The Escapist Re-Visited
Conan's B-list Problem - And Ours

Ray Huling | 19 Feb 2008 12:15
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With Gigantic Melancholies and Gigantic Mirth
"Dog!" cries Conan, as he advances on a lion.

There you have my favorite moment from Conan the videogame, released by Nihilistic Software for the PlayStation3 and Xbox 360 a few months ago. I got a good laugh out of this doubly absurd outburst, as I'm perverse enough to enjoy unintentionally funny, second-rate productions.

But perversities of this kind always disappoint a little. Laughing at Nihilistic's sloppy production, I have that familiar sinking feeling: "This is my life! Hit with another stupid game! Mirth and melancholy!"

The stupidity of taunting a cat as you would a man is emblematic of the game's stupidity in general, and the failings of Conan say much about the struggles of all videogames. Nihilistic doesn't understand Conan's appeal. They see him as an agglomeration of Conanisms, which they strew haphazardly through their game. Conan hacks people up. He guzzles grog and smashes stuff. Bare breasts orbit him. And, yes, he calls his opponents "dog" a lot. All of these things appear in the various Conan media, but they alone have not kept the character popular for three-quarters of a century.

Just about all game developers take their inspiration from B-list entertainment, the rank into which Conan falls. Amazingly, none of them seems to know why audiences love - not just like - Aliens or Star Wars or The X-Men. Developers tear off the skin of their source material but leave the flesh intact.

What makes B-grade entertainment so enjoyable doesn't amount to a collection of explosions, semi-naked women and monsters rendered in eye-rending detail. No, a searching intelligence draws all these elements together, making them both fun and compelling. Behind every great pulp character stands a frustrated artist who tells us something important about the world, but has only swords and sorcery or lasers and lingerie at his disposal to do it.

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Conan is the quintessential B-list hero: repulsively simple at first glance, but actually complicated and conflicted. Videogames are a B-list oddity with unique difficulties. Conan the game exemplifies these difficulties and shows how they may be resolved.

Conan And His Dog-Brothers
Nihilistic - and publisher THQ - marketed their Conan game as a return to the barbarian's roots. "The character we're using in this game is the Robert E. Howard Conan," said Nihilistic CEO and Conan Project Director, Robert Heubner, in a "making-of" video.

What's so great about Conan as he originally appeared? What's the cachet? Howard invented Conan in the golden age of pulp fiction. The pulp magazines of the Great Depression (Conan first appeared in Weird Tales in 1932) sold millions of copies every month. They featured lowbrow entertainment: adventure stories, mainly, with salacious overtones. In that day, pulp fiction and comic books provided decent return on investment. Even though they cost very little, the books sold well enough to turn a profit. Financial mediocrity, as well as an overall dearth of quality, distinguished the B-listers from their highbrow brethren, but so did their subject matter. Barbarians? Spaceships? Super heroes? The stuff of the unwashed masses, and Conan was their champion.

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