I have often found the theories of cultural anxiety and cultural work developed by John Cawelti and Jane Tompkins (respectively) to be useful ways to look at narratives. Tompkins’s and Cawelti’s desires to understand the cultural relevance of all types of narrative helped formulate my own thoughts about why some texts resonate in cultures while others do not, and their abilities to locate texts – even ones considered to be high canon and thus impervious to cultural ‘taint’ – in their immediate surroundings and to identify the reasons why fiction and narrative are cultural meaning-making exercises enabled me to better understand why some pop culture artifacts sell a lot of copies and others sit in their own subcultures.
Plus, Tompkins introduced me to Hawthorne’s what feels like misogynistic disgust for those ‘scribbling women’ (author Jenny McPhee writing for bookslut has a particularly useful look at Hawthorne’s dickitude in her review of Phillip Gura’s Truth’s Ragged Edge). That in and of itself made the argument worth hearing.
Still, I struggle a bit understanding magical realism from this perspective. In an interview with the creative director for What Remains of Edith Finch we found out that the development team used 100 Years of Solitude as a model for the game (along with Lovecraft’s weird tales stories, rather than his Cthulthu novels), and the connections between magical realism and Kentucky Route Zero are obvious as well, so the genre serves as a base for the games. Thus, better understanding the generic expectations, anxieties, and work that these texts do will help me better understand the games.
Developers use genres for many reasons. Games have their own set of genres – this diagram that accompanies an article on gaming perception and decision provides a very Vennish look at how both genre and examples – and the definitions are not completely stable – in this diagram there is no genre called point-and-click, for instance, and that’s the genre that both KRZ and WROEF belong to.
Nonetheless, using genre as a basis enables developers to utilize generic expectations in order to both better target their audiences and use shortcuts for character development and gameplay mechanics, among other possibilities. As point-and-click narrative-driven games, for instance, players expect a set of mechanics and characters that will be different than games from other genres, as I will discuss more thoroughly in another post. Genres are useful.
They are also helpful in the cultural meaning-making that is happening in texts that inhabit the genre. Cawelti’s identification of the ways that cultural anxieties manifest themselves in popular culture, and how those anxieties are often genre-specific, allows us to think about some of the reasons why certain generic expectations become reified in the ways that they do.
What then are the generic expectations of magical realism that help these games function?
- Anxieties about borders – Kristeva noted the anxiety about our own bodies in late capitalism as exhibited in horror, and magical realism I think speaks to that same kind of anxiety, especially in the period of civil war and revolutions that happened in Latin America and India/Pakistan at the times that Marquez and Rushdie in particular were writing.
- Anxieties about the nature of reality – the ease with which narrators describe what should be fantastical elements in the narratives they are creating demonstrates an anxiety about knowing what is real. This anxiety comes from all different sources, but I’m guessing in particular it’s a reaction to a world in which totalitarian governments and revolutionary movements and corporations – social and economic institutions that were held as foundational in establishing concepts like truth and justice – committed doublespeak without compunction.
The cultural work done by these texts will have to wait for another time.