2018/12/05

Smrt Stories

the Ankaran Sarcophagus

My earlier post on SJWs cannibalizing the once-mighty White Wolf Publishing occasioned a friend to recommend the 2004 video game *deep breath* Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines.

Having lacked a PC capable of running the game back then, I missed it the first time around. I wasn't the only one, either. Troika, VtMB's developer, cut a deal with games juggernaut Valve Corp to use the latter's shiny new Source engine.

Troika thought that bringing the first Source game to market would lead to breakout sales.We'll never know if they were right. Valve insisted that VtMB not be released until after the highly anticipated sequel to their own flagship game Half-Life. Even though Troika's game was finished first, they couldn't release it until after the launch of HL2, which ended up being massively delayed. [Editor's note: I've since been informed that Valve did not in fact order Troika to delay VtMB's release. The game really failed because of serious scope creep and Activision forcing Troika to launch while the game was still incomplete. It actually launched on the same day as HL2, which was the final kiss of death.]

VtMB lost out on being the first Source game, lost momentum, and tanked. Its failure killed Troika, which is a shame, since it's quite good. The music and the writing--particularly the dialogue--approach the apex of the video game medium. The one misfiring piston is the actual game play. There is simply no mechanical justification for building this kind of RPG on an FPS twitch shooter engine. Using Source was a pure marketing gamble that cost Troika the farm.

Happily, gamers have since come to appreciate VtMB's flawed beauty, and the game has become a cult classic.

But I'm not here to write a review. This post concerns a recurring theme in contemporary fiction that both #PulpRev and superversive folks may have noticed. I brought up Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines because this theme runs through its main plot, as well as the plots of books like The Da Vinci Code. I'm referring to the species of smug, biggest-brain-in-the-room demytholigizing that I call Smrt storytelling.

Thanks to the accelerating erosion of the West's Christian foundations, the converged entertainment industry can't tell a good vs evil story anymore. See the mewling sub-pagans who denounce Tolkien for depicting orcs as morally inferior to elves.

Generating catharsis by appealing to the audience's shared sense of right and wrong is right out when you hold your audience's morals in contempt. Post-Christian storytellers must endeavor to scratch a different fundamental human itch. No, I don't mean smut. Lust certainly has a profitable track record, and you can bet it'll show up as window dressing, but it's a poor substitute for good triumphing over evil. The best postmodern alternative to justice is pride, and a Smrt Story is the favored vehicle for massaging the audience's ego.

Your boilerplate Smrt Story follows the basic mystery template with a key twist: The answer to the mystery involves debunking a central tenet--or perceived central tenet--of Christianity. I call such propaganda "Smrt" instead of "smart" because the author's theological knowledge is usually so deficient that the "dogma" he's debunking is a nonsensical straw man. But his ignorance sets a vicious frame wherein Christians may be lured into defending one error to refute another. Think of all the Dan Brown critics who argued that it didn't matter if Christ survived the crucifixion.

Baiting Christians into tilting at windmills isn't the main point of a Smrt Story. The Smrt author works his evil spell by taking the reader aside and whispering, "Look at all those rubes stumbling around in their superstitious fog. I can tell you're not like them. You can handle the truth, and here it is..."

Here's how the trick works. The Smrt author presents himself as a sort of Gnostic oracle who's got the dirt on some formerly sacred Western tradition. He doesn't break the fourth wall and make these claims overtly. Instead he establishes his credentials by portraying the skeptics attacking the fable as cool, informed characters the reader wants to emulate. At the same time, those who cling to traditional Western beliefs are mocked as credulous--often violent--dupes. The Smrt author carefully frames the window of allowable debate in his world to exclude any compelling arguments for the defense.

Skilled Smrt authors will introduce some last-minute ambiguity to allow the rubes some wiggle room. This conceit is just a sugar to coat the poison pill. It's usually presented as an afterthought, and often for a laugh. The story's main impression remains: The reader has joined the cool kids who know the truth behind the fairy tales.

Being based in falsehood, the Smrt story never satisfies as deeply as heroic tales of heroes triumphing over villains. But when you've traded your birthright for an unwarranted sense of smug superiority, giving the audience a transitory thrill is the best you can hope for.

