137: Conan's B-list Problem - And Ours

Conan's B-list Problem - And Ours

"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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AFAICR, Robert E Howards Conan was a Warrior King that was more a Thief than a Barbarian; it was only Snorezenegger that tranformed him into Muscle Man.

Didn't people learn from SW:G's remake? The heart of a good story is a struggle to become a hero; not 'Here's a Hero Skin, now go kill me X rats'.

The way Conan says "Dog" sounds more like Groo.

I much prefer Kull to Conan...

Nice article, I enjoyed it. I agree: it's about time for games to be more than just games. I don't think it's required for every game, but more would be nice.

Conan was plenty warrior, but as soon as I heard that the game would have you collecting "magic" items I was done. Conan does not collect "magic" items, "magic" is something practiced by evil old men who like sacrificing porny slave girls, not by Conan.

A rebuttal of sorts, the game had more merit than you give it credit:

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/multimedia/reviews/50803/conan/

L.B. Jeffries:
A rebuttal of sorts, the game had more merit than you give it credit:

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/multimedia/reviews/50803/conan/

I would politely disagree: That PopMatters article is difficult to imagine as a rebuttal (even as a rebuttal "of sorts"), as their clothing-the-barbarian theory is rather shoehorned, and the hypothesis as a whole is most certainly written with less cohesion and clarity of thought than Ray Huling's article here in The Escapist.

I congratulate PopMatters for trying to make something out of nothing (it ain't easy); but ultimately, they accomplished little more than that. Nothing wrong with a proactive imagination (mining for those mush-mouthed metaphors they came up with), but at least Huling's article looks at the real-world intent of Nihilistic, the intent of Robert E. Howard, and the intent of the Conan property that's emerged post-Howard.

I'm praying that Funcom's Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures MMO doesn't succumb to the same laziness, and I hope it looks into the layered and elusive complexities drawn into a character like Conan, rather than boiling the man down into a catchphrase-looping reduction.

Narrator:

L.B. Jeffries:
A rebuttal of sorts, the game had more merit than you give it credit:

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/multimedia/reviews/50803/conan/

I would politely disagree: That PopMatters article is difficult to imagine as a rebuttal (even as a rebuttal "of sorts"), as their clothing-the-barbarian theory is rather shoehorned, and the hypothesis as a whole is most certainly written with less cohesion and clarity of thought than Ray Huling's article here in The Escapist.

I congratulate PopMatters for trying to make something out of nothing (it ain't easy); but ultimately, they accomplished little more than that. Nothing wrong with a proactive imagination (mining for those mush-mouthed metaphors they came up with), but at least Huling's article looks at the real-world intent of Nihilistic, the intent of Robert E. Howard, and the intent of the Conan property that's emerged post-Howard.

Fair enough, I've never played the game and Huling's essay (which was excellent, btw) reminded me of the piece. I'm a popmatters fan, obviously, and it just seemed pertinent to throw out a link of someone who got more out of the game than Huling for the sake of discussion.

As for shoehorning and mush-mouthing...I have to disagree. Both you and Huling seem to expect game designers to start making artistic games out of the blue, or barring that games that are at least well written within their source material. But if there isn't a critical audience that is both praising the artistic elements of a game AND willing to let them be superior in merit to other parts of the game...why should a game designer ever bother to make art? Why shouldn't they just focus all their energy on multi-player, graphics, and thinking up Xbox achievements?

Which came first? The gamer who expected artistic games or the artistic game? I concede it's a chicken v. egg scenario, but for my money I'm going to bet on the chicken.

Great article! Very well articulated

I agree wholeheartedly with this - gaming needs to not just probe the realm of expression and intellectual challenge, but charge in headlong and do someting crazy.

Admittedly, some of these tend to lack financial success, just look at Psychonauts and Giants: Citizen Kabuto. Both were incredibly interesting, fun and imaginative games, but lacked the financial success over, say, Shoot Them In The Crotch III: This Time They're Slighty Less Pixellated.

