2019/10/22

SMRT Stories: Reprise

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.


To wash the taste of SMRT out of your brain, read my action-packed mecha thriller Combat Frame XSeed.

Combat Frame XSeed - Brian Niemeier

27 comments:

  1. One thing I dislike about Gnosticism is that truth is not for everyone. Only the elect get to know the truth, and the truth is what makes them elect. It's stingy with salvation, or even the offer of salvation.

    Another thing is that they preach that the world is a lie. That the maker of the world is truly evil, as is this world and this mode of existence itself. The chorus of Weird Al's song "Everything You Know Is Wrong" is Gnosticism in a nutshell.

    In contrast, Christ wants the truth proclaimed everywhere, that everyone has the choice of salvation (and would that they accept it!). Also the world is correctly portrayed as made perfect, but now fallen into the hands of evil.

    What kind of stunted soul is satisfied with a story that is not truly good vs evil? I suspect that it is one that sides with evil, but doesn't want to admit it to itself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think it's satisfaction. It's like a delicious but unwholesome food that, consumed over time, gives you diabetes.
      Smugness is diabetes of the soul.

      Delete
    2. The appeal of gnosticism is the allure of secret knowledge reserved for a select few. In short: pride.

      Delete
    3. NB: That was also the first sin.

      Delete
  2. This is what was such a threat about Milo Yiannopolous during Gamer Gate and the 2016 election. The SMRT narrative collapses when someone wittier than they are pokes a hole in the balloon. Since the SMRT army is comprised of the insecure and narcissistic, making them look stupid in public is about as serious a blow as can be dealt!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We've got the Smrt set's number and can unravel their narrative with minimal effort. The proof was on full display back when they still tried to engage with us.

      A lot of folks on our side blame the orgy of deplatforming on the upcoming elections. That's probably the oligarchs' motive, but the foot soldiers flagging right-wing accounts all day aren't thinking on that level. Interacting with us at all causes them such severe cognitive dissonance that they have to banish us entirely to make the pain stop.

      Delete
  3. Gnosticism is a gamma religion, having to ride on the knowledge that your fellow man is stupid but you are the sole person to figure out the mysteries of the universe. Fedora tippers fall into this category.

    To be honest, I think a lot of late 90s fantasy (including anime) fell into this trap and is what ended up chasing so many away. Grandia II's dopey story is why nobody bought Grandia III.

    But I suppose Dan Brown's audience has to come from somewhere so they've never truly gone away.

    That speaks to a deeper spiritual problem which allowed these hollow stories success.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "That speaks to a deeper spiritual problem which allowed these hollow stories success."

      Bingo. The cultural rot that degraded everything else also infected the Church's leadership--among all denominations.

      The hierarchy have been out to lunch living in the 70s for decades now. Most of them don't comprehend that Leftism has mutated into a heretical cult in existential conflict with Christianity.

      They're going to have to re-learn the same lessons the Church learned during the Arian crisis.

      Delete
  4. What do you think about flipping the script and making a smrt story about the progressive worldview that then transitions into a good vs evil tale?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds like the TV show Evil.

      Delete
    2. Trying to sneak morals in on the sly is intrinsically effeminate. We know that audiences respond better to forthright tales of good vs evil anyway.

      Delete
  5. Brian

    Geez that's every Dan Brown novel. No wonder I dislike his Landon character so much
    So moral of the story

    Write stories that respect the true, beautiful and good. Don't be a paypig.

    xavier

    ReplyDelete
  6. I haven't played that game through, but the bit I did seemed pretty good. What was the SMRT part of it? I do love a good scewering.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The game is 15 years old, so here goes.

      [SPOILERS BELOW]

      Bloodlines' main McGuffin is the Ankaran Sarcophagus, an ancient artifact whose arrival sets off a wave of violence and dread across Los Angeles.

      Each faction vying for control of the city has its own take on the sarcophagus. The Sabbat believe it holds an antediluvian vampire demigod whose waking could end the world. The Camarilla officially denies the antediluvian legends while seeking the artifact from an avowed desire to keep order. Anarch opinion on the sarcophagus runs the gamut, as it does on all matters, but they want to keep the artifact from the other factions because the others want it.

      It's important to note that vampire lore has pseudo-Biblical roots. The name "antediluvian" refers to Noah's flood. The sarcophagus' occupant is said to be Cain's grandchild.

      Two key characters provide information on the sarcophagus' background. One is an Anarch who adopts a nonchalant, agnostic attitude about the legend while sternly warning the player not to open the artifact. The other is a classic globetrotting, well-read, smugly intellectual Smrt character straight from central casting. He's even British. This celebrated archaeologist, whom everyone defers to, regurgitates the "Genesis as allegory for ancient Mideastern farmer vs. city-dweller conflict" narrative favored by German exegetes of the historical-critical school. He identifies the artifact as the sarcophagus of a Mesopotamian king afflicted with porphyria.

      Throughout the search for the sarcophagus, the game gives constant hints--many quite subtle--that the artifact does indeed contain some ancient, unspeakable evil. Many characters mention feelings of existential dread. Thin-blooded vampires appear, which is said to be a sign of the end times. Everything builds up to an epic confrontation with a blood god with incomprehensibly alien motives.

