The Escapist Re-Visited

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

Ray Huling | 19 Feb 2008 12:15
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Nihilistic made the right move by turning to the B-list tradition for a solution to this problem. The thing is, Conan doesn't have all the answers. You can't just use Conan; you have to use him for something. Tom Smith, Creative Manager of THQ, said this about Conan on a Howard forum: "He had deeper philosophical underpinnings than this game could ever have." He's right that Conan had depth; he's wrong that a game can't explore it.

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All of Howard's philosophy boils down to one essential meaning: The male body evolved for fighting other men, and this spells trouble for humanity. Every Howard hero exhibited physical greatness and resolved his conflicts in the most direct way. For Howard, every knot is a Gordian knot, best undone with a sword.

Critics often accuse Howard of using his writing for wish fulfillment: He invented characters as tough as he wished he were. This is true, and Conan embodies this desire more fully than any other of Howard's heroes. Some of Howard's other characters - King Kull, Solomon Kane - remain recognizable, and Breckinridge Elkins, a buffoonish cowboy, earned Howard more money than Conan ever did. But only Conan became iconic.

Howard described Conan as the most realistic character he'd ever drawn, and if you pay careful attention, you see why Howard, who killed himself at 30, said this: Conan's a depressive.

For Conan to pause from fighting and wenching would be to confront the gray void that surrounds his life. He came from gloom and will return to it, no matter what he conquers while alive. He throws himself into living, into the destiny of his perfectly masculine body, in order to push back the dour truth of reality. In other words, Howard's Conan stories amount to a chronicle of avoidance behavior.

Howard created a compelling character, decorated him with sex and violence, and threw him into the brambles of punishing adventure, all in order to tell us what he thought of our world. Games can do this, too. They have to do it to justify their cost. Conan the game puts the most technologically advanced form of leisure ever developed into the service of imaginary sword-fighting. Consider how far civilization had to advance to make this barbarism available to us. These are precisely the sort of issues Howard confronted. These conundrums are what Conan is about; they're what make Conan more interesting than any other pulp character. They're also what I'm paying for.

Economics has put game developers in this position, and there's a way out of it: Go for broke. Go crazy! Go ahead and say something. Everybody already disparages games anyway, so why be lazy about it? Meet the challenge head-on. This doesn't mean aping the superficial tics of a character like Conan. It certainly doesn't mean programming him to say "dog" every third line. It means using Conan to intensify an idea. Artists have been doing this with Conan for 75 years. The time has come for games to do it, too.

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