You know, saving the world didn’t use to be
such a big thing in storytelling. Even the great hero stories were usually about perilous quests through dangerous terrain, or epic monster slaying, or something. The entire planet was never really up for grabs, or if it was, it was generally a cyclic, symbolic thing being handled by gods whose
job was specifically to do that. Monsters that threatened to eat the sun were certainly a staple of equatorial pyramid-building societies, but it wasn’t like they ever came close to succeeding. And you certainly had belief systems that attested a prophecy to the end of the world. Ragnarok is the big one, but you’ve also got
the Rapture and stuff like that, but for the most part those were just inevitable, there wasn’t anyone’s endgame to stop them. Heroes never had to save the world. Now, there was one major subversion to this rule,
and that’s Vishnu. As the god of preserving the world, Vishnu routinely incarnated in order to save it. That’s the whole schtick behind the Dashavataras. Whenever the general cosmic order is out of whack, Vishnu showed up in mortal form to fix it, sometimes with the help of a posse of mortal buddies. Beyond that, saving the world was hardly ever
in the folkloric cards, and there’s one really obvious reason for why that is. Before human society got globally connected, there was no comprehensive idea of what “the world” actually meant. Everyone’s concept of the world was basically the known world, pretty much meaning their local area. A folk hero might save their city, or repel an army that threatened to take over their country, an exiled King might wander through a number of neighboring empires before reclaiming his throne, but the fact is, up until quite recently, “The World” was basically the neighborhood, and there was no global consensus that got any bigger than that, and as a result, you didn’t get save-the-world stories, you got save-your-world stories, where you saved your kingdom or your
people, not your planet. Oh, and real quick, before we really get going, big thanks to subscriber T. Ellery Hodges for sponsoring this video– stick around to the end to hear more about his award-winning new book, The Never Hero. Anyway, back on track, the idea that the world is only the known world isn’t true anymore, because we live in a connected world, and as a result, the modern notion of the world actually approximates what the world really is, and with this clearer grasp of what the world is, the concept of the world as a whole being threatened starts to make a little more sense, and as a result,
those smaller scale apocalypses that were such a staple of epics and folklore don’t feel quite so apocalyptic anymore. I mean, Pompeii used to be considered apocalyptic, but now major cities getting totalled in movies is practically set-dressing. Somewhere along the globalization line, heroes got bigger and stakes got badder. It wasn’t enough to steal fire from the gods, you also had to stop them from turning North America into a ping pong table. You aren’t just fighting an enemy army, you were preventing them from hollowing out the earth. The end of the world wasn’t that cosmic, hypothetical,
or God-driven inevitable anymore, it was a clear and present danger, and
more importantly, one you could stop. Now, you still get stories where the entire world isn’t at stake, just the parts that matter to the heroes, and although that used to be what
saving the world meant, today we’re gonna be talking mostly about the big saving the world thing where if the heroes fail, the consequences will impact literally everybody. But even using this unforgiving yardstick, there’s still something of a scale present. The smaller scale apocalypses are the
ones that wipe out a lot of people and leave the world forever scarred and
changed, like a zombie apocalypse, but these apocalypses are actually
frequently pushed through by the author without the saving-the-world storyline, and this is because an apocalypse on this scale leaves enough of a world and a
population for a writer to still write in, and nothing produces easy angst like being forced to shoot your loved ones in the face. So a lot of the time, these low-level
apocalypses slip by under the radar and don’t actually get stopped by your heroes,
only damage control after the fact. For an example of that, consider Berserk, where the Eclipse event in volume 13 of the manga unleashes demons on the world, but most of the
story happens afterwards. Moving up the apocalypse scale you get the mid-range kind where humanity goes extinct, or it will get so close to extinction that it’ll never recover. This one also has a rather more kid-friendly variant, where instead of dying, all of humanity instead falls under the influence of some kind of horrible monster king or whatever and stays that way forever. This is a variant where you can afford to have the world end a little bit before the heroes manage to win the day, because it won’t immediately damage
the world beyond repair. It’s actually fairly common for the evil king to have mostly won or even totally won for at least an episode before the heroes managed to actually step in and save the world. Whatever the case, the nefariousness that needs thwarting will make everything awful forever, and absolutely must be fixed now or at least soon. This also happens in the popular rage
mind control apocalypse scenario where all of humanity goes crazy and turns on itself. Usually this will be allowed to continue for three to five minutes at most before your heroes shut it down. And the biggest scale of apocalypse is basically everything gets destroyed. Whether “everything” is the planet, or the solar system, or the entire dimension, it doesn’t matter. Practically speaking, this is the apocalypse
that cannot be allowed to happen because there’s no coming back from it. This is the one that your heroes absolutely
must stop, or like, time rewind to fix. An evil king or a deadly virus is whatever, but there’s no synthesizing a cure or orchestrating an assassination for your planet getting eaten by Galactus. Ironically this one shows up a lot in
