Considering how often I like to talk about stories (particularly in video games and the like), I thought I’d take some time to examine why such things even exist. Why are stories so important to us? Back at the dawn of our existence, sitting around a campfire, we shared stories of the hunt with our fellow humans. What is their purpose? Why do we seem to need them?
Recently some outrage occurred on the internet (big shock right). It was announced that for the new Star Wars movie they were throwing out most of the expanded universe (essentially stories that exist in some form beyond the movies). This got some hardcore fans really upset, with some making the comment that they quote “wasted twenty years” reading those books, as if one person or company’s re-evaluation of canonical material immediately invalidates another’s enjoyment of it. If you enjoyed reading those books, you didn’t waste your time is how I see it. But it made me wonder, why were people so up in arms about it? What power do these stories hold, and why are they so important to the people who read them?
We’re going into existential territory this week, so sit back and enjoy the ride.
The most obvious reason for the intrinsic value of stories is escapism. The grind of everyday life can get to us, as it often does. Sometimes, we need to immerse ourselves in a world not guided by complex social and societal factors, where money isn’t always a constant concern, and where events and people are larger than life. We want the comfort of a place scripted beforehand, where the events are carefully crafted and constructed by a writer for the enjoyment of the audience. Nothing goes wrong without intention. The randomness of the real world does not apply.
Dragons, fairies, heroes and villains, all tropes of a fantasy world that doesn’t abide by the rules of the world we live in. Whenever we read these books, watch these movies, or play these games, we are visiting an impossible realm of magical proportions. No one who went and saw Lord of the Rings in theaters thought to themselves “yeah, that’s an accurate depiction of life”. Realism isn’t usually a primary concern with such things. The entire point of it is to be fantastic, because that’s what people are drawn to.
When I fire up a game like Dark Fall or Alan Wake, I don’t go into it analyzing it by real world mechanics. I don’t question the plausibility of ghosts and the supernatural. I enjoy the ride, let myself be taken away by the fantastic elements present in the games. It’s not about how realistic it is, it’s about how enjoyable it is as a form of entertainment. Sometimes I feel like people forget that, and start over-analyzing all the little details. Because in the end, no piece of narrative fiction is truly realistic because it’s always scripted in the same ways and never changes, unlike real life (unless you want to get into solipsism in which case, for the love of god, don’t).
Escapism helps explain most of our fascination with stories, but what about those other stories, the ones with characters that aren’t perfectly heroic or morally good? What about those stories with characters you don’t care for, characters whose actions can cause you to despise them? Where do their stories fit in, and why are we so fascinated with them? Why is Walter White’s slow descent into evil in Breaking Bad such a fascinating experience for us?
It has to do with something I like to call the Mirror Effect. There’s a genre of literature called satire, where the follies and evils of humankind were made to be larger than life and more ridiculous for the sake of pointing them out to the audience. The story’s purpose in that sense was moralistic, to point out our flaws so that we can better ourselves. Essentially, it put a mirror up to our society so that we could see in full view the things we ignore or just plain don’t notice in our culture that are considered detrimental by the author. Satires were especially big during Shakespeare’s era, with many playwrights leaving social commentary peppered throughout their works.
But it’s not just satire that falls under this effect. Many works that aren’t satires have left their comments on our societal ills. The 2009 movie District 9 is a clear example, with the story of humans oppressing and mistreating extra-terrestrial refugees a dead ringer for rampant racism that is still present in our modern day. Stories classified under the horror genre are good at this as well, exposing our very human faults and our capacities for great evil, greater than some of us can even imagine.
In Walter White’s case, it is a tale of greed and pride gone too far, of vanity that destroys. At the beginning of Breaking Bad, Walter has a chance to solve his issues without going into the drug trade. However, for reasons of pride, he chooses to make meth instead of accept charity from people he dislikes. Walter slowly and surely transforms into a monster, and by the end of Breaking Bad‘s five season run, he has alienated himself from everyone he cares about, and the fault lies directly with him. But we still understand his choices despite the absolute terror he becomes, because his choices are so flawed but so human at the same time.
The power of narrative fiction to reveal certain truths present within ourselves and our society cannot and should not be denied. But they can only go so far. Stories aren’t some mystical magic spell. They can’t just fix our problems just by existing. What they can do is point them out to us. Fiction can be like a signpost, pointing the way to our problems so that we can build our way to the solutions.
In the end though, I think it mostly comes down to entertainment. Stories are there for us to enjoy. We like seeing this portrayals of over the top heroes just as much as we like watching the flawed anti-heroes. We like watching stuff explode and people struggle with issues that are both believable and ridiculous. We like watching the drama unfold, because it is thrilling for us.
I feel like the people who complain all the time about certain things not being realistic in a movie or television show or whatever are missing the point. Who cares if that car wouldn’t explode like that in real life? Who cares if that explosion wouldn’t be that big realistically? Who cares if that object wouldn’t float that way in space? It’s entertainment, pure and simple. If you find yourself spending more time focusing on such tiny details, then I’d say you’re missing the point. You can think that way if you want, but I feel like you’re just depriving yourself of a good experience over something incredibly inconsequential.
It started with tales around a stone age campfire, progressed through myths and fables, and has since become a multi-billion dollar industry of storytelling, for better or worse. Storytelling comes as naturally to humans as breathing and walking. It is fundamental. It is powerful. And it is here to stay.
We all have our different ways of enjoying stories, but we enjoy stories nonetheless. Regardless of our own personal preferences and inclinations, we can all agree on the fact that our love for fictional narratives runs deep down into our history. We can complain about the state of Hollywood, that the movie industry has become a place for phonies. We can complain that the video games industry has become too focused on money and budgets. But the fact remains that despite all that, we will continue to look for new stories to enjoy. We will continue to indulge our lust for escapism, our almost voyeuristic interest in the lives of fictional people. Because that is who we are. We are storytellers. We are creative. We are artists. We are human.
And that’s all for this week. To access next week’s post, run down a long hallway, narrowly escaping an explosion by diving out a window at the other end. Until then, have a great week. See you next Wednesday.
The picture from the video game Max Payne 3 was taken from the Steam store page here.