Disseminating the Fantastic

Like with my posts on the uncanny and the abject, I am here providing the raw text of my description of the fantastic, a literary genre described by Tzvetan Todorov in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. The fantastic (and Todorov) is extremely straightforward, but this particular theory is actually key to the work that I’ve been doing. As such, I may have spent a bit more time describing it than needs be, but I want to make sure everything is clear (something you can help me with). In any event, here is the text of the final theory being described by my thesis.

The Fantastic

Unlike Freud and Kristeva, Tzvetan Todorov is not a psychoanalyst, but a structuralist. As a result, Todorov is concerned heavily with defining exactly what it is he is writing about before examining it closer. So, while Freud and Kristeva arrive at a definition by providing phenomenological accounts and hints at the core, Todorov defines the fantastic right out of the gate.

Todorov states that when there is some unexplainable event, the person who experiences it must decide between two results: either the event is happening in some way within the confines of explainable reality, or the event is instead outside the bounds of knowable reality. From the time of the event until the time when we make this decision we hesitate, trying to determine which is true. Todorov says, “The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (Todorov 1970, 25).

There are many ideas to unpack in this simple definition. The fantastic is defined as a kind of hesitation. This hesitation arises from a kind of “supernatural event”. The fantastic ends when we make a decision, and that decision is one of two options.

We shall start with the supernatural event. The kind of event Todorov is talking about is not limited to the popular definition of the supernatural. That is, we typically view the supernatural as something related to ghosts, magic, and superstition. Instead, Todorov is speaking more broadly, making a dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural. That is to say, people have an understanding of what they know (or think they know) is true of the world, what they know is natural. If some event arises that challenges this internal model of how the world works, this is then supernatural. Todorov quotes Roger Caillois, who states, “The fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday legality” (quoted in Todorov 1970, 26).

After the event occurs, we must make a decision. Either this event is rational and explainable, or the event will never have an explanation. Between the event and the decision, we are uncertain and try to decide one way or the other. Neither the decision nor the originating event are the fantastic, but the period in between. As we hesitate, unable to make this decision, the tension of the situation rises. A situation that arises and which is quickly resolved does not leave us in doubt about the way the world works for very long. A longer period of this has us questioning the natural order of things. Quoting Jan Potoki’s Saragossa Manuscript, Todorov points out, “’I nearly reached the point of believing’: that is the formula which sums up the spirit of the fantastic” (31).

I have been using the communal ‘we’ in much of this document, but here I would like to make a point that Todorov is describing at this time, a literary genre and a phenomenon found within those kinds of stories. In this respect, Todorov makes a distinction between who experiences the fantastic. He states that, while a character may indeed hesitate, this is not a requirement for the fantastic. Instead, the one who must hesitate is the reader. He writes, “The fantastic therefore implies an integration of the reader into the world of the characters; that world is defined by the reader’s own ambiguous perception of the events narrated” (31). In a game, the situation is often different, as the player commonly takes on the role of a character. Though, as with the example of Heavy Rain, this can become complicated.

The fantastic ends, as has been stated, when we make a decision as to whether something unexplained has some natural explanation or if it is to remain unexplainable. Todorov notes that, based on which we decide, we leave the fantastic and enter into one of two neighboring genres: the marvelous or the uncanny. It is important to remember that Todorov is speaking of genres. The fantastic is a genre, the marvelous is a genre, and the uncanny is a genre. Although Todorov is talking about the same kind of uncanny as Freud, a distinction needs to be made. In Freud’s case, the uncanny is some object or event that a person is presented with, while Todorov is describing some text that includes this concept for the reader. The marvelous is a similar genre that we enter into, which contains something of the marvelous within it. When Todorov says that we move from the fantastic to the uncanny, Todorov is saying that the text transforms from one style to the other, and that, perhaps, things that were significant in the fantastic take on a new significance in this transformation.

When the decision is made to end the fantastic, an event that does not always happen, a text does not cease to be fantastic. The fantastic still existed in the text up until a point, but beyond that point the text is something different. Our view of it is different. Since the fantastic, the uncanny, and the marvelous are each distinct genres, the latter two can exist without the fantastic. Thus, Todorov calls texts that begin as the fantastic and end as the marvelous or the uncanny “fantastic-marvelous” or “fantastic-uncanny”, respectively.

