Something I wrote for a college submission portfolio. Not completely related to VIDEO GAMES, but this is a blog, so whatever.
I’m tired of saving the world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool and all, with resealing the ancient evil that’s awakened or stopping the megalomaniac that will ‘rule the world or see it burned to ash’. Fun stuff. Judging from the amount of novels, video games, and other forms of media I see with themes of planetary salvation, I think I can safely assume plenty of other folks are in the same boat. But, like a box of cereal you leave in the pantry too long, it's getting kind of stale. Sure, it still tastes okay, and it isn’t going to make you sick or anything, but maybe it’s time to refresh your stock.
It’s been at the point, for a long while now, where the vast majority of mainstream (or popular, if manestream gives you hipster vibes) fantasy has become rather predictable in its storytelling. I’m painting with a broad brush, I know, but that’s my point. No matter what the starting point is, be it a orphaned kid living on dusty desert streets, the capricious tomboy rebelling against her protective father, or a ragtag band of mercenaries hired in a tavern, fantastical fiction seems to always end up with the heroes saving all of humanity.
That’s not to say that epic storylines that deal with the issues brought up by literally having the weight of the world lying on a character’s shoulders can’t be engaging and entertaining. Many are, from modern tales like the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, to the classic fare of Tolkien and all who came after him. Long, grueling tales of heroism, sacrifice, and redemption, with characters fighting for their lives every other page, are quite useful for putting your own problems in perspective. Having Bill, up in marketing, steal your lunch every Tuesday is aggravating, but petty in the grand scheme of things. But, invariably, the vast majority of fantastical fiction published each year deals with saving the world.
Sometimes the story is blatant about it. A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin, lets the reader know in the prologue to the first book that there is a very real and very dangerous threat to the world lurking just past that 700ft barrier of ice. This is a series praised by critics and consumers alike, with engaging characters, rich worldbuilding, and generous servings of sex and violence. Season Two of Game of Thrones is available right now on HBO. It is a series that prides itself on its grey morality, gritty realism, and stunning twists in its narrative. But, the reader knows as soon as soon as her or she finishes the first book, who will save the world.
Books like Mistborn, on the other hand, can be a bit more subtle. The first book gives no impression that the third will end up with the protagonists literally remaking the world after the apocalypse. Mistborn appears as a heist film transformed into a fantasy novel for almost the entirety of the opening novel. A strong female lead, an inventive magic system and a repressive government make for an interesting read. But, it too falls prey to the almost obligatory duty of raising the stakes until the characters become gods. This is a prime example of a point I’m trying to make:
Saving the world dehumanizes all characters involved, and lessens the emotional weight of the tale.
I won’t let it be said that I claimed all fantasy must undergo that escalation. Richelle Mead’s Succubus, a series involving the trials and triumphs of a succubus living a normal life in New York, crafts a compelling story about love, lust, and not giving in to your darker emotions.. Although she fully utilizes the fantastical elements available to her, Mead keeps the story feeling ‘real’ by having her heroine suffer through the daily 9-5 grind, pacifying angry landlords, and other mundane tasks. The most responsibility Mead foists onto her character is saving a single man’s soul.
But that is a common trend only in urban fiction. In full-fledged escapist fantasy, with author-crafted universes, civilizations, gods and histories, that sort of slice-of-life storytelling is fustratingly rare. Perhaps the effort the authors put into their imagined worlds subconsciously guides them to give their characters equally epic problems. If that were true, however, shared-universe fiction wouldn’t have the same issue. The average Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance novel may start fairly low-key, but escalation is nearly unavoidable.
High Fantasy has a dearth of novels that don’t involve world-shattering prophecies or deific warfare. There are some exceptions, of course. A notable one is The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. A novel about a group of thieves trying to pull off a big score evolves into a crusade of revenge against the crime lord that betrayed them. There’s some magic involved, and the issues involved are deadly serious, but it never pulls the rug out from under the reader with a revelation that everything and everyone depends on the heroes’ success. I consider it one of the greatest books of the last decade.
But for every Lies and Scott Lynch, there are a thousand other novels and authors that insist on injecting drama and tension into the story by raising the stakes until they can’t be raised anymore. I’ve grown increasingly tired of the bait-and-switch, rags to riches story that pervades fantasy. So many writers start their characters off living a normal life in an extraordinary world, then make their protagonists extraordinary themselves. It has become rote. When otherwise exceptional storycrafters do this, it can ruin the experience.
