Worldbuilding

Six Illogical Genre Aesthetics

Beyond the plot-critical elements of worldbuilding, there lies aesthetics. Aesthetic options don’t have as big an impact on the narrative, but they are still important for establishing atmosphere. Middle-earth wouldn’t be the same without primal forests and endless grasslands, and Star Wars is well known as the galaxy where everyone wears robes. Often, aesthetics help define a genre or subgenre, like cyberpunk’s neon and chrome, or high fantasy’s chainmail and horses.

That’s all well and good, but not all aesthetic choices are created equal. In fact, some of them will actively hurt a story, as audiences stop to ask why on Earth* characters would wear something so impractical or use such an illogical weapon. Unless you’re writing a humorous parody, such questions will make it more difficult for audiences to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the story. That’s why you should avoid these illogical aesthetics whenever possible.

1. Helmetless Heroes

The dwarves from the hobbit.

Quick, can you tell who the heroes are in the image above? I bet it didn’t take you long, and your first clue was probably that they aren’t wearing any helmets. This aesthetic is especially common in visual mediums, and it’s used for two purposes. The first is simply to help distinguish the main characters. When you have hundreds or thousands of armored combatants slugging it out, seeing the important people’s faces makes it easier to know where they are.

The second reason is to single out the main heroes and villains as people for the audience to care about, while their comrades remain faceless cannon fodder. That way, the audience can enjoy the epic battle without any pesky remorse about the vast loss of life on both sides. As long as the people with faces are okay, everything is fine.

It is this aesthetic’s very utility that makes it stand out as a problem. The audience’s attention is deliberately drawn to the main characters’ lack of helmets. This makes one wonder: why aren’t the characters protecting their heads? Everyone else in the battle seems to be doing it. Have the characters struck some kind of gentleman’s agreement not to take headshots? This problem only gets worse if a story is at all dark or realistic. Audiences can’t be expected to care about the horrors of war if the characters don’t even care enough to cover their fragile skulls.

Using helmets to decide who counts as human can also backfire spectacularly. It’s a superficial distinction, and the audience may resent the arbitrary elevation of some lives over others. This is especially likely in stories where the heroes agonize over killing the helmet-less villain after cutting through scores of the villain’s soldiers without a thought.

2. Cyberpunk Katanas

Rei with a Katana from Altered Carbon.

Cyberpunk stories are home to highly advanced technology, so fight scenes can get pretty intense. Characters wield seeker missiles, rail rifles, plasma arcs, and… katanas? Wait what?

That’s right. Alongside futuristic firearms and advanced automatons, cyberpunk stories are full to the gills with katanas. Sometimes, these curved swords are accompanied by shurikens and other ninja-themed weapons. I can’t say for sure why this is, but my theory is that the cyberpunk katana obsession can be traced back to William Gibson’s Neuromancer. That novel was foundational to the cyberpunk genre, and it featured a badass ninja named Hideo. Hideo didn’t actually use a katana,* but he did set precedent for old-timey Japanese weaponry in cyberpunk settings, and from there America’s general obsession with katanas probably did the rest.

Regardless of where this aesthetic came from, it’s complete nonsense. There’s a reason people stopped using swords to kill each other; guns are simply more effective weapons. Guns can penetrate armor a sword would bounce off, and they cause brutal damage on impact. Plus there’s the minor advantage of being able to kill someone who’s not standing within arms reach.

Characters who bring swords to gun fights inevitably look ridiculous. No matter how fast or agile they are, there’s always some moment when a gun-wielding enemy could have shot them but doesn’t, because the story must go on!

Most storytellers would recognize this as ridiculous if the sword in question were a gladius or a jian, but for some reason katanas are granted a pass. There’s no logical reason for this. Katanas aren’t magic; they have the same limitations as other swords, and they have no place in a high-tech gun fight.

3. Exposed Command Centers

The super star destroyer with its bridge on fire.

