deeply corrupt.  Nothing called enlightened or reason could lead to the atrocities of the Great War.  There were several reactions to this loss of faith in reason (including precursors to the self-described surrealists -- like the Dadaists).  The surrealists sought to attack what they saw as the corruption in realistic and classical art forms by creating art that subverted these realistic forms.  The means of pursuing these attacks were diverse -- including techniques such as "automatic writing" in which writers simply recorded thoughts trying to bypass the pernicious disciplinary influence of reason.  Recording dreams was thought to similarly bypass the corruption that is reason.

What is important to consider is the political nature of surrealism.  It focused on questioning elements of culture taken for granted, taken for objective facts, and taken as permanent.  These seemingly (surrealists thought -- mistakenly) foundational elements of culture were oppressive and limiting.  As a simple example of this questioning, consider Dali's Persistence of Memory.  The realism of the painting (as in, the level of detail -- almost photorealistic) makes the image of melting clocks all the more disturbing.  Here Dali is calling into question the physical coherence of objects like clocks as well as the limp, molten characteristic of memory (and time).  One can find a longer analysis at Legomenon.

Where does this leave us to define the tone of "the surreal?"  There are, of course, many answers to this question but I am excited for a game that explores the political aspects of surrealism.  The emphasis on "escape" and a sense of the oppression of the shadow ("real") world suggest that the game will take seriously the surrealist questioning of what is reality, what is really permanent, and how many seeming facts are really a source of oppression?

So, surrealism is not simply weird -- it adopts a questioning stance.  Surrealism does not merely defy understanding.  It draws into question elements of our world that we take for granted.  How much of the world around us are convenient lies?  Convenient to whom?  What is our responsibility to question the world and how ought we act in such an unreliable world of lies and secrets?

I look forward to exploring these themes in Invisible Sun.

PS As I worked on this post, the kickstarter fully funded.  Congratulations to MCG and I look forward to following this ride.

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