Friday, June 10, 2011

Mood and Morality

This is about achieving a mood in a game (or in a movie or book or whatever).

A basic rule of aesthetics is getting one desirable emotional effect generally means letting go of another desirable emotional effect. Like: the epic mood and the zany mood don't usually peacefully coexist--Kermit the Frog is good and Achilles is good but having Kermit show up in the middle of the Iliad would fuck the Iliad up and make it something else. And we're all familiar with the great "Should I allow my player to name his/her PC Jimbob the elf?" question.

Now what we're specifically gonna deal with here is: the moods that are especially accessible by using the fantastic--the nonreal. That is: magical or sci-fi or otherwise surreal elements.

Here's a scale:
So there are 4 categories of mood here lined up from least to most serious.

The basic idea is: during any one specific moment in a work you can get any 2 adjacent emotional effects simultaneously fairly easily and if you're real good you can get 3 adjacent effects in a specific moment. You can't get nonadjacent effects without the one in between. So: no horrific-funny without also weird and no heroic-weird without horrific. You can also loop around and get heroic-funny (generally in the form of "we-like-the-hero-and-root-for-him/her-because-s/he's-funny"--a swashbuckley mood) but heroic-funny-weird and funny-heroic-horrific are stretching it and are pretty hard to pull off all at once. Again, we're talking emotions/moods achievable in a specific moment--like Hellboy comics are sometimes horrific-heroic and sometimes heroic-funny, but no single moment is heroic-funny-horrific all at once because the emotions involved somewhat contradict each other.

In a long work you can get all of them, but it's a challenge. In an actual session of a game you can get all of them comparatively easily (you have hours to fuck around and drift through moods)--but in a game product effectively articulating even one dominant mood is hard--what with the rules and details mundanifying your every step--much less 2 or 3.

The reason for this is because all these moods require a different point of view toward what's going on. "Funny" requires a degree of detachment (or hostility) toward whatever its object is, "heroic" requires investment in its success--attachment to the object (note also that "heroic" doesn't just mean "containing a hero" it means authentically feeling that blood-pumping I-hope-this-guy-wins-and-that-guy-loses emotion), "weird" requires a level of confusion about judgment, and "horrific" requires deciding something's threatening.

In the example I used several ways at looking at the fantastic idea of "part-man/part-bat".

So way over on the left we have the image that pops into our heads when someone makes the familiar observation that "Batman is a guy who goes around dressed like a bat". Like any fantastic conjunction, the idea can be made to sound silly. We are all well aware that anything in D&D can be made to sound goofy if you just say it right: "Elves are like people but with pointy ears and better". The fantastic is incongruity and incongruity can always be made funny.

Now in the middle is simply "weird". Simply weird is hard to achieve, because it means it's genuinely in the middle: an incongruous element which is neither frightening nor funny or is both frightening and funny. The hard part is that different people will see the thing presented as "weird" in different ways. Like that middle picture of the bat with the horn-ears might scare some children but might strike some adults as hilarious and strike others as just, simply, "weird". Weird in its pure form represents a collapse of moral judgment altogether--if we are sure we can just laugh (funny), we know it's harmless, if we are sure we should just run (horrific), we know it's harmful.

The vast majority of things in the world of entertainment which are described as "weird" end up sliding off toward also being "funny" or "horrific". When they do neither it's impressive (classic Surrealism occasionally achieves this) and when they do both it's impressive. For a master class on the emotional multivalency of "weird" see the films of David Lynch--though which parts are funny and which are scary and which balance perfectly being neither but still weird will vary from viewer to viewer.

It's an aesthetic disaster when something intended to funny-weird just comes out scary-weird (see: clowns and small children) or vice versa (see: low-budget horror movies or the Fiend Folio). The important point is just as how--when considered from a historical point of view--"weird" represents a fulcrum between fantasy and sci-fi--when considered from a mood point of view "weird" represents a fulcrum between "so out-of-place-it's-funny" and "so-out-of-place-it's-scary".