Science fiction, especially space opera, is full of spaceships where the bridge is situated right on the outer hull or sometimes elevated on a tower overlooking the rest of the ship. This design has its roots in oceangoing warships: for centuries, a ship’s bridge or command deck was placed as high as possible to give officers the best view of their ship and surroundings. Sounds logical enough, right?

Surprising no one, space isn’t the same as the sea. In most settings, space battles will take place at such long distances that the officers’ field of vision won’t matter. Plus, spaceships move in three dimensions. No matter where the bridge is placed, it’ll only be able to see half the ship at most. Anything approaching from the ship’s underside* would be completely hidden.

A ship’s command center should be as deep within the vessel as possible to protect it from enemy fire. Otherwise, even a tiny fighter can easily destroy a massive capital ship by crashing into the bridge. Visibility isn’t an issue, since most space combat will be conducted over long-range sensors. Even in settings where battles take place within spitting distance, the officers can use cameras to see what’s going on outside.

Some settings understand that looking out the window isn’t very important in space, and yet the bridge is still completely exposed at the top of the ship. Star Trek is particularly guilty of this. The Enterprise’s viewscreen is a large monitor that displays information from a vast array of sensors, and yet the bridge is still only one bulkhead away from the cold vacuum of space.

4. Unwieldy Laser Guns

Picard holding a type one phaser.

We’ve had a lot of time to refine the ergonomic design of firearms. The earliest guns were just metal tubes, but we figured out pretty quickly that weapons work a lot better when they’re easy to hold onto. Unfortunately, science fiction doesn’t always make the same realization.

One common problem is futuristic weapons that are simply too small to hold. This is sometimes played as a joke, like Men in Black did with the Noisy Cricket, but all too often it’s completely serious. Babylon Five’s PPGs are so small, the actors struggle to get a solid grip. That’s a real problem for any weapon with recoil. Star Trek’s type one phasers have no recoil, but they’re even smaller. They have to be gripped between thumb and forefinger, making them almost impossible to hold onto.

Size is only one way scifi weapons can look ridiculous. Not to pick on Star Trek, but the fire button on most phasers is completely exposed on the top of the weapon. If a phaser is ever dropped or banged against something, it could easily go off. Modern firearms almost always have a trigger guard to prevent that from happening, but it seems that simple safety precaution is lost technology in the Federation.

Scifi weapons often end up impractical or unwieldy out of attempts to make them look more futuristic. Authors and prop designers don’t want their weapons to look like they came off a modern battlefield, so they add flourishes. The problem is that there are only so many practical ways for human hands to hold a weapon, and we’ve already figured out most of them.

5. Sexy Costumes

Xena and Hercules together.

From an open poet shirt to a chainmail bikini, sexy costumes are a mainstay of fantasy. We see them in campy stories like Xena and Hercules, as well as darker, more serious entries like 300 and A Crown for Cold Silver. These costumes have one goal: to make characters more attractive to the audience, either as wish fulfillment fantasy or objects of desire.

There’s an important conversation to be had about the different gender dynamics at play with sexy male costumes vs sexy female costumes, but for today we’ll stick with the practical implications. That is, these costumes aren’t practical. At all. They’re so impractical that they’ll drive audiences right out of the story.

First, there’s the obvious issue of protection. Most fantasy characters will get into a sword fight at some point, and they won’t want armor that has big holes in it over all their sexy parts. While it’s true that historical armor isn’t always head to toe, gaps were usually due to cost rather than a need to look good. Armor was expensive, and armies could save money only by protecting the most vital areas like the head and chest. This rules out old favorites like cleavage armor, midriff armor, and Conan’s bare chest. When historical soldiers did give up limb protection, they almost always carried a shield to compensate, so any bare-legged Amazons had better have an aspis to catch arrows.

Beyond combat, fantasy settings are just a bad place to be showing a lot of skin. Try walking across a wooded area with just a bathing suit on and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll be scratched and scraped up in no time. From there, fantasy characters also need to consider sunburn, cold, biting insects, poisonous plants, the list goes on. It’s not likely such characters would dress like they were on the cover of a fashion magazine.

