Friday, November 28, 2014

General RPGs Theory: Suspension of Disbelief

Greetings, all. I hope all of you in the USA enjoyed your Thanksgiving, and I also hope that you have the luxury to be home and relaxing today. Remember--if you go out shopping today, you're an amoral bastard perpetuating a sickening and staggeringly depraved example of human vice that stands as a reminder of the dark and vile potential of society. Just do basic human dignity a solid and stay home. Here, I'll even make it easier for you with a new rant--spend your time reading it instead of trampling shoppers and your worth as a human being.

Today’s another of those rants that is really more of a general thing, but does apply to RPGs enough that I feel it’s okay to talk about it here, like Unnecessary Paternal Ties Syndrome, or stupid fucking hot springs scenes.

I imagine we’re all fairly familiar with the concept of Suspension of Disbelief, but because I just love the sound of my own typing, a refresher: Suspension of Disbelief, an idea coined by Coleridge in the early 1800s (thanks Wikipedia!), is basically the common act your brain performs when reading, viewing, or otherwise experiencing fiction wherein you accept certain unlikelihoods/impossibilities/fantasy elements in order to enjoy the work. When you play a Final Fantasy game and accept the existence within the game’s setting of magic and monsters that don’t exist in real life (and often seem evolutionarily questionable even within the game’s setting), that’s you suspending your disbelief. When you read comics, you’re suspending disbelief when you accept that Superman is an alien dude who can absorb energy from the sun like a solar panel and that this energy somehow can make him impossibly powerful and capable of flying. When you watch Doctor Who, you’re suspending disbelief...well, about just about goddamn everything, really. When you see an American Pie film, you’re suspending disbelief when you accept the idea that watching it is preferable to, oh say, spraying oven cleaner into your eyes. And so on and so forth; you get the idea and I’m sure I didn’t need to waste time explaining all of this to you to begin with.

How exactly does it work, though? I mean, we get the basic premise, but what are the nuances of this function? As an audience, most of us are still at least somewhat critical. We can still recognize when something is nonsensical and, at times, hold it against that product. Suspension of disbelief is not absolute, not by a long shot. It’s abundantly clear that having all the elemental spirits in Avalon Code be extra weak to even a tiny bit of water makes absolutely no sense, as I have mentioned. The absurdity of having the sacrifice of Fallout 3’s original ending be unavoidable annoyed players so much that Bethesda had to fix it in a later DLC. One of the many annoying parts of the HM element of Pokemon games is that it doesn’t even make sense for a variety of reasons anyway, which I’ve recently covered. And then there’s Xenosaga. It would take a rope woven from the hairs of Superman and God, coated in adamantium and enhanced with enchantments cast by Twilight Sparkle, to bear the burden of one’s disbelief at Xenosaga 3.*

And not only is our ability to suspend belief not absolute, it’s fickle. To make an odd and highly random contrast, take a look at the greatest non-anime cartoon of all time, Gargoyles, and the 2014 Godzilla movie. Throughout the course of the series, Gargoyles shows us magic and science of equally unlikely capacities, containing spells, cyborgs, mutants, and robots in almost equal measure, as it takes us through stories involving time travel, fantasy creatures, religious mythology, and mad science, all of which is encountered by the same few characters. Elisa Maza goes from being a regular New York detective, to a woman who befriends gargoyles, has a brother who gets transformed into a mutant cat-bat with electrical powers and a father who’s spiritually connected to a native american spirit god, opposes a megalomaniacal super-rich genius that marries a werewolf and has a manservant who comes straight from a Shakespeare play, fights shapeshifters and time-traveling wizards as often as she does street gangs, and meets minotaurs, aliens, banshees, immortal knights, ghosts of vengeance, nanomachine hive-minds, the Loch Ness Monster, Odin, King Arthur, and much more, all in the space of, what, 2 years or so? How insanely unbelievable is that?

And yet, no one talks about how unbelievable the content of Gargoyles is, at least not that I’ve ever heard. And I’ve certainly never myself complained, or even really considered, that the whole package is a bit hard to swallow. But you know what people HAVE often said is pretty hard to believe? The fact that the main character of the Godzilla movie, this 1 single guy, somehow manages to keep bumping into Godzilla and the other 2 giant monsters over and over again no matter where he goes, and is present at every major event of their rampage--while surviving every encounter. Hard to believe? Certainly! As hard to believe as Elisa Maza stumbling across the biggest collection of mythologies, monsters, and mad science that you’ll ever find outside a Shin Megami Tensei game? Uh, not even remotely. Yet the audience will unquestioningly suspend disbelief for Gargoyles, while Godzilla 2014’s string of coincidences and lucky breaks are noticeably unlikely.

And I’m sure you can come up with other examples of this if you think about it. We laugh when we come across a fanfiction (or an actual, published novel; thanks so much Stephenie Meyer) with an obvious and painful Mary Sue who’s perfect and wonderful and everyone loves her, yet we only vaguely question the believability of Batman being a perfectly fit super sleuth genius strategist master of combat who spends his time as Bruce charming random floozies and spends his time as Batman charming Catwoman, Talia al Ghoul, Batgirl, Lois Lane, Wonder Woman, and who knows how many others (I’m more familiar with the cartoons than the actual comics, in case it’s not obvious). Sure, the long-lost sister of Sailor Moon who’s a born natural at piloting a Gundam and whom Vegeta falls passionately in love with because she solves everyone’s problems easily just by being smart and talented and awesome is a highly unbelievable character--but Batman’s really no more likely!

