Epic is big. Epic is awesome. Epic lets us live the fantasy of the underdog, the tale of the fragile hero armed with good intentions and a big heart. It’s big, it’s powerful and it’s seemingly unstoppable. And if it’s epic, draws breath and happens to be incredibly ugly, it probably has to die.
But epic is detached. Epic is impersonal. Epic is epic – it’s something big for the sake of being big. What was once used to define and empower, epic has seemingly become a symbol of technological mastery, the ticking of a check box. That’s not to say I’m against all things epic, mind you – I’m simply against its misuse at the hands of developers who think bigger is always better.
Video games often confront us with epic. They insist it’s evil, they insist it’s indestructible – and they always insist that it must be killed. In fact, entire narratives are hinged on its apocalyptic tendencies. Somehow, though – just somehow – it can’t quite kill the lone protagonist, who, by comparison, may as well be armed with a water pistol and a pair of slippers.
In Mass Effect’s third, for example, Shepard’s bout of man-to-giant-mechanical-shell combat in instantly transforms the Reapers into a borderline farse – their power and reputation are sacrificed in the name of the valiant hero’s badassery. Those purple-shelled, red-eyed monsters are quickly reduced to puppy dogs covered in purple paint, armed with a laser pen and a sore throat.
BioWare’s child-like enthusiasm for elevating its heroes beyond the mantle of the average person stretches epic past breaking point. In a universe ostensibly dedicated to conveying a fantastical sense of realism, their insistence that Shepard must face something infinitely larger than his or herself – and win – obliterates the Reapers as a world-ending, all-consuming threat. Simply, they pushed epic too far.
Epic can be done right, though. Bungie’s intelligent use of sky boxes in Combat Evolved made Halo feel massive; they used epic to instill a sense of something greater. In the right context, epic is a story-teller.
Snake’s encounter with Rex in Metal Gear Solid isn’t “epic” because of its size or because it glorifies its grizzled hero – it’s epic because we watch Grey Fox sacrifice himself to save the world. We watch a human being fight the unbeatable – knowing this fact – and get totally crushed. The difference between the massive and the minute paints a powerful picture of sacrifice and redemption. It wasn’t just a modern day rendition of David and Goliath.
Epic needs a breather. Give the hero a quest that lets them fight on their own terms. When pitched against an antagonist of a similar size, we can relate to it. Each side is essentially restricted by the same worldly limitations. We know what they’re capable of, and they, what we’re capable of. It’s tense, it’s real. Epic, on the other hand, almost always parts ways with a pile of betrayed expectations.
In Star Wars, Luke versus Vader is a far more intense, far more “epic” conflict than its Death Star sequences because if it’s big, shoots green stuff and happens to destroy planets, it’s probably going to die.
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