A recent piece by writer James Whitbrook over on io9.com made a great case for smaller, more intimate adventure stories earlier this week. It caught my attention because I just sent the sequel to the Indestructibles to the publisher for editing, and while it's most definitely a superhero story, Book 2 isn't about saving the world this time (though there's quite a bit of saving). It's more about how the Indestructibles save themselves, and what happens when heroic figures are backed into a corner.
Don't get me wrong. I love saving the world, or the galaxy, or the universe. But the bar is always incredibly high in stories these days. Everyone's out to save the world, or stop the apocalypse, or prevent the end of all time. But the smaller stories can be amazing as well. The stakes don't have to be that high.
In terms of games, I keep thinking of a couple of fantasy RPGs that have been out a few years. The best example I can think of is Skyrim, because it is so ubiquitous. Yes, the main plot is stopping a Big Bad Thing and Saving Skyrim, but it's a game in which you can skip saving the world for weeks of game play in favor of finding someone's lost family heirloom, or building a house, or going on a scavenger hunt. It is filled with infinite numbers of stories small and large, and you can make your adventure as epic or as intimate as you want it to be.
Dragon Age 2 took some knocks from critics and players alike (many deserved), but I think the idea of keeping it small, making it about a single city and the inhabitants therein, a single lead character and his family and friends, a very bold choice in a genre typically focusing on saving the world. It looks like the series returns to its epic roots, but Bioware's writers have always had a knack for layering the grand with the small. The Mass Effect series is one of my favorite games (controversial ending aside), but what makes it great is how your relentless race to save all living things is so often about saving one person at a time, making one difference at a time. It's a very intimate story for such a huge adventure.
I've been meaning to write about my recent experience rereading Warren Ellis's Planetary and Authority comics for a couple of reasons, but it's worth mentioning here. The Authority (which stands up against the test of time strangely well) was all about bigger--a cinematic series where every adventure was so epic it teetered (and later, under Mark Millar's writing, toppled) into parody. What the book did best while the heroes were repelling invasions from alternate Earths or defeating a creature so big its stomach parasites have developed their own cultures and sentience was to pepper in tiny moments of wonder, where the heroes realized what they were experiencing and wondered at it. Jenny Sparks' smile at seeing a caged baby universe is in many ways better storytelling than anything else in the series.
Meanwhile Planetary, telling the secret history of the world, is massive in scope, exploring the bleeding edge of possible realities. But in the end it's about the legacy one leaves behind and it's about saving one good man who deserves a better ending to his story. It is a wonderfully intimate story.
What are you reading or playing these days? Are you tired of always saving the world? Do you have a favorite game in which the stakes are lower but the storytelling is still satisfying?
Matthew Phillion is the writer of "The Indestructibles," part-time actor, occasional filmmaker. Currently on the lam in Salem with his trusty dog, Watson.