Tropes are difficult to work with. They’re broadly useful to tease apart patterns but because they interact with one another, each individual instance of a trope will slightly escape perfect definition. Encountering this uniqueness is where we have to do the work of reading and figuring out just how texts co-mingle to communicate something greater than the sum of their parts. It’s also why it’s usually possible to explain how, say, the damsel in distress in that movie you like isn’t really a damsel in distress because she surrendered herself to protect the innocent child. See, she’s not really a damsel because she still had agency in being damseled, or she escaped the cage in just enough time to meet up with the hero, or she’s not the hero’s love interest so her status is not really that of a prize.
You should be rolling your eyes now, but it’s a common thing to hear and it’s the sort of reasoning I myself have deployed to defend Thing I Like 2: The Reckoning. But cherry-picking information to ignore a pattern doesn’t just stifle how we can talk about a text, it washes out the particularities of how the pattern behaves when played with. To stay within the same example, a dude in distress simply doesn’t operate the same way as a damsel in distress even if a text substitutes a helpless woman’s body/voice with a man’s because the cultural experience with women is just different from that with men.1
Of course, that doesn’t mean we stop unpacking individual instances that fit/break within a particular trope, nor does it mean we resist inverting, subverting or remixing tropes either: it just means we have to pay attention to how patterns reshape when stress is placed on them in unusual ways.
Even when an actor’s script or audiovisual data are rote copied, subtext will change under the stress of recoding gender.2 Alternatively, the unwritten rules dictating how a character of one gender is supposed to act don’t cross neatly into other genders.3 I’ve written a bit about apocalyptic narratives on this blog in the past and it seems like a good time to bring them up again. A minor twist in Tomorrowland (and feel free to skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers, if that’s your thing) is that the environmental, epidemic, governmental and military disasters facing the world are a result of people feeding their anxieties, of people losing hope in the future. Appropriately, early in the film it leans on 1960’s retro-future optimism in contrast with the cynicism and terror that’s characterized science fiction intermittently since the 80’s.
The solution to the apocalypse, then, is to have more hope in the world as it is. Calling a film targeting children naive feels a bit, well, naive, but Tomorrowland isn’t the only one of its kind. The subtext of WALL-E, Andrew Stanton’s 2008 animated film, follows the titular lovestruck trash cleanup robot through space, where a complacent and consumptive humanity learns the value of nature and hard work just in time to return home and restore a dead planet back to its proper condition. In both films the forces of apocalypse aren’t in the structures of human behaviour, they’re in the execution: consumption is bad, but only because we’re doing it wrong; the future is scary, but only because we’re thinking about it in the wrong way. This seems to be a theme in western apocalyptic narratives. The fear of The Road or Mad Max is that, without society as it stands, violence and unrelenting chaos is the only alternative, where WALL-E or Tomorrowland would have us put faith in the world to avoid fulfilling the fears of a world without the system as-is. Without the even hand of the free market everything will fall apart and failing to believe in it is disastrous. Conversely, in The Walking Dead we see the romance of the patriarchy: Rick Grimes, officer of the law and father-figure to his salt-of-the-earth survivors keeps order and stability in a dead world; the Souls games take place in a kingdom in ruins but through practice and dedication the hero can overcome every monster in the castle.
These texts treat the apocalypse as something that can be avoided, prevented or recovered from using the tools of the status quo, or as hopeless murder festivals resulting from the breakdown of the status quo. If there is a world after the world, it’s one that valorizes the one we live in now. I stress that this is a western phenomenon because westerners tend to benefit most from the status quo. I’m not advocating for an apocalypse, but apocalyptic narratives frame the possibility and necessity of life-shattering, world-restructuring change. The Apocalypse, technically, is inconceivable to humans. A true end of human life is unimaginable. Even in the bible, Revelations describes a great change with a world built after it. We can’t imagine a world without us in it. That’s usually taken as a token of arrogance (how full of ourselves we must be to think that we must exist) but what good is it to prepare for the absence of us? Wonder about it or fear it, sure, but the apocalyptic narrative describes a time of change: it’s an allegorical warning and an opportunity for renewal.
The west’s idea of apocalypse comes with mostly fear. It comes with the knowledge that everything falls apart eventually and that the status quo is unsustainable: what will we be when everything is gone? TS Eliot’s The Waste Land encapsulates the fear of the end of days: a world of uncoordinated culture blown apart with the wreckage strewn about by The Great War and influenza. But the apocalypse narrative changes when different tropes are mixed in. Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard, the first Nigerian novel published in English in 1949 (by Faber and Faber, the same publisher who printed Eliot’s work and the work of other modernists), while not expressly an apocalyptic narrative, points to some useful modes of thinking about the genre.
