I think role-playing games as they are now are perhaps the ultimate extension of genre fiction with a focus on speculative fiction. I would like to discuss herein what I believe to be subgenre speculative fiction dealing with adolscents in modern day setting. I am defining genre fiction as any presentation of a story where both audience and artists have a preconceived expectation of the details and elements that will occur during the narrative. In an RPG the audience and the artists are one in the same and in order for the story to have a consistent tone and flow all the participants have to be on the same page with regard to sensibilities of the genre. For example, in an Heroic Adventure story arch it is often the trope that the Hero speak or commune with the Evil Overlord before a violent or conclusive confrontation. It is also usually the case that Hero/s are offered the choice of personal safety but moral compromise. These two features respectively increases the dramatic tension between the villain and the hero and they make the characters action less about self preservation and more about up holding an idea. In an RPG setting we often to get the chance to genre bend. Thus when the Evil Overlord, says “JOIN ME OR PERISH” the characters, are just a likely to respond “Is there dental?”. This action is given more weight and is more amusing because of the pre-expectations of the genre. In good genre fiction of course we enjoy the minor bends, and the excellent follow through of tried and true story line. This concept is well explored in the movie Barton Fink, in which Judy Davis’s character explains the necessary components of making a wrestling picture. She explains that you will need a villain, a vulnerable character (either a women or child) and that the writer must meet certain aesthetic qualities as well. In a wrestling movie you must have a large man in tights.
In RPGs I assert that we, for the most part, borrow our genres from other types of narrative art and explore them in our medium. There may be genres endemic to RPGs but that is a topic which I will not explore here. (though it is worth exploring) Instead I want to define what I have recognized as another sub-genre in the world of speculative fiction. This proposed genre would describe movies that deal with the concept of teenage awkwardness and social pain by transcending the adolescent experience through supernatural means. The concept of coupling the rapid physical and emotional changes of youth to the physical aspects of some other narrative is not a new one. However, I believe its manifestations in modern film have reached a point at which both the audience and the filmmaker are conscious of the necessary components of the story. I assert that there is a rigid set of components that make up the supernatural awkward pubescent stories or SAP stories. And while there may be variation between the various narratives, the awareness of the components creates an unspoken contract between the filmmaker and the audience.
The “Boy Who Could Fly” is a film well worth noting. I would suggest that we use this movie as the Linnaean ideal for a genre I believed to be yet unnoted. The fact that this movie is not a great critical or social success also makes it easier to use because it has not been overly defined or extrapolated upon. The “Boy Who Could Fly” tells the story of a young beautiful girl who moves to new town following her father’s suicide. While physically attractive she is unable to adjust to the new environment because she is weighed down by the emotional baggage of her father’s death, her new role as caretaker of her financially struggling mother and spastic little brother (Fred Savage in his greatest role). Note the absence of the complete or at least traditional family.
The main character then takes note of a mute socially inept classmate of hers who lives next door. Initially she makes fun of the boy and is displeased with being paired with him in gym class. This changes when the boy, who appears completely oblivious to the world around him, catches a volleyball that was flung at the protagonist’s head by a vicious popular girl. Note how the negative social climate becomes manifested through physical violence.
Following the formation of this bond the main character has an ambigious but extraordinary experience which occurs with the main character is attempting to pick a rose from a ledge and falls. She is rescued by the awkward boy but only has vague memories of the event. She then begins to believe that he can fly. As her connection to the boy strengthens so does the emotional stress of her new family life, and this is followed by a withdraw from those problems to a more in-depth investigation into the possibility that this kid can fly. During this process she discovers that there is a source to this kids awkwardness, that it relates his supernatural powers, and she also reveals the nature of her fathers death. Note that there is a simultaneous investigation of the history of the supernatural events, and the emotional scars of the characters. The exploration of the supernatural power parallels the exploration of the characters’ own emotional conflicts.
