So, I was playing this game, Horizon Zero Dawn. It was a really good game, with compelling character dynamics, a heart-wrenching loss, petty rivalries between bitter teens, and a sinister cult.
And then…it turned into something else. Something we’ve all seen before: a story about evil robots trying to destroy the earth, and wouldn’t you know it, only ONE WOMAN has the power to stop them.
Before that, I was playing Skyrim, a role-playing game from Bethesda Softworks. What began with a morally-complex civil war between two well-developed, sympathetic factions ended with something about a world-eating dragon trying to destroy the universe because…reasons? Honestly, I can’t even remember. But again…the fate of everything rested in the hands of one woman and her endless supply of potions that have the power to heal third-degree dragon-breath burns.
Then, of course, there’s Game of Thrones, a show that began with political intrigue and ended with CGI dragons fighting CGI ice zombies.
If I had a dime for every time I’ve seen the line “the fate of the world is at stake” on the back of a fantasy book/game/movie/whatever, I’d be in competition with Jeff Bezos. Yawn. Honestly, who cares about the world? Listen up, Bethesda Softworks. Let me tell you a secret. Nobody cares about the world. I mean, people don’t even really care about the real world (if they did, wouldn’t we have solved climate change by now) so why do you think they care so much about your made-up one?
Joseph Stalin once said: “one death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.” Sadly, he’s right. That’s why it’s infinitely sadder when Obi-Wan Kenobi gets cut down than when Alderaan gets blown up. And why “the fate of the world” isn’t actually that high a stake when it comes to fantasy books. It’s too abstract. It’s too melodramatic. And deep down, we know the outcome. How many books actually end with the world ending?
I’d rather read about a vicious rivalry, a quest for revenge, a mission to save a loved one or overcome a personal trauma or fear any day. Yet for some reason, books and games—especially games, there seems to be a pandemic of world-saving games out there on the market—still insist on shoe-horning some world-ending crisis into their plot, because I guess they haven’t caught on to a fact an evil Russian dictator figured out many decades ago.
World-saving plots are disingenuous. In real life, the fate of the universe is never going to rest in the hands of ONE MAN, or ONE WOMAN. Definitley not one teenager. It’s a team effort, and in pretending otherwise, fantasy stories tend to make themselves less relateable and so less compelling.
So…kill a world. Save a story.