Fandom, Fascism, and Frames: An interview with Soren Roberts

Guard-Cruiser

Guard Cruiser by Soren Roberts


There can’t be many (if any) people in the MFZ community who aren’t familiar with the work of Soren Roberts. He’s designed the iconic frames for the game, the inspiration for hundreds of other builds. In the wider Lego community, Soren is well known for the outstanding aesthetic – often minimalist – quality of his builds, a range encompassing spacecraft, landscapes, mecha, robots, and much more. Drawing on a range of influences including real world machinery, industrial design, and science fiction art, he’s built an enviable reputation.

Now living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Soren took the time to have a bit of back and forth on subjects related to Lego, MFZ, and SF fandom. The results are thoughtful, thought provoking, and at times provocative. Enjoy.

So, you’re something of a God-figure in the MFZ community. Given your previous comments on such matters, I bet you just love that, don’t you?

Being internet famous is a lot like not being famous at all. But you still get your leg humped at inopportune times.

So people on the internet are like small, overly friendly dogs who might leave a mess on your trousers? Or perhaps savage your trousers?

Some of them are, but I don’t mean to imply that it’s all bad. I really love it when I get quick little emails telling me that I did something cool, I just hate being the target of fandom, even relatively benign fandom.

Still Testing.

Chub by Soren Roberts


Armored Trooper VOTOMS is a significant influence on the game. The Chub (left), however, has more of a nod to the Balarant ‘Fatty’ than to the iconic Scopedog. Why does the non-obvious appeal to you as a designer?

I’m kind of notorious for liking robot designs that show up for thirty seconds and never get model kits. I especially like the sort of simpler, cheaper, more stripped-down design that kids don’t – I’m a minimalist and the Fatty is a very minimal design. And it met the needs of a game’s default setting much better – it’s more robust and there are a million places to substitute parts or strap on extra hardware.

The deeper reason is that I wanted to base all three of the default designs on ‘antagonist’ mecha. It reinforces the moral ambiguity of the setting.

Now, that’s quite fascinating: the fact that such concepts are inherent even to the physical elements of the game. Could you outline what you see as the in-built moral ambiguity of MFZ?

Combat ends while you still have units on the field – you’re not fighting a war of total annihilation, you’re fighting a battle over an objective. You can have negotiated surrenders.

Then there’s the way the game is scored, which is really the hidden gem that you have to play the game to appreciate. You can show up with whatever (within limits) you want to play with, and the game adjusts so that you’ve got to make the same choices as the other players about how to deploy your resources to win.

In other games, there’s a whole volume of what is basically case law about how to have a fair game where everybody has a good time.

Like any community, with time we start to become more inward looking and self-referential. What’s your best advice for builders and players wanting to break out of the design loop and come up with more original frames?

Look at things that are not Lego. Or robots. Figure out why they are the way they are, and take away as many general principles as you can for later application. Also, try to strip out all the unnecessary shapes in your design, because they can cover up deeper reasons why something is or isn’t working. Proportion isn’t going to win you adoring comments, but good proportions separate good design from bad design.

Ijad Forces and Auxiliaries

Ijad Forces and Auxiliaries by Soren Roberts


So, are there frame design themes that you feel are unexplored in the community?

I would like to see more attempts to design whole companies with aesthetic unity, rather than just applying a color scheme to the right number of units. I also really like modular attachments that can be scaled – carbines that can be expanded to rifles, or jet engines that take extra fuel tanks. The faster I can tell what units on the field have by what they’re holding, the more the game comes together for me.

Chub Flame Unit

Chub Flame Unit by Soren Roberts


Is there a single MFZ frame that you’ve designed that gives you particular satisfaction, aesthetically or technically?

I am really proud of the Chub (right). For the most part they’re quite technically simple designs, nothing new there, but I am proud that all three frames have a cohesive style and feel like artifacts of the same technology.

You’re currently living in Kuala Lumpur. How’s the food out there?

The food is incredible. It occupies the same social niche that drinking does in Scotland 😉 (and there are street food guides, much like pub guides). I need to find a new local mamak shop, actually – we just moved and the old one is out of range. Must have roti telur!

I do tend to feel a bit awkward, though, because I don’t have much Malay and mamak stall owners don’t have much English.

Having been through that ‘being in a foreign land with radically different cultural assumptions, a different language, etc’ myself, I can see the challenges. I’d be interested to hear how, as someone who’s gone from Denver to Kuala Lumpur, how you go about dealing with that and, as something of a subsidiary question, does our modern, technological connected world make that process easier or harder (or has no influence)?

