Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.
As a fantasy reader, I can confirm this.
American publishing has always centered around the Great American Novel, and we believe it should maintain this purity of vision. However, the recent proliferation of the independent publishing scene combined with millennials’ puerile attachment to things that are smaller, lighter and sleekly designed has serious implications for the continued dominance of the Great American Novel.
Nowhere is this disturbing trend more obvious in our industry than with indie publisher Nouvella, which publishes pocket-sized works of fiction between 10,000-40,000 words.
With your help, we intend to shut Nouvella down.
I think 40K is the origin of the phrase because it's a good phrase, but is quite a long way from grimdark because it refused to take itself seriously, although I'm not sure that's always the case now. The sheer excessiveness of everything does help though. Only genetically-engineered brain-eating fascist supersoldier monks can save you from the insects that eat planets and the ghost robots that want to annihilate the universe, and maybe you'd be better off if they didn't.
...I thought it was just a Ferretbrainism for some reason, but apparently not. Huh.
Could you please clarify how you personally interpret the term "grimdark"?
Now I haven't seen Spartacus, but this question got me thinking about grimdark in general - we can all mention examples of grimdark authors - George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie, etc. - but what specifically is it that makes them grimdark? Is there a concise definition of grimdark that doesn't use examples?
The best, shortest description I could come up with was "exploitation fiction without the wink." Like exploitation fiction, the extreme sex and violence is there to titillate the reader (unlike the sex and violence in All Quiet on the Western Front or 12 Years a Slave), but unlike exploitation fiction it's done seriously, without that knowing wink that's often present.
A lot of people cite Warhammer 40K as an example of grimdark, and "grim darkness" is of course in its tagline, but I think it's too self-aware and over-the-top to really qualify, at least in my book. That's where I see the pejorative sense of "grimdark" coming in - if a book is pushing for dark and disturbing levels of sex and violence but instead goes over the top and unintentionally comes across as silly and ridiculous as Warhammer 40K, then you could say it's grimdark.
On the subject of Spartacus, I do think the world and events it depicts are remote in a way that makes a difference in our ... how shall I phrase it: our moral obligation to approach its subject matter sensitively? I think a series that depicted Nat Turner's rebellion or the Mâle Revolt along similar stylistic lines to Spartacus would be seen as exploitative. As would a film adaptation of Im Westen nichts Neues that aestheticized violence in the way that, say, The 300 did. Yes, some of the characters in Spartacus bear the names of historical figures, and there really was a Third Servile War, but their reality is unrecoverable and has no meaningful point of contact with the present. I would compare it to Game of Thrones more readily than to 12 Years a Slave.
Everything you say about the show sounds excellent, and mirrors what I've heard/read from others over the years. And I can easily believe that the tone is appropriately serious and depressing given the subject matter - but I'm afraid that's a level of intensity I can't really handle in television/film. Cartoonish hyper-violence I can handle, but high mortality rates among characters I've grown to deeply care about I really can't. Heck, sometimes just one character is enough to spoil my enjoyment of a film/show. Nothing against the series in question, it's just my own personal tolerance levels. Again, sorry for the implied ridicule.
And thanks also for the Sense8 recommendation. I start a new TV show about once every six months or so, but I've kept your previous recommendations in mind, and I may well find my way to them someday. That clip you linked won serious points with me for two reasons: first, by revolving so much around "What's Up," by 4 Non Blondes, which is one of those songs that's highly important to my circle of friends (a bunch of us sang it karaoke at a wedding not long ago); and second, hi Martha Jones from Doctor Who. It does look and sound like a pretty cool show ...
It also gave me the curious experience of recognising most of the settings of the parts filmed in Berlin. Which feels really odd when I'm watching an American-style action-drama.
Here's a short excerpt that reflects the feel of the show quite well:
Could you please clarify how you personally interpret the term "grimdark"? 'Cause I'm having a hard time not to side-eye you right now for mocking a drama about historical institutionalised slavery and large-scale murder, and the tragic death of tens of thousands of people in a war that really happened as "needlessly serious and depressing". I mean, of course they took some narrative liberties with history and we can't know the actual personalities of the people involved, but almost all of the male characters on "Spartacus" stand in for and share the names of people who really existed (the Romans weren't very interested in documenting the fate of women). Does their suffering not deserve a serious and empathetically heartbreaking depiction just because they've been dead 2000 years? This isn't "Game of Thrones" or "Warhammer 40.000" where the darkness of the setting is an arbitrary style choice by the author. Would you call "12 Years a Slave" or "Nothing New on the Western Front" grimdark as well?
That said, what the show undoubtedly is, is hyper-violent. But the violence is depicted just over-the-top and unrealistic enough (i.e. dull Roman swords that work as well as katanas for cutting limbs off; high-pressure spurts of GGI blood that is just a shade too purple to look real; etc.) so that it doesn't faze me - and I can't bear to watch splatter horror movies like "Scream" or "Saw". I don't particularly enjoy the testosterone-overdosed arena fights in the first season, but I can just roll my eyes and wait a few minutes for the show to get back to the interpersonal drama. I do appreciate the strange subversiveness with which the show used said larger-than-life violence and all the sex to draw in the stereotypical straight male aged 18-49 audience (and then served up a drama plot that's surprisingly feminist, gay-inclusive, tenderly romantic, character-development-driven, and almost Shakespearean in terms of challenging lyrical speech patterns and intrigue-based subplots), as well as making the audience kind of complicit in the exploitation of the slaves, which the gladiator slave characters really come to resent only when their brainwashing wears off at the end of the first season. The show doesn't go so far as to openly shame its audience for liking the violence, of course, but it does lure you in for a while to act just like the frothing in-show audience in the arena and cheer the gladiators on in their contest to become 'champion' - to forget what the bloodsport really means for those forced to be involved, and that the title really is meaningless. Which I found an interesting tactic to make the viewer understand how the system persisted in the first place, given that not all Romans can be psychopaths. (And they aren't, on the show. Except for a few minor characters and an upper-class couple who actually are borderline psychopathic, the villains are presented in a way that makes you want to root for them at least in their struggle to with the social class system and with the patriarchy.)