50 comments:

  1. No shock that Pride is the driver in a Smrt Story, knowing the authors' "Dad".

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    1. Also because it could be called a "Fuck you, Dad!" story.

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  2. Smrt is also the word for death in several Slavic languages, so it adds another level of depth to the term, in that the aim of the teller of such stories is to lure the reader down the path to death.

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    1. Thanks for that tidbit. We are through the looking glass, here, people.

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  3. Smrt storytelling and Subversive storytelling go hand in hand. Not even pagan stories are spared by modern trash. The Hercules movie starring the Rock screws the story halfway through by saying "Oh Hercules was a con artist who lied about the labors to get money." Or when Bethesda, knowing full well the lore decides in ESO "Well even though the lore says Cyrodil was a jungle before Talos reshaped the land it's just the unreliable narrator so we can just copy paste Oblivion's map on our mmo".

    It's stupid and it's lying to the audience.

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    1. Also I'm quite fed up with modern sci-fi writers ripping off Chariot of the Gods and saying "Jesus was a space alien lulz!"

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    2. Ignore the bit about ESO. I was typing without thinking again.

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    3. "It's stupid and it's lying to the audience."

      It is. I considered mentioning Smrt stories that deconstruct pagan myths, but Hercules et al. only get that treatment because as Lewis pointed out, the old myths point to Christ.

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    4. "Also I'm quite fed up with modern sci-fi writers ripping off Chariot of the Gods and saying 'Jesus was a space alien lulz!'"

      Agreed. What's really frustrating is that engineered panspermia stories could work, but the Smrt hacks keep using the alien origins concept as a stick to beat the Incarnation.

      Prometheus was a particularly hamfisted example of:

      1. Aliens seeded life on Earth!
      2. ????
      3. Atheism!

      The other moviegoers were probably put out by my hearty, sustained laughter when the credits rolled.

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    5. Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water did some goofy stuff with the Old Testament being about aliens, though instead of atheism it seemed to be trying to fit the Bible into the context of ancestor-worship ("the aliens are our ancestors and therefore divine").

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    6. Aliens are still contingent beings in need of a creator. The "It was aliens" canard just kicks the can one door down the road.

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    8. Prometheus is my go-to example of everythung wrong with modern movie-making. All puzzle, no story.

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    9. Sort of like Interstellar.

      The mindless humanism of that movie created a major plothole because no one could have existed in the future to open the stupid wormhole in the first place.

      But hey, there's a message to be told.

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    10. I got the exact opposite message out of Interstellar.

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    11. I'm with Brian. Interstellar was fantastic. Nolan is one of the good ones.

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    12. The nods to secular humanism struck me as a sop for the Campbellian crowd. Like it or not--and I don't--paying lip service to reductionist materialism is an effective way to signal that you're making a "serious" science fiction film instead of popcorn-munching fluff.

      Like Amos implied, Nolan burned his pinch of incense to Campbell; then he went and made a superb sci-fi flick with heart that proves LOVE IS REAL!

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    13. In his recent "Dunkirk" Nolan also made one of the most pro-father, pro-masculinity movies of the last couple of decades at least, and in his Dark Knight Returns he rejects the idea of the noble lie as an attempt to play God doomed to ultimate failure.

      Nolan is one of the last honest directors in Hollywood.

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    14. Yeah. He's no secular materialist. I've read that he subscribes to some kind of heretical pseudo-Christian cult--Inception is apparently based on their teachings--but at this point, I'll take what I can get.

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  4. The Smrt Story is built into both the Old and New World of Darkness settings at the base concept level. I'm not as familiar with NWoD, so I'll let others comment on that, but for OWoD, we have...

    Vampire: Cain is the first vampire, so all vampires are his children.

    Werewolf: Humanity's dominion over nature needs to be destroyed.

    Mage: Through your will, you can change reality to suit you. (This is Pride, pure and simple, the same that caused Lucifer to fall.) Bonus: The Celestial Chorus has all the religious magi grouped together, and blatantly favors the ecumenical ones.

    Demon: Lucifer is really Prometheus, because God was going to either allow or cause a disaster to happen.

    These are the CORE CONCEITS of the setting.

    I wonder what it says about each one of us as to which of these games we can fit in best with, and why we do so?

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    1. To answer the last question for myself, I have two things:

      I want to judge whether things are good or not and destroy evil, so prone to wrath as well.

