Names are strange things, words that define a person, an object or even a more ephemeral concept such as a country or a philosophy. In certain kinds of lore there was the belief that if the true name of a thing was known, then the person who held that knowledge was able to exert control over the named in one form or another. Even today we still buy into this strange cult of naming, with designer labels being afforded status and the utterings of famous names individuals quoted as the kernels of wisdom by which to live our lives.
As a writer the currency of names is always apparent, be it J K Rowling putting out an underwhelming novel after calling time on Harry Potter and it being the subject of attention more on account of the morbid interest in what she did next than anything else, or Robert Jordan turning what had been a promising tome in the shape of “The Eye of the World” into a series that became more boring and turgid with every sucessive title and yet somehow ground on because the first one was not bad and people deluded themselves into wanting to see what happened next (which in the case of most of the Wheel of Time books was less than nothing).
But what struck me most recently was the way in which past glories are used to sell whatever a person has been working on or associated themselves with in the here and now. At the weekend I chanced a few quid on a cheap copy of the PS3 RPG “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” based upon the fact that a friend had played it and not slated the game and I was looking for something to phase in as I got towards the end of “Dragon’s Dogma”. I was informed – and seldom allowed to forget – that the game had involved the artistic talents of Tod McFarlane, story and setting input by R A Salvatore and been produced by Ken Rolston (apparently responsible for work on Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – which didn’t interest me much as I thought that game was crap).
Now there have been times when I didn’t know the names of those involved with a creative project and looking them up have been nicely surprised to find that it was good work by someone whom I already thought highly of. This has happened most often, for example, with Anime when finding that Yoko Kanno was behind a soundtrack that was simply amazing. Though the opposite is most often true when the names and their previous associations are seemingly given more prominance than the product in question.
The long and short of it is that KOA:R is a disappointing game, but more importantly the input by Salvatore is both unoriginal and nothing short of boring. This from the creator of Drizzt Do Urden, arguably the only character from a D&D novel ever to come close to transcending the limits of the RPG and become compelling to those not concerned with playing it.
For me it seems obvious that what has happened here is more to do with the fact that Salvatore came to the fame that he now enjoys while working in genre fiction than striking out on his own. One advantage of genre work is that you have a complete universe already established into which you can drop characters, so the time that would have been devoted to world-building is instead lavished upon the protagonists. Rather than creating another clone of the flat characters from stuff like the Dragonlance novels, here we had an outcast who came from a twisted society and could never fit in, drama and pathos earned almost instantly. An anti-hero for D&D was instantly far more iconic and credible than some peasant berk who just happened to have tripped over a magic sword or been born the chosen one. So far so good, the books kick against the goody-goody perception of heroes in the D&D universe, they become bestsellers – but what then?
When we move onto a new project, the backdrop of D&D has to be dropped and the writer is suddenly burdened with all that background work of creating the world in which his new masterpiece will take place. Now this is where the crunch comes (and to be clear, I’m not saying that Salvatore isn’t a talented writer, just that KOA:R doesn’t show up that quality in his post-D&D work) and instead of a fresh setting, you get a world that feels a great deal like the one we just left behind, only without the excuse that it’s someone else’s creation and you’re just being paid to fix the leaky roof.
I think there’s an element of this in Dan Abnett’s work away from GW as well, while he kicks back the stereotype of the Black Library focusing on typically limited 40K characters and subjects, he has an entire backdrop of the decades it has taken to populate the same setting with material. In such circumstances it allows a talented writer to invent a complex protagonist the likes of Ibrahim Gaunt, Gregor Eisenhorn or Gideon Ravenor and set them on that stage, presenting a great narrative along the way. But then you read some of his stuff written away from the GW universe and that same spark is gone somehow, replaced by a resort to abrasive characters and violence.
The lesson for me is that a name being bandied around in relation to a new product should be approached with great caution, and that sometimes a writer can shine brightest when they are surrounded by dull settings.
But just for the record: R A Salvatore and Dan Abnett, I still love you dearly.