It’s always darkest before the dawn, as Harvey Dent said. Well, he was more right than you can imagine.
Today, I’m going to be talking about the importance of hope and characters in storytelling and how it’s not just grim darkness which makes a good series. To do that, I’ll be looking at two franchises that seem very different yet are surprisingly similar: Blizzard Entertainment (of Warcraft, StarCraft, and eSports fame) and A Song of Ice and Fire (better known as the Game of Thrones guys).
Let’s consider what happens in Blizzard games: Kingdoms are conquered. Heroes fall, only to rise as greater evils. Hope and justice leave the very heavens. First-Person-Shooter Justice League is broken up by an ungrateful world. Heck, each World of Warcraft expansion features some godlike entity waging war upon the races of the world, who STILL can’t stop fighting each other.
Sounds a lot like the grim darkness of the future where there is only war, huh? Well, not entirely.
A lot of grim stuff happens in Blizzard games, and that’s great for promoting conflict and creating plots. But what sets them apart from any old story which is just “things just keep getting worse”? For that matter, what is it that gives seemingly dark works their amazing reputations?
Simple. The things furthest from darkness and doom: light and hope. And they fit it in primarily through their characters. Shining beacons holding out, suggesting that not only is there an end, but they’ll fight to their last breath to make it a happy one. No matter how low a point they might reach, Blizzard develops its characters and adventures in a way that we’ll believe in them even when they don’t believe in themselves.
Pictured above: The Mighty Tomator of Rock and Roll Racing fame. Clearly I know my titles.
Now, most people familiar with Blizzard’s recent works in StarCraft 2 and such would be familiar with that. Sure, there’s some grit, there’s the apocalyptic mastermind, but ultimately there are also memorable heroes who haven’t lost hope. They still have cheer and spirit, ready to declare the cavalry’s here. And for all the sacrifice and the doomsday stakes, ultimately the players are taken on a journey to rally the forces of good and achieve something that makes them feel good about themselves. Can’t fault them for that: Their lead character for Legacy of the Void was literally dressed up in white plate like a space paladin. And Overwatch is another good example: Sad premise for the characters (while the world moves on), but with lots of hope and optimism, as embodied in their very first cinematic.
This sort of hope is easy to take for granted, especially if audiences think something needs MORE tragedy to be meaningful, like it’s some kind of Greek epic. But here’s the thing: Hope is not a token of the worlds of Blizzard. It is the soul. Whether through individuals or the deeds of many, there’s an undeniable charm and pluckiness to Blizzard’s universes. And that’s what keeps fans coming back for more.
A Song Of Ice And Fire
So that’s what happens in series with dark odds but very clear optimism and heroism. But what about a franchise that’s NOT known for optimism, where goodness and decency are rewarded with betrayal and horror? Like the world of Game of Thrones, where characters routinely remind one another and the audience that nice guys don’t just finish last, they lose everything they hold dear and their enemies rise to the top on their graves. How do THEY keep fans coming back for more? After all, Sean Bean dies (again), everyone’s favourite dwarf is repeatedly kicked down by the world, and for the most part you get the impression that your allies are either crazy, incompetent, or treacherous.
Some fans will, of course, say that’s precisely why they’re there. They think the dark tone means it’s more serious, more compelling, or that they enjoy such tragic twists as either more realistic or more dramatic. Some have a sort of love-hate relationship where they actually love to feel such anguish, while others are there because they want to see the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Some simply think it’s well-written.
Pictured above: Or it could just be the dignity of acting.
But when you talk about Game of Thrones, it’s not just the dark twists and turns which get attention. People are there because they love the characters and world so carefully built by GRR Martin. They derive such emotion from those events because they’re invested in characters. Yes, even characters of a much more damaged and cynical mould than Blizzard. Because even they can’t be just cruel and vicious for the sake of it; they need charisma, depth, diversity, or at least a sort of villainous charm. The primary ‘good’ characters tend to have some ruthlessness or ignorance to them, and grow out of it gradually or remain naïve to the end. And even the ‘bad’ or ‘unlikeable’ characters have stories that inform who they are. All these things may not shine like the spirit of Blizzard characters, but it’s there, underpinning each and every tragedy. After all, Lysa Arryn would just be a crazy lady without her sister and her obsession with Littlefinger.
The telling quality of Game of Thrones, in my opinion, isn’t its tragedy. It’s that it captures moral greys and twists them together into conflict without smothering them in endless darkness. More than the political twists, more than the myths and world building, more than the tragedy, more than piecing together every single mystery, one of the most distinctive elements of A Song of Ice and Fire’s fandom is its camps for its characters. Fans get into vigorous debates over which characters are best-suited to rule, which characters are the noblest, most cunning, or most deserving of justice. None of this would be possible without caring about Jon, or Samwell, or Daenerys. Or Hodor.
