On a recent Experimental Creative Writing stream, I and chat started to discuss things like natural and supernatural entities, specifically, in the context of “how do we approach this character?” Speculative fiction is at once a baffling and wondrous genre, and I feel that there is room for a bit of a semantic exploration, specifically referring to natural, supernatural, and what I dubbed extranatural states. What these terms refer to are entirely contextual, and what might be extranature in one setting may be supernature in another. This article will engage with speculative fiction video games to give context and lend greater understanding to what I believe the term “extranatural” means. What follows is a journey down a rabbit-hole of thinking and may or may not lead anywhere.
To start, we need to define what speculative fiction is. Speculative fiction is a term used to broadly encompass narrative that draws from imagination and speculation, rather than reality and everyday life. Speculative fiction encompasses genres science fiction, fantasy, horror, utopia/dystopia, and more. If a narrative features angels, demons, faster-than-light travel, pyrokinesis, or ghosts, it is likely speculative fiction.
The definition of a natural origin seems pretty cut and dried. The natural consisted of things that followed the laws of nature as denoted by Earth scientists: physics, biology, chemistry, etc., or those that are not so clearly quantifiable: sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc. Anything that can be studied and at least nominally understood by that setting’s grasp of science is natural.
The best way to explain how baselines can differ from setting to setting is to use a specific genre: science fiction. Science fiction series can be compared to one another in terms of hardness or softness. These terms do not have a set scale for judgement, but will give one a sense of just how far the science is being stretched. If the science is sound, and it could happen tomorrow, then it is hard. On the far other end of the spectrum, soft science fiction deals more with humanity and more social sciences, less with the rigidity of realistic details. Softer science fiction will have faster-than-light travel, lasers that can be seen without particles to scatter the light, and/or when engines fail, the ship slows to a stop instead of following the laws of inertia. Even as certain stories will stretch further and further away from real science, there is always a baseline established and accepted. These are the settings’ natural laws and boundaries to which more fantastical elements can be compared. These baselines are what define “natural.”
In Technobabylon, an important scene finds Dr. Charles Regis facing off against a bio-terrorist in a subway car. This bio-terrorist is not carrying handfuls of ricin or aerosolized Black Plague. Instead, the young man has been biologically engineered from birth, and his body develops and deposits explosive material in his bones rather than calcium. The process is clearly defined by characters with intimate knowledge of the science behind it. Though not naturally occurring by any means, the idea of explosive bones is considered a act confined by nature, as it adheres to Technobabylon‘s scientific baseline.
Supernatural, when broken down into its component parts, is defined by Google as: “(of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.” Specifically, scientific understanding as far as our human baseline is concerned. Arthur C. Clark states in his Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Depending on the advancement of technology in the story, “natural” could come to encompass technology that, to the real world outside of the narrative, would appear magical.
Though inexplicable by the setting’s immediate state and much like nature, supernature is bound by rules or limitations. In Dishonored, Corvo Attano is branded with the Outsider’s Mark, which gives him access to certain supernatural abilities: possession, teleportation, summoning a swarm of deadly rats, and so forth. These abilities themselves must be purchased over time by trading in runes. Using these abilities costs a resource, and when that resource is gone, the abilities can no longer be used until that resource is regenerated. This is logic found in many video games in order to give the player a sense of growth and progression, and it keeps the main character from being able to immediately step into the main antagonist’s home office and immediately slay him.
Another example comes from Fatal Frame. The main character, Miku Hinasaki, is able to utilize an item called the Camera Obscura, a device that is able to not only view spectral entities but also damage and disperse them, an example of a supernatural device being able to exorcise supernatural beings. These ghosts, either those that lash out in confusion or those that actively conspire to kill Miku, are unable to act outside of certain rules. They can disappear and reappear or even duplicate themselves, but they must maintain a presence nearby and cannot simply slay her. They also cannot simply release themselves from their torment. Their source is also explained, they are born from the deceased of the Himuro Mansion, whether they perished in the initial cataclysm or afterwards, slain by the mansion’s dark energy or existing spirits. While the processes by which ghosts are created, attack, and are dispersed is not explained within the context of the game, they are bound by certain expectations.
Both examples show supernatural aspects of narrative that are explained, though not scientifically, within the confines of a limiting structure. It is possible that scientific inquiry could one day explain how these elements work, as they are repeatable and could conceivably be tested by the scientific method.