One notable exception is Bioshock, drawing from some really interesting literary and philosophical sources, it also delivered in gameplay and value for money (overall, don't start bashing my opinion of this).

So, what to say? We can push for more challenging and engrossing styles, plots and characters, but if it doesn't bring in the readies, you won't get past the front door. We need to take baby steps into new territory, not giant, blind leaps.

(Also, as a student scriptwriter, I have a serious intrest in this sort of discussion, as I really would love to move into game development.)

L.B. Jeffries:

Fair enough, I've never played the game and Huling's essay (which was excellent, btw) reminded me of the piece. I'm a popmatters fan, obviously, and it just seemed pertinent to throw out a link of someone who got more out of the game than Huling for the sake of discussion.

As for shoehorning and mush-mouthing...I have to disagree. Both you and Huling seem to expect game designers to start making artistic games out of the blue, or barring that games that are at least well written within their source material. But if there isn't a critical audience that is both praising the artistic elements of a game AND willing to let them be superior in merit to other parts of the game...why should a game designer ever bother to make art? Why shouldn't they just focus all their energy on multi-player, graphics, and thinking up Xbox achievements?

Which came first? The gamer who expected artistic games or the artistic game? I concede it's a chicken v. egg scenario, but for my money I'm going to bet on the chicken.

(I am now going to secretly admit that, due to your link to that article, I've now added PopMatters to my bookmarks.)

I've been on the lookout for more sites that discuss video games as a cultural phenomenon, as opposed to a rehashing of instruction manuals passed off as "reviews," and that singular Conan article has -- despite my hasty criticism of it -- convinced me to go back. I've seen PopMatters quoted across various media, but I've never given it a fair shake.

So yeah. Thanks for broadening my horizons a bit.

L.B. Jeffries:
But if there isn't a critical audience that is both praising the artistic elements of a game AND willing to let them be superior in merit to other parts of the game...why should a game designer ever bother to make art?

Have you played Psychonauts? Different, weird art style, great dialog, crazy story, and good gameplay to round it out. You don't need to sacrifice art for gameplay, or vice versa. Another good example is TF2. A goofy, cartoony art style, and it manages to be one of the greatest online shooters ever, in my opinion.

REDPill357:
Have you played Psychonauts? Different, weird art style, great dialog, crazy story, and good gameplay to round it out. You don't need to sacrifice art for gameplay, or vice versa. Another good example is TF2. A goofy, cartoony art style, and it manages to be one of the greatest online shooters ever, in my opinion.

'Psychonauts' is steadily climbing higher on the never-ending list of games I need to play. Right now, 'No More Heroes' is one of the most stunning and intelligent games I've ever played recently. After that, the list of games that I would call high art is vast and always expanding.

Narrator:

I've been on the lookout for more sites that discuss video games as a cultural phenomenon, as opposed to a rehashing of instruction manuals passed off as "reviews," and that singular Conan article has -- despite my hasty criticism of it -- convinced me to go back. I've seen PopMatters quoted across various media, but I've never given it a fair shake.

So yeah. Thanks for broadening my horizons a bit.

Naw man, you were probably right. Williams likes to go for deep critical analysis in his reviews and sometimes it doesn't work out. Check out his 'Assassin's Creed' run-down to really see some amazing stuff.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/multimedia/reviews/52232/assassins-creed/

Take all this with a grain of salt too. I write for the website and will always sing their praises but I know they appreciate the shout out. The Escapist is easily the best video game magazine on the net but people are starting to take a cue from them.

Am I the only one who thinks people are reading into this a little too much? I admit my experience with Conan is the two movies and the cartoon "Conan the Adventurer" but I still don't see why people are analyzing it so much.
Here's where I start talking about "lizard brains" again. Conan and so many other B-heroes are just ways for us to safely revel in boyish sex and violence fantasies. It doesn't matter how old and mature you get.
On some primitive level, it still resonates with you. And that's all right. Those shots of raw testosterone and adrenaline are better than all the drugs in the world in changing your mood. Every time I watch Fist of the North Star, I get that feeling every time I hear Kenshiro doing his iconic "ATATATATATA-WATAH!"

