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.
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.
The magazines folded with the advent of mass-market paperbacks and television. In the paperbacks of ’50s and ’60s, Conan found his creator’s epigones, the “posthumous collaborators” L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, as well as his definitive illustrator, Frank Frazetta. At the same time, smart B-movies began to appear. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Night of the Living Dead provoked a reassessment of the possibilities of B-grade budgets. Low expectations granted artists freedom to be original and challenging.
In the ’70s and ’80s, the money rolled in. Disaster films, sci-fi and war movies, even revivals of serials attained respectability. More than respectability; since the early ’70s, B-movies have dominated the box office. The biggest film of all time, in cost and in revenues, belongs to the disaster genre. Titanic descended from The Poseidon Adventure and spawned Armageddon.
In the same period, Marvel Comics, in the black-and-white Savage Sword of Conan, delivered the richest explorations of the character since Howard. They took this shit seriously. Savage Sword featured 3,000-word essays on Howard’s fiction. The ’80s also put Conan in the movies. Conan the Barbarian used the character to express a Nietzschean revision of martial history, intended as a brickbat for beating ’60s-era hippies and peaceniks.
Then came The Silence of the Lambs. This was a “B-movie” that not only had hit status, but won five Oscars. The five Oscars, too: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. Only two other films have done this. What artists and scholars had long known – that lowbrow subject matter could attain highbrow quality – the public now accepted. A movie featuring a guy who eats people and a guy who skins people stood on level ground with the highest art. The same year, a comic book, Maus, won the Pulitzer Prize.
Today, going back to the Howard Conan means participating in the prestige of the B-list tradition. Dark Horse has done precisely this in their many Conan comics, all of which conclude with a strip, The Adventures of Two-Gun Bob, that depicts Howard’s life.
Conan the game tries to do the same, but it runs into the strange B-list problem endemic to videogames: A superabundance of cash, rather than a lack of it, put videogames on the B-list. Game developers complain about the pressures of big game budgets, but before resigning themselves to applying the latest formula, developers have another problem. They have to find something to do with all of that money.
“Step forward, and join your sainted mothers in dog heaven!!”
You can’t make Geometry Wars for $10 million, nor can you sell it for $60. The new economics of videogames demand that a game be more than just a game. Yet, in games, everything outside of gameplay – plot, acting, dialogue, subject matter, even graphics – looks sub-par compared with other media. Unfortunately, game developers don’t have training in anything else. Thus Conan seems like the result of a panicked effort to throw as much Conan-like crap at the wall and see what slides down. Nearly all games seem this way.
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.
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.