Now we get over into horror, and the horrific is not funny. Mating a human with a bat is definitely a scary idea. (And most incongruities can be made scary--maybe even rabbits with unicorn horns). Horror movies can be funny sometimes, but the moment of horror--if that emotion is to be maximized--cannot be at all funny in that moment. If you are going full-on for as-scary-as-scary-can-be, then levity has to be banished. The funniness (on reflection) of the talking rabbit-head in Donnie Darko or the guy in the bear suit in The Shining can't be in our minds during their scenes or else the effect is ruined--we need to be so emotionally close that the detachment necessary to see how essentially funny these things are is short-circuited. A good sign you are really scaring people is that all jokes made fall flat and seem weak. Black humor can work with horror, with weirdness as the translator, creating a vertiginous, giddy, creepy funny that probably won't send you running from the theater, but might give you nightmares--see: Eraserhead. This is more the realm of the disturbing than the shocking.

Now at the far end of the seriousness scale is the heroic. A man with characteristics of a bat is more than a human, is able to achieve what other humans can't. The heroic mode is even more serious than the horrific because, basically, the humorous undercuts and limits the heroic to a huge degree. The jokes have to be very specific: If the jokes are at the expense of the hero then the hero is no longer sympathetic, if the jokes are on the villain then it no longer seems like a credible obstacle for the hero and if the jokes are on the world then it risks seeming like a place not important enough to save. As said above, almost the only way to effectively have heroic-humorous is if it's the hero telling the jokes, which puts you in a pretty specific genre quickly (Spider-Man/Pirates of Caribbean/Ghostbusters territory--"lite") which makes it hard to get to the weird.

If a heroic story tries to go the long way around and tries to meet the weird by going through funny either the weirdness or heroicness has to be sacrificed. Like the timewarp Bill Murray faces in Groundhog Day never really feels emotionally "weird" and the adventures of Barbarella never seem emotionally "heroic" (you might like her but you don't really root for her). Either the weird part makes you more interested in seeing crazy stuff happen (regardless of what it means) and so not become invested in the heroism or the heroic part makes you more invested in judging the rightness and wrongness of things through the haze of humor to feel the eerie burn of weirdness.

Agent Cooper and Pee Wee Herman both achieved a certain level of funny-heroic-weird--if we like them and want them to win, it's because they're charmingly funny and weird. And when we experience this charm, we are unafraid--when Agent Cooper is credibly threatened by horror, he narrows down to simply heroic. And when people say Pee Wee was scary--well, they weren't talking about horror movie scary.

Also, the heroic can't blend with the "simply weird" without going through the horrific. Why? Because the heroic requires moral certitude--a hero (as opposed to a mere protagonist) in this sense is someone we can get behind and what they're doing is something we believe in doing and most importantly--the emotional "high" of seeing heroism (rather than simply knowing a character is the "hero" and going along with it because it's in front of us and we want to see some action) requires the audience to share this moral certitude. We cannot thrill to the slaying of The Emperor if we like the emperor. The aesthetic effect of the "simply weird" is, on the other hand, achieved by it purposefully not telling us what to think. Horror is the translator. We can only root for Dr Strange when he faces Shuma Gorath if his weirdness is frightening. If it's not, we'll just sort of be baffled by the situation and not emotionally sure enough to want Strange to defeat him.

When totally achieved the feeling of weird-horrific-heroic is (and should be) fundamentally emotionally unsettling. We are rooting for the hero to destroy something s/he and we do not totally understand. When Jeffrey defeats Frank in Blue Velvet it doesn't feel exactly right--it's like he's destroying part of himself, when Elric kills a freakish monster we aren't totally sure he has any more right to live than it does, when Lovecraft's protagonists escape the terrors in his stories we kind of don't care--the terrors are more interesting than the characters.

Which is all to say the certainty of the truly heroic and the uncertainty of the truly weird coexist as uneasily as the attachment required for the heroic and the detachment required for the humorous.

