Mailbag: Grimdark Morality

It’s time once again to dip into the Action Force Mailbag.


Charles Harrington writes:

“Recently I read on a quote from my favorite adventure game creators (Lori and Corey Cole of the Quest for Glory series) about how important it was for the hero characters in their games (even the thieves) to act heroically.  They said they received a large number of letters from fans who told them their video game series inspired them to be more heroic in life.  So this begs the question: is the reverse true to a degree?

I ask because every time a controversy crops up in the video game world people cry out “It’s just a game, it’s not real.”  A random example was the outrage among some players over not being able to kill children in Skyrim because it felt “unrealistic” in an open-world game that lets you be evil.  I am not saying people who play shooters will shoot people, I’m just saying I feel like people who play villains or anti-heroes all the time might feel less inclined to actual heroic behavior or at least unsympathetic.  I enjoyed Emperor Mollusk thoroughly and wondered what your thoughts were when you created a classic villain turned unlikely hero.”

This is a big question.  I write a lot about how I like genuinely heroic characters and heroic fiction, and I think it’s worth clarifying a point or two.

My criticism of dark fiction isn’t a moral one.  I am not offended by grimdark.  I just don’t generally enjoy it.  But I will go on record as saying that I don’t think enjoying grimdark makes one a less moral person.  I don’t believe this anymore than I believe Dungeons and Dragons leads to Satanism or that watching stories about radioactive monsters will make one desire to be a radioactive monster.  (Although radioactive monsters are cool.)

It’s a subtle distinction, but it is worth noting.  So often, when people complain about excessive sex, gratuitous language, and other such “adult content”, they seem to be approaching it from a moral standpoint.  But the moral high ground isn’t something I feel like claiming, and there’s a real danger to creating a culture war, i.e. My Media is Better than Your Media.  Rarely, do I believe that.  Even more rarely do I feel comfortable stating that aloud in a public forum.

Man of Steel is probably the most notable exception of late because I do believe there is a genuine cultural loss when even Superman isn’t allowed to be a symbol of hope and idealism, but that has as much to do with my own deeply held perceptions about the Superman character in general as any evidence that this is true.  A world where Man of Steel is deemed a successful Superman film is a sadder place from my point of view, but I’m not comfortable calling it a less moral place.

Fiction is fiction is fiction.  It’s true that we tend to emulate fiction to some degree, and fiction emulates us in return.  It’s a cycle of influence, and I don’t think it begins or ends.  That’s what makes it a cycle, the perpetual motion machine of our shared culture.  We can argue whether we like grimdark fiction because we’re grimdark ourselves OR if we are grimdark because we partake of grimdark fiction.  It’s a pointless argument.  I personally don’t believe that grimdark fiction makes people good or bad, and when I say I don’t care for Game of Thrones or Nolan’s Batman films, I mean exactly that.  Nothing more.

I will admit though that it bothers me that we, as a culture, are more suspicious of sincerity and equate cynicism or realism (as it is conventionally defined) as more innately valuable.  We seem to be convinced that innately good characters are boring and that tales of bold heroism must be tempered with blood and grimness.  A big part of that is just a cultural shift.  I have spoken to many folks who didn’t find Man of Steel to be grim at all, and, by current standards, it really isn’t.  Given that example, can it be any wonder that Pacific Rim, an unashamed tale of heroism, comes across as childish and slight?

All of these are thoughts I’ve expressed before, but I think it comes down to this.  Fiction is a place where we indulge our emotional needs in a safe, nonjudgmental space.  If someone wants to read about puppies being tortured or domination fantasies, they should be allowed to do so without anyone assuming they are serial killers or sexual deviants.  Just as my love of Skylanders and giant robots shouldn’t automatically brand me as an arrested adolescent.  To be sure, I am offended by some media in the sense that I would never watch or enjoy it.  I could never watch a Hostel or Saw movie because I find them unrewarding and, yes, even upsetting.  But if someone enjoys that sort of thing, I see no reason to judge them for partaking of them in their fiction.

For me, it’s not a moral question, but, if I can be honest, it does sometimes bother me that our shared culture is increasingly disinterested in untainted heroism.  Sure, it’s not realistic, but who ever said fiction’s job was to be realistic?  I’m probably the wrong guy to talk about that though because I am the dude who wrote a book about a space squid supervillain.

I think though what I miss isn’t the pure heroes, but just heroes in general.  Game of Thrones has plenty of characters and some are goodish, others are badish.  And that’s a deliberate choice, but it’s also why I can’t get into the show.  I don’t have anybody to genuinely root for.  I’m all for flawed characters, but too much focus on the flaws just leave me disinterested.  And the dark side of all this realism is that the few  “bad guys” have to become even worse by comparison, which means rape, bloodshed, and other assorted unpleasantness.  And, again, I know it’s often unrealistic when a truly bad guy doesn’t kill a kid or when a villain is more interested in seizing the west coast than torturing the hero to death.  I’ve always known that.

Emperor Mollusk is an interesting comparison because in the course of his life, he’s definitely done some truly terrible things.  He is responsible for the death of millions, and he only regrets it in the most dry, intellectual way.  He is a flawed character without a doubt, but he is also a character trying to grow and change, who is his own worst enemy but also out to live his life in the best way possible.  Arrogant, yes.  Cruel, never.  And it’s that line that makes him an interesting character, even if it is probably a highly unlikely pairing of traits.

Basically, I think a culture that views heroes and heroism as antiquated has issues, and while I wouldn’t call mopey Superman or depressed Batman signs of a culture in decline, I would say it’s more one dimensional and poorer for it.  Just as a world where all fiction was superhappy and unrelentingly positive would be the poorer for it.

Or it could be even simpler than all of the above, and simply what happens when adults are given children’s toys and thrust all their adult baggage on those toys.  Maybe you have to be a kid to believe in a Superman who can save Metropolis from being reduced to rubble, and maybe only a child can take Batman at face value as a good guy in a bat costume who fights a bad guy dressed like clown.  If so, that’s a real shame because, while it’s good to grow up, it shouldn’t be at the cost of the more optimistic children inside of us.  It’s all a balancing act.

So to summarize after way too long writing on this topic (sorry):

Is the grimdarking of our heroes a moral issue?  Probably not.

Is the grimdarking of our heroes a detriment to our culture?  Probably so.

I leave it at that for the moment.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted August 28, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I think you’d be hard-pressed to write a “realistic” novel about a genius squid from Neptune. A couple months ago I was reading an Arthur C. Clarke novel’s foreword where he was complaining about Star Trek, Star Wars, etc. not being realistic. As someone raised on Star Trek and Star Wars my thinking was, “so what?” Real space exploration, like the kind of space exploration Clarke used was boring. You have to sit in a freezer for a thousand years on a ship to go anywhere. And there’s probably nothing anywhere you go so it’s all pretty lame. I’d much rather have a Solar System populated by squids and centipedes and other critters than the real, barren one we’ve got.

  2. Charlie
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the answer ALM, much to think about.

    Just want to say I love the unbridled heroism at the culmination of Helen and Troy – and if I think about it the Orc team displays its own special brand of heroics in that moment as well. much to think about indeed.

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