See Page XX: Roleplaying as Gestural Narrative

This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Those of us make stuff up for a living face a wide variety of possible ways to make ourselves crazy. One of the fastest and most direct routes to self-induced insanity is to obsess over the ultimate worth of one’s work. This is hardly unique to game design, as any composer, artist, actor, dancer or writer fiction can attest. The game designer, should he be foolish enough to obsess over such matters, gets to wrestle an additional demon: the question of whether the entire form, let alone his or her contribution to it, will be of any interest to future generations.

There’s a good chance that roleplaying will be seen as an interesting movement in the history of narrative. It may turn out to be important either unto itself, or as the spawning ground for some future form of cooperative, spontaneous storytelling that grows out of Internet videogames or the LARP scene. If it does, the influential figures of rpg design might one day be remembered with the reverence that jazz scholars invest on the original greats of that music style. Gary Gygax can be our Jelly Roll Morton; Dave Arneson, our Buddy Bolden.

On the other hand, roleplaying could just as easily sink into footnote status, like other hybrid art forms. Ever heard of Rudolf Steiner’s eurhythmics movement, except as the inspiration for a band name?

If roleplaying does have something to contribute to history, I think it’ll most likely be in its methodology, its development of structures for the give and take of storytelling. The psychological element of compromise between players of different tastes may be what interests future PhDs in departments of Roleplaying Studies throughout the world of academia.

The aesthetic content of any given rpg session seems at first blush to be less interesting. Most sessions are stuffed with awkward filler, meander from one plot point to another, and are given over largely to ritualistic re-enactment of pre-established genre tropes. They adopt the trappings of the adventure only to explore its simplest, least challenging level, as a vehicle for power fantasy. Its emotional and thematic development is arrested: more Hopalong Cassidy than The Searchers or Once Upon a Time in the West.

On second thought, though, it may transpire that it is precisely the disjunctive nature of rpg narrative, its nature as a series of awkwardly-connected cool scenes that enter into a dialogue with an entire history of previous cool scenes, that makes roleplaying worthy of critical attention.

The world of film, both on the popular level and in the art house, is converging on roleplaying. Cinema is increasingly becoming a home for storytelling that is more about emotion and style than about traditional narrative coherence. More about ritual recapitulation of past cinematic experiences than about the reflection of real life. Narrative is becoming merely a glue to string together a series of set pieces in which emotion is conveyed through style. This is the cinema of gesture.

For example, the British romantic comedy Love Actually and the cult-fave Japanese horror flick Ju On (remade in Hollywood as The Grudge, with Sarah Michelle Gellar), both share the same gestural impulses. Love Actually crams together a huge number of characters, becoming its own greatest hits package. It plays like a compilation of a dozen other romantic comedies, consisting only of pivotal scenes. Connective tissue has gone out the window in favor of relentless movement from one emotional high point to the next. Likewise, Ju On fractures chronology and traditional identification with its lead characters to increase the audience’s sense of unease.

Director Takashi Shimuzi discards the usual orientation points provided even in a standard horror flick to move from one minimalistically freaky scare scene to the next. Again, it’s like a greatest-hits version of six Ju On sequels spliced together and shuffled at random.

Gestural cinema is nothing new. Maybe it starts with the 60s films of French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. He combined an iconoclastic world view with a love of Hollywood genre cinema to create challenging but seductive movies in which moments of style, many obliquely referencing moments from classic genre moments, pop out suddenly from a static or circular plot structure. Generations of directors, inspired by his surfaces and structural looseness, have gone on to amplify and adapt his style. Call it post-modernism, call it trip-hop narrative, but it’s here, and its leaping the boundary from art culture into pop culture.

This path finds its ultimate outlet in a cinema dear to my heart, the genre-splicing, style-crazy movies of Hong Kong’s classic period from the late eighties to mid-nineties. Their veerings from low comedy to high melodrama to violence and back to sentimentality are initially off-putting to many Western gamers. This irony at its finest: its ragbag of tones and moods is perpetuated weekly in roleplaying sessions all around the world.

What is a roleplaying game session if not a series of stylistic gestures freed of the straightjackets of normal narrative progression? A tense action scene can give way to absurd comedy at the drop of a critical failure. An Elric clone can and will show up in the middle of a weird west game. D&D samples imagery from both the high-fantasy tradition of Tolkien and the sword and sorcery approach of R. E. Howard. Telltale tropes from H. P. Lovecraft can insert their non-Euclidean geometry into almost any game. To satisfy the various demands of players, many popular games offer kitchen-sink, genre-blending settings. I’ve long held that any commercially successful game will allow you to play a ninja.

Whereas in a gestural movie, the director is recapitulating his favorite fictional moments and moods for the delectation of an audience, the participants in a roleplaying session are activating similar tropes for their own enjoyment — and, sometimes secondarily, for the other players gathered around them.

If gaming warrants critical study, it will not be despite the craziness, pop culture imagery and self-indulgence of the typical roleplaying experience — it will be because of it. They are its essence.

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