Sometimes it feels like the genre tales I love are in a storytelling arms race to constantly raise the stakes. We can't even just have the world under threat - it's the solar system, it's the galaxy, hell, throw in the whole damn universe while you're at it. What's happened to the small-scale hero in big entertainment?
Header image credit: 'Brothers in Arms' by Levi Hoffmeier. Used with artist's permission.
As readers might have gathered in Toybox's first week, I love video games, and one I'm really excited for (really excited) is Destiny, which is out tomorrow. I love shooting alien baddies and getting loot just like any sane human being does, but I also love a good story - so I was kind of disheartened to find that Destiny is all about groups of heroes fighting against the nebulous threat of 'darkness' in a bid to save not just Earth, but the whole solar system from this ancient evil. Great! Another universe to save. Notch it up to the eleventy-billion (a totally accurate number) I've saved or watched being saved across countless games, TV shows, movies and books. I mean, we're not even just stopping at saving universes any more, as creators clamour for higher and higher stakes to show off just how much shit our heroes are in. When it's getting to the point that if our valiant protagonists fail literally all of reality is doomed, why should I bring myself to care? Everyone's doing it these days.
It's a growing problem in pop culture storytelling in general, not just video games. The stakes start high, then they're getting higher and higher as these stories expand and are built upon to the point that it all just becomes too much. The epic is no longer epic, it's become so commonplace that it's just... boring, instead.
Image: The First Lady of Space, Commander Shepard, from Mass Effect - developers Bioware are the kings of 'Gather a team to save the kingdom/country/world/galaxy!' storytelling in games. It's basically the only story they've told for over a decade.
What makes Epic stories epic, quite literally, is that they're a mirror to the smaller-scale adventure. We're meant to hold them up to these smaller stakes, see how much bigger and grander they are, and be suitably impressed. The problem is though in mainstream entertainment, these smaller adventures are getting rarer and rarer while everyone notches it all up to 110%. Not only has the banality set in with all these 'epic' tales, but in the process of ramping up the scale we're losing some of the wonderful elements of storytelling that make small-scale adventures interesting.
When everything is always big and always on, audience investment is difficult to muster. We lose track of the people our protagonists are fighting for as everything becomes more and more nebulous, and when the threat is that big too, we lose why we should feel threatened by it. Take Doctor Who for example - one of the biggest points of criticism for the last few series of Matt Smith's Doctor was that the big bads were so nebulous, always wanting to destroy time or reality itself, that it was hard to care for The Doctor's plights - sure, we're all part of reality and time, but these are such ethereal concepts that when they're supposedly under threat, they're difficult to contextualise. Without that context, they lack impact - and who wants a bad guy with no impact?
Smaller scale can usually allow for stronger characterisation as well - usually because we're spending much more time with a smaller cast of characters, instead of flitting about trying to show off how big and epic everything is. Characters that we care about deeply, care enough that we feel anxious for their survival or jubilation in their victory, are obviously hugely important to storytelling regardless - but when the stakes are smaller, we can be allowed to get much closer to these characters and their adventures, making everything matter so much more. Would we have cared so much about Ripley's survival in Alien if she'd been fighting off a whole army of Xenos that threatened to destroy all of humanity? Probably not - what made it work and other stories like it work was we could contextualise the smaller scale. Ripley and her dwindling number of crewmates. One alien. The Nostromo. That's all that there was, and it was all the story needed.
Another thing a smaller story can allow for is a lot more variety as well - there's only so many ways an ancient evil can threaten to destroy the country/the world/the galaxy after all. Smaller scale stories allow the breathing room to have threats and conflict evolve into different things. A planet doesn't have to be at stake, it could be one person's relationship with another. Armies don't have to clash to create conflict, a handful of people can do the same thing. Smaller threats, smaller scope, bring drama and intrigue down to a personal level, something we can all relate to, instead of grander, more distant ideas. We're brought closer to the story and the characters, feel more investment.
None of this is to say that huge, epic stories can't be good or relatable - there's plenty of them that are - but more so that we have so many of them in popular fiction that they're losing their nature as mirrors to the smaller stuff. We need more small-scale storytelling to make the Epic feel epic again, to make the highs feel high again instead of having stakes constantly raising. One pretty good example of it going on with mainstream genre stuff lately is Game of Thrones.
Yeah okay, I'm probably losing you here, and you're pulling the same face that Dany is in the above picture. Wait! Hear me out.
Yes, Game of Thrones has a lot of elements of epic fantasy in it. Hell, it's even got the ancient evil threatening everyone in the White Walkers. But think about it in the context of the series - who actually gives a damn about the White Walkers at the moment? The Night's Watch and Stannis (and even then, only because he sees it as an opportunity to advance his claim for the Iron Throne). The Lannisters don't care about them. Daenerys and her Unsullied don't. Arya and Sansa don't. We've got our huge threat to the whole world getting closer and closer, and yet the whole series isn't about everyone getting ready to fight them. These other characters have got far more important, smaller things to worry about.
Game of Thrones might be all about the story of Westeros, but not only is Westeros but one part of a much larger world that we know so little about, it's a story that's told through smaller-scale conflict. House against House. Brothers against Sisters. One against another. The actions these individual characters take all might play into the grander scheme that is the quest for the Iron Throne, but the story isn't told on that scale, we're seeing it on the ground, between characters we've been allowed to invest in (before they're typically horrifically killed off, thank you Mr. Martin). Think back across the books and across the four seasons of the TV show and whilst there's these big, epic moments in the narrative - Tyrion's Trial, the Red Wedding, The Battle of Blackwater - not only are they relatively few and far between (thinking about it, there's only really two 'huge' moments per season) amongst the oodles of smaller conflicts and character moments, but none of these massive events have much impact on every character in the show at once, or the whole of Westeros. They're even often contrasted with smaller events in the same episodes they're having these epic moments in - Blackwater has the huge battle for King's Landing in it, but we spend so much time exploring the conflict and tension between Cersei and Sansa in the Red Keep, for example. Tyrion's trial in Season 4 isn't something that effects all of Westeros, it's a conflict between a son and his father. All these smaller pieces play their part in the big picture, but they're high stakes on a small scale, and that's great.
We need more stuff like this in popular genre work today. We need the small scale to make the big moments even bigger, and more impactful on us as the audience. I can't bring myself to care about saving the world when everybody's doing it.
What do you love about smaller stories? Got any favourites you'd like to champion? Post them in the comments.
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