      I want to be a lesser God, to make things right.

      Note that both of these can be taken as good things in the right way, but wrongly can be terrible sins. We are called on to be little Christs after all. That's the literal meaning of Christian! And we are also called to hate evil. Just not evildoers, but to rescue them from evil if possible, or at least follow the Holy Spirit's prompting so that they may be rescued by God's grace.

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    2. "Vampire: Cain is the first vampire, so all vampires are his children."

      That premise could easily form the kernel of a superversive story. Beowulf contains similar background elements.

      Where White Wolf gets Smrt is with characters like Beckett and the Camarilla in general who are absurdly portrayed as "Cain skeptics". These guys are centuries old, yet they all have the same cookie cutter Modernist mindset.

      The transparent author sock puppets might be more believable if VtM didn't suffer from severe cafeteria vampirism. Sunlight kills vampires, but not artificial UV light. Holy symbols don't work, but stakes do. Water's no problem, and neither is garlic, except for certain bloodlines with an inherited allergy. It gives the finger to vampires' roots in Christianized pagan legend, but there's still clearly something supernatural going on, so in the end it just feels arbitrary. These are the issues I sought to address in "Izcacus", by the way.

      You're on the money in regard to Werewolf, Mage, etc. WoD lost any hope of coherence when they brought the other movie monsters in and went explicitly pagan with their origins.

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    3. "I wonder what it says about each one of us as to which of these games we can fit in best with, and why we do so?"

      You and I have similar dispositions.

      After sampling the other WoD settings, I ignore everything but VtM these days. Werewolves are cool, but the pagan Weaver, Worm, Wild mythology smacks too much of something an angsty freshman would diagram in the back of his Comparative Religions 101 notebook.

      No other WoD origin story is as compelling as the Cain myth because it alone has a ring of truth. You can draw a more or less straight line from Scripture, to "baptized" pagan legends, and through Gothic horror novels like Dracula to Vampire: The Masquerade.

      As a WoD Storyteller, I establish up front that the Cain story is real. God intended Cain's sacrifice to prefigure the Eucharist, but Satan played on Cain's pride to vitiate the sacrifice, get Cain cursed, and start the vampire plague to serve as the devil's own anti-Eucharistic pseudo-sacrament.

      If you play a Cainite in on of my games, your character died of blood loss, and the Embrace was really a demon animating the corpse. The demon has access to your memories and thinks it's you, but it needs regular infusions of fresh blood to stave off decomposition.

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    4. NB: I could never get into Vampire, so I never studied it that much.

      I think part of the Smrtness is that the setting is supposed to be our own reality, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, present-day or historical. Something in a completely different setting--D&D, WW's Exalted, the Soul Cycle, etc.--can have a completely different cosmology and the creators can do whatever they want, and Smrtness doesn't apply since it presupposes a setting where Christianity is prevalent.

      I have to admit I appreciate the premise of nWoD's Promethean: A golem trying to become human.

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    6. "After sampling the other WoD settings, I ignore everything but VtM these days."

      "No other WoD origin story is as compelling as the Cain myth because it alone has a ring of truth."

      "If you play a Cainite in on of my games, your character died of blood loss, and the Embrace was really a demon animating the corpse."

      After brushes with the demonic, this is something I want to stay completely away from, even in 'only' an RPG setting. I could never get into the mindset of a vampire--it always felt unclean, and this is probably why. Not something I want to deliberately do.

      A Christian Mage who sees the Ascension War as missions work is much more my line.

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    7. It's harder to pull off a Smrt story in a truly separate secondary world, but Smrtness primarily pertains to plot and character, not setting. A Game of Thrones is achingly Smrt.

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    8. "After brushes with the demonic, this is something I want to stay completely away from, even in 'only' an RPG setting."

      Exceedingly wise. My vampire character policy is a subtle way of discouraging Cainite PCs. Vampires are evil. Attempts to make them sympathetic or, worse, heroic are inherently misguided.

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    9. Tried to get into A Game of Thrones. Failed. Never tried to get back into it or see the show.

      What tenets of Christianity is AGoT/ASoIaF claiming to debunk? What truths is it claiming to hold out? From what little I can tell from people talking about it, it's nihilistic. I don't think that nihilism and Gnosticism are compatible, are they?