At the climax of the film there is a dramatic exercise of the boy's supernatural ability in response to stressful event. In this case social services or something like that is coming to take the boy away. The boy and the girl fly above everybody, kiss in the clouds and the girl is returned home never to see the boy again. The rest of the characters are then inspired by this transcendence and are able to resolve their problems through natural means. Thus the final two components of the SAP movie are a dramatic display of supernatural ability and the resolution of conflicts through non-supernatural means or at least the complete removal of the supernatural components from the more prominent of life activities. To put it another way, life returns to normal. This what seperates these films from traditional coming of age stories. In these movies the main character is unable or unwilling to hold on to their new found ability, and instead returns to a child-like state. For example the origin story of Peter Parker/Spiderman has all the qualities of a SAP story except for the ending. If Peter Parker had instead chose not to be spiderman, decide that responsiblity of power was too much to bare, and returned to normal teenage life then we would have a SAP story. Alternatively if the attempt to hold on to that power had cost Peter Parker his life, we also would have had a SAP story. The end of the SAP stories I have noted presents the character with options of either returning to a normal teenage existance or death.
The features of SAP story may be arranged differently and presented differently but they are present in all SAP narratives. The genre is not limited to drama spectrum. A SAP may be a comedy such as“Teenwolf” or a horror movie such as “Carrie” or the “Craft”. But whatever form a SAP may take the basic elements are still there. 1) A dysfunctional version or the complete lack of traditional family. 2) The manifestation of the negative social climate through violence. 3) The parallel exploration of the supernatural events and the emotional problems of the main characters. 4) A dramatic release of this power in a stressful situation. 5) The restoration of a normal lifestyle and/or the resolution of conflicts through nonsupernatural means. I think the presence and appeal of this genre was best proved by the movie “Powder”. The fact that any one went to see a movie directed by a child molester (google it), about a blue-eyed albino who innocently fixates on the beauty of his class mates (as explored by long slow shots of kids showering) and who works as a lighting rod is testament to the fact that the audience knew what they were getting into and they liked it.
Despite the many examples of absurdity in the SAP pantheon, I do think the genre can be applied successfully. I would present the movie “Donnie Darko” as a SAP movie that managed to be dramatic, unexpected and thought provoking but still uphold all aspects of the genre. And like good genre fiction “Donnie Darko” bent the genre without breaking it: namely, the dysfunctional family aspect of the film. In the film the titular character forms connections (either directly or through a supernatural plot device) to a large number of people through out his town, and at the end of the film the meaning of those connections is reviewed in montage of images, but the real emotional weight of the film’s climax is felt by the immediate family. Donnie Darko had a strong and supportive family, but what is important to the genre subject matter is that Donnie perceived his family as dysfunctional as demonstrated we he calls his mom a bitch early in the film. If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend it. There is also another film coming to North American theaters this weekend (2/18/2012) called "Chronicle". I have not seen the movie, but I know that is about teenage boys who develop extra-physical powers. I am going to wager based on what I have heard of the film that it fits the SAP model.
So how will the genre translate to role-play? I would say not well, because the genre relies on characters learning their abilities and it places value on a return to normalcy. RPG story lines are generally explored by characters who have full possession of their own functions and abilities even if they are not a level to utilize them. Also and most important the story lines are advancing and serial in nature. One-shot RPG that close out a story and the character tend to be the exception and not the rule for gamers. Typically in RPGs the events of the story line have to be such that they do not preclude the characters' participation in another story line and specific to RPGs is the demand that the power and abilities gained during that story must be carried over to the next story line. Perhaps players in an RPG could be figures in a SAP story without being the main character, but I don’t see how an on-going RPG could take on a SAP story as its principle narrative. The exploration of adolescence and a complete withdraw into fantasy such as that which occurs during RPG game is better explored in something like the Twilight books which are not SAP stories. I haven’t read them, but my wife tells me that hipster kid Bella goes so far down the rabbit hole that she ends up betrothing her half vampire baby to a 20 year old native American were-wolf. There is no restoration to normalcy after that.