Sunday, January 24, 2021

How subverting expectations can utterly destroy pacing and momentum within a story.

 So, the two big things in fiction these days are wokeness and subverting expectation.  There's nothing inherently wrong with either of them when they're used in ways that enhance stories, rather than taking away from them.  The problem is that they're rarely used in ways that enhance stories, and more often than not, in ways that take away from stories.  I thought about writing an essay on how substituting Woke for personality, motivation, character drama, meaningful character arcs, meaningful character relationships, and characters striving to be better people, makes for less meaningful and impactful stories after reading the first book in Star Wars: The High Republic.  But I figured that as a straight, middle-aged, white guy, that would present me with many and various opportunities to put my foot in my mouth. And mere days after finishing that book, I got to the climax of a game called Trails of Cold Steel III.  Or rather, the faux climax, because SUBVERTING EXPECTATIONS *creepy oohing sound* and I figured, yeah, that one's more up my alley to talk about.

Subverting expectations in a story is not a new thing.  It's been around for ages.  Literally.  But I think the man most responsible for it coming into the public consciousness in modern times is George R. R. Martin.  Ned Stark lost his head *spoilers* and the entire world lost their minds.  Now EVERYTHING has to subvert your expectations, no matter if it makes sense for it to do so or not.  I've had books rejected by publishers and agents because they didn't subvert expectations enough.  I've heard stories of established, well known authors running into the same problem.  Every movie, every TV series, every book, every video game; they ALL have to do it now, because, beside Wokeness, it's the big thing right now in fiction.

I think the point where I realized that it was starting to become more of a destructive force in the world of fiction, rather than one that was keeping things fresh, was when I started looking back on why I wasn't quite so excited for new Star Wars movies anymore.  I started looking at the Disney made Star Wars films, trying to find the exact point where I started to lose interest.  I really liked The Force Awakens.  I thought it was a good set up for the rest of the trilogy, despite being a soft reboot of the original Star Wars.  Rogue One is one of my favorite Star Wars movies of all time.  It reminds me of lazing around on Saturday afternoons after my chores were done, watching old war movies with my dad.  My dad and I are very, very different people, and we share exactly ONE interest and ONE interest alone, old war movies.  Not only was it an old war movie, it was also a STAR WARS movie, and a pretty good one too.

Then I looked at The Last Jedi, and there it was.  First of all.  Luke Skywalker was my hero when I was growing up.  He was my idol.  He was who I wanted to be.  I dressed up as Luke Skywalker for Halloween for like 6 years in a row.  Seeing the way he was treated in this movie really did not sit well with me.  They took my hero--MY HERO--and they did THAT to him.  Boy, that sure subverted my expectations.  When he showed up in The Mandalorian *spoilers* to save the day at the end, I was so happy.  I was a little misty-eyed.  He was back. My hero was back to being a hero.  He was only on screen for two or three minutes, and the CGI de-aging they did on Mark Hamill was a bit shoddy, but there he was, on screen, being the hero I wanted to see in The Last Jedi.

Even in the lead up to The Last Jedi, I wasn't really feeling it.  Something in the trailers felt off to me, and I've never really been able to explain why, until now when I went back and watched them before writing this essay.  The trailers show very little of anything.  It was as though the ones who edited them together just did not know how to market the movie, and so they took a bunch of random clips that looked cool and strung them together.  But that's what they do for all trailers, you say.  No.  Not so much.  They usually try to string a narrative through the trailer to give you an idea of what the movie is about, and there was none of that here.  You saw the same thing with the Wonder Woman 1984 trailers.  It's pretty clear that the marketing team just didn't have any clue how they were supposed to market that movie to fans, just like the marketing team on The Last Jedi.

So, watching the movie, you have a writer/director who basically took EVERYTHING and flipped it upside down in order to subvert your expectations as the audience.  It feels like he spitefully took everything people liked, or everything people were expecting to see in the next movie, and tore it up, flipping it all around, just so he could watch our expressions when it happened.  Sure.  Fine.  Whatever.  But then, they had to follow it up with another movie, and that movie just didn't have anywhere to go from there.  He'd taken everything that was STAR WARS about it, torn it up, and thrown it out, and they had to find some way to somehow make a satisfying conclusion out of it.  *spoilers* They didn't.  Now the new trilogy feels like a three act story with two act ones and no act two.  All in the name of subverting expectations for the sake of subverting expectations, and not really for any other visible or tangible reason.  This one guy who wanted to shake everything up, completely derailed STAR WARS, just so he could subvert our expectations in one movie.