Nihilistic's Conan may not have captured the existential angst of Howard's Conan, but it did capture the pulp fiction excess of it. With style. Granted, it did not have a AAA coat of polish and there were some poor design decisions, but the core combat was brutally satisfying. I definitely felt like I got my $30 worth.

General Ma Chao:
Am I the only one who thinks people are reading into this a little too much? I admit my experience with Conan is the two movies and the cartoon "Conan the Adventurer" but I still don't see why people are analyzing it so much.
Here's where I start talking about "lizard brains" again. Conan and so many other B-heroes are just ways for us to safely revel in boyish sex and violence fantasies. It doesn't matter how old and mature you get.
On some primitive level, it still resonates with you. And that's all right. Those shots of raw testosterone and adrenaline are better than all the drugs in the world in changing your mood. Every time I watch Fist of the North Star, I get that feeling every time I hear Kenshiro doing his iconic "ATATATATATA-WATAH!"

And it's perfectly acceptable to enjoy it on that level.

But when an idea carries for such a long time, with so many different people across age groups and even gender, then it's just as worthwhile to start asking 'what's going on here' and look at how that idea/piece of art/event effects us in a larger scope.

Smokescreen:

General Ma Chao:
Am I the only one who thinks people are reading into this a little too much? I admit my experience with Conan is the two movies and the cartoon "Conan the Adventurer" but I still don't see why people are analyzing it so much.
Here's where I start talking about "lizard brains" again. Conan and so many other B-heroes are just ways for us to safely revel in boyish sex and violence fantasies. It doesn't matter how old and mature you get.
On some primitive level, it still resonates with you. And that's all right. Those shots of raw testosterone and adrenaline are better than all the drugs in the world in changing your mood. Every time I watch Fist of the North Star, I get that feeling every time I hear Kenshiro doing his iconic "ATATATATATA-WATAH!"

And it's perfectly acceptable to enjoy it on that level.

But when an idea carries for such a long time, with so many different people across age groups and even gender, then it's just as worthwhile to start asking 'what's going on here' and look at how that idea/piece of art/event effects us in a larger scope.

You know what, you're right. Now my interest is really piqued. What are some of the definitive must-read stories? I'm really interested now.

General Ma Chao:
You know what, you're right. Now my interest is really piqued. What are some of the definitive must-read stories? I'm really interested now.

I would recommend picking up a copy of the three "definitive" collections:

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Conan of Cimmeria, Book 1)
The Bloody Crown of Conan (Conan of Cimmeria, Book 2)
The Conquering Sword of Conan (Conan of Cimmeria, Book 3)

As the review states: "Consider how far civilization had to advance to make this barbarism available to us."
What would Robert E. Howard say if he knew that you could click on a link and download his stories?

Hi! I'm the Tom Smith mentioned in the article. I was Creative Manager on this Conan.

Nice article. I'm a big fan of artistic games and love playing them. Using the REH Conan method and sneaking deep meaning into otherwise popular entertainment is a good concept that games like Bioshock exemplify well (as Surggical_Scar mentioned).

When I said that our game isn't a deep philosophical exploration of REH's themes, I wasn't saying that such a thing couldn't be done. Heck, I'd welcome it. But it wasn't the direction we took. For various reasons, we were just making a philosophically simple, fun game with a light touch of REH's themes on top.

The_root_of_all: REH's Conan was a little bit of everything - inexperienced thief, pirate in love, warlord, but always a barbarian at heart. But Groo, that's a B-list (C-list?) with some deep philosophical underpinnings. See, cheese dip is a metaphor for capitalist materialism, and...

LB/Narrator: Some of the themes PopMatters noticed were intentional. We did try to carry a little of REH's philosophy into it. Admittedly, that article finds more than we intended, at least from the discussions I was part of. But thanks for bringing it up.

