The Universe vs. The Universal

On The Power of Small Stories

Sometimes all you need is a small story.

Yes, sometimes the whole universe needs saving but, mercifully, it's usually just fine. What's not fine is the one thing standing in front of one character. Universe-scale conflict rarely packs the emotional punch of universal conflict.

Most epic stories (Hi, Avengers) succeed by seeding their universe-sized battles with universal conflicts but I still miss smaller stories in small settings. Julie Muncy, writing at Wired, feels the same way and uses the re-release of an old game to reflect on the particular power of small stories.

Muncy deploys the 2001 game, Onimusha as an example of an endangered species: The humble "character action game".

Onimusha, as an action game created by Capcom in the years prior to Devil May Cry, stands as a foundation for what would later be called the "character action game." And yet it is so early in the subgenre's history as to be nearly unrecognizable next to its descendants. Onimusha's power is in its striking deliberateness—the frantic straightforwardness of combat, the satisfaction of slow, simple puzzles. Its hero, Samonosuke, is not a superhero. He has limited supernatural powers, but most of the game's verbs are incredibly basic. You walk, you investigate, you slash your sword, you block with your sword, and you run away. As a protagonist, he has a wonderful averageness to him. He's a good fighter, sure, but he's entirely unqualified to be dealing with the demonic nonsense before him. He's just squaring his feet, lifting his weapon, and going to fight.

It's not like the average joe action hero is an unknown quantity. Movies like Die Hardand The Fugitive (which is excellent, by the way) rely on determined protgonists in over their heads without the pure bombast of Marvel Cinematic Universe-type movies.

My favourite, and in my opinion, the best, superhero movies restict their stories in this way. Spider-man is at his most interesting when he remains a friendly neighbourhood spider-man. Even so, I have no hate for large, storied franchises. My well documented love for The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars make this pretty unequivocal. But when Paramount Pictures announced a sequel to A Quiet Place, I couldn't think of single reason to continue that story. It was a tightly focused and narrowly crafted story. Filling out the world with more monsters, requisite survivors, and far-fetched machinations, would almost certainly fail to re-bottle the lightning that little movie managed to capture.

What the world needs is more movies like A Quiet Place, not more A Quiet Placemovies. Muncy identifies the economic considerations that killed the small, experimental character action game and it turns out they're the same reason Hollywood doesn't make smart, fun movies like The Fugitive anymore.

The heyday of 'Onimusha' was also the heyday of the double-A game, where major companies could invest in modest games without major refinement or entirely coherent mechanics. Double-A games tried things. And as that budgetary middle ground died out, so did that experimentation; games turned more and more toward extraordinary characters in impossible situations, intensely powerful heroes fighting gods to reshape entire worlds.

This is why we have new Star Wars movies which, while still great in their own way, creak under the impossible task of satisfying the absolute maximum number of people. I had hope that the spinoffs under the banner of ‘A Star Wars Story’ would take more risks but the extensive reshoots of Rogue One and Solo both suggest otherwise. It's likely the considerations of mass-appeal (and maximum profit, not just of the individual movies, but the franchise) overrode whatever unique vision Phil Lord and Chris Miller had for Solo.

It's an unfortunate state of affairs but it's also an opportunity. In the video game space, indies are the new darlings, and they're doing great work. Small studios and even one-man developers are delivering small, human stories like Stardew Valley and Celeste. I rarely buy AAA games anymore, because there are smaller, cheaper, more interesting options.

Muncy is right "that heroic stories don't always have to be larger than life. They can be small, and creepy, and odd." The universe is a big place where a lot of little things happen. Let's tell some of those stories.

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