Extranatural was a term used to describe something that was completely inexplicable by the standard of that universe. It is important to consider the roots of the word “extra” come from medieval Latin to mean “outside; beyond” or “beyond the scope of.” Thanks again, Google. Essentially, extranature is something that is not bound by scientific rules and limitations. While supernatural can circumvent understood laws, it is still restricted in some way by the universe it exists within. Extranatural has no such limitations and, as a literary storytelling device, is prone to serious pitfalls.
Alan Wake features a prime example of extranature that is at once accessible but remains unexplained. The true extranatural elements of Alan Wake lie within Lake Cauldron. Deep underneath the lake lies the Dark Place, a surreal prison where creative works are made reality. It is here the Dark Presence both calls home and prison. While the Dark Presence, the main antagonist of the game, has sentience and a malicious agenda, the Dark Place has neither and will act and react to Alan’s creativity whether he is possessed of the Presence’s will or not. It has been inferred that the Presence of Light, Dark’s opposing force, was created from the Dark Place in the form of Thomas Zane, a poet and one of the Dark Presence’s victims. Though held under the waters of the lake and sometimes, movement and interaction reflects this (e.g., Zane’s diving suit giving off bubbles and floating), it is conceivably far larger than the geology suggests. Where or what the Dark Place is, who created it, where it came from, all are mysteries unanswered over the course of both Alan Wake and Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. How it ignores the physics of reality and yet persists to be a physical location is baffling. While the Dark Presence would be considered supernatural, due to its limitations and abilities, the Dark Place itself is quite extranatural. As mentioned before, it is also completely neutral, acting only as its inhabitants utilize their creativity, deflecting the desire of the player to attempt to destroy it as an antagonist.
In The Cat Lady, Susan Ashworth decides to end her life and swallows thirty-four prescription sleeping pills. Blackness fades away and she comes face to face with a being who calls herself the Queen of Maggots. The Queen bestows immortality upon her and bids that she rid the world of five violent psychopaths she calls “parasites.” There is some ambiguity surrounding how Susan leaves reality and enters this perceived limbo, but as the game plays out, it becomes increasingly clear that The Cat Lady is playing its premise pretty straight. The game makes little effort to explore the Queen of Maggot’s existence beyond cryptic dialogue: “I am Doom, but I’m Salvation, too.” The Queen of Maggots sponsors Susan’s newfound immortality, regardless of player’s choice to accept or spurn. In one example, Susan is blinded by bleach and shoots herself, only to awaken with no sign of previous injury. This gives her the freedom to wreak revenge on one of the Queen’s “parasites.” While the Queen of Maggots can be denied, the storyline plays out much the same, surrounding the player with a further sense of futility and inevitability.
So what makes the Queen of Maggots extranatural rather than supernatural? It is entirely possible that characters within the world of The Cat Lady could explain Susan’s encounter with the Queen or discern the method by which her immortality affects her body. The enigma of the Queen of Maggots, however, would be impossible to fully explore due to the many circumstances that must align in order to simply gain access to her and her realm. That distance sets her far outside the known natural laws, in an inaccessible space.
A further example of extranature in other media would be the conditions surrounding the character of Kara Thrace (Starbuck) in the 2004-2009 Battlestar Galactica reimagining.
What is the difference between Supernature and Extranature?
If natural is what has been explained, then supernatural is nature that hasn’t been explained yet, and extranature is something that can never be explained. Both nature and supernature are bound by limitations and rules, whereas extranature supersedes those.
I argue that nature and supernature are extensions of the same path set in a quantifiable universe, and the limit to what is considered supernatural is defined only by how far science has advanced. Extranature, however, is a path that runs separate from, but parallel to, the scientific baseline. It is outside or beyond the scope of the scientific baselines with which we operate. When some element completely rebuffs all attempts to define or quantify it, it could be considered extranatural. With the limitless imagination found in the creator’s mind, it stands to reason that we can create something even the artist considers inexplicable or unbound by the laws of what is and could be.
Implications of Extranature in Narrative
It is worth noting that what the writer considers extranatural within the context of the story and what the reader is willing to accept as extranatural can be very different things. It is difficult for a player to accept that there may be something in a video game that they are unable to comprehend and/or defeat, depending on the context.
To utilize the extranature is the writer’s acceptance that the lack of explanation may be called out as cheap, weak, or evidence of deus ex machina. The extranatural has to remain utterly unexplained, and this only reinforces the need for everything else built around it (characters, setting, dialogue, etc.) to be that much more solid as a result.