I think the world revolves around me. Don’t you? Planet Earth was put here so we could tell our stories, with help from these people who feed and take care of us, plus all the other people who add hassles, grace notes, and good times along the way. Yes, rationally you know that the sun rose and set before you showed up, and it’ll keep doing it when you’re not around to watch. But do you really care?
In a videogame, you’re supposed to be the most important person around. But one of the tricks to a game world is to make you feel that there’s more here than you can see, and that the people and places around you are so real that they’ll keep humming along no matter what your character does. Stuff is happening even when you can’t see it. In a given fiction, you may save the world, but you are not the world, if you dig.
Let’s look at how two different works tread that line: the classic role-playing game Planescape: Torment, and the comic series Y: The Last Man. (SPOILERS FOLLOW. Especially for Y.)
In Planescape, you are a character with a history who can set his own future. As the Nameless One, you wake up on slab with amnesia—a plot device, sure, but one that works incredibly well for a videogame. You live in the Planescape, a strange and malleable reality where beliefs change the world, and our individual morality is reflected by eternal wars between demons that use us humans as cannon fodder. Physically, it’s hard to pin down: the action takes place in one city, but the city’s walls keep changing – get to see a street give birth – and outside, the other spaces aren’t continents, or planets. They’re planes. What is a “plane”? I don’t even know. Everything is hazy, dark, and unpredictable—the opposite of the usual fantasy settings, which are safe, and bright, and stone-by-stone familiar.
Planescape is based on an obscure Dungeons and Dragons campaign, and while I can’t tell you exactly how obscure it is, I know that in my casual D & D days I had never heard of the city of Sigil, or the demons with cockney accents, or any of the other stuff that informs this game. Most of us come into the game as blank as the protagonist. We get to learn all of the new concepts and creatures that make up this world, study the rules of the setting, and decide how to live in it. It’s so unique that you start to feel like the whole thing was designed just for you, and just for this experience you’re having.
Even better is the protagonist’s journey. This is not a “save the world” game. As the Nameless One, you’ve lived many lives and wrangled with some powerful characters. You’ve changed plenty of lives, too, and some of the ones you’ve ruined – and saved – come back to haunt you. But at the end of the day, this is just your story. (Per Chris Avellone: “We [decided], ‘We’re just going to make everything about you. This is your journey, the planes aren’t going to explode—it’s all about your personal journey, and about everything that took place that you did beforehand that’s caused this situation.’ And that’s how we wanted to keep it. You want to have a totally selfish adventure? I’m right there with you.”) This is your conflict, and the world could care less how it all turns out—which is hammered home by the finale, which is anti-climactic, and appropriate.
A similar letdown hit me when I finished Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man. The series ran a scheduled 60 issues, which was enough time to explore a tantalizing premise: an unknown phenomenon has killed every man on earth—except one: an immature goofball named Yorick. Yorick wanders the globe and watches as the women left by the crisis start to rebuild and get on with their lives. The main thing that keeps him going is a girlfriend he left in Australia, with whom he expects to rendezvous in Paris. But that whole quest is just for quest’s sake: it’s just an excuse to set him in motion, and when things don’t work out for these starcrossed lovers, we’re not too surprised.
But only in the last issue do we see just how small he is. On a kind of good-bye tour, Yorick meets up one last time with his sister, Hero. He mentions that he’s reading about a Welsh custom where the wedding party would throw up obstacles to test the groom and make him earn his bride. Hero asks, “You still think that’s what it was all about, huh?” and then they stop the conversation short: Hero’s lover has come back, and we find out that it’s Yorick’s ex-girlfriend, the woman who dragged him all the way to Paris. The Hero got the girl—and Yorick is not the hero.
In fact, most of the time he’s just our tour guide. Throughout Y, Yorick is our protagonist, and yeah, he grows as a person and everything. But by the end, the book reaches its logical conclusion: he’s the last remnant of something that his world no longer needs—because it’s not “his” world. The women have inherited the earth and made themselves cozy. Societies are working again; liabilities hefted on the women by societal constructs have finally been destroyed, from cloning babies to building nukes. Yes, a few men have been cloned too, but they’re there on the women’s terms, not the other way around. Yorick has no place here, and so at the end, he makes the one choice left to him: he vanishes.
Both Y and Planescape create rich, intriguing, and believable worlds. In both cases, the worlds start with a clear vision and are elaborated with thought-provoking details, sucking us in the more we learn about them. With both worlds, a protagonist leads the way in and serves as the tour guide. But in both cases, neither is necessarily a “hero.” And when each man’s story is done, we can jettison him—and the sun keeps rising and setting without him.