kid-friendly cartoons and comics, since it’s kind of a clean pretty apocalypse where the world just blinks out of existence one day. Nothing as viscerally horrifying as a
nuclear winter or a zombie plague. So, now that we’ve talked about the
three general scales of peril that the world can potentially be
heroically scooped out of, I think we’re missing the answer to one crucial question: Why do people keep writing these? Saving the world is a lot of fun, of course. Lots of tension, exciting status quo shake ups, but that’s not really sufficient to
explain why it shows up so much. There are plenty of fun tropes that
aren’t nearly as prevalent as this one. So, why? One word: Stakes. High stakes are great, right? Freak out your audience, keep them invested, raise the stakes is like the first rule authors are taught these days, and it kind of makes sense. You want every story twist to be bigger and badder than the last one, otherwise your audience will be all “Oh, man, this is so boring, I’m gonna go watch a video of increasingly sizable explosions to renew my interest in life.” If the stakes aren’t high, why does your audience care? And what situation is more high-stakes than the
end of the world as we know it? So, there is a problem here. Basically everything I just said is wrong. A higher stakes situation with more to lose does not automatically translate into a more invested audience, and a lower stakes situation with less to lose doesn’t automatically lose your audience. The degree to which your audience will be invested and concerned is based entirely on how uncertain the outcome of a situation is, not on how bad things can get if it does go south. And unfortunately most audiences are genre-savvy enough to recognize that if the stakes are too high, there’s no way for the author to
justify letting the heroes fail. That’s why a catastrophic potential apocalypse
can feel tedious rather than dire, but a character overcoming their personal trauma and opening themself up to others can feel like the tensest thing in the world. It’s not a matter of scale, but of skill and execution. This is part of why small-scale save-the-world stories can be more effective than large scale ones. If the planet blows up if you mess up, there’s no way you’re gonna mess up. The rules won’t allow it. Now, I have seen this scenario subverted once. And it was hilarious. In a recent-ish Dragon Ball Z movie, the destruction god Beerus said he was gonna blow up the Earth unless Goku beat him. Goku does the unthinkable and loses, at which point Beerus blows up a small rock, and says he’ll be back for the rest of
the Earth eventually, but first he has to eat as much dessert as he possibly can find, because as the B plot of this movie, Beerus discovers that Earth has the greatest
desserts in the universe. It was hilarious, but I haven’t seen it done anywhere else. In general, if failure means total annihilation, failure is quite literally not an option, because total annihilation isn’t an option from the writer’s perspective. The reflex from the author side of things is to make things more and more dire, because if your characters are freaking out because they might fail, your audience has to feel the same way, right? But unfortunately, after you reach a certain degree of direness, your audience investment starts actually going down, because
genre savviness is a cruel, cruel mistress and even if your audience wants to be worried, they might not be able to suspend their disbelief hard enough to actually pull it off. The audience might believe the author is willing
to kill a beloved character or destroy everything a character cares about, but almost nobody will believe an author would actually destroy the world if the heroes fail. The stakes are, paradoxically, too high for us to care. And here’s a weirder problem with a
save the world plotline: Sometimes, it feels like the author or characters forget the stakes they’re dealing with. Pretty routinely you’ll get some villain of the week with the power and plan to conquer or destroy the world, and equally routinely, this will be treated with about the same level of severity as any other villain of the week. Nobody seems to care. I mean, this is the whole world we’re talking about. Logically the characters should be feeling the full magnitude of their mission, and everything that’s at stake if they fail. Instead you get cheerful normal interactions
wherein everybody knows they’re saving the world as they know
it, but it’s apparently no biggie. Or they spend way more time focusing on a single smaller thing that might be at stake, like a friend or a MacGuffin. This is probably because most writers
treat putting the world in jeopardy as an easy bit of stakes-raising set-dressing without actually considering how that would feel. I mean, hell, it’s an actual trope on TVTropes that the world is constantly in peril and it’s specifically treated as a running gag. It’s utterly bizarre. It’s like we’ve exhausted the trope to the point where it doesn’t feel real anymore. You get a similar problem when you
try to kill off characters, since there are frankly too many ways for people to get resurrected in popular media that it can be hard for your audience to
buy that a major character is legit dead. I talked about this in the Character Deaths Trope Talk, so I won’t go into much detail here, but basically it’s the same problem on
a much larger scale. Jeopardizing the world barely registers as a threat because it is never followed through on. By its very nature the trope does not
allow itself to be subverted at size level. You can’t get away with destroying the
world your story is built on if you want to be able to write a story
afterwards, and as a result, nobody, not your audience, not your
characters, and probably not you, can really wrap their head around the stakes of the world falling apart in one way or another. As a result of this, some of the most effective plots for getting your audience invested are the ones where the world isn’t actually fully at stake. Hell, you can make a tense, uncertain, audience-enthralling plotline about something as small-scale as a single character coming to terms