      And it turns out that the box just has a bomb inside. Not even a nuke, which would justify the overbearing sense of dread. It's just a bunch of C4.

      The demythologizing academic was right after all. What's more, the caper was concocted by the PC's Anarch benefactor, who stole the sarcophagus, booby-trapped it, and spread the antediluvian rumors--all as a massive prank.

      Delete
    2. I'd be seriously disappointed to play through to that ending. Even making it an alien artifact would work better than a lame ass conventional bomb any idiot with an Internet connection could build. These people have no imagination at all.

      Delete
    3. Yeah, even a Tarantino style mystery briefcase, or the old empty box ending, would've been cleverer.

      What's frustrating is that the game's writing team were clearly quite skilled. The sidequests and subplots are superbly constructed, and the dialogue is top-notch. Just know that you're in for a Smrt curve ball at the end.

      Delete
    4. I disagree a little on the 'dialogue' thing, I remember playing that game and desperately, very desperately in parts, trying to find dialogue options in places that didn't make it sound like I had just got off working at hot topic. It seemed like I couldn't just be respectful of my fellow monsters, I had to either be a fawning sycophant, belligerent jackass, or a snarky punk.

      Bloodlines also kinda peeved me a bit with the vampire hunter plot line, I remember sitting for about five minutes waiting for the guy with the cross to realize it wasn't working (of course not, its white wolf), but I had to 'disdainfully' kill them instead to move the plot.

      Delete
    5. My fondness for the dialogue may have something to do with me running a Malkavian.

      Being forced to kill the helpless guy with the cross in Fu's lab was indeed annoying.

      Delete
    6. While they did go with a "all paths to God" lame notion of it, True Faith - the thing that would have made the cross work - was a pretty brutal power, especially versus Vampires, IIRC. A Mage with True Faith would have messed you up right quick.

      Delete
    7. There is one hunter with True Faith later in the game, and he is quite a pain to deal with.

      And yeah, a Mage with or without True Faith would mess a vampire up.

      That's the problem with the World of Darkness. Being the setting's flagship monsters, vampires became the benchmark for every other beastie. "Sure, a vampire can shrug off street-level weapons and rip the doors off a Volkswagen, but a Garou can turn that same Kindred into chunky salsa!"

      Vampires are the collective Worf of WoD.

      Delete
    8. I might have thrown the computer across the room with a turd of an ending like that. Nothing interesting there!

      Delete
    9. That ending sounds like its right up there with the Mass Effect 3 ending for cheap and hollow, game destroying endings.

      Delete
    10. And worse, they could have gone with the bomb thing and not been smrt if they let you disarm it and find evidence that the coffin had previously been pried open from the inside.

      Possible as setup for a (non-existant) sequel.

      Delete
    11. Oh, the red herrings reach levels of smrt that shouldn't be possible.

      The sarcophagus first enters the story when the PC hears rumors of a ship left adrift somewhere off the Port of Los Angeles. You board the ship and find everyone aboard messily slaughtered a la the Demeter from Dracula.

      Your search turns up a security recording from just before the massacre. Footage from the cargo hold shows the steel shipping container that held the sarcophagus torn open from the inside and the coffin's lid ajar. The smug archaeologist later points out that the artifact's incredibly complex locking mechanism indicates the only way to open it without the key--which is in a museum--would've been from the inside.

      Then it turns out to have been a solo job perpetrated by some 10th generation street punk. The dubious logistics of the freighter massacre and other misdirections are simply hand waved away.

      Delete
  7. The werewolf sequence was one of my favorite ones in that game. The only time I felt genuinely hunted, as opposed to the setting trying to act like I should be afraid of the dark despite me being, well, a monster.

    The Ocean House hotel was just.. full of bathos for me. I remember commenting to myself that I was a vampire and therefore I wasn't afraid of any ghosts. And that 'You'll run out of light bulbs before I run out of blood!'

    In general that game's tone was all over. It wanted to be a horror game, but its tough to scare the player when you're playing the monster.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This was a good post. I've recently started noticing the Smrt storytelling device in a lot of the entertainment that I grew up with. It's making it harder to enjoy anything in pop culture without me sarcastically rolling my eyes at the obvious smrt aspect.

    I am ashamed to admit that I used to be a fan of Dan Brown. It's true that I was a teenager, and I didn't yet have the self-awareness necessary to choose what type of fiction I indulge in just yet, but it's still embarrassing to think I ever gave that fraud even a sliver of credibility.

    That ending to VTmB sounds like complete trash. I never got to finish the game myself (I enjoyed what I played of it but it constantly crashed), and I doubt I'll ever return to it if that's the kind of ending they had in mind. So clever! So subversive! I can picture how the writers patted themselves on the back proudly when they came up with that ending.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good on you for having the fortitude and humility to make such a fearless and objective self-examination.

      I agree with your sentiment. It's past time we turned our backs on the dead letter that is the nostalgia brand.

      Delete