A good example of how this all works together in games is the mythos of the original Warhammer: It hung out largely in horror-heroic, but could migrate over to horror-weird (Realms of Chaos) and over to funny (orks--and the general black humor throughout) but funny-heroic just couldn't authentically happen. When the orks fought the space marines, either you have to feel like the space marines are the butt of the joke (no longer convincingly heroic--emotionally speaking) or the orks are just one more inhuman abomination (the Space Marines not getting any of their jokes). Another example: sometimes the Joker is funny--but as soon as Batman comes around, he isn't any more (though he is often, in these moments, weird and horrific) and if he is, then Batman suddenly looks impotent. You can have all these "notes" but not at the same time, and not without considerable effort.

Which is all to say: Morality and mood are tied together. Certain effects become almost impossible in the presence of others and so, as always, you have to realize that people who want one are going to have to make less of a big deal of the other. Deal.


  1. This is a great analysis and explanation, Zak. I especially like the take on the "weird" as anxiety rather than fear.

    I see an underlying dimension, too, which is the balance of investment between the audience and the setting. If the effect is funny, the audience retains their normal perspective. Weird, the audience has it shaken. Horror, the audience still identifies with the self, but is immersed in the threat of the setting. Heroic, the audience jettisons the sneaker-wearing self entirely and identifies with the setting's enhanced self-surrogate.

    In some ways this explains the wrap-around effect you mentioned; once the self comfortably inhabits the frame of the hero, it feels free to make jokes, but only in-character as a show of confidence.

    Also, I couldn't help but read this in the light of my recent posts and substitute in "disgust" for "horror" (which is part disgust anyway). Yep, that works too, but then you get a slightly fascistic take on the heroic - the hero as "cleanser" of what is impure regardless of whether it's threatening or not.

  2. Good analysis. I think presenting it as sort of a spectrum gets to an underlying truth: humor, the weird, and horror can all result from things happening against expectations. It's just how that violation of expectation is contextualized and presented that makes the difference.

    I'm not sure about whether the heroic does that or not. Maybe it shares the focus on tension that can be part of horror? Anticipation of a certain outcome builds the mood?

  3. Zak, this is one of the best things you've written. Great analysis and nice examples too.

  4. When I saw the chart in my google reader, the first thing that popped into my head was Twin Peaks. Which of course you hit.

  5. It's just how that violation of expectation is contextualized and presented that makes the difference.

    The emotional relationship to the thing expected is what contextualizes it–horror is something hoped for, heroism is something despaired of, funny is something under the radar, weird is a null zone of uncertainty, where you look for more data to contextualize (or flee from the task of contextualization). That's why Horror and Heroism are next to each other. Their emotional contextualization is so easy to be flipped. That's why humour and weird are often lumped together as well, since laughter is pretty much an emotional reaction to recognizing contrast. Or at least that's what pop-sci neurology tells me.

    I think there's also something to be said for of these moods, any 'weird' being vaguely associated with negativity. Our instincts to recoil at the disgusting or unexpected are there to try and protect us from disease or dangerous unanticipated behaviours. The courageous part of heroism is ability to put aside that emotion and grapple with the monster (if it's horrific) or uncover the mystery (if it's weird) or restore things to their expected working conditions (if you're dealing with the sick, broken or disgusting).

    That courage is itself weird or unexpected, though, and tends to relegate you to another world of outsiderness. So cops and doctors and tortured vampires with a soul and batmans and pollocks have shitty home lives.
    ...This comment was just an excuse to post the sausages link.

  6. There was a piece on one of the many NPR shows earlier this week that discussed the relationship between humor and fear. It proposed that humor is predicated largely on fear and is a tool for coping with fear. You take a situation that would be fearful, or at least very uncomfortable, and you make it funny by generating necessary distance. This does sort of mesh with what you assert here. It also explains why I get so uncomfortable watching Seinfeld (can't stand the show). I don't have enough distance, so I see it as uncomfortable instead of funny.