General Ma Chao: Definitely go back to the REH stories. You'll be surprised. There really is a lot more depth there than in any subsequent version of Conan, in addition to some excellent action scenes and half-naked women. Those stories rock.

And for the record, I'm 'a' Creative Manager at THQ, not 'the' CM - there's one for every project or two.

chris_torrence:

General Ma Chao:
You know what, you're right. Now my interest is really piqued. What are some of the definitive must-read stories? I'm really interested now.

I would recommend picking up a copy of the three "definitive" collections:

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Conan of Cimmeria, Book 1)
The Bloody Crown of Conan (Conan of Cimmeria, Book 2)
The Conquering Sword of Conan (Conan of Cimmeria, Book 3)

As the review states: "Consider how far civilization had to advance to make this barbarism available to us."
What would Robert E. Howard say if he knew that you could click on a link and download his stories?

Yes. Those three books together have every Conan story Howard ever wrote, in the order he wrote them, fully restored to their original publication drafts (previous reprintings have been rife with editors mucking with his prose, changing names to turn different characters into recurrings, changing main character names to turn non-Conan stories into Conan stories, etc.), together with many unpublished drafts, the essay he wrote for himself laying out the geography and history of Conan's setting, plus essays by others and some beautiful illustrations.

The movies and cartoon series don't do the character justice in comparison.

A word of warning, though: Try to space out reading them. Howard has certain recurring motiffs ("Conan fights an albino ape;" "Conan fights a giant snake") that grow tiresome if read in too quick succession. The stories weren't released all at once, and it's best not to approach the books as though they were novels.

Agreed, Mr. Sheppard. I'm only a half-dozen stories into the Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, but I can already see that your advice is sound. I do hope to see some dove-tailing of people and events, but thus far, everything runs in a rather non-sequitur fashion, with no one event building upon any other.

Not that the stories aren't enjoyable; they certainly are, especially considering the fact that action stories typically don't do nothin' for me. What really keeps me disarmed (and reading), however, is R.E. Howard's prose. Sometimes his stuff waxes f---ing poetic.

i hate to sound condesending but you realize in the same sentance this calls connan a b list title then complains about the schlock. schlock is kinda the trademark of b movies, just thought i'd point that out. yeah connan is low brow but it is kinda designed that way. and honestly, is god of war any better about it, clice's abound in a game that alot of people seem to think is the best action adventure game in years. overall i liked that connan had an ending as aposed to god of war kind of trailing off. i actually played connan all the way through and despite some of it being difficult beyond all reason i really enjoyed the whole experience. but then again i actually enjoy really tough main characters who can kick a little ass without cowering in the corner first.

Hi All,

Thanks for taking the time to check out this article and make a comment.

I also endorse the new Del Rey editions Chris Torrence linked to. I'd suggest checking out The Best of Robert E. Howard as well. This is a two-volume set that covers a broad range of Howard's characters, including Kull (whom Mr KeroChan mentioned), Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, And Sailor Steve Costigan.

There is a controversy, however. You may have noticed that most Conan media today bears the same logo: the Del Rey books, the video game, the Dark Horse comic, and the upcoming movie. This is not a coincidence. All of these media lease the rights to Conan from Conan Properties, a limited liability company held by Paradox Entertainment, a Swedish company now based in California. It's unclear if Paradox's claim to Conan is legitimate.

As Torrence also pointed out, you can read Howard's stuff for free at Gutenberg and, indeed, all over the net. You can also pick up pocket editions of Howard's work put out by Wildside Press, which does not lease from Paradox.

Litigation is underway regarding the status of the two extant Conan films, too.

There are legal arguments with merit on both sides, but, from a common sense view, jesus, the dude blew his brains out in 1936 and never had any kids. Let the world have Conan, I say.

Following from that, I'd also encourage folks to check out Savage Sword of Conan-if you can find it! Me, I've pieced together a collection over many years, and much of that collection is in pieces. Black-and-white comics from the seventies don't retain much mint status.