with a fact of their life, without anybody’s continued
well-being having to be on the line, and it’ll be way more personally engrossing than any number of catastrophic meteor drop scenarios. And to be honest, I don’t think this is fully because save the world stories are predictable, I just think we have trouble wrapping our heads around anything that large-scale. This is one of those real-world things that seems to be an actual perception limit, like humans aren’t really built to deal with anything much bigger than a few hundred people and one horizon’s worth of terrain. I mean, how many of us have had a full-on existential crisis just by looking up at the sky on a clear night, or stood at the base of a mountain just too big to comfortably think about? When something skirts the edge of our perception limit, we feel a sense of wonder and awe, but when it gets too big, we kind of just lose track of it. It’s like when something gets too enormous, we can’t even really conceive of it properly. So when you have a story where the world is at stake, usually in order to keep the audience
practically invested, you have to focus down to what
personally this means to me, because your audience probably can’t really comfortably conceive of the entire world ceasing to exist. There’s just too much going on there. They can potentially conceive of everything
they care about ceasing to exist, and recognize how terrible that would be, but if you say the world will be destroyed, that doesn’t automatically make the person think, “Oh, no, all of these important things I care about
are part of the world!” So when you have a story where the world is at stake, usually in order to keep the audience
practically invested, it focuses down to what personally this means to our heroes. Your character is saving the world, but he’s doing it because he wants to save the girl he loves and the friends he made, and you know what happens a disturbing
amount of the time? That girlfriend gets kidnapped, and the hero is willing to sacrifice the world if it means saving her. That’s… stupid, but it makes more sense to us than the alternative, because a person you care about feels way more
real than the world, even though the world contains every
single person you care about. Now, of course, one convenient
consequence of the whole “the world is a little too big for us to really
conceive of” thing is that you can write out a scenario that
feels like the end of the world without actually having to nearly end the world. And for this, we loop back to the very beginning,
where I was talking about those things that don’t count as apocalypses anymore. That is, the destruction of your world. Now for this one, I’m gonna pull out a majorly spoiler example from Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, so, uh, if you’re watching that show, I’d suggest
skipping this next part. In the backstory of Full Metal Alchemist, the kingdom of Xerxes is completely destroyed in what amounts to a huge alchemic ritual that rips out the souls of everyone in
the city and funnels them into a Philosopher’s stone at the exact center of the city. Everyone dies except for the character of Van Hohenheim, the father of our two protagonists, who ends up with half of those souls. The other half go to the shadowy little homunculus guy, who uses the power those souls give him to get himself a body and start putting together a plan to eat God. The climax of the story involves that same homunculus attempting to recreate that same ritual on a much grander scale. The suspiciously circular country of Amestris has
been molded for exactly this purpose over the past several centuries. Maes Hughes, everyone’s favorite character, uncovers this conspiracy in episode 10, well before any other characters or
the audience figures it out, and is promptly murdered in the first majorly
upsetting moment in the series. So this whole thing is kind of a big deal. If the homunculus succeeds, everyone
in Amestris will die, and he’ll have the power to consume
an entity, that’s probably God, and certainly way too close to being God for comfort. This plot is not world ending. It’ll depopulate a sizable country and put ultimate power in the hands of an unstable maniac on the far side of the bishounen line, but it won’t crack the planet in half or anything. But it doesn’t have to, because when that country-wide circle does activate, and we see a montage of everyone we’ve ever met in the series tipping over, it feels about as apocalyptic as it gets, and it’s not even like this is the only country we know about in the story. There are at least four major characters from Shing, and we see the brig soldiers fighting
off an army from Drachma, but because Amestris is where the
entire story has happened, it’s enough of a world for us to feel really scared when it feels like it’s gonna fall apart. Now a spoiler warning: none of those people stay dead. Literally two minutes later Hohenheim counteracts the whole thing and everyone gets their souls back but those are some stressful goddamn minutes. So the short of it is, a world ending apocalypse scenario can ironically feel significantly less high-stakes intense than a slightly smaller scale catastrophe, and saving-the-world plotlines have basically no tension anymore, because what are you gonna do? Actually destroy the world? Probably not. So …yeah. Now, I mentioned in the beginning of
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knows he’s fighting a war at all. See whenever he survives a death match
with one of the trespassers, time rolls back to the moment before Earth was under attack, leaving everyone else none the wiser. So… like, imagine Thunderdome, except the arena is a temporary time bubble,
existing outside our dimension, and when you win, no one so much as gives you a cookie. So throw in a pinch of Edge of Tomorrow to that, too. But no Tom Cruise, or Mel Gibson. And even if it’s not relevant, Matt Damon
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