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    10. DJ,
      I do think nihilism and Gnosticsim are compatible. They're basically different facet of the same gemstone. Gnostics play on the vice of the secret king who know the real hard truth. Nilism then compounds the prideby then veering to despair. Since we know the truth and it's a Cthultu type existence of un imaginable desolation the only peace is to annihilate self and our surroundings.

      Brian,

      Awesome post! It explainz why I have a mix of disdain and contempt for Dan Brown's hero- the one with the Micky mouse watch. And contemporary literature as well well.
      I'll read this again to reflect how to be a better writer and a decent guy.
      xavier

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    11. "It's harder to pull off a Smrt story in a truly separate secondary world"

      Unless you're Phillip Pullman. But then, when was the last time anyone who wasn't a fedora tipper even brought those books up?

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    12. "What tenets of Christianity is AGoT/ASoIaF claiming to debunk?"

      All of them. The Faith of the Seven is a direct stand-in for the medieval Church.

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    13. GoT also debunks good storytelling. “Hey you like this character? Watch me kill him pointlessly because fuck you and edgy nihilist subversion or whatever” - GRR Martin

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    14. "Since we know the truth and it's a Cthultu type existence of un imaginable desolation the only peace is to annihilate self and our surroundings."

      All right, I can see that.

      "All of them. The Faith of the Seven is a direct stand-in for the medieval Church."

      I will take your word for it. I never got far enough in to run into their Crystal Dragon Jesus version of the Church.

      "GoT also debunks good storytelling."

      Is there any nihilist story that doesn't debunk good storytelling?

      “Hey you like this character? Watch me kill him pointlessly because fuck you and edgy nihilist subversion or whatever.” - GRR Martin

      You should look at ERB S5 E1: George R. R. Martin vs. J. R. R. Tolkein. They actually mention that early on in the rap battle. https://youtu.be/XAAp_luluo0

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    15. "Unless you're Phillip Pullman. But then, when was the last time anyone who wasn't a fedora tipper even brought those books up?"

      John C. Wright does in his Transhuman and Subhuman collection of essays. On the other hand, he is a fedora tipper, but in the old 1930s style, not the neckbeard cringe style.

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    16. Phillip Pullman sucks balls. I read those books, grimly marching to the conclusion to see how joyless and shrill they could get.

      It was worse than I imagined.

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    17. Isn’t GoT the thought experiment of Derrida’s retarded stepchild doing a rewrite of Western European Medieval history? I.e. Everyone is a selfish narcissistic bastard, and they died, horribly, as horrible people should. The end.

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    18. Even that might be forgivable if it didn't get insufferably boring.

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  5. It's not any better on the women's fiction side of things. Instead of a whole lot of smrt stories (or maybe I just instinctively avoid them), they're smrt-lite with idiotic virtue signalling that undermines the story's premise.

    For example, First Book In a Successful Series introduced the idea that the immortal male main character was a vegan, and based on the author's intro, it sounded like this was because immortals were a different, but compatible, species than humans.

    Nope, he was vegan because he was so much more virtuous than thou. What a wasted opportunity!

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    1. Vampire: The Masquerade fell into the same error. The main vampire organization was formed during the Ages of Faith and is still led by Kindred who came of age before the Modern era. Yet they enforce a party line that says, "We're supernatural creatures who can use blood magic and turn into wolves, but Cain is just a fable about agricultural societies overtaking hunter-gatherers, and the Bible's a myth."

      Undermines the premises worse than a were-mole.

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    2. And let me guess, female protagonist is stuck in a love triangle between virtuous immortal and sexy, dark immortal.

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  6. The denouement of Inherit the Wind is probably the most preeminent sugar-coating there is. Why, Drummond was secretly a devout Christian all along - you know, after bringing out this whole metaphor about how faith is basically like trying to sit on rotten wood with gold paint slapped on, in the one scene where he can have a private talk with his old Christian friend. Oh, and he's always been standing at odds with the cynicism of Hornbeck, who you definitely weren't supposed to be cheering on throughout the play.

    I actually adored that play when I was an atheist, and I am ashamed of myself for it.

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    1. What appealed to you most about it?

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    2. The Persecuted Intellectual idiom, I'm pretty sure. Galileo was one of my great childhood myths.

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