But Savage Sword merits a look. It was a strange, strange publication. An issue might have a full-length Conan episode, an essay on Hyborian geography, a collection of 'Conan's Women' pin-ups, and a brief Solomon Kane adventure. A bound collection of Savage Swords came out not too long ago.

I want to emphasize that I'm not a Howard purist. His Conan is not the only Conan. I enjoy different takes on the character, as in Savage Sword, so long as they really are a genuine position on what he's all about.

Lastly, thanks to L.B. Jeffries for linking to the PopMatters piece. It was neat. Williams ties together training montages from movies with the powering up mechanic in video games. There may be a single aesthetic underlying both. That's interesting.

I think he gets the reason for the difficulty of the final boss wrong, however. The problem isn't that the battle requires a more complex moveset than the rest of the game; the problem is that the battle is repetitive and boring, because of a symmetry imposed for no apparent reason. Graven follows an absurdly simple pattern, but a slow, slow one. It's excruciating.

Williams also finds it curious that Howard's Conan stories share so much in common with Westerns. It isn't curious at all: Howard lived in Texas and wrote Westerns. One of the most famous Conan stories, 'Beyond the Black River', is explicitly about life on the frontier. A Western frontier at that!

At any rate, I don't want to suggest that I found no merit in the game. This article wasn't a review, but it does give the impression that I had no fun playing Conan. I did have fun with some of it. The gore was excellent and so was much of the humor. Conan also has some of the best art direction of any game, ever. It really does look like a playable Frazetta painting.

That's it!

Best,

Ray.

Thought provoking article. I think the games industry has been working to evolve the game experience to more than execution of mechanics for quite a while now, just not always successfully. In working with a legendary property like Conan, a developer would need to make decisions about what they are going to focus on. Often, the decision is made to focus on the superficial elements (blood & boobs) without diving into the deeper waters. As you correctly point out, someone as timelessly compelling as Conan has some kind of core resonance that really should be figured out and put into the game, else the experience will feel like...err...(erases cheap sexual analogy)a boozy night out with people you don't really like, leaving you with the aftertaste of wasted time. For a shallow brand, that would be fine. But for a game about a legend like Conan, you expect something compelling that fills the shoes of Joseph Campbell's Hero of a 1000 Faces.
Mr Smith above notes that they deliberately aimed for a 'philosophically simpler' game. IMHO (contrary to conventional game producer wisdom) its a shame to miss out on this kind of depth as it can often be worked into the setting and storyline without interfering with developing features or the game play, it gives meaning and wraps narrative emotions around the game actions. As a player, one can always choose to not give a damn about the story, or drink it up. If its not there, then there is no choice.
Conan, Neo of The Matrix, Die Hard and GoW are all examples of relatively simplistic action hero tales that have transcended their genre (and confused critics) by delivering something eternally epic, and the audiences have been much greater than the core action fans.

While reading this I was reminded of something a friend said yesterday. He's about four months away from graduating with an English degree, and was looking into getting hired as a writer for a video game developer, when he ran into one central problem, developers don't hire writers.

If we want better quality narrative from our games, maybe we should start thinking about getting professional writers to do the plot workups.

Well...you sorta have move away from REH's vision of Conan. REH's philosophy can't just be summed up as men fighting each other, there are all sorts of things that are really fucked up.

Conan (and REH's other stuff) tend to be exceedingly racist, his heroes are always fighting off degenerate tribes of savage black people out to rape or corrupt pure white folk. They tend to be terribly sexist as well, Conan actually tries to rape a woman/giantess in one story, and although that's the worse example, there's plenty of other very disturbing stuff.

Now, it's true the stories were written way back when, pre World War Two when ethnic cleansing wasn't seen with the sort of horror it is nowdays, but if you are doing Conan nowdays, you have to rip much/most of it out and try again.

Now, REH wasn't a bad writer, and is deservedly called the grandfather of fantasy. But you have to look past a lot of what we now really don't approve of.

 

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