Everyone Wants that Moral Ambiguity

Alright, this rant has been a longtime coming, and before I even really unpack what I’m talking about, I want to note that my grievance is, by far, not an issue unique to FAB, but rather a pretty pervasive issue in genre fiction. What we’re talking about in this article is how “grey” mortality is presented. But, as you can probably gather from the word “rant” this is definitely going to include some criticism. What do I mean by “morally grey”? We’re all familiar with stories based on a good versus evil framework. It’s a pretty foundational structure for stories and one of the early ones many of us learn as young children via books, films, and other media. There are bad, evil people, and good virtuous people, and, as a child, you root for the good people to triumph over the bad ones (unless you’ve got a Damien Thorn thing going on). However, as we grow older, and our ability to interpret texts improves, we tend to want more nuance in our story telling. That can mean characters who aren’t simply good or evil, but who have more complicated sets of morals. It can also mean characters whose good/bad alignment is not static over the course of a narrative. So, in some respects the post-Game of Thrones media environment’s obsession with morally grey characters is a good thing, because these sorts of characters are often more interesting than those who are generically good or evil. Unfortunately, there’s a catch, it’s kind of hard to do these characters well.

Crawling in my Skin
Alright, let’s talk about Chane, FAB’s sad emo boi. Chane’s story seemingly attempts to engage with a fairly foundational trick of muddying the waters of morality: the person/faction that we, as an audience initially assumed to be good, actually has something dark lurking in its heart. The way these sorts of stories play out tends to be that we are initially introduced to a faction that appears to be good (in this case Solana) and one that that appears to be evil (here, the Demonastery). We start by being introduced to the good faction –Dorinthea comes first and we see Solana through the lore book as the stock “good guys”. Then as the story goes on, we get a reveal that is supposed to make us realize the relationship is actually more complex, and the good faction maybe isn’t so good, and the bad faction actually has some good points.

How does this play out? Chane’s hero page opens with “Deep within the Demonastery, the Disciples of Pain work to unlock the true bounds of human potential; their goal, to free all of Rathe from the oppression of Solana.” I’ll be honest, this sort of approach really bums me out. “Free all of Rathe from the oppression of Solana,” sounds like the basis of a surprise underdog story, but there are a bunch of problems with it. Thus far, the story hasn’t really given us a lot of information that would make us think Solana is bad. Or even that they’re remotely close to controlling “all of Rathe.” Yeah, the masks thing is weird and a little suspicious, but evidence of their sinister underside is kind of thin on the ground at the moment. Also, we’ve seen the insides of both Solana and the Demonastery via a few stories, and Solana seems perfectly nice, while the Demonastery is a non-stop freakshow of depravity. The Demonastary is presented to us via a 3rd person omniscient narrator in most of these pieces of lore too, so it isn’t just that we’re getting a propagandized view of the place by way of Solana. Thus, Solana seems like a perfectly fine place to live if you’re on Rathe -I mean, it’s no Aria, but what is? Meanwhile, Chane’s faction has been pretty strongly sold to us as the bad guys (they call themselves the “Disciples of Pain,” for fucksake). Given what we have to work with, the whole “free all of Rathe” reads less as a revelation of hidden evil and more like some sort of post hoc justification for their actions. In essence, the story wants us to take the Disciples of Pain as having a purpose beyond “story needed some bad guys”.

There are decent odds that Solana has an “all is not what it seems” bit going on because that’s the basic narrative progression if you’re moving beyond “this is the good city for the good people” storytelling. But, we have been given very little actual content to support that. Right now all the Solana characters seems good (in an ethical sense) and mostly boring. The Demonastery ones, by contrast, all seem to be some combination of insane, evil, or delusional. The story seems to be trying to set up a “using dark power to fight an even darker power,” situation but, if that’s really what you want to do, the people pursuing the darker power need to actually be sympathetic people who you believe did this with good intentions. And the Disciples of Pain mostly seem to be either literally insane or else morally bankrupt enough that they’re willing to do anything for power.

