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February 5, 2015

What’s The Deal With Chosen Ones?

Well, I was planning on tossing up a different post, but this one’s going to have to take precedence.  Blame Hollywood.

Now then.  If you’ve followed this blog for long enough, you may know that I have…expressed my distaste for Final Fantasy 13-2 (i.e. I consider it the worst game I’ve ever played).  That distaste stands strong today, but there’s been a nasty side effect: since then, I’ve been iffy about any story that features time travel.  More specifically, if a story features some space-time shenanigans, then I’m hoping that it’s used to great effect.  Based on what I’ve seen semi-recently, my hopes have been dashed.  It’s to the point where I waited for good news on Project Almanac -- though apparently, I was a fool for putting stock in a Platinum Dunes production.

Still, there was one other movie I was interested in, and as such checked Rotten Tomatoes much more frequently than I usually do.  Said movie?  Jupiter Ascending.  Because as you know, SPACE IS AWESOME…but even the awesomeness of space is hard to swallow based on the info surrounding the movie.  I remember looking up info and plot details, and upon reading up on how Mila Kunis plays some prophesized queen of the galaxy or whatever, my heart sank so fast that it’s shacking up with mole-men.  Even then, I figured that the movie would be good enough.  It’s not the first story to feature a chosen one, and it won’t be the last.  As long as the execution is high enough, then --

It pretty much started at 35% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Oooooooooooof.

The percentage has gone up since then (as of this writing, at least), but on the other hand?  The review up on Badass Digest starts with -- and I quote -- “How the hell did this happen?”  That’s not a good place to be in, reception-wise; by the sound of things, that’s not a good place for the movie itself to be in, quality-wise.  I can’t pass judgment on something that I haven’t seen, but at this stage, I can’t help but wonder.  There’s a nagging voice in the back of my head saying “Eat another blueberry muffin!  It’s delicious!”  And there’s an even louder nagging voice that’s shouting “It’s a bad movie because it uses the whole chosen one angle again!”

That’s incredibly unfair.  Having a chosen one isn’t an automatic failure state.  If nothing else, just think about the different ways stories have established a character as the chosen one.  Some are chosen by prophecies.  Some have it woven into their DNA or blood.  Some have a duty thanks to familial ties -- though I guess that still counts as blood, but you get the idea.  Like any trope, the chosen one angle is something that anyone can play with if they’ve got the skill and/or the guts.  It’s a starting point.  Even then, it’s a convention of the story that isn’t necessarily the focus of the story.  Everything surrounding him/her is what determines whether the tale is worthwhile or a waste of time.

And yet…

MovieBob talked about destiny as a plot device a while back, so I’ll refer you to that video.  That’s the YouTube link, which tends to lag behind the Escapist posting by a couple of weeks -- meaning that a problem we faced back in March of 2014 is still a problem we face in 2015.  Okay, granted it takes more than just a couple of weeks for a movie to get fully made, so we’re not going to see sweeping reforms via some kind of massive, turn-on-a-dime course correction.  Jupiter Ascending relying on a chosen heroine?  That’s unfortunate, but understandable.  Seventh Son painting a picture of using roughly the same concept?  Ehhhhh.  And then I remember that Percy Jackson was a thing that happened, and I get weak in the knees.

It’s worth noting that this post isn’t just coming from the impending theatrical release of Jupiter Ascending; it’s coming off of a guy who’s been watching the Nostalgia Critic’s Matrix Month.  Confession time: I’ve never seen the original Matrix (well, I have, but only while it was on TV, and while I was putting ten times more attention toward something else), and I zoned out so thoroughly for Reloaded and Revolutions that I might as well have not seen them.  So while the Critic ultimately had positives to mention by videos’ end, when I see a takedown of the original movie, I don’t think “Well, it was a rocky start to a solid franchise.”  I think “Wow, this seems like some hot garbage.”

Seeing things from the perspective of an internet comedian doesn’t put the movie in the best light, I know.  But still, part of what makes NC’s stuff so interesting is that even if it’s dished out in a joking manner, there’s truth behind it -- in-depth looks that make a strong argument for “why this works” and “why this is bad”.  And my takeaway from the first Matrix is that even if the movies as a whole would go on to inspire creators and cinema alike, the actual products leave a lot to be desired.  Neo and the people around him aren’t characters, but bland cutouts that you can only count on for grating dialogue and big dumb action scenes.  Neo specifically takes the chosen one angle and makes it not only boring as sin, but groan-inducing.