Catherine, a video game published by Atlus, is a personal example of mine. Atlus marketed the game as a dark, urban fantasy puzzles game, and their track record of engaging characters and riveting storylines had me excited for their next project. I kept abreast of any spoilers, and wanted my virgin playthrough to be as entertaining as possible, so I invited some friends over to take turns playing through it. Soon we were enthralled by the chronicle of Vincent, a twenty-something computer programmer feeling trapped by his girlfriend Katherine’s insistence on getting married. He’s afraid to commit, although her loves her greatly, and doesn’t want his ‘pretty awesome’ life to change. He gets drunk at a bar one night, and ends up making some bad decisions, resulting in him waking up next to Catherine, a barely-legal blonde that just wants to have fun.
The story takes a turn into the bizarre by introducing nightmares that plague Vincent every night. His conflicting emotions surrounding, freedom, commitment, guilt, and responsibility are embodied by the twisted demons that haunt his dreams. The story constantly increases the tension by revealing Katherine suspects she may be pregnant, having Vincent discover that Catherine is an obsessive stalker, and that in the city he lives in, young men are being found as dessicated husks in their beds.
Eight hours in, it is four in the morning, and all in attendance that are still awake are glued to the screen. Catherine and Katherine have finally met, and Katherine is understandably outraged. A struggle ensues, and, in the end, Katherine stabs and kills Catherine with a kitchen knife. The entire room was amazed. Video games have long been maligned by much of the public as emotionless escapism, with critics of the medium describing it as ‘desensitizing youth to violence’ and, with less controversy, dismissing the plot of video games as simplistic at best. But here was a video game that had the guts to bring itself down (or perhaps elevate itself?) to the very close, very vulnerable, very un-videogamey realm of love and intrapersonal conflict.
We decided to take a quick break to drive our sleepy friends home, and used that forty minutes to speculate on the Vincent’s future. Would he take the blame for the woman he loves murder, and allow his unborn child to grow with its mother? Would he let Katherine go to prison? Would they both run away, discarding their previous life? Any of these would of been far more interesting than the choice the developers made.
Catherine turned out be a succubus serving Lucifer, and Vincent makes it his duty to save mankind from the punishment of falling to lust incarnate. (Spoiler: it’s death!) The game continued on for another two hours, with Vincent eventually beating Lucifer and saving the males of the world from being sucked dry by agents of Hell, but I didn’t really care after that point. It was like a punch to the gut. I was Vincent, until that point. I knew how it felt to screw up up so royally that someone’s life would change forever, and while I have never violated someone’s trust so horribly, I certainly have felt the touch of betrayal myself in the past.
But as soon as the story transformed from one man descending into a hell of his own making, into a man literally descending into hell to smack Satan upside the head, it lost all emotional resonance to me. If the game had ended on that cliffhanger, it would of been a pinnacle of achievement in videogaming. Instead, the events before that point lost much of their relevance in the endgame, tarnishing their impact in hindsight.
Catherine is merely a clear-cut example, a microcosm of the larger issue. Why do the creators of otherwise compelling fiction feel the need to ratchet up the risks and stakes of their stories, especially in high fantasy? Where is Seinfeld meets Middle-Earth? There is a reason sitcoms and dramas are very successful in modern television: people relate to them, their characters dealing with the issues that pop up in everyday life. I am still waiting for the sitcom that has a hippie, tree-hugging elf dealing with a technology obsessed gnome neighbour insistent on using his trees as fuel. I know why it will never exist on television (period/fantasy pieces are expensive), but in the medium of the written word, such barriers are irrelevant.
When a story slowly ramps up the responsibilities placed upon its characters, instead of opening the floodgates like Catherine did, it is a bit more tolerable. When a narrative has strong characters that play well off one another, snappy dialogue, and all the other elements that make up a good story, the impact of changing the scope of the novel is lessened. But it is still there. When the stakes are raised to a certain point, multiple plot points become much more or less likely: Heroic sacrifices go up in probability, the morality of the characters involved become much more black and white, etcetera. When a story becomes less of a surprise and more of an inevitability, it loses much of its allure.
Much of the criticism I lay upon modern writing cannot be applied to one of the most ancient of texts. The story of Homer’s Odyssey dealt in epic fare, but kept the motivations of its protagonist pure and mundane: Get home. That story of the simplest of desires has entertained audiences throughout the ages, and continues to do so today. Perhaps modern authors could learn from Homer’s example.
Fantasy authors should not feel obliged to match the epic worlds they create with epic tales to match. Far too much of fantasy today is rife with apocalyptic plots and threats of mass extinction. Where are the tales of the layman in an extraordinary world? Why do authors pigeonhole themselves into saving the world when a equally or even more compelling tale could be told about the crazy antics of a womanizing wizard? A single child surviving an orc raid, and never being given the chance to avenge the fallen. A pirate captain not concerned with angry ghosts and cursed treasure, but with keeping his crew in line and securing filthy lucre. Mixing the drama of truly human stories with the wonder and imagination of high fantasy should be a concept embraced, not ignored.