The year was 1999, and I was fully immersed in a game called Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. There are tons of reasons why Ocarina of Time was an amazing game, and even more articles explaining (/ frothing at the mouth) as to why. Today I want to focus on just one, the one that can actually translate to other mediums.
OoT starts out with your main character, Link, as a young child. (Seriously the dude must be five or six.) You’re growing up in this happy, bright forest home, surrounded by pixies and fairies and I don’t know what the fuck else, spending your time with your bestest bud who happens to be an adorable elf with anime eyes times ten. Then you start out on an adventure which involves you walking around your immediate vicinity and noticing that, hey, everywhere else is whimsical and cute too.
But then, things change. Your character hops into a time portal and comes out the other side a fully grown man (which happens at the age of 17 according to the Japanese.) The world changes drastically from a cute, bright and overall pleasant society into something permanently dark, with a lot of miserable people and monsters all over the place. The cause is a guy named Gannon, but what he does, I have no idea. (You miss it because of the time warp.)
Anyway, this is such a brilliant narrative move. You have no idea what Gannon does to mess things up, but you hate him anyway. You hate him because you saw how bad he makes things when you fail. It adds an immense amount of pressure to the game. You know that your character must succeed because you know how nice the world is without this schmuck in it.
Compare it to the world of, say, Star Wars, for example. Despite his shady administrative practices, can you really say what the Emperor or Darth Vader did to the galaxy to make it so terrible? I mean, everything seems to be pretty ok, right?
As an audience, we need to be shown what’s at stake to create tension, and only a few pieces of entertainment (that I can recall) actually go so far as to show you what happens when the hero loses. In general, these tend to be very good games or movies.
To take another example from movies, recall the Shire in The Lord of the Rings. Throughout the entire trilogy, we’re shown and reminded that the Shire is a blissful, peaceful existence, free from any worry in the world and seemingly picturesque in its perfection. Then, as the characters’ minds begin to wander, they arrive at thoughts of the orcs arriving at the Shire, and effing its es up. “There won’t be a Shire, Pip,” is the epitome of this idea. The hobbits are sick of this whole business and want to go back to where life is easy, but the only thing that stops them is the fact that the Shire won’t be easy peasy no more. You almost get a general sense of, “Well, fuck the rest of the world, but don’t touch the Shire.” Again, this furthers the tension in the movie, as you really don’t want to see a hobbit get murdered in his little hill house.
Going back to video games, recall Final Fantasy VI. In it, you spend roughly half the game in an admittedly imperfect world, and then seemingly out of nowhere, the antagonist destroys it. The continents shift, populations are wiped out, your team of heroes is divided and distraught. One of your characters joins the enemy side. One of them contemplates suicide. For the most part, all of your people just give up on fighting.
In this scenario, there wasn’t really a “perfect world”, but the results are still the same, if not more devastating. Here, life goes from being “so-so” to “completely fucking unbearable.” You begin to see that it’s not a question of the antagonist ruling the world or somebody else ruling the world, but instead realizing that if this bad guy stays in charge, everyone will slowly, mercilessly die. It makes you despise the antagonist and puts so much pressure on you as a gamer that you feel you have to defeat him. There’s no way he can allowed to do this! That little 32-bit son of a bitch!
This seems like such an effective method that I have no idea why more movies and games don’t do it.