  7. The basic idea is: during any one specific moment in a work you can get any 2 adjacent emotional effects simultaneously fairly easily and if you're real good you can get 3 adjacent effects in a specific moment. You can't get nonadjacent effects without the one in between. So: no horrific-funny without also weird and no heroic-weird without horrific.

    Pulp Fiction. When the guy in the car gets shot in the face.

    Horror and Humor are closely linked emotions and that's why you frequently see both in horror films (eg. Nightmare on Elm Street et al). It's a psychological phenomenon that when we encounter something "wrong" it could either go the fear route or the funny route.

    Sometimes, like in Pulp Fiction, it can go both ways.

  8. Nice. I think one thing you can do with this, once you start thinking in terms of the spectrum, is use it to generate new ideas/situations by shifting things up or down. Want something Weird start with something funny-- guy in a bat suit. But what if it is a cape made of stitched together bat skins, or, no, what if it is a person forced to have living bats tied all over them, flapping, trying to escape-- creepy.

    I think this is also very important for a DM because if you want to be able to hit all these notes you can't let your game world get so gonzo that nothing seems heroic and you can't let things be so damn serious you can't laugh at stuff. Exploration lends itself well to the uncertainty in the middle of the spectrum.

    One last bit, I think the Aeon Flux cartoon where each protagonist dies to be followed by another is interesting because it is playing with that idea of heroism/horror/weird.

  9. While reading your post I kept thinking of the similarity between the "mental disconnect" that can happen when transitioning between these moods, and the weird-horrific feelings you experience when peering out over The Uncanny Valley. Good stuff man.

  10. Best thing I've read this week. Bravo.

  11. @stuart

    When Marvin gets shot in the face I feel no fear. And I have never seen anyone ever do anything "fear" related during that scene and I have never, until now, heard about anyone being genuinely -scared- by that scene. I think, in short, it's not a good example. However, your experience may be different. However, you often also say things on-line that make no sense and don't explain them so maybe you're just into that.

    Marvin getting shot in the face -is- a horrific event--but the emotion of horror fails to occur, so far as I can see. This is one reason moralistic asshole critics don't like Tarantino--the violence is often not -felt- as a bad thing.

  12. You said Horror though, not Fear. When I watch footage from Auschwitz I feel horror but not fear. If I'm playing Hide-and-Seek I might feel fear but not horror. Horror can be fearful (Hellraiser) but it can also be a stunned shock sort of reaction (Se7en).

  13. @stuart

    Well as I am defining them here, I mean "an aesthetic reaction including the felt emotion of a level of fear"--not simply an intellectual awareness that something is bad.

  14. Fair enough. Different kinds of horror.

  15. I would suggest that Elric does a fairly good job of breaking your template, by simultaneously feeling weird and heroic while avoiding a lot of horror at the same time. There are definitely horrific-heroic parts, though. (It's almost never funny). Thoughts?

  16. Zak, does revulsion, or perhaps other kinds of discomfort, play a role in "horror", or only fear? I'm curious to know, because if they don't, where would they fall on the scale? I know, I'm getting into some semantic territory, but I guess I'm a little confuzzled.

  17. @brandon


    when I say horror or the feeling of horror I include anything that might be plausibly be classed in that genre-even if it's merely macabre or spooky.

    Discomfort? that could be the Just Weird.

  18. @brandon

    Fear is an emotional reaction to the possibility of something that sucks. Repulsion or discomfiture do kind of suck, but generally things that are repulsive are used to indicate something else that should be feared in a story (a dead body indicates a deadifying agency), rather than being the thing feared itself.

    So, yes.

  19. @Zak @huth

    I would say, then, that for me, I think horror, weird, and humor can all co-exist quite well together in the same scene, almost the same instant, at least by my reactions to thing, but YMMV. I think I have a more pronounced level of discomfort with things and would be more likely to classify something as falling into "horror" as a result than many other folks.