So What Do They Have In Common?
More than you would think, I respond to my section title!
Short answer: Dark settings (surprisingly so in Blizzard’s case) and characters that give them meaning (surprisingly so in Martin’s case).
One thing newer fans might not know but which older ones will NEVER forget is that in older Blizzard works, things had a much darker, grittier tone, pretty similar to Martin’s works, in fact. There was less obvious hope, there were more betrayals, more ‘unite with evil to stop the greater evil’ choices, and beloved characters died in brutal betrayals or ultimate sacrifices. This was less pronounced in Warcraft when it was mostly Orcs win, the squabbling factions have to scramble together, but it was VERY prominent in the original StarCraft. And fans of the original, much like some assumptions of Game of Thrones, thought this sort of tragedy made it BETTER.
And much like the point I made about Game of Thrones, I think that perspective is valid but incomplete. Because in both cases, the thing that really keeps them going, which gives it context, is the cast. A painstakingly created world is just a setpiece without characters to make it come to life. And events are just meaningless history without the people living through them. We can certainly appreciate incredible worlds, breathtaking twists, and resounding falls. But without something to make us care about them, they’re nothing.
And it’s not just about characters there to give things meaning. Both Blizzard and Martin regularly use the OPPOSITE to great effect. Ironically, each franchise ALSO has an example of antagonists that are just plain brutal without much justification. Ramsay Snow in the books is a lot less impishly sarcastic than in the show, making him one of the harder characters to read through. Similarly, Garrosh descends into nationalistic warmongering for the Horde and twists it into a war machine, setting up for his fall. While they have their roles and are not without their fans (some people like unashamed villains, after all), they’re the biggest examples of how unending atrocity can drive people away.
This was especially relevant since neither of them had charming points like ruthless pragmatism, surprising honour codes, or seductive charisma that the other villains around them had (we enjoy Roose Bolton and Gul’dan by contrast because they’re good at their job, have a lot of presence, and get a lot of good lines to capture their personalities). At that point, all that’s left between them and the audience is retribution.
But even then, that sort of brutal malevolence serves yet another purpose besides just creating conflict: It makes viewers keenly aware of just what they will or won’t stomach, and what they hope for in the narrative. And it contrasts with the characters around them, whether it’s the more level-headed antagonists or the opposition they’re rooting for. Through meaningless evil, we discover what truly matters.
And there you have it. The light and dark side of characters in dark places, some fighting against hopelessness while others spread it. And with those examples we see the things that both Blizzard and A Song of Ice and Fire have that keep you coming back for more: characters you can root for, turning mere events into personal adventures.
Just as fans would not put up with nothing but Ramsay torture scenes or Mengsk backstabbing everyone as the main focus, Blizzard and Martin would never have been so successful without such a compelling cast of characters to frame their adventures and give them context. Guys, girls, aliens and monsters that you could root for, or at least love to hate. Because any character can fight against the odds for the sake of survival or conflict. The real trial is winning hearts and minds through personality, and well-made characters have that in spades. Certainly more so than “Grim, Determined, Fatalistic Antihero #271.”
I can still remember considering Jim Raynor my buddy from work back when I was the Magistrate thanks to his warm, laid back demeanour, and Fenix and Tassadar my mentors who I wished would notice me, their junior Executor (which incidentally meant that I LOVED playing Artanis in Legacy). Similarly, instead of mere fatigue and disgust, Ramsay inspires horror because he does these things to characters you know like Sansa and Theon. Because tragedy without purpose is just gratuitous. And no amount of shock value can truly replace real meaning.
It’s these guys you root for as their worlds are taken away from them. And it’s these guys you wish to defend when the villains are just backstabbing left and right. When you reach the final level, fighting an entity seeking to end all things, most of us aren’t truly fighting for or hoping for the salvation of the world. We’re focused on the characters beside us. The Jon Snows, the Tyrion Lannisters, the Jim Raynors and Tassadars. There with us at the end of the galaxy for one last ride.
Many writers will say you shouldn’t be afraid to do bad things to beloved characters. True enough. But never forget the other half of that advice: building them up so they’re loved in the first place. Even with the Lich King or the Queen of Blades, even when Justice itself leaves the High Heavens…there’s hope to be found. Even when the runt of the Lannisters is falsely accused, abandoned by everyone he knows, and walks down a dark path, we don’t give up for him, but mourn him and hope for his redemption. The journey may be harsh, but it is one audiences closely walk. And whether it takes a book, an expansion pack, or even an MMO…hope finds a way.