So what’s the secret variable? Why is it that sometimes we have no problem believing the unbelievable in a story, but at other times, it sends up a flag in our minds even though it’s actually not nearly so bad as some of the other things we’ve taken at face value?

I think there’s a lot to it, but my theory is that 1 major factor of the equation is a rate of exchange. Essentially, your Suspension of Disbelief is strengthened by the quality of the product--you’ll forgive more if you’re getting more for it. Gargoyles may be filled to the brim with fantasy and sci-fi concepts, but it’s handled excellently, and it always has purpose with what it’s doing, and that purpose is a good one, creating and exploring complex characters and interpersonal dynamics, showing us human nature and concepts worth contemplation. When we agree to swallow the incredible events of Gargoyles, we get high quality entertainment and intellectual content back that is well worth the unlikeliness that it took to produce it. The same can’t be said of the Godzilla movie--there’s not a whole lot to take from it, in the end. I’m not saying it’s bad necessarily (though I didn’t like it myself), but it’s lacking enough merit that we aren’t adequately distracted from all of the unbelievable elements. We accept some (such as the existence of Godzilla and the other monsters), but the payout of entertainment and quality just doesn’t add up to enough to cover every unbelievable element. Same deal with the idea of the fanfiction Mary Sue compared to Batman--Batman’s story is epic and interesting, his character deep enough to draw interest and thought, and his adventures are both fun to watch and explore the darkness and light in human nature and develop him by proxy. We accept his hard-to-believe perfection because doing so opens the door to enjoy something seriously awesome,** even as we deride most fanfiction Mary Sues for a similarly unlikely perfection, because the fanfictions involving Mary Sues rarely, if ever, offer anything compelling and worth suspending belief for.

Hm. I’ve actually talked fairly little about RPGs so far. Uh, my bad. Lemme get back on track. This theory of mine helps me to explain how my impressions of believability work sometimes with RPGs. I mean, when you get right down to it, Tales of the Abyss’s world, for example, is pretty overcomplicated and crazy, really only a little less utterly absurd than the events and setting of Final Fantasy 8. Yet I take the whole of Tales of the Abyss in stride, but dismiss FF8 as a ridiculous pile of gobbledegook (which it definitely is). Why? Because in exchange for taking Tales of the Abyss’s magical cloning and 2-tiered world and falling continents and quasi-musical mysticism gibberish seriously, I get a great cast of characters who are nearly all layered and well-developed through the entirety of the game, and I get an adventure that delves well into the themes of defining one’s identity and worth, redemption, the value of life, and the question of free will and fate, among others. Conversely, in exchange for taking FF8’s nonstop barrage of fanciful idiocy seriously, I get an awful cast of insulting teenage caricatures, and an adventure whose only purpose seems to be reinforcing the idea that teenagers love each other in stupid and annoying ways and they just have to make everything that goes on in the cosmos all about that love. Gag me with a gunblade. So, since they’re not building up to anything worthwhile, there’s no reason for my subconscious to gloss over and forgive FF8 its logical inconsistencies, while my mind does so for Tales of the Abyss.

There’s plenty of other factors in it, of course--such as, in the last example, the fact that TotA takes the time to really explain its unlikely set pieces to the player, and plays devil’s advocate with itself in the form of Luke’s comments and skepticisms enough that it explains its illogical logic thoroughly, while FF8 just springs Guardian-Forces-eat-your-brain plot twists and the world being okay with no television for like 20 years just because nobody can be bothered to fix 1 single broadcast tower at every turn, and the characters just dumbly nod their heads and move along to the next thing without question. And another factor is how seriously you’re even meant to take the subject--a lighthearted, comical game, movie, show, or whatever obviously doesn’t need much believability so long as it’s funny. Still, I think this exchange rate makes sense of the situation pretty well. You’ll graciously shoulder more disbelief, IF doing so leads to a better payoff. I’m sure I’m not the first to come up with it, and I don’t know if I really had much of a point in telling you about it, Wouldn’t be the first occasion where I’ve shamelessly wasted your time, right?

* But even that wondrous rope of disbelief suspension could not make Indiana Jones surviving a nuke in a refrigerator seem possible.

** Well, I mean, in theory. Linkara has taught me well that not everything involving Batman is a masterpiece. The ridiculous bullshit that Frank Miller pulls alone...but all the same, as a general rule, Batman stuff is awesome.


  1. This article is really recommendation for Gargoyles in disguise, isn't it?

    1. EVERYTHING is really a recommendation for Gargoyles in disguise, my friend.

  2. You know me. I will be the first to tell you that ToA features a lot of idiotic bullshit. So much I'm sure they wrote the plot in a stream of consciousness freestyle. But never so idiotic that it makes me question the validity of the setting.

    Laguna flashback time travel whatever the fuck it was sequences make me question the validity of the setting. Seifer hooking up with Edea with no discussion or explanation for like a disc and a half does this as well. GF side effects not being immediately noticed and reported by military elites is kind of fucking stupid. Ellone having any magical abilities at all is a severe problem given that Magic as humans use it is explicitly a derivative of the real deal, and even then they need a demon stitched into their brain. Squall and Rinoa being lovers whose parents were a charismatic proposition and a glass of wine away from banging is also awkward, but more subtly so.

    Fuck. Why does Laguna even exist?

    Now, few if any stories are immune to demands of pragmatism. But don't go giving people reasons to break your story into dust looking for more unintentional comedy.