Q&A: Changing the Ground Rules

Two questions. 1. Would real-world knowledge of weapons be enough to break immersion for someone when reading a book that basically uses video game weaponry? Because video games are a visual medium, it’s easier to get away with things that don’t necessarily make sense, like the bladed tonfa from Warframe. 2. If one did go about this, would you suggest blending real-world knowledge with fantasy/fantastical aspects, or would a matter-of-fact ‘it is what it is’ kind of policy be better?

Let’s take this apart into a couple different pieces.

Would real-world knowledge of weapons be enough to break immersion for someone when reading a book that basically uses video game weaponry?

Yes.

It’s not even about video games. Writers and filmmakers can screw up a lot of details, and if you’ve background in that field, it will drive you nuts. This isn’t goes way beyond weapons into other things like lawyers, police, doctors, programmers, ect. Really, if you’re in any technical field, you run a real risk of being driven up a wall by technical errors made by writers who don’t know the subject matter.

This can be true with weapons, because they’re very technical pieces of equipment, there’s a lot of information to manage, and you can easily end up with a writer who thinks, “they’re just point and click, right?”

The only way to deal with this is, simply, to do your research to the best of your abilities. There will be errors, but usually minor mistakes are forgivable, if the attempt has been made.

Because video games are a visual medium, it’s easier to get away with things that don’t necessarily make sense, like the bladed tonfa from Warframe.

No. It has nothing to do with the medium. If anything, it’s easier to screw up with weapons in a video game, because you’ve put the player in control of managing the item, and very few games seek to accurately reproduce real weapons.

The common example of this is, simply that many first person shooters use left handed variants of the weapons. Specifically so it will eject shell casings in front of the camera. It can get much more bizarre however.

For a recent example, there’s Generation Zero, which has two different 9mm ammo types. It segregates 9mm into Pistol and SMG. The weapons to pick from are the Glock 17, the MP5, and the Sweedish m/45. The problem is, all of these fire 9x19mm Parabellum. It’s the same bullet. At the same time, it has no qualms about chambering the same 7.62mm round into an H&K G3 (which fires 7.62x51mm), and an AK variant (which fires 7.62x39mm). (And before someone says anything, no, it’s not an AK-308, the game is set in 1989.)

This is a problem that, you’d probably never see in any other media. A writer is unlikely to really dig into the munitions to the point where you’d see that kind of weirdness without doing any in depth research (though, this kind of mistake does happen.) This isn’t a visual media thing, because if you have a game or film, where you only see the characters messing with magazines, the writer simply couldn’t make this kind of a mistake.

Now, I used Generation Zero as an example because the game is set in 1989. The weapon selection reflects that. However Warframe is a different animal.

Set somewhere between eight to twelve thousand years from now. The setting permits the ability to travel between planets in the solar system in minutes, and characters are wall running, cybernetic, murder ninjas. In context, I don’t think the idea that some Tenno use bladed tonfas is that weird.

2. If one did go about this, would you suggest blending real-world knowledge with fantasy/fantastical aspects, or would a matter-of-fact ‘it is what it is’ kind of policy be better?

The important thing is setting the ground rules for your world. If you fail to do so, the assumed rules will match the real world. This can trip you up, when the real world conflicts with yours. Additionally, simply redefining things in ways that are factually incorrect to the real world can be viewed as a mistake on your part.

The closer your world is to the real one, the harder it becomes to tweak things. No one questions Generation Zero’s killer robots wandering the 1980s Swedish Countryside gunning people down, it’s the weird logistical stuff that raises an eyebrow. This is clearly not our world, but the parts that almost sync up are where you’re more likely to step back and say, “wait, this doesn’t make sense.”

With Warframe, the entire world is fantasy. (Technically, science fiction, but for this discussion that’s an academic distinction.) It’s strange, difficult to rationalize, and going in you don’t have a reference for how things, “should,” work. Setting the ground rules becomes easy. So saying, “well, does this make sense?” needs to be balanced against the setting’s lore. (Incidentally, I’m not well versed enough in Warframe to get into lore discussions.)

Genre can also establish rules that you then need to work around. We, “know,” vampires can’t walk out in daylight, because those are “the rules,” until you get into something like The Witcher or, ironically, even, Dracula, where that rule doesn’t apply. Vampires can walk in daylight, they may choose to avoid it if they can, but it won’t kill them. Or will only harm them under specific circumstances. Hold this in contrast to something like Vampire: The Masquerade where catching a sunrise will reduce a Kindred to ash. I bring up vampires because it’s a sub-genre that frequently needs to need to set the ground rules telling the audience what does, and does not work, for this version of vampires.

It is easy when it’s a fictional attachment to the world. It’s harder when it’s bundled into a world that appears to follow the same rules as the one you live in. Staying with the video game theme, a very good example of a fantasy world with it’s own rules layered into a, “modern,” setting is last year’s Disco Elysium. The firearms technology seems to have stalled out around pepperbox pistols, which exist next to ceramic assault armor more advanced than what we have in the real world. It spends a lot of time with world building.

Blending fantasy and reality together is difficult, but doable. First, you need to cue the audience in that this is not, “the real world.” Doing this organically can be challenging. Second, you need to explain that divide enough to maintain the suspension of disbelief. The audience has to believe in you world, more than they care about nitpicking.

Some rules are much harder to break than others. It’s easier to tell a story with fictional weapon than it is to tell a story that breaks the laws of physics, or violates logical structure. The latter needs a good justification.

It’s all about the story you’re trying to tell. If you’re looking at something and trying to make a decision if you want to the real world or throw it out for something fantastical, do some research first, and once you’ve gotten there, decide if you want to twist things.

Nothing ties you to the world that exists, but, you need to know the world you live in, before you decide to depart it.

-Starke

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