The Sense Behind Nonsense

Eric Lis

Dr. Eric Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC sourcebook, Insults & Injuries.

Sometimes there’s a very good explanation for why things fall up, at least narratively.

I spend a lot of words in this space advocating for rational and realistic disease mechanics in games. Reality has its place, but it’s often possible to come up with a perfectly good, story-advancing reason why things don’t work that way. Quite honestly, I’m not terribly bothered by movies or books that use bad science, as much as I am by the fact that bad science is often used as a crutch for bad storytelling, and in my opinion, nothing in the world justifies bad storytelling. It’s impossible to see a hormone or similarly small molecule through an ordinary microscope; if it happens just because the writers can’t think of another way for a character to obtain information, that’s lazy storytelling, but if it happens because they have some pseudomagical piece of equipment that’s designed to make this possible, then I can appreciate that you’ve at least given me a token explanation. Similarly, it doesn’t bother me in the least why some disease or mental disorder work stupidly unrealistically in a game or work of fiction, but I feel that the writer owes it to me (and the art) for there to be a reason for it, and that reason shouldn’t be “I was too lazy to think it through or look up how it really works.”

The Discworld series is a great example of how to do this sort of thing well. I’m a huge fan of the late Sir Terry Pratchett and own a complete set of Discworld novels; no other author has written so many books that I’ve consistently enjoyed. In the Discworld universe, most of the laws of physics are broken in a comedic way, and Pratchett cheerfully played with the rules of nature, keeping them or throwing them away as needed to facilitate his stories. Illness and injury, in particular, work in ways that could make someone’s hair stand on end if they thought to long about it. The thing is, Pratchett was never lazy about it. Every time things work strangely and illogically on the Disc, there’s an internally-consistent explanation: the abundant magic makes things work strangely. Light moves slowly on the Disc, not because Pratchett didn’t know what the speed of light is, but because in characteristic anthropomorphic fashion, the Disc’s light is lazy, and doesn’t see any reason to rush anywhere, especially first thing in the morning. Logical and sensible? Not in the least! But it serves the story, fits with the surrounding universe, and generally makes things cooler for everybody. John Scalzi’s novel Redshirts similarly handles this beautifully by making the question of “why doesn’t this make any sense” an actual important point within the story. Redshirts is, arguably, one long critique of lazy storytelling.

In medieval fantasy, of course, magic can be used to justify pretty much anything. In Pratchett’s case, it isn’t laziness because of the internal consistency; it fits within the world, and the illogic is applied consistently. Medieval fantasy similarly allows another easy excuse for every ridiculous possibility: the gods. Some years ago, there was a Forgotten realms novel where, as best as my rather unreliable memory can recall, a horrific plague caused people to become violently ill and finally transform into an actual pile of snakes. Clearly, this makes no sense whatsoever; there’s no possible way to come up with a reasonable explanation for this given our (always potentially wrong) understanding of the laws of physics and biology. However, in the novels, the plague was never meant to appear to be a natural illness, but was rather the pet project of an evil deity. By virtue of having this explanation, the plague doesn’t somehow become logical, but it does become internally consistent. Gods, by definition, are able to make weird stuff happen… that’s why they’re considered gods. On a narrative level, it works, and the rather silly plague becomes something which, at the very least, serves a storytelling purpose.

Nobody expects games to make sense in every respect. For better or worse, consumers of sci-fi and fantasy have been trained not to expect logic or sense from the laws of the universes in which they immerse themselves, from the sci-fi movies of the 40’s and 50’s when “radiation” could do pretty much anything to the most recent superhero films where characters’ powers can change from moment to moment according to whatever the script needs them to do (or be unable to do) at that moment. It doesn’t take that much work to make things internally consistent, however, and in general, that kind of consistency makes for a richer, more believable universe. And, at least in my opinion, it makes for better stories.