This trope is foundational fantasy stuff, and as with most conceits of modern fantasy, it can trace a trail directly to Tolkien, who is still the guy that a ton of people writing fantasy are cribbing from. The thing is, those drawing on Tolkien, often fail to fully unpack why the things that he did worked. Take the Lord of the Rings trilogy –we’ll use the films since they’re pretty faithful, and I imagine more people watched and remember details from those, than read and remember the details of he actual books. In the trilogy, various characters who are “good guys” are either offered the One Ring, or they want to take it. Each time, we’re shown that this tremendously strong, but evil power cannot be used to defeat the greater evil. It can only be destroyed. This works because the people who have these encounters with the ring are sympathetic and we can empathize with their believable motivations. Boromir wants to do good with the One Ring, and his fall comes after he gives into temptation and attempts to take it to wield against the forces of Mordor. His death, particularly as portrayed in the films, is so poignant because he realizes that he lost the way and dies trying to protect the hobbits.

Or, to flip the script while still sticking to popular movies, Black Panther’s Killmonger is a much more interesting Marvel villain than someone like Obadiah Stane because Killmonger has a point (colonialism was a tremendous injustice that still dramatically impacts the world to this day) even if his methods of redress are open to criticism. Meanwhile Stane is just an evil capitalist who wants to do war crimes for profit. A dead giveaway that one of these characters was designed to be morally grey and the other wasn’t is how their deaths are handled. Killmonger gets a sympatric death in the heroes arms; Stane gets exploded by the very arc reactor technology he stole. It’s not particularly subtle. You can do morally grey with heroes or villains, but you need to sell it. The Demonastery and the Disciples of Pain are not selling it. I’m just having a hard time seeing them as actually grey. This is their plan from the Region page:

“Ordinarily left to their own individual courses of study, the residents of the Demonastery have united for the first time in centuries; its various factions, orders and residents have come together to further their shared goals. With the gateway to íArathael open, they seek to harness the creatures and entities which lie beyond, and thereby unleash their forces upon all who gather within the Light.

For the first time, victory is within their reach. In overthrowing Solana, they will finally rid themselves of their greatest enemy, and once again claim their rightful place within the lands of Rathe. Should they succeed, there will be nothing left to stand in their way, and the residents of the Demonastery will at long last be free to pursue their aims unchecked.”

So, does this sound like people who actually have good intentions but have to harness an evil tool for the greater good, or does it read like Cobra Commander-tier megalomania? If they’re just stock bad guys, why are we couching their purposes in this framework of “actually we’re fighting the real evil?” I assume because LSS knows that’s more interesting than just having Saturday morning cartoon bad guys who are evil because they’re evil. The thing is, if you want to do that, we need to be convinced that the villains have some compelling reason to think that their approach is actually for the greater good, and, in this case, we don’t. In a different scenario, maybe you could do a story where they know they’re the bad guys and the whole “save Rathe from Solana” thing is propaganda -that works in the context of a setting where there is some third party you’re trying to persuade or if you’re a country trying to rally/control your own citizens. You can see this sort of approach in the real world right now with how Russia is spinning propaganda around it’s invasion of Ukraine as a protective action instead of the landgrab that it is (aside: my paternal grandparents immigrated to the US from Kyiv; I’m not interested in anyone’s devil’s advocate pro-Russia take). But that’s not the Demonastery’s situation. They aren’t rallying the peasants to fight Solana, nor are they on a PR campaign to try to convince Volcor that actually Solana are the bad guys. So, if they don’t actually have a fair case against Solana, and they aren’t doing this as propaganda, then the only real remaining option that assumes a narrative justification is that they’re just crazy. And that’s bad story telling (a digression on why making your villains mentally ill is bad goes beyond the scope of this article, but it’s usually a bad thing to do.)

Rotten Hearts

So, we whiffed and our villains aren’t really sympatric at all, but what about Solana? Can we do anything with that? I’ll say, “maybe” on that subject. As noted above, we’re kind of off to a bad start. If you’re doing a lurking corruption narrative, you can be subtle, or you can be overt. That is to say, when you’re doing a “hidden evil wearing the shape of good” thing, you can present the audience with subtle hints before the big reveal so that observant audience members can figure it out in advance, and everyone else can look back after the reveal and go “ohhhh.” Or, you can make it overtly clear that there is darkness at the heart of power (to return to Lord of the Rings): You heard Rohan was good, but then when our heroes show up, it’s pretty clear that things are not actually all good. At that point, no one looks at Wormtongue and goes, “oh yeah, this guy is definitely on the up and up. For sure.” Like, it’s immediately clear that he’s the problem. And that’s fine too! It works here because it unambiguously tells you that “OK, the good thing is corrupt,” these stories aren’t interested in the cleaver reveal and the bits of mystery that the more subtle approach offers; instead, they want to center the theme of a good thing tainted by corruption and examine it directly.