If, during the fantastic, we decide that an unexplained phenomenon is incapable of explanation, we leave the fantastic for the marvelous. Todorov describes it thus: “If…new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous” (41).  Thus, the marvelous is an experience where our idea of the world is so challenged that we must adopt a new one, and through observing the phenomena, we will discover that new view of the laws of nature. Todorov speaks relatively little on the subject of the marvelous, referring instead to Pierre Mabille’s description of the genre. Mabille states that “the real goal of the marvelous journey is the total exploration of universal reality” (quoted in Todorov 1970, 57). In the marvelous, we surrender ourselves to the phenomena and let ourselves experience it with no further question.

If, instead, we decide that an unexplained phenomenon is capable of being explained by our understanding of the world, we pass from the fantastic into the uncanny. With this, we are aware that we are being confronted by something that could not be explained, which was repressed. It is something real that we have pushed away and forgotten. Our explanation for the event may simply be that we are being tricked, or that we are confused. Indeed, Todorov points out that sometimes the explanations given to explain the situation can sometimes be so out of the realm of possibility that simply accepting the phenomena without question becomes almost more probable (46).

Again, this is more towards describing a genre shift. So, while Todorov only touches on the uncanny as a genre, we must defer to Freud for the fuller description of the uncanny. Also true is the fact that the fantastic is not always related to fear, but in those instances where we move from the fantastic to the uncanny, the whole of the story will take on a fearful tone. Indeed, we might say that the rising tension during the fantastic might be a rise in fear. For the marvelous, the tension might be, instead wonder.

How do we design for the fantastic? The fantastic has three characteristics, according to Todorov, one of which is optional. The world of the text must be accepted by the reader, who then must “hesitate between a natural and supernatural explanation of the events described” (33). Optionally, characters within the world of the text may also experience this hesitation. Finally, the reader of the text cannot take the text as allegorical or poetic, as these modes of thought replace any doubt with thoughtfulness and introspection.

Thus, as a designer, we must make a world that is accepted by the player as a world, and then we must introduce elements that cause the player to be uncertain as to whether those elements are within their understanding of the world, or if they need to learn something new about the world. We must be careful not to rely on metaphor and reference, either of the external world or of the self (i.e., the world needs to be self-contained). Finally, to amplify the fantastic, it will help if characters within the game are experiencing the same kind of hesitation. This last one is fairly simple to do, since the player is likely controlling a character in that space, but showing other characters as having doubts about the introduced elements can help the player’s own hesitation along. Much of this can be accomplished by the presentation of a specific kind of world for the player to adopt. Once the player is set in the space and has the idea of the world we want them to think they are in, we can introduce elements that go against that idea. If we are aiming for the marvelous, we refuse the player any explanation. If we are aiming for the uncanny, we eventually provide some kind of explanation.

In fact, all of these concepts, the fantastic, the uncanny, and the abject, as well as the ideas of the sublime and the marvelous all fit together in an interesting way, revolving heavily around the idea of the fantastic. All of it requires that the player be presented with a new “normal” or “natural” to later be disrupted in some way. Then, some unexplained event is presented. In response to the event, we hesitate and try to determine whether the event is natural and explainable or supernatural and unexplainable.

If we choose to believe the event is natural, then we enter into the uncanny. We recognize that the event is something we have repressed in the concept of the established world, and it is now being presented to us. The original event then becomes something that has been discarded, the abject.

If, instead, we believe that the event is supernatural, then we enter into the marvelous. We recognize that the event is providing us with a new way of viewing the world, and we can thus enjoy it as a way of learning something about the world. The original event then becomes something we can enjoy and marvel at, the sublime.

With this, a paradigm is laid out, and we can use it as a way of telling us what we must satisfy in order to build a game with these ideas. Only after we have discovered this paradigm can we begin to craft an idea to implement. From this point on, we must refer back to this paradigm and use it to answer questions and make decisions that arise in the making of the game. This is what I have done in my experimental design Dirt Under the Rug.


There it is. Let me know any portions that are absolutely confusing or incomprehensible. You can either comment here or contact me in some other way if you have such access. Thanks!

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