A normal nobody becoming a savior shouldn’t be that irritating; in a way, that’s the basic road map for heroes in any story.  But it’s just so easy for Neo that it strips a lot of the spark from the movie(s).  He’s prophesized to save humanity!  He has the support of virtually everyone!  He falls in love [citation needed]!  He’s better than everyone else!  He becomes even better than better than everyone else, making them mostly irrelevant!  He can beat all the baddies -- and before trilogy’s end the only way he can really lose is if he does dumb stuff or gives up!  He’s so Jesus, you guys!  Like you don’t even know!

I was under the impression that stories needed to balance their elements if they wanted to be good.  With a chosen one story, it’s as if that balance is shifted -- like putting a brick on the side of said chosen one.  Because of that -- because “destiny, lol” -- it’s not just the story that gets distorted; the chosen one does, too.  Can you have uniqueness, personality and charisma even with a prophecy or fate hanging over your head?  Sure. 

But it feels like all of that gets buried by the needs of the plot, itself lessened in impact because it runs the risk of being crushed by that allegorical brick.  Even beyond that, what does it say about characters in general when the only way to take them out of their comfort zone is to force them to act because of some higher power?

Motivation can be a big part of a character.  Hell, it might be THE big part that establishes a character.  Someone who decides to strike out and do the right thing (whatever that may be in the context of a story) is different from someone who just does the right thing because someone told them to, or because they feel they have to.  I’m more inclined to believe that the former is a true savior because no one’s forcing them to put their lives on the line. 

And while it’s almost inevitable that “the hero wins, and the bad guy loses”, there’s more to it in stories without chosen ones; the hero who chooses doesn’t have any guaranteed backing to his/her name.  Or to put it a different way: outside of his schooling at Hogwarts, Harry Potter only had his friends and wits to count on as he tried to solve one mystery and beat one threat after another.  Neo got kung-fu training, the support of heavily-armed comrades, preaching from The Oracle, and tapped into godhood. 

Which one do you think kept the scales even between the good guys and the bad guys?

Again, I don’t think that having a chosen one is a failure state.  I can’t stress that enough, especially since I’m guessing some of you reading this already have counter-examples of good chosen ones in mind.  It’s my sincere hope that someday, I’m one of them; I also have a story in mind that features a chosen one.  I’ve mentioned him before, but given the subject matter I’ll bring him up again -- and how he’s not exactly the standard-fare savior.

First off?  The chosen one is NOT the main character; the true MC is someone with no built-in connection to the plot, but makes the impending disaster his problem because A) he knows something’s going on, B) as far as he can tell, few others know, and C) he thinks he has what it takes to figure out and stop the disaster.  The CO is painted as the one set to save the world, but there are a ton of issues for him.  The most obvious one is that even if he IS the CO, there are discrepancies with the prophecy -- the biggest being that the disaster (i.e. the plot) is happening ten years too early

So not only are the guys working in the shadows -- let’s call them the Magipolice for now -- caught with their pants down, but the CO is WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY unprepared for the upcoming struggle against the lord of the dead.  He can handle himself in a fight, but he does so with a weapon that’s borderline useless (imagine trying to use a Buster Sword in real life, and you’re pretty much there).  He’s not the smartest, he’s at the bottom of the totem pole, his only talent lies in brute force, there’s a pretty strong argument that he’s the story’s butt monkey, and you’d be justified in wondering if the prophecy is even real.

There’s more than I can say on the subject of my CO, but that threatens to venture into spoiler territory…even though I already have, but whatever.  The important thing to take away is that there’s stuff that can be done with even the most tired conventions -- and even beyond that, it’s more than possible to make a CO into a character beyond some average Joe pulled into a magical world.  (Mine’s a self-stylized -- and exaggerated -- punk who’s “secretly” a dork.  And German!)  So yes, I’m going to try and do stuff beyond rely on the norm; if there are any would-be heroes reading this, then take solace in the fact that you’re free to do the same. 

But for now?  Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan.  Sometimes, these chosen ones are really a drag.  It wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t so common and accepted (thanks, Harry and Neo!), but it is.  Once more, it’s worth noting that not every CO is terrible, but even if they aren’t, the plotlines they follow aren’t always the most exciting -- and become less exciting precisely because we’ve seen the story beats before.  Beyond that, it leads to a special sort of trap; there are infinite stories that can be told with infinite permutations on infinite elements, so why come back to the same old thing over and over?