The problem is this “dark Solana” bit isn’t taking either approach. Aside from the fact that all the higher ups wear masks, we don’t actually have much in the way of evidence to suggest that city is more than it seems. And, while the masks are admittedly sort of ominous, that doesn’t work as a narrative motif for FAB because a bunch of other factions wear masks (Misteria) and those just exist to look cool. We don’t have any evidence that some of the masked Solana folk are hiding something. In fact, we have evidence to the contrary given characters like Hala Goldenhelm who appear to be on the up and up and are seen with and without masks. Beyond the masks, I’ve got nothing that hints at something insidious going on. Well, nothing aside from the words of the Disciples of Pain, who, as we just established, do not seem at all trustworthy and/or sane are not making a very good case for themselves. Because we don’t have a reliable sign to substantiate that something is up, the disciples cannot reasonably be taken seriously. So we aren’t focused on the theme. 

I get that just having a piece of lore in Solana that showcases some sort of evil secret meeting isn’t necessarily compelling, but there are a lot of ways to confirm that there is something going on we should be on the look out for. Since I’ve been mentioning a bunch of movies anyway, let’s take a moment to watch a video that demonstrates how you can overtly tune your audience into lurking corruption as a theme in an interesting way. I’ve pandered to the masses enough here, so we’re ditching the mainstream films and going with auteur cinema with the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet:

This opening coveys the clear idea that something is going on here. We open with Red, white, and blue. A literal white picket fence, followed by a fire truck with a fire fighter and a Dalmatian. Backed by the music, we’re immediately evoking a particular ideal of the American Dream.  This establishes the initial good, virtuous setting. The montage builds on this with these vibrant fades – flowers, children crossing the road with a crossing guard, the classic home with a car in the driveway and a well-maintained lawn. All of this is building up a mood of idyllic goodness, but then, we cut inside the house, and we see the woman watching TV. A gun comes on screen, which introduces an ominous element into our suburban paradise. Now the hose is leaking, we start to see the imperfections, the cracks beneath the surface. We introduce a musical element of tension. The man falls down, and even while he’s writhing, the shot is juxtaposed with the errant hose spraying a perfect sprinkler pattern, parodying the earlier idealized imagery. We zoom closer and closer into what was, at first glance, a perfect lawn, but now we see that the grass is half dead. Then our music fades into ominous squelching sounds and close-ups of insects – emphasizing that our surface impressions don’t tell us the whole story – Bam – cut to the welcome board.

It’s all done in 2 minutes with no characters talking. We immediately know that this is a real theme we should be paying attention to. That’s how you do the dark underside of something that initially appears pure and good.

Is FAB doing Grey Well Anywhere?

Yes! The big picture stuff we just discussed is falling a bit flat, but at the individual character level, there are some signs of promise. Although most of the villainous characters we’ve seen so far have failed to convincingly present themselves as anything other than clearly evil people, we do have some heroes who are interestingly complicated. We’re obviously going to start with one of my favorite heroes: Kassai. Kassai’s available story is very limited, cobbled together from a couple paragraphs, an errant lore passage that’s somewhat hard to excavate at the moment (if you don’t know you’re looking for it), and a few of the actual cards. And yet, she’s already a far more interesting hero than Dorinthea, who probably has a potential claim on having the most available lore of any hero. Kassai gets a sympathetic start (her family is taken from her), she seeks to get them back and have her revenge (not an unreasonable reaction), and as time goes on, we begin to question if the ends justify the means (see: Blood on Her Hands). Great! There’s a lot you can do with that. Ira has a similar sort of narrative. Family killed, use cursed weapon to fight the evil, begin to lose your humanity in the search for vengeance. These stories are interesting because a believably grey character offers nuance and interesting potential.

Let’s draw out the Dorinthea comparison, since I’m giving her a hard time throughout the Mega Update anyway. Dorinthea, as I’ve observed elsewhere, is kind of a generic “good girl” (calm down, bottoms). She has character flaws, like her brashness (that she’s not really working on), but she is, at her core, trying to do the right thing and her conflicts are mostly physical ones against obviously evil forces. Given the currently available lore, her potential believable evolution is mostly ironing out the traits that inhibit her from being an even better warrior than she already is. Sure, this has some potential for introspection where she really looks at what her actions have cost her fellow soldiers and her mentors (Hala and Minerva). Wrangling with those mistakes could make her a better person and a more competent leader. And, honestly, if LSS accomplished that, her narrative would be fine. There were a pair of important qualifiers up there in “believable” and “currently available lore.” I could see developing her character into something unexpected via the narrative (getting captured by the Demonastery and experimented on, for instance, would probably screw her up a fair bit), but until there is some sort of textual evidence, the directions that she could believably go are somewhat narrow.

