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Humanity’s end is always nigh. In the Mass Effect series, every sentient species in the galaxy is threatened by a race of hyper-cyborgs whose only goal is destruction. In the Transformers movies, mankind faces eradication by a similarly minded set of alien entities. Even human beings can be the driving force towards their own vanquishing, such as the Crimson King in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series or the doomsday cults from Matthew Reilly’s Temple. If you believe the hype, human extinction is the ultimate evil, the most relatable enemy in all forms of media.
But it’s a crutch, a facile challenge for thousands of protagonists to overcome. Yes, the concept of losing all human life is despicable, and at times unnervingly reasonable when given the right scenario. These situations however occur so frequently as byproducts of a more competent story, that when their eventual resolutions trade focus to a hero “saving the world,” the ability for an audience to enjoy and empathize with this hero diminishes to the point of nullification. In essence, the “End of the World” plot, which should be harrowing and enthralling in theory, comes off as superficial when presented as the main conflict in any story.
What’s surprising and somewhat embarrassing about these offenders is how blatantly they set up an idea as the enemy instead of giving it a face. The most recent failure is that of Mass Effect 3, which has raised quite a legion of adversaries in part because the salvation of mankind has an avatar, that of your character Commander Shepard, but the enemy is a faceless mass of technology and mind-control. Even proper adversaries in this series find themselves “indoctrinated” (brainwashed) by the distant and never directly confronted enemy.
At this point, antagonists become a concept rather than a presence, and any resulting success can feel hollow or inconsequential. The impressive feat of saving an entire race cannot stand up on its own, for as an idea it can only be replaced with hope, not a solid feeling of accomplishment. This is exactly why the Terminator series was received with a fair amount of satisfaction until taken to the actual war against machines in Terminator Salvation, replacing an iconic enemy with a general sense of doom. A personal battle will always best the legions of anonymous in contention. One is a story, the other a military statistic.
This is also precisely why the first products in both the Halo and Matrix series have such devout fans, while each subsequent storyline falls under harsher criticism. While a portion of this is unarguably due to involved audiences being hesitant to support additions to an already established universe, there are almost always discrepancies between original works and their sequels which cause this disapproval.
What’s unique about these two examples (Halo, The Matrix) is that their first installments clearly state the problem within, and in both the result is humanity’s demise. Both devise intelligent, empathetic human symbols whose antagonists are much more tangible than the idea of world’s end. And separately in the finale of each, plots become convoluted, sacrificing much of the personal element for an omnipresent, greater good.
Of course, it is truly an admirable trait to take on a large, impossible enemy. But grandeur is itself an isolator, rendering each plot impotent by their conclusions, Halo 3 resulting in a war certainly not won but merely full human extermination subverted, and The Matrix Revolutions devoting much of its resources to a futile spectacle of man vs. machine. In both, the stakes could not logically get any higher, yet audiences routinely expressed boredom and disappointment at their conclusions.
It seems natural at this point to examine the nature of boredom, and how it applies here. Any lack of interest stems from predictability and mundane circumstance. Every individual in the theater or with a book in hand knows the outcome before the players. With the challenge of saving mankind at hand, the only real question is who lives and who dies. The details are fluff, and the result is always the same: mankind prevails. It’s predictable, dull, and falls more naturally into the realm of sensationalism than legitimate storytelling. A proper narrative will surprise its audience, setting up a scenario for which prior knowledge will only be half of what’s necessary to understand each character.
Application points here rest with today’s creative teams in all realms of entertainment. Evidence even suggests, again with Mass Effect 3 as the example, that alterations to “happily ever after” in these scenarios is met with hostility from the majority of audiences. Writers have to choose which of the three, integrity, money or approval, that they wish to keep out of their stories. It would be more acceptable to produce a dramatic screenplay or novel without resting too much weight on the easy way out.
This rule especially needs to be followed by game developers, for as space marines have become the traditional, predictable avatar for millions of gamers, so has the end-of-all-things plagued the community. If we take a closer look at the emotional spectrum reached in games like Heavy Rain or Dear Esther, or even explore the unique narrative form found in the Bioshock series, it’s possible to unveil a barely breached world of possibilities. And isn’t that more exciting than saving mankind from the same fate over and over again?