Friday, August 13, 2010

Breaking the Cycle Over and Over and Over

ouroboros_lezard_tatou All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.

It goes by many names: eternal recurrence, eternal return, eternal renewal, Maha Yuga, the Ouroboros (seen right), J√∂rmungandr, the wheel of time.  So many, in fact, that even if you haven’t given it much thought, you’ve probably encountered this concept before, and you’ll probably encounter it again.

The idea has roots in Indian, Egyptian, Pythagorean, and Stoic philosophies and was central to many of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works.  It’s since been co-opted by storytellers working in every medium imaginable.  Books, movies, television shows, video games: they all have their entries into the eternal recurrence catalog.

But why?  Why do our stories always return (ha!) to a concept that’s older than dirt?

Building a World on the Highest Stakes

Any story needs a world, and every world requires building.  Can you think of a worthwhile fantasy or science fiction universe that doesn’t have a preposterously dense, detailed history and lexicon?  Were you actually surprised when James Cameron invented a language for Avatar, especially since you spent your middle school years learning elvish?  To properly invest the audience in an otherworldly story, the author needs to lay down some ground rules, infuse some names and places with meaning, and cast some long foreshadows over his plot.

Constructing histories with eternal return is a bit like setting up two mirrors to face one another.  The details of one reflect into the other, creating a greater sense of depth than was first perceived.Consider The MatrixNeo is not just Neo.  He’s the sixth “One,” destined to maintain order between human and machine by destroying the very world we thought he just might save.  For better or worse, the Wachowski brothers, with this one crucial detail, extended the history of their world far beyond the audience’s expectations.  These machines have been through this terrible cycle longer than anyone imagined.  Instantly, the goal has changed from stopping the machines this time to stopping them forever

The recent reimagining of Battlestar Galactica similarly employed eternal return to raise the stakes of the story.  After sentient robots nuke their home worlds, the tattered remains of the human race, huddled together in a dilapidated flotilla, cling to a snippet of religious prophecy: “All this has happened before, and all this has happened again.” They also believe that their ancestors once found salvation on the long lost planet Earth, and this mantra of cyclical history gives them hope that they too will find a new home.  Given the dire circumstances – robots on the hunt, dwindling rations – eternal return builds great anticipation for the conclusion of this journey.  Will the prophecy come true?  It has to, doesn’t?  So they believe.

Planting Seeds in the Past

Another advantage of a cyclical history is that names, places, and events can be given significance simply by saying, “This isn’t the first time this has happened.”  Characters find evidence of their predecessors buried in the sand.  Looming, broken monuments demand explanation.  Eternal return makes these details relevant.  They are longer set dressing; they’re the title of the next chapter.

Many fictional worlds are filled with the remnants of previous cycles.  Battlestar’s religious prophecy (also a winking acknowledgement of the original Battlestar Galactica series) makes references to plot points yet to unfold in the audience’s linear experience, albeit in language so vague Nostradamus would be confused.  The final arc of Lost revealed a perpetual rise and fall to the activity of the island, necessitating the existence of two opposing guardians.  Whether or not the audience bought this as an acceptable explanation for five-plus seasons of numbers, voices, and polar bears is irrelevant.  They’d created suspense by populating their island with a school of red herrings, all under the eternal return caveat: this will mean something because it’s meant something before.

Modern videogames, with vast storage space and the (theoretical) obligation to provide players with a “deep” experience, often use notions of eternal return not only to establish history but to give the player meaningful things to discover.  In Halo, the player controls Master Chief as he traverses mystical Halos constructed by a mysterious race of Forerunners.  As the player explores them, the Halos’ true nature as weapons of mass destruction (or purification in the Forerunners’ minds) is revealed.  The Mass Effect universe comes with a similar race of ancient beings  called Protheans.  Investigation of the game’s nooks and crannies will uncover artifacts left behind by the Protheans, as well as provide clues to the nature of their disappearance.  By leveraging the stakes-rising qualities of eternal return, developers can ensure that no side quest feels insignificant or disconnected from the main storyline.

That Special Someone

Bringing up Neo before must have called your attention to one simple truth: many of these cycles exist to be broken.  It’s the Passover question: “Why is this night different from every other night?”  Audiences don’t care about the hundreds of times things went right before; they went to hear about the time it almost went terribly wrong.  Eternal return establishes a status quo, a series of expected events.  The plot worth watching/reading/experiencing is the one that upsets countless periods’ worth of expectation.

marstarmarlost-4It’s no wonder that video games – a medium that’s long since devoted itself to escapism and player empowerment – use eternal return constantly.  From the aforementioned Halos and Mass Effects to Dragon Age, numerous Final Fantasies, and now even the Starcraft franchise, breaking the cycle makes the proverbial carrot-on-the-stick impossibly large.  What if, when Mario saved Princess Toadstool, he wasn’t just saving one princess but ending once for all a long history of stolen princesses ?  (Come to think of it, the paper-thin story of the Super Mario universe is an excellent example of eternal return.)  “You’ve done it!  We could never have broken this long chain of disasters without your intervention!” the game would cry.  Music to a gamer’s ears.

Inverting the “break the cycle” formula also works.  In The Neverending Story, the world of Fantasia is repeatedly threatened by the Nothing.  Without the aid of a human child, the Nothing will consume Fantasia for good.  Thus Fantasia regularly enlists the help of an outsider to rename its princess and start the cycle anew.  It doesn’t feel as drastic as actually unhinging the Ouroboros from its tail, but in this fiction that’s what is in danger of happening.  Sometimes preserving the cycle can be just as important as breaking it – if you have the right person for the job.

We include recurring histories in our stories for a number of reasons.  Eternal return can bring either joy or despair depending on one’s perspective.  The idea that good and bad events take turns can give hope to those in troubled times or depress someone on cloud nine.  Sometimes it’s reassuring to know that someone’s been there before, even while desperately trying to follow their footsteps so you won’t feel lost.  And sometimes you need to hear that the cycle can be broken, if what’s looming on the horizon is just too terrible to bear.  Our stories reflect these desires, fulfill these needs.  That’s why we tell them over and over.

All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.