Post-Cringe: Forspoken and the Self-Sabotage of the Smirking Protagonist
If you're on Twitter or frequent gaming forums, you have probably been unable to escape clips of Forspoken (Square-Enix studio Luminous' new open world action RPG) today. Just in case you spend your time better than me, though, here's a small collection of them:
There are many reasons that this has been so polarizing: frustration with a decade of "Whedonesque" Marvel dialog and the adjacent contraction the variety of films released into theaters; the absence of black writers on Forspoken; the public dismissal of Forspoken in contrast with the valorization of other projects that have white instead of black leads but are otherwise very similar in tone and style; the word "isekai" and how you relate to it, generally; the general emotional experience of life under capitalism; et cetera.
There's another reason I think, which is that a lot of people share their strong reactions without elaborating on or unpacking where those feelings come from. And the trade off that comes from performing funny dunks instead of considered critique is that it becomes easy for the person who disagrees with you to assume that you're just trolling. Or, maybe one step better than that, it's asumed they you're arguing in bad faith (when in fact, it's just that ages of being online has made us all feel like sharing our feelings in careful ways is just a waste of time because people are going to ignore what we actually said and cherry pick a way to tear into us anyway).
SO, at risk of discoursing, I'm going to weigh in on why this style of writing tends not to work for me. And let me be clear here: This is not me saying I think it shouldn't work for others. No one makes their own taste, and while it's something I beleive you can and should broaden and nurture, well, we cannot always broaden and nurture it as we please. So, if this hits for you, hell yeah, have fun. But I want to do more than call it cringe and move on. I want to explain why I sink into my seat a little when I watch these clips.
Let's focus on just the third one above, which I'll even re-embed here for ease:
Ok. So, what's happening in this clip, given what I know: The protagonist of Forspoken, Frey, has been transported from New York City to a weird mystical world called Athia that is consumed by a magical rot and ruled by a quartet of mystical, tyranical sorceress-queens, called Tantas. In this moment, she is restrained and confronted by one, who speaks to her in rhyme.
"Shit, alright, if you're gonna rhyme everything, just kill me now," responds Frey, hands in shackles. She isn't just being flippant, she's lampshading the artifice of this situation, calling attention to (and dismissing) the absurdity of a sorceress-queen who speaks in rhyme. People call this type of dialog Whedon-esque a lot, though the Marvel example I think of the most is that bit in the most recent Spider-Man where MCU Peter and his friends laugh at the idea of someone named "Doctor Otto Octavius." Both of these lines—and a great deal of similar smirking, snarking, wink-at-the-camera style comedy—miss for me in the same way: They feel ashamed of the world that the lines are being spoken in.
And I get it. I work in "genre" despite having a lot of high-falutin interests. I know the strange feeling of writing about orcs or robots or death gremlins or rhyming sorceress-queens by day, only to spend my free time consuming stories that are grounded and real and which shake my bones free from one another. And I also know the other half of this, which is that my work in genre spaces gets looked down on. These are not new types of feelings!
But the thing is: When I sign up to go to the mystical world of Athia, ruled by four sorcerous Tantas and cursed by mysterious blight... I'm here for the artifice! I'm on board for ominious rhyming god-queens, and I'm not sure why Frey—for whom this is not artifice, and instead is her life, is not on board for it.
All of which is to say that for me, it's not so much that "the writing is cringe." It's that Frey herself is cringing, and by proxy there is a sense that the writers are doing the same.
And listen, fellow writers: You do not need to take this defensive posture! You do not need to hit your finishing move in the middle of the ring, get the three count, and then look at the camera and say "you know this is fake, right?" You do not need to ensure the audience that you also get that this stuff isn't that serious. This shit we do is ascendent. Be fearless! Stick your chest out! Look at these characters that I thought looked dope enough that I put them at the top of this blog post! Stop no-selling them!
And you know, I haven't played the game, so maybe it does leave room for you to buy into its world and characters eventually. Some reviews have said that the game gets better by the end, after all. But the marketing has been filled with this shrugging posture, long before people started posting clips.
And they didn't have to! As an example of this, and I don't mean this as disrespect to the English voice actors in the clips going around, but like... check out this Japanese language trailer featuring the aforementioned sorceress-queens:
Is it a little over the top? No, it is unapologetically over the top. It's insisting that you pay attention to so much of what originally seemed so appealing about Forspoken, like its bold character design and big, bright magical effects. It makes me wonder just what else this game could have up its sleeves.
But when the protagonist rolls her eyes and laughs at one of these characters like she's faced with the clichés of yet-another-stock-standard-fantasy-world, it makes me doubt that the world does have anything unique to offer, and makes me instead wonder if I was wrong to ever imagine that it did.
I have no problem with laughing at yourself, but this instinct to undercut your own material is a big part of what puts me off about this style of writing (both here and in other extremely popular franchises across games, movies, TV, etc. I may be no-fun, but I'm also consistent). Unfortunately, I think a lot of folks have confused "a funny character" with "a character who doesn't take their own situation, no matter how perilous or interesting it is, seriously."
That's the situation in these clips. In this promo post from 2021, it says that the sorceress that Frey is facing in that cutscene is Prav, "the 'Tanta of Justice' who administered Athia’s judicial system before the Break ... with her uncanny ability to perceive untruths, [but who is now] a callous executioner with a warped sense of justice." But to be frank, if Frey doesn't give a fuck about her, why should I?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not asking for full sincerity all of the time. This isn't quite me giving a directive to writers: "Take your worlds seriously, or else!" A lot of people do like this stuff. So go ahead, get that bag, have fun. But don't be surprised if the next time you do want your audience to care about a world you've painstakingly crafted or a character you've poured your heart into, they aren't sure whether nor not to take you seriously.