[On Fiction-Writing] Restraint, subtlety, unreliable narrators, and Gene Wolfe

I remember myself saying once, “The more words you use to convey your story, the less I believe in the world you’ve constructed.” It’s something I still uphold to this day.

I recently made a blog post on video games and loneliness, and a common trait of these video games is that fact that they completely skimp out on verbal narration, or on words entirely. They are quiet games that let images and actions dictate the story. I absolutely adore it when I am able to extract so much information from a wordless scene. Narratorial hand-holding has never been my thing. If I want a story, I’d rather discover it on my own, than have the story itself spoonfeed me.

If a story feels the need to constantly explain itself with lengthy cutscenes or expository dialogue (I’m looking at you, BioWare and Bethesda games. And basically all epic fantasy/sci-fi novels), it shows how little confidence the story has that you will be able to pick these things up from context clues.

So where does that leave a fiction writer like me? I work with words, so doesn’t that mean more words is always a plus? It ultimately depends on how these words are used.

Take Gene Wolfe, for example. [Spoiler alert, but you really can’t avoid spoilers when you talk about this book] His masterpiece The Book of the New Sun is a 4-volume tome that is as thick as it is nearly impenetrable. It takes place in the distant future, when the sun has begun to die, a time where unknown, unrecorded, and unexplained calamities have devastated this world to the point that no one remembers what things used to be called or what their uses once were. Hence, we are taken on a massive quest in the guise of a surreal, Gothic fantasy novel, when it fact, it is more science fiction than anything else, and we only get to have an inkling of that more than 3/4ths of the way into the novel! There is an epic quest in here but instead of laying out the scene in graphic detail, he describes his world in a way that an actual character of this world would describe it: to the best of their knowledge, which is to say, not very much, despite the protagonist proclaiming that he has eidetic memory (perfect recollection). Space travel is described as light-fishes moving across mirrors; aliens are described only loosely and one would initially think they’re just another “class” of human; strange creatures inhabit this world and yet we only get the barest of descriptions as to their nature; and the characters are definitely much more than who they seem and discovering their identities or what they are often results in mindblowing revelations. There are hidden Biblical references; tons of obsolete Latin words abound; and things are never as they appear. The world Gene Wolfe has created is hazy and amorphous and lacking in distinct shape. The shapes change after every new chapter you read, after each new interpretation you come across.

Gene Wolfe once said, “Real people really are unreliable narrators all the time, even if they try to be reliable narrators.” Common sense dictates that it is unwise to trust unreliable narrators but there is always something so alluring about it, something so unquestionably human that a narrator would forgo accuracy to tell the story they want to tell. You can infer so many things about what they decide to talk about, and what they decide to leave out. This is why restraint and subtlety is very important to me when it comes to reading and writing fiction.

To me, the most interesting stories arise from the untold details, which is why a lot of mainstream RPGs and fantasy novels are very unappealing to me. No, I don’t want to listen to your deliberate attempts to flesh out your world. No, don’t tell me histories as if they were written in books. Tell me histories that arise from your psyche. Tell me histories that surface from interaction with your surroundings. Please trust that us readers are intelligent enough to deduce, to theorize. Let me interpret your universe.

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Fantastic Loneliness in Video Games

What is it about loneliness as a theme found in certain fantasy stories—the stories centered on hapless, solitary figures whose obscure motivations are illuminated by whatever scant (yet meaningful) interaction they have with their environments—that are able to resonate with me like no other? Note that these things I am about to mention aren’t truly about “loneliness” in an individual sense, since you are always at some points accompanied by someone else. It is the kind of loneliness from a grander perspective—the notion that there is a “we” but the “they” is either unresponsive or nonexistent—the notion that touches on the existential musings, “Why am I doing this?” and “What else is out there?”

