Sunday, January 23, 2011

History: Xanatos Gambit

One of the odder facts of the YKTTW stage of Trope Repair is that, especially relative to the Trope Repair environment that exists today, there was a much stronger willingness to submit to minor page action. Back then, minor page action pretty much consisted of anything that wasn't a rename. The most evident example of the wiki's surprising permissiveness was in the case of Xanatos Gambit.

Xanatos Gambit was an obvious trope title to challenge- save for fans of the animated TV show Gargoyles, hardly anyone has any idea who the Trope Namer David Xanatos was. The proposal to change Xanatos Gambit was actually not my idea, but another dedicated troper who long ago left the wiki. I generally avoided getting involved in disputes over popular titles out of habit, but in this proposal I saw an alarming problem identified on the page. No one actually had any idea what a Xanatos Gambit was.

I mentioned earlier that Xanatos Gambit was an acceptable name in part because of the word "Gambit". The only kind of gambit anyone would write about (save for the X-Man) would be a complicated one. The problem is, "complicated plan" really isn't a trope. It's far too broad and could encapsulate nearly anything. Even a trope like Zany Scheme is much more specific in that "zaniness" means that it will be a "hilariously complicated plan"- which narrows the criteria down a lot farther than you'd think.

But no, Xanatos Gambit was just a complicated plan. And the problem of this sheer broadness was obvious everywhere on the page. The description was several paragraphs long, but managed to avoid defining the trope in any useful way. All any of the examples had in common was that the plans were complicated. It was a complete mess. There was no way to tell where Xanatos Gambit ended and another trope began. This was the issue the YKTTW proposal had brought up, and the seriousness of the problem could not be disputed.

Even back then, Xanatos Gambit was a trope nearing critical mass, and seemed likely to arrive at the point where any fix at all would be nigh impossible. Discussion in the proposal was vibrant, but lacked clear direction. One thread suggested splitting the trope into two separate definitions- one trope would be defined as "a complicated plan in which a character has an obvious goal and a hidden goal, and in thwarting the obvious goal his opposition accidentally enables the hidden one", and "a complicated plan in which a character makes educated assumptions about how certain characters will behave, and uses these to move events toward a favorable outcome". The distinction was a matter of back-up planning. The first definition (today's definition of Xanatos Gambit) would always work no matter what, since success of the second goal was usually tied to the failure of the first goal. The second definition (today's definition of Batman Gambit) only had one possible solution, and the character in question usually has to needle the process along the way to insure it goes in the right direction.

In part because it was a monumental undertaking, as well as the fear that any single troper would provoke great wrath trying to enact this split, I made an agreement with the troper who proposed the action (I had known him to be dedicated to effective page action from previous interaction) that we would work together to split the page into two pieces. And it worked. There were no complaints about the page action, and no attempts were made to reverse the changes. As long as anyone can remember, Xanatos Gambit has always meant what I wrote above. This effective, specific definition has been a far better defense of the title than the Grandfather Clause could ever hope to be. In a sense, the definitions necessitate trope namers for the simple reason that the English language really doesn't have concise words to describe those concepts. We may have the word "gambit", but we lack subtleties for the rest of it.

While it was fortunate that we saved the page when we did, in other terms we were too late to forestall other problems. Other tropes in the Xanatos family, such as Xanatos Roulette or Xanatos Speed Chess, had already been created under the purview of Xanatos as being a word that just means "complicated plan". Such pages are in bad shape and continue to be so- while Xanatos Gambit could be fixed with a redefinition, by dropping the word "gambit" the question in these other tropes promptly becomes "what kind of Roulette? What kind of Speed Chess?" Fixing these pages has been an unsolvable priority for as long as I can remember. But I'm at least glad we were able to salvage the Xanatos Gambit page, lest it get out of control.

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