I ask this because of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

To the game’s credit, it’s not as if you start out as DA ONE (unless there’s a plot twist involving predestination later on).  You’re just a guy/lady who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ended up with a big green mark on your hand.  Because of that, you’re the only one(?) who can close the rifts appearing and spreading demons, setting your adventure in motion whether you like it or not.  It’s just jarring to know that in the opening minutes of the game you’re in chains and held for questioning, and in the span of an hour you’re not only called “the Herald” but saluted by soldiers and talked about by villagers lined up outside your door.  And you’re a figurehead in the Inquisition set to find out the cause of the magi-shenanigans. 

I’m not going to write Inquisition off yet, because even if you are given undue importance, the story so far -- i.e. in the opening hours I can’t get past because I keep remaking my character -- paint you as not a virtuous devil-slayer, but as a tool to be exploited to gain favor.  I said figurehead, and I meant it; you’re a celebrity out to leave people starry-eyed enough to suspend their thought and earn their sway.  That’s pretty interesting, I’d say.  But even if that’s the case throughout the whole game, it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.    Because…well, maybe my memory’s hazy, but isn’t this almost exactly how Mass Effect got set up?

Shepard may not have been a prisoner, but after coming in contact with the mysterious thing du jour, he became a symbolic herald; he learned about the Reapers’ threat, and early in the plot he gets everything he needs to become a space-age savior -- his own ship, a crew, the title of Commander, what have you.  Both Mass Effect and Dragon Age do well enough by way of the intricacies of their universes and their plots (I guess that’s the BioWare touch), but the shadow still lingers over both.  Why do I have to be named the savior at the outset, or at least pushed close enough to that position?  Why can’t I naturally progress toward being the savior of the world instead of being put into such a rigid role in the plot? 

I know that for those two games (and plenty of others) the universe does technically revolve around the player and his/her actions.  But even so, it just feels so…transparent.  It’s a difference you could accuse of mere semantics, but I think it’s an important one.  Instead of letting me become a hero, some games just say “You’re the hero!” and cut out stuff that seems pointless, but might actually be some of the most important stuff a game has to offer.  Sometimes, there aren’t any shortcuts a creator can take -- especially if they’re out to make something on a massive scale.

I get it, though.  There’s a strong temptation to take shortcuts, especially if the assumption is that a story’s other beats are strong enough or cool enough to add some flair.  Concessions have to be made, in games or otherwise.  Frankly, I’d consider it a win for next-gen games if any one of them could feature multiple, fully-formed plotlines instead of a single embellished one for every player to follow.  But even if that’s the case, and even if there are constraints that have to be minded, I have to wonder: are those limits in place out of necessity?  Or are they there because of forced impositions?  Or simply because someone wrote him/herself into a corner?

I don’t want to assume the worst of creators who’ve banked on Cos -- because it’s worth remembering that they ARE people.  But I can still expect more from them, and ask for more from them, and hope for more from them.  My standards are my own (notoriously high as they may be), so I can’t demand everyone, creator or audience, conform to them without complaint.  But if nothing else?  Is it really so wrong for me, or anyone else, to say “Hey, maybe don’t mash the chosen one button so hard”?

I sure hope not.  We all need those fingers so we can play more Smash Bros.

aw yiss


  1. I have some comments to make on this. They'll come soon. It's good that you mentioned BioWare, as we need to delve into some of their past, better work: Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate (2, which is my favorite).

    Talk soon.

  2. The topic of chosen heroes is now making me acknowledge the elephant in the room of my childhood. As much as I adore it to tears, the Zelda series has this problem too. And it's why I never beat Windwaker. It's the closest game in decades to being a heavy exploration game like the first Zelda in the 80's and it has some of the best aesthetics and gameplay in the 3D side of the series. Hell, the story was perfectly fine until the "Triforce mythos" bomb destroyed the experience for me.

    I apologize for the SPOILERS.

    Windwaker was the one time where I didn't want Link to be the "goddess' chosen one"; I just wanted him to save his sister and grow up to be a worldly sailor/pirate. The damn curse Skyward Sword canonized is a beaten dead horse with no resolution or ending in sight, and it's physically painful to endure depending on the game and it's story. WW Link was just an ordinary kid leaving his home to explore the vast open sea to find his adorable sister so his grandmother doesn't die from multiple heart attacks. The game was most compelling when Link had to go out, find new weapons, and grow stronger to take down the SOBs who nearly tore his family apart. Once Link reunited with his sister about halfway through the game, I felt things should have been done. Instead, we had yet another master plan of Ganondorf using the Triforce to take over the world b/c destiny said so and blah, blah, blah... My sense of agency vanished to the point that I quit playing once I stood outside of the room to the final boss. I just couldn't do it.