6. Apocalypse Chic

A toilet from Fallout 4.

How can you tell a setting is post apocalyptic? Easy, it has ruined remnants of the old world scattered all over the place. Scavengers pick over decaying buildings for scrap, while raiders cobble their war wagons together from any parts they can find. A certain amount of this aesthetic is fine; it’s reasonable that new societies would make use of what came before. But after a point, it starts to get absurd.

Many post-apocalyptic stories take place long after the the world-ending event, and yet everything looks like the apocalypse only happened yesterday. The Fallout video games are by far the worst offenders in this regard. People live in houses that are still full of debris from when the bombs fell. Everything is covered in dust and dirt. Entire rooms are taken up by broken, non-functioning toilets and bathtubs.

Does no one ever clean up in the Fallout universe? Remember, most of these towns have been established for years, if not decades. At the very least, the townsfolk would have taken out useless plumbing fixtures, if only so they could have more usable space.

Storytellers use this aesthetic because they want to have their post-apocalyptic cake and eat it too. They want to show all the ruins and devastation that come when the world ends, but they also want to set their stories far enough after the apocalypse that new societies and social structures can evolve. This can work, but storytellers have to think about what elements from the old world would really be preserved and what would be discarded. It’s reasonable that people would preserve vital technology, patching and repairing it over the years. But they’d throw out non-functioning toilets.


Aesthetics help set a story’s atmosphere and mood; they ground the audience in the setting and build immersion. But if the aesthetics don’t make sense, they’ll have the opposite effect: throwing audiences out of the story and destroying their suspension of disbelief.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Paul

    All excellent points. I especially like the “no helmets” and “exposed command centers,” both of which suggest a severe lack of studying battles and military tactics. You also wrote: “why on Earth* characters would wear something so impractical…”

    Yet you did not mention neckties!

    • Deana

      There is a theory (mostly bogus) that neckties evolved from protection meant to do one of two things: a) prevent contamination from bad humors (aka the Plague), or b) prevent your enemy from garroting you.

  2. Cay Reet

    Most armour was build to protect the most important body parts: helmets to protect head and brain, chest plates to protect heart, lung, and other internal organs. Humans found out pretty quickly that you can, with a bit of luck, survive even the loss of a limb, but once that stuff inside your main body is injured, life doesn’t last for a long time. Next parts were usually shin and arm guards to help with the fighting, so a fighter could also block with their arm and the slash for the legs to bring an enemy down would fail. From there, we get to full body armour and completely covered limbs, which brings us to chainmail and plate armour from the middle ages. Chainmail was a good thing to have underneath the armour, because it protected all parts it covered as well, but didn’t need gaps to provide a way to move (something essential on the battlefield). On the down side, chainmail was heavy, but the same goes for other armour.

    For the same reasons, military today still wears bullet-proof vests and helmets (well, military, police, and other people who are around bullets a lot).

    • SunlessNick

      This video is a good corrective about mobility in mediaeval armour – the good stuff kicks in around 0.50.

      (On the other hand, stealth is out of the question)

  3. Tiberia

    Good article. Alot of these examples are definitely really silly, and some have even stifled diversity of story telling. I do have some counterpoints tho. Most of them are “yeah, but… its so coool”

    1. But helmets are laaame. Trying to make helmets cool is like having a hip tax accountant; Not impossible, but you’re going to have to go that extra mile to do it. make it really distinctive, and not just bedazzled. Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, The Witch King of Angmar all spring to mind as cool helmets. They are also all villains. Ok, let me think of good guy helmet dudes. Dark souls has examples. that’s all I can think of. Destiny has some cool helmets you can wear, particularly the Warlock legendaries.

    This doesn’t fly in more realistic settings, as you said. Jon Snow where is your helmet, you beautiful fool.