And in the later seasons, the show sometimes uses the violence for good, such as in this amazing scene that subverts the usual plot of harm done to female characters primarily to give the male characters motivation for revenge, instead providing catharsis to female rape survivors:
(A little note: The actor who plays the lover of the woman fighting in this scene, the one who looks like a bit of a jarhead, turned out to be a real revelation. His character starts out as the gladiator equivalent of a jerk jock, so the depth the actor lends him through eye-acting comes as a real surprise. Case in point: that look on his face when the woman's opponent, who had a long-standing personal vendetta with him, taunts him with how he 'ruined her' and that she'll never forget it - that look means a lot more when you remember that the lover had been sexually abused for years as well. Not violently, and not by a man, but still. The show never has the male characters talk about the sexual abuse they suffered (which is almost all the major straight male slave characters, in one way or another), because macho culture, but you can see how it informs their treatment of female rape survivors, and their romantic relationships, which are refreshingly free from any pushy or abusive behaviour or other creepiness that normally keeps me from rooting for romantic couples in shows.)
And while history dictates that the ending be a tragedy since the slave revolt failed and most of the historical characters are only known from the death reports, the show creators did manage to make the final episode one of the most emotionally satisfying series finales I have ever seen, partly because you really come to care about those characters (I rarely cry at movies, but here I spent the last 15 minutes sobbing), partly for meta reasons (
It's hilariously bad and everything, but mostly it makes me sad that I've never seen or participated in an actual critical review of her actual work.
His nephew, young Jeremiah Cornelius, is the only member of the family who will talk to Bastable, slipping away from his governess in order to listen to Uncle Oswald's wild tales. Morally corrupted by Bastable's delusional ravings about time travel and airships and native chappies breaking away from the Empire and taking control of their own destiny, Cornelius becomes a decadent anarchist (first drafts also have him falling in with Uranian sorts, but the editors of All the Year Round put their foot down and refused to allow that subplot), and is eventually shot dead in the midst of a failed assassination attempt on a member of the Royal Family.
Due to Cornelius mumbling something about Bastable as he lay dying, a warrant is put out for Bastable's arrest as a co-conspirator. Still quite insane, Bastable doesn't even comprehend that he is headed for the gallows, making remarks about a bombing run on a British Navy base at Hiroshima just before he is hanged. The narrator closes the story with a long meditation about the dangers of imagination, and the moral that we must all live in the same world which we must learn to accept rather than seeking to change.
Girl Genius: the descendant of a long line of astonishingly gifted engineers and scientists, raised in secret by two of her family's servants, Agatha Heterodyne goes to work in a respectable household for a few years before marrying a fishmonger, since it never occurs to anyone that she could become an engineer. Denied the opportunity to build terrifying scientific marvels, and unable to understand her strange yearnings, she writes searing adventure novels under a pen name, earning enough to keep her out of poverty in her widowhood. After her own death, her children discover a treasure-trove of blueprints in the mysterious chest under her bed; ignorant of their importance, they use them as kindling, while the narrator lectures us on the importance of education.
*there's nothing that actually kills/does damage,
*I can micromanage equipment or strategy such that I either won't get hit or can negate all damage,
*I patiently spent a lot of time leveling and now I'm big and bad enough that nothing poses a credible threat, or
I'm not sure they really supported their thesis there, though. I mean:
There is a growing multitude of games that don’t utilize violence as a central mechanic. [...] Telltale Games’ entire catalogue since the release of season one of The Walking Dead has had conversation and social maneuvering as the central game mechanic. Animal Crossing, The Sims, and Minecraft are all worldwide sensations
...doesn't quite mesh with "limiting innovation". It seems like there's a specific subset of games they're really talking about: rpgs.
I wish they'd gone into their argument about it being central to game engines a bit more, maybe with some examples or something. I mean, "animate a believable hug" is at least something that's possible--hugging, specifically, is something Sims can do. So, somebody "figured it out". Is there something about other game engines that makes that especially difficult to animate? (That is a sincere question; I know very little about animation. Though, if there are a variety of body types and/or a variety of shapes of visible wearable equipment, I can see how you'd have to deal with either 1)clipping errors/failure to match up properly (i.e. making a tall person hug a short one might lead to them hugging their head), or 2)the woes of combinatorial expansion as you make separate animations for every separate combination that might come up. Unless you can somehow use collision detection?)
It seems like their actual argument is more specific than the one in the title: that violence limits games that have it as a core mechanic. Which is, itself, an interesting argument.
The big change over the years has been that point and click adventures used to boast some of the most impressive budgets in gaming, whereas now they are far, far away from the AAA-tier. It would be interesting to track over time how much more homogenised the top-budget tier of videogames has become over the years - and how much more homogenised the audience for and producers of such games have become with it.