Okay, so, let's get on to the thing that prompted me to write this essay.  Trails of Cold Steel III.  So, there's this video game series called The Legend of Heroes.  It had an original trilogy back in the PS2 era, and then the series continued on through various platforms with the Trails in the Sky trilogy, Two Crossbell games, the 4 Trails of Cold Steel games, and then upcoming next chapter of the story which hasn't been given an official English name yet.  Each subset in the main series is it's own story, but they all take place in the same world, and they start to overlap quite a bit as they go on. I've been following this series for decades now, and the latest game Trails of Cold Steel IV just came out a couple months ago in English, so I figured I should get my butt in gear and finish up Trails of Cold Steel III so I could eventually start on it.

These are all extremely long games.  They're very dialog and cutscene heavy, focusing more on storytelling and character development most times than gameplay, which is not for everyone, but as I play games just for the story it's great for me.  So there I am, 90 hours into Trails of Cold Steel III, and ermagerd, an apocalyptic event threatens.  I storm into an underground demonic castle, to destroy an ancient evil that will turn the 800,000 people in the city above into mindless, undead drones.  All 37 million playable characters from all 3 Trails of Cold Steel games show up to fight.  It's this hugely epic moment.  They all storm the castle, breaking up into teams to fight their way through.  There's super awesome, completely amazing music playing.  This is it.  This is the final dungeon in the game.  You can feel it.  The way the story has come together at this point, the way all the characters have gathered to fight this threat, the music, the pacing, the way the story is told.  This is it.  This is the end of the game.  You fight this amazingly hard boss, which makes you make use of pretty much every single character that came into the castle with you, fighting it off in waves, and then climbing into your giant robots to finish it off.  This boss fight is so epic and difficult that it takes almost an hour to fight through it.

And then the game just keeps going.

And going.

And going.

And going.

It builds up to ANOTHER climax 15 hours later.  Where you... storm an evil demonic castle... gather all 37 million playable characters from all 3 games... and even more characters from previous games before them...  fight your way through... with really epic music... to fight another hugely difficult boss battle... to stop another, bigger apocalyptic event... and it completely falls flat because we already had the climax that the entire story was building toward, and this just comes out of nowhere.  It doesn't feel as epic.  It doesn't feel as exhilarating.  It doesn't feel as meaningful.  It just feels tacked onto the end so that the writers could use that first apocalypse to subvert my expectations of what the end of the game was going to be.  Frankly, I was kind of just really bored, and I wanted it to be over by the time I got to it, and it felt more like a chore than a fun and amazing conclusion, because in subverting my expectations for what the ending was going to be, they completely destroyed the pacing of the story, and the blew out all of the momentum that was carrying it forward at the 80% line, leaving nothing for the conclusion.

It was that point where I started to get really annoyed with my expectations having been subverted.  What the entire story seemed to be building up to as the huge climactic ending of the game wasn't.  And then the story just kept going.  And then there was a second, even bigger climax later.  So the entire pacing of the story led up to this first ending, but it wasn't the end, and the game just goes on kind of aimlessly for FIFTEEN MORE HOURS, before you get to the REAL ending.

Yes.  My expectations were subverted.

And they only had to completely destroy all semblance of pacing and momentum within the story to do it.

The subversion works in Game of Thrones (at least in the books and the earlier seasons) because the entire story isn't building toward these moments of subversion as climactic events.  They come as shocks because you don't expect this character to die, and certainly not in this way, but the story as a whole keeps its momentum, and keeps rolling forward, building up steam, rather than losing it.  The things that come later feel more meaningful, because the point of the story was not to subvert expectations, but to tell a story that was not dependent solely upon the shock value of the subversion.  But when you look at things like The Last Jedi and Trails of Cold Steel III, the subversion is the point of the subversion, not because it makes the story more interesting.  It kills all forward momentum in the plot.  It destroys characters.  It makes the things that come later feel less meaningful than they otherwise would have been.

So, I guess it all boils down to this point.  Subversion can be a powerful storytelling tool when it is used correctly to enhance the momentum of the story.  Subversion for the sake of subversion, more often than not just destroys the pacing and momentum of the story instead.

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