I negotiate it by being willing to laugh at myself, and by trying really hard to have conversations in quiet places. The ambient noise level is much, much higher than at home, not everyone has great English (or clear diction in any language), and I have very sensitive hearing, which makes background noise completely overwhelming. But Malaysians have been very friendly and forgiving, so far, and I try to return the favor.

Vastly easier. Sometimes the only way to find things is to use Google Maps or Google Translate, and even an imperfect machine translation helps a lot in negotiating government and local websites.

Returning for a moment to your comment about the wondrous street food in KL: Building with LEGO; kind of like cooking?

Exactly like cooking. You’re limited to a finite number of part and connection types, but there are enough options that you have plenty of range for creativity.

All my hobbies are very manual, tactile things (because I spend a lot of time gazing at a book or staring into a screen nudging pixels around – I need to interact with my relaxation), so it’s probably not a coincidence that I think that.

You’ve offered some elegantly argued and only occasionally vituperative defences of the MFZ position on fascism and why the game will not be seen to support it. Why is this important to you within the context of a fictional universe?

Symbol of the Spanish Falange movement

The attraction of science fiction is that it lets you play with reality. The downside is that, given an completely open canvas, people tend to paint what they want to be true, or what they’re capable of understanding to be true. If your understanding is poor (the latter option), you’ll build worlds that say more about you than about the real one.

It also tends to attract people whose beliefs don’t find a lot of confirmation in reality (the former) – witness the seemingly endless torrent of conservative paeans to 19th-century realpolitik (or para-fascist tracts disguised as such). Left-wing utopians have produced nearly as much garbage – Ecotopia is a good example. If your ideology doesn’t work in the real world, making up worlds it will work in (or using a fictional context to shove potential problems offscreen) is both attractive and dangerous.

If what you want is to live in a universe of unshakable moral absolutes, where the answers are all there and people exist merely to implement them, you might be a gaping asshole (or pig-ignorant and blindly trusting of people who are gaping assholes, which isn’t any better in the long run), and I/we would rather not take your money.

That’s something I’ve seem as a problem in certain areas of fandom: blindly spouting what are essentially repugnant viewpoints, but hey, it’s ok, because it’s only a game/comic/anime/whatever. How do you combat that kind of thing in the/a community?

You don’t. Oh, you can mock it, you can point out exactly what’s wrong in minute detail, and you can satirize it in excruciating depth, but fandom has been preaching a culture of universal, unlimited acceptance for years – and that only seems like a good idea if you don’t have any friends.

Without hard limits on acceptable conduct, public spaces tend to be dominated by the most obnoxious people with the most time to spend in them, and people who can stand to wallow in obnoxiousness – there’s no practical difference between a crackhouse and Reddit. So we need to blow fandom up and replace it with something that’s humane.

Is this something that fictional worlds – especially in the games design sphere – tend to ignore? Many game universes just seem to be a grab bag of ideas with no sense of coherent growth of structure. Is this somewhere where MFZ has an ‘advantage’ over other, similar games?

Well, people make fictional universes for narrative purposes, so it’s kind of inevitable that they won’t resemble reality – reality doesn’t have an overarching narrative, certainly individual lives don’t, and so fiction is inherently decoupled from our lived experience of the real world.

Fictional worlds don’t inherently need realism – or even verisimilitude – to make for satisfying games. We don’t ask deep moral questions about the structure of feudal societies when we play chess (although maybe we should) because the game is too abstract to ask those questions and get back meaningful answers. But once you start getting more specific than that, some level of worldbuilding is inevitable.

If you spend most of your time describing the tools people use to shoot at each other, it’s not a stretch to assume that the game is mostly about that. If your world has unstoppable baby-eating monster aliens and stupid, blind pacifists… it’s hard not to read that as real-world hardliner paranoia against one real-world group or another.

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3 thoughts on “Fandom, Fascism, and Frames: An interview with Soren Roberts

  1. Pingback: The Vexed Question of Names | Mechatonic: A Mobile Frame Zero Blog

  2. Matthew

    A while back a colleague of mine were discussing what seemed to be a reoccurring rule of war-gaming settings:
    Everybody has to be a dick.

    Because war-games are about wars, if there’s no war, there’s no game. Which means that all the factions probably have to have irreconcilable ideological differences, which usually means that these factions would ultimately have their heads up their asses, which means that they’re basically a bunch of dicks.

    Reply

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