Ira, by contrast has a lot more potential. She’s at a precarious spot: she’s alienated her remaining family, is using a weapons that seems to be harming her, and has given herself over to revenge. While there are a lot of way this story could go, the two broad approaches would be for her to descend further into darkness, pushing more people away from her and getting more bloodthirsty until eventually she has become a monster herself. Alternatively, some event could force her to reckon with what she is becoming. She could begin to try to make peace with her past, reunite with her brother and rebuild their relationship. She could use her skills to make things better for other people, as opposed to just satisfying her urges for vengeance. You can also combine those in to a “things get worse before they get better” narrative. But the fact that all of those things are plausible for her makes her a more engaging character because when you approach her narratives you really don’t know where she’ll go as a person.

A Couple Points

Before we round out this piece, I do want to note make a pair of quick notes about some other aspects of “morally grey” characters that I think prompt confusion sometimes. As before, I’ll try to illustrate with some examples from popular fantasy media. Being morally grey does not automatically make a character compelling, and being clearly good or evil does not necessarily make a character boring. If you look at Tywin Lannister as portrayed by Charles Dance in the Game of Thrones TV series, he’s pretty obviously a bad guy. He loved his wife, but he treats his children horribly, generally does a lot of awful things, and his primary concern is consolidating power and ensuring his family’s enduring position as a great house. But, despite that, Tywin is charismatic (in an intimidating way) and intelligent. He is interesting to watch because he isn’t just an overtly evil blowhard. He’s not a caricature of some monologuing evil dude, and if you forget about everything you know about what he’s done, he can be likable -take this scene:

If we just watched this clip in isolation, and that’s all we had to go on, this sort of interaction would probably makes us kind of like him. Maybe we’d think of him as hard and stern, but not an entirely bad guy. These sorts of human interactions add depth to his character, they don’t really make him “grey,” because his actions are still pretty abhorrent, but they help make him into a believable character as opposed to a moustache-twirling caricature.

The other thing I want to call out is that clearly good people who inhabit worlds that require them to do distasteful things are not morally grey people. A lot of people talk about The Witcher’s Geralt of Rivia as a morally grey character, but there’s actually very little textual evidence for it. In this video game incarnation, CD Projekt RED even tried to tap into the love of morally grey heroes with their “The world doesn’t need a hero, it needs a professional” tagline. But Geralt is pretty unambiguously a good person. He just lives in a world that doesn’t reward good people (much like our own, arguably), but he himself almost always does things that protect the downtrodden and the outcasts, which is pretty much heroing 101. Being nihilistic and gloomy doesn’t make him morally grey (though, it does build the aura of sadness that hangs around his character when the series starts and draws our initial interest to him as what he actually is: an anti-hero).

Screw Morality; Give Me Interesting Characters

Maybe this is a little bit of a bait and switch, but at the end of the day, I don’t actually care that much about morally grey characters. I do think that, in the abstract, these sorts of characters can be easier to make interesting. But, as with characters like Tywin, evil or good characters can also be excellent. What I really want to get across here is that simply saying “oh, but what if the clear good guys are also bad” as in the Disciples of Pain example, is not a particularly interesting approach, and stating that a thing has depth and nuance does not make it so. You have to actually sell that point with the story telling. LSS has shown that they can make interesting characters with potential. So, I’d like to see two things from them going forward: For characters that are already interesting, deliver on that potential. That probably means advancing their storylines at a less glacial pace, which is hopefully something that FAB 2.0 will enable with its promise of more focus on the lore. Secondly, if we’re going to have boring characters stick around, take some time to consider what their arcs are and how those can be relayed to the fans. “Morlock Hill” was a missed opportunity to have Dorinthea demonstrate that she learned something from Hala’s death. Next time we revisit one of the early heroes, let’s see some evidence that they’ve grown since out last check in.

*Header Image – Ursur, the Soul Reaper by Federico Musetti

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