    2. But Katanas, and swords in general are coool. Come on, let the love into your heart. And houserule Shadowrun so that attacking with melee is a simple not a complex action.
    And find a way to make the gladius cool too. Like, have a big guy with a ballistic shield and cyber-gladius, and he’s like a gladiator.
    I would also argue that the Jian is cool enough as is to get a pass. Get some Wuxia in there.
    Doesn’t work if you want to feel realistic, which is not the same as serious. Your gritty realistic cyberpunk story can just be a pointless action adventure, and your cyberpunk story filled with pseudo-telpathic intelligent dolphins, monofilament thumb wire ninjas, Women with razor blade nails, space Rastafarians, and a ninja with a bow can have a great deal to say about the direction modern society is headed in.

    Those are the two main “but its coool” points.
    I think “rule of cool” can be a very valid reason at times, you just have to use it with purpose. The lack of helmets really shouldn’t be a thing in Game of thrones for example, and swords shouldn’t be around if your cyberpunk is about operators operating on an operation operationally.
    Shadowrun provides a great example of how both these tropes should be applied.

    Mirror shades Shadowrun- everyone should have a helmet, and no-one should have a sword. the goal is to never even fight. Armor: something under your clothes, or some mil-spec stuff if you don;t expect to be seen. Nothing to slow you down. You don’t have a super fancy gun, because you’re going to melt your gun down after every mission. that shit is evidence. Your not going to be 99% machine, that makes you stand out like a radioactive thumb.

    Pink Mohawk Shadowrun- Fuck helmets. Imma wear some dope shades. And check out my sword, it’s diamond edged! Body armor? Of course. I have a kevlar infused badass coat! With climate control! Check out my guns! they have ! My essence level? let me do some quick math. It’s uhh, 0.01 (<– True story). What do you mean I'm supposed to be a cold, monotone automoton at this point?

    I'll comment on the rest in another post

    • Julia

      It’s not just that Jon Snow needs a helmet for battle, but all the Knights of the Watch are standing on that huge ice wall, facing the northern wind. I want to yell at the TV, “Jon Snow, where is your HAT? You’re going to get frostbite on your ears.” I’m channelling my mother, here.

      • SunlessNick

        Good point. That hair is too lustrous to offer much protection.

  4. Tiberia

    3. One of my favorite things about Halo, is that the covenent put there command centers in the center of their ships. When I first played Halo, and saw that, it was like a light going on in my brain. Revelation!
    Star Trek has taken this to an extra level of dumb. with them using sensors BUT still having their bridge just out in the open. And star Trek carries itself in such a way that it isn’t “rule of cool”. it’s just kind of dumb.

    4. not much to say here. Star trek managed to avoid this with their phaser rifles, but dived headfirst with their handphasers. In their defense I think they really wanted to avoid having too military of a look for a ship of exploration, science, and peace.

    5. I want o defend this, but can’t. it works in some places (sisters of battle. SO cheesy, but in that endearing over the top way), but for the most part, well designed armor just looks better. It just does. Even if you’re focus is to make the wearer look more attractive for whatever reason, good armor just looks better. you can design practical armor to accentuate the features you want. Polish it up like a mirror, and flourishes and decoration. Have big wide tassets to accentuate the hips. You can do it! I believe in you!
    Exposed sternums are bad, Mammary plate is just as bad.
    (Sisters of Battle get a pass. WH40K is a heavy metal album cover)

    6. I had never thought about this before, and now its going to bother me.
    It got me thinking; How cool would it be to have post apocalypse, where nature has already begun, or nearly completely taken back what civilization pushed back. Verdant forests and grasslands where cities and suburbs once were. How cool would it be to have a forest full of collapsing suburban homes. Civilizaton rebuilding itself among ruins, and renewed nature. building new stuff alongside using old stuff. Think of all the anachronisms you could use. a mix of medieval and modern technology.
    Sadly we won’t get this soon because the apocalypse chic is too entrenched

    • Richard

      “How cool would it be to have post apocalypse, where nature has already begun, or nearly completely taken back what civilization pushed back.”