Shadow of the Colossus is a prime example of this. A lone Wander trespasses into forbidden sacred grounds to do a creepy godlike voice’s bidding by slaying otherwise peaceful giants, scattered across a bucolic landscape strewn with long-untrodden pathways and serene forests and rivers and vast, empty plains, and only speculation could ever hope to envision what kind of civilization exists outside the sacred ground’s walls, how they came across an evil god and sealed it within the temple, what amount of hard work was put into constructing these monumental ruins that stand as a reminder of what once was a thriving ancient culture. But there is no one left—only Wander, and his faithful steed, and this lonely paradise is yours for the taking.

Ico, the precursor to Shadow of the Colossus, also has this, albeit on a much smaller scale. A child imprisoned for simply being born with horns, the eponymous Ico escapes his cell and has to navigate through cavernous chambers, corridors, ramparts, and gardens of an empty castle, accompanied by Yorda, a silent girl with skin and a dress both as white as light. And yet again, the isolated story ever so vaguely hints at an external civilization that is equal parts mysterious and excruciatingly unknowable. Why are children with horns feared? Is it connected to Shadow of the Colossus lore-wise in any way, considering Wander’s transformation into a horned baby near the end? What is the rest of this world like? What do its people think? We will never know, and we’re left to focus on Ico and his wordless relationship with Yorda and their surroundings, in this fantastically ponderous bildungsroman.

In Journey, you control a mysterious robed figure whose only purpose is to reach a mountain, visible in the distance, by trudging through sand and snow and harsh winds. Across deserts are scattered graves and ruins of a dead civilization whose histories remain carved on still standing walls. No words are spoken, but everything you need to know comes to you in dreams and images, and sometimes, that’s all you need to get a story across.

In Souls games, and most recently in Bloodborne, you are always the nameless adventurer who enters doomed civilizations at their worst, be it due to foolish kings who accidentally unleashed the wrath of old gods, damning an entire city, or due to a curse inherent within all humanity that inevitably leads to the world’s degradation. No matter what, in all Souls games, everyone is fucked, and so are you, and every single character is alone in their own way. They each have their own personal battles, and only you can bring yourself to conquer the trial that is a Souls game. And it’s this lonely, oppressive atmosphere that draws me, hopelessly, into worlds like this, like a moth to a flame. Fantastic landscapes that range from the impossibly beautiful to the horrifically grotesque are backdrops that serve as storytelling devices in their own right, and even as you fight your way through beast-infested streets and haunted libraries and ancient battlegrounds, you realize that these places are devoid of any life. NPC interactions are sparse, and they may even turn hostile on you, betraying previous friendships in the onset of madness. The lack of outright narration and dialogue further obscures whatever story you can extract from these places and only an inquisitive researcher will be able to piece together the clues that form a vivid, often mindblowingly revelatory picture of how kingdoms like these came to their demise, how each area and each element played a significant role in determining the kingdoms’ present states, and what sorts of human folly were involved in their descent.

Because the worlds of these stories are so vast and so empty, it only serves to amplify the feeling of “loneliness” despite there being a few other characters you are able to interact with. Even in today’s society, surrounded by so much people on and off the internet, we still manage to feel extreme bouts of loneliness every now and again, simply because of the difficulty involved in understanding what’s outside the “walls” of our bodies—in trying to decode what other people think and mean. Video games like the ones I mentioned have a lot of room for introspection, and these stories give the audience ample time to speculate, to draw conclusions from the barest of hints, to ultimately create their own interpretation. The background comes to the foreground, and the setting and all spaces in between become echo chambers dripping with ambiance—they become lived-in epitomes of what makes fantasy so alluring in the first place: the mystery, the sheer unfathomability, the personal struggles in an unforgiving world that doesn’t even try to explain itself to you. And things like these are reminders, that even in other worlds—those magical other worlds often accused of being “escapist”—not all of our questions are answered, not all wishes are fulfilled. And as much as we try to mull over what it all means, our contexts and the epochs surrounding us, it is always the personal battles that mean the most, and I guess that’s why I adore stories like these so much.