    To me, Windwaker didn't do the best job in transitioning the focus from a personal story to a chosen one narrative. Sure, there were plenty of times in dungeons when someone told Link of mysterious stories of the past and other legends, but they felt more like interesting backstory and world-building, not foreshadowing for the billionth Link vs Ganon fight. So once Aryll is saved and the Hyrule/Triforce/Goddesses stuff took the front seat, it felt jarring enough to send the game's pacing to a crawl. (Tetra's change in personality b/c of the story's shift in ideas highlights this problem greatly for me. It was practically a 180-degree character reversal.)

    Maybe I'm being too hard on Windwaker. Maybe I'm alone in feeling that the chosen hero schtick wasn't needed to make it a great game. Maybe I'm overthinking it since I've been in the mood for Zelda for the past month. The series' backbone relies on the chosen hero trope - not always in a bad way - but it's getting repetitive to the point that the different incarnations of Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf are nothing more but pawns or cogs in the machine. They may lose the elements of what make them characters if the Triforce shenanigans keep reoccurring in a copy-and-paste fashion, especially if one of the games has a story in which that dynamic is not needed to stay true to the "essence" of Zelda: puzzles, exploration, magic, pointy ears, bizarre dungeons, and hot-blooded chickens.

    To defend Zelda, however, at least nearly every Link has to work his ass off to get anywhere close to being a badass swordsman. It's generally worked... depending on the game and the reasons why Link has to go on the journey in the first place.

  3. No need for the spoilers; I've put my fair share of time into Wind Waker, after all. Speaking of which, one of these days I should probably get around to doing a post on it. Probably.

    You're definitely not wrong about the Zelda games banking HARD on the chosen one angle...buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut with Skyward Sword behind me, I'm starting to think that's the super-secret entire point of the franchise. On the surface, Link is the hero out to save the princess (and the world) from the king of evil, in whatever form he takes next. So it's as you said; Link and Zelda and Ganon(dorf) are all cogs in the machine, but it's to make a point about how being the chosen hero, princess, and hero utterly sucks. Granted my interpretation's based heavily on SS, but I have a hunch that Wind Waker works on the same axis. Well, sort of. My theory is that WW is supposed to be a parody of Zelda canon and conventions -- and while I could be off-base on that, it's worth remembering that the game that came before it (Majora's Mask, AKA THE SICKEST GAME) is considered by many to not only be the darkest Zelda game, but a dark game in general.

    On that note, here's a helpful tip: don't go looking at high-res pictures of Majora's Mask. I seriously had some rough nightmares thanks to one measly picture. Those friggin' eyes...

    You know what, though? Wind Waker didn't NEED to be about a chosen one. IIRC, it's a hundred-years-later offshoot of the Zelda timeline; if there was ever a time to deviate from the formula and expectations (even if that formula got tweaked and prodded), it was that one. As big a risk as the cel-shaded style was, the story linked to it is still relatively safe. Maybe with the upcoming Zelda Wii U we'll see some sweeping reforms, and a bold step away from the chosen one story that the canon's relied on for ages. Maybe.

    On an unrelated note...YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO PERSONA 5


  4. Hilariously, the best approach to this in recent movie history has been the Lego Movie. The. Lego. Movie. The thing about fate / chosen ones / blah blah... is more about what it represents rather than the fact some bozo is elevated to reverence.

    The scenario is always the same. There's a unstoppable evil and SOMEone needs to step up and take care of it. Cue some wizard/wise man/leader to make up some bullcrap about destiny and someone answers the call.

    It's that simple.

    Sometimes the person that responds is a total loser, sometimes the person that responds is perfect for the job. The thing is, the tale wouldn't be told if the person SCREWED UP and the world as we know it was reduced to rubble. It is a tale.

    "Hey, remember that time the universe was almost destroyed and by some FLUKE the janitor saved us all?"

    "Yeah. That was awesome."

    No one ever tells the tale of how someone ALMOST saved the world, but stuff got blown up anyway. History is written by the winners, after all.