Hey, duders. So it’s been about a month since I wrote my last blog. When I wrote that last one about Late-Game Collectathons, I claimed that I would be writing four more, for a total of five. Well, it turns out that was a bit of a lie, because at that moment, I didn’t have a concept for even one more, let alone four. But I’m back now, so I guess I just pulled back the curtain for nothing...
Let’s just get to it, then. I have a feeling this’ll be a good one.
The Assimilation Plot
The assimilation plot is a common story point in which, broadly speaking, the "enemy plan" is to create utopia by forcing an entire population into a hive mind--merging everyone into the same mind/body/soul/etc. Said villain's reasoning is usually such that all human conflict is rooted in individuality, and the only way to eliminate conflict is to forcibly abolish individuality.
Most tropes that bother me in games, bother me because I feel they are overused to the point of becoming cliche. But I don't necessarily believe this is the case here, not in games at least. If we were to include, say, manga and anime, then it would be a different story, but I digress. No, the reason the assimilation plot bothers me is because I feel the morals it imparts are trite and boring and unearned. The assimilation plot is a clumsy attempt to externalize a very intricate sociological thesis in the bluntest, most literal way possible, and to me it always feels like a cheat.
In nearly every case I’ve encountered, the assimilation plot is a quick way to emphasize the value of human diversity, in spite of the conflict it brings, by using plot magic to juxtapose it with something infinitely more horrifying. Theoretically, this is a very real and poignant theme that is relatable to anyone, especially socially awkward types which may gravitate toward escapist fiction (don’t take offense, I’m describing myself here). The problem is that it’s all unearned. Its implicit moral stance, the one about diversity and tolerance and shit, is frequently stated but rarely is it adequately demonstrated. I don't know why this is definitively, but I suspect the form is at least partly to blame. Because video games are most fluent in the language of extremes, it’s easy to make themes that could be more intimately explored in, say, a novel or a film, seem just plain goofy when plastered up on the canvas we so often see games painted on--world in peril, everything on the line, yada yada yada. Regardless of the reason, I just don't feel this sort of plot development ever works in the way writers intend it to, and I wish they would stop.
How TWEWY Applies
The World Ends with You fits my model of the assimilation plot pretty much exactly. In short, the big bad thinks the world is fucked because people are different, so he’s going to unfuck it by making everyone the same. Granted, TWEWY pulls it off better than most other fiction I’ve seen. There is a moment in the back-stretch of the game, when the enemy plan is becoming apparent, that the game actually conveys quite well the inherent repulsiveness of such a society. Most stories do this by using body horror--witnessing people physically combine into a single being, in the slimiest way possible--but TWEWY employs a somewhat defter touch, at least in the visual sense. Morally, of course, the script is as blunt as ever, with characters literally stating the game’s central thesis while confronting the big bad.
On a side note, it really gets my goat when games do this--having the characters engage in a live Socratic dialogue, stating their moral positions aloud before ultimately just settling the dispute with violence. I call it the "psyche-up speech."
Considering that I've freely admitted that The World Ends with You pulls off the best assimilation plot I've ever seen, I think it's likely that I've just seen too many of them, or become so intensely critical of them, that I simply cannot abide a story that even attempts one, irrespective of the quality of execution. I'm willing to admit that this is, perhaps, a teensy bit unfair.
So what about you guys? Is there a specific plot device or twist that drives you up the wall? Do you object to it on logical or thematic grounds, or just because you think it's way corny?