      See, for example, “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman and the documentary series “Life After People”.

      • Cay Reet

        And to see how quick that goes, you can look up a place like Centralia, Pennsylvania (a town which has been mostly deserted now for 50 years, because a coal mine is burning underneath). Also, check the problems excavation teams have in the Middle American jungles – nature quickly takes back what it can.

    • Yora

      Bridges in Halo are totally exposed. They have these big windows and are located on the very front of the ship.

      An example of a world where the ruins have been almost entirely grown over would be Horizon, perhaps the most praised game of last year. Though by the time underground bases are covered in huge stalactites there shouldn’t be anything left of ruined apartment buildings. But still, it’s a world that has fully moved on from the past.

      • Halo

        The covenant one’s are in the center of the ship, the UNSC one’s are exposed, which the books explain that it is a poor design, but they still use it because of tradition.

    • guy

      “How cool would it be to have post apocalypse, where nature has already begun, or nearly completely taken back what civilization pushed back”

      BotW gave me that feeling.

  5. Bronze Dog

    Remember a moment in my round-robin Star Wars game, shortly after I took over as GM. My character had been crafting some armor for the group’s Mandolorian. They get ready to set out for a bit of combat at Centerpoint station. “Oh, I’m still working on the rest of the suit, but I figure you could go ahead and use this, to protect your head and your identity.” (hands over the helmet.)

    I could hear the player mentally squeeing. “Can I go ahead and change my Roll20 portrait?”
    “…Sure.”
    He had an image right on hand.

    Helmets can be very cool (especially Mando ones). I try to put a good bit of thought into how my characters dress and why. Right now, Tresk has a couple sets of public clothes when he works as the group’s face, or when he’s relaxing, thick engineer’s coveralls for the workshop, and an armored flight suit for combat and piloting (with a helmet, of course). Despite being a daredevil swoop racer, he’s still safety conscious and doesn’t get why so many speeders have open cockpits. (Besides, don’t they know how much drag a being’s head produces?)

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, instead of losing the helmet, give every hero an easily recognizable helmet (nobody said all helmets in an army need to look the same) and show them putting it on – instant recognizability and still cool protection.

  6. Julia

    Star Trek losing old tech reminds me of the time I was playing a Star Trek RPG, and the bridge was hit. The GM described the typical sparks coming out of the consoles, shocking and hurting people like they had on just about every episode of the show. Afterwards the person playing the captain demanded we install these 20th Century things called “circuit breakers” on all onboard electronics. We all played up our amazement at his innovation.

  7. Tyson Adams

    Another point about swords is that there are loads of different swords and most of them are better than a katana. It is amazing how popular the katana is given how terrible they are.

    If people desperately want to incorporate a sword it would be nice if they at least spent a bit of time picking the one that is the best fit for use.

    • Tiberia

      Often the mission of the day is to be cool.

    • SunlessNick

      For cyberpunk, I don’t think it’s katanas specifically as much as the genre having a hefty dose of general Japanophilia.

    • Yora

      Terrible at what? Terrible how?

      Pretty much everyone with some actual knowledge of swords I’ve seen talk about them claimed they are no better or worse than any other common type of sword.

      • Cay Reet

        Katana blades were made from folded metal, because the steel was a low quality and needed the folding for strengthening. From a technical point of view, they’re weaker than other kinds of swords.

      • Tyson Adams

        Yora, aside from them being made out of terrible steel as already mentioned (seriously, check the videos of them breaking whilst test cutting because someone swung them too hard or timed the blow wrong), the issue is that they are made for cutting but require a double hand grip like a much bigger or double-edged sword. They were made to take on wooden armor, so they are pitched between other types of swords, whilst having the inferior materials that necessitated a design that better weapons could avoid.

  8. Tony

    I’d say Nausicaä pulled off a post-apocalyptic world pretty well, since human society had restructured a good deal.

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