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by Jeff Adashek
I remember reading a fantasy novel by Melanie Rawn some time ago, a volume in her Dragon Star trilogy, and suddenly being violently thrown out of the "dramatic illusion" and almost out of the desire to read the novel any further altogether.
What caused this sudden disillusionment? A show-stopping confrontation over, of all things, abortion. It was not only that this sensitive and divisive issue was brought up at all; Rawn then proceeded to deliver an insultingly one-sided account of the debate, offering up in an all but mocking tone one of the weaker arguments of the side which she so obviously did not agree with and then tearing it, and with it the unfavored side, to shreds.
It was an unbelievably stupid move on Rawn's part, one almost guaranteed to isolate and insult a sizable portion of her prospective audience. But it was not the question, or Rawn's stance on that question that particularly angered me. It was how the discussion was handled.
Fiction, particularly fiction in the genres of fantasy and sci-fi, is pure escapism or a commentary on humanity (or some institution of humanity), and often both, whether it be a novel like Rawn's or a video game storyline like that of Final Fantasy Tactics. It is intended to be persuasive. But in order for its message, its overriding theme, to reach those whom it might persuade, it is couched in symbolism and allegory-- and, most importantly, ambiguity.
Ambiguity means leaving the last step, the final connection, to be made by the audience-- leaving them with a generality which they then may or may not extrapolate into an explicit situation.
Ambiguity is at the heart of all persuasively effective fictional symbolism (a realm where RPGs tread more with every passing day). It is where Rawn failed so offensively, and where Final Fantasy Tactics failed as well.
When the geniuses behind the FFT storyline threw together a plot, for their villainous religion they put together a church with a basic mythology, hierarchy, and organization which blatantly and explicitly resembles one and only one religious institution. They might as well have gone the full ten yards and just called it the Catholic Church; they weren't fooling anyone. They then go on to explicitly state in the game that this institution in fact worships a demon, and is evil from its god on down.
And we wonder why this is so offensive.
If the designers had wanted to make a statement about religious persecution and / or a connection between such and an evil god or that religion's legitimacy, all they needed do was create a more generic church, and let the reader make the final step (given the association of the Catholic Church with the Inquisition, it's not that hard a step to take)-- in other words, to leave some ambiguity. Instead, worried that a few slower game-players might not catch on (and showing once again the overwhelming tendency of game designers and publishers to view the US video game market as juvenile) they made it case-specific before it even reached the audience's eyes. It's the Catholic Church that's persecuting. It's the Catholic Church that has an evil god.
The storyline in Final Fantasy Tactics is a spectacular example of how not to attack a religious institution in a sci-fi / fantasy medium. It succeeds only in making its message blatant, alienating Catholic game-players, and most importantly, in shattering the dramatic illusion (by preventing the player from leaving real life behind and completely immersing him / herself in the fictional world) and in the process surrendering the science-fiction / fantasy genre's most powerful allure.
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