Specifically, the novel describes a high realist situation: a wealthy landowner’s father dies suddenly and so he becomes a drinkard, until his only friend, the palm wine tapster, also suddenly dies. This is a story about a man enduring sudden, unexplainable grief and loss. But you might not know that because the novel is narrated in a dialect cumbersome to EuroAmerican English speakers, combining Yoruba myth with urban and folk legends. I open describing its realist qualities because they’re so effectively buried by magic. The drinkard, a juju man and father of the gods, travels from town to town across lands and time to the village of the dead to rescue the tapster. The novel is primarily the working of magic in a contemporary context but it’s centred on loss and death; I stress that the novel is magical realism because the magic frames an understanding of reality and becomes its equal. Even though the drinkard can transform himself and other objects, fly and travel to heaven, the old world with his father and his friend is over and his journey to retrieve what’s lost is doomed. He can, however, find new worlds and a new place for the wreckage of the old. Like Eliot’s The Waste Land, The Palm Wine Drinkard is a collision point for a whole slew of cultural artifacts, mixing myth, folklore, high art and history into a single story. Also like The Waste Land, The Palm Wine Drinkard deals expressly with grief, uncertainty and mourning. But where The Waste Land is a text of pure panic, there is possibility in The Palm Wine Drinkard: there is the attempt to organize new identity with the old and the existing.
Significantly, as a Nigerian novel, it speaks to a non-western vision of worlds ending because in many ways colonialism of sub Saharan Africa was an apocalypse: that world is gone with few traces left, leaving the survivors to rebuild something over the ruins. Most of the national borders in Africa today are a vestige of the Berlin conference and have barely changed since the race to colonize the continent. I bring up The Palm Wine Drinkard because it’s referred to directly and indirectly in Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, which is an apocalyptic narrative. [Content warning: genocide and sexual assault] Okorofor wrote the novel in 2010, responding to, among other things, the rapes and genocide during the ongoing Darfur conflict in Sudan, the novel’s post-apocalyptic setting. This is perhaps where the novel most obviously changes the apocalyptic narrative under the stress of a different gender: rape is used usually in speculative fiction to move the plot, not threaten the protagonist. The novel’s protagonist, Onyesonwu, is not under constant threat of rape—she faces that threat once but she isn’t repeatedly confronted with it in the way that Sansa Stark of Game of Thrones is 4—but sexual assault looms over her. She is a child of rape and is stigmatized by a community that believes a child of mixed race is only possible through rape and one who comes from violence can only beget more violence. [End content warning]
Although Onyesonwu is a powerful sorcerer fated to change the world, her gender keeps recycling into the narrative. Her childhood friend and eventual lover, Mwita, is a healer jealous of her power. Although the two support one another in their journey, when they do antagonize one another it’s often over gender roles, perhaps nowhere more obviously than when Mwita barks at her, “I should be the sorcerer, you should be the healer. That’s how it’s always been between a man and woman” (274). Tellingly, Onye’s gender disrupts the otherwise loving relationship with her partner, and the ability to shape shift and lay curses mean nothing next to her gender expectations. [Content warning: female genital mutilation] Early in the novel she voluntarily undergoes a ritual clitoridectomy in hopes that her town would accept a mixed-race child. Moreover, the ritual involves a curse that Aro, a local sorcerer, uses to contain her powers. As a woman, Onye is twice disempowered by men anxious about her power; by Mwita, her lover who feels entitled to her ability, and Aro, who uses female genital mutilation to literally control what she can and can’t do. Although Mwita is, again, more complicated a character than this paragraph gives him credit for and Aro eventually becomes one of Onye’s mentors when she breaks his curse, it still illustrates how her gender follows her on her journey.
Importantly, though, her experience with the apocalypse is not mired in obsessions with the old world although she and others do comment on it. Onyesonwu and her ensemble, like The Palm Wine Drinkard which it references, take the reader across lands and peoples in fear and mourning, but their goal is to rewrite the Great Book motivating the ethnic conflicts in the world. Halfway through the novel, Onyesonwu uses her magic to restore her and her friends’s clitorises with her magic. Thus, she and the other women in the ensemble reclaim their sexuality which was literally used to withhold Onye’s power through a ritualized annihilation of female sexual agency. I’ve heard others express some discomfort with this event because it trivializes the experiences of real women who’ve suffered genital mutilations, and although I don’t have room to entertain that argument I understand it. Narratively, though, the novel equates sexual self-direction with world-shaping power and Onye’s restoration and sharing that power is an act of self-making; I also don’t think we’re to take the magic as pure fantasy because, like The Palm Wine Drinkard, magic in this novel serves to reframe reality, not escape from it or hide it [End content warning].
Finally, Onye’s goal is to self-make through controlling a cultural narrative through rewriting the Great Book and, though the task is costly and Onye’s magic can’t transform everyone overnight, the goal is to lay the groundwork for a new world. The apocalypse is not just the end of a world, it’s the process of self-making in the face of destruction.
The very last text I want to discuss in this regard is Toren, a brief puzzle/exploration game developed by Sword Tales, a team based out of Brazil. I believe Toren ties many of these threads—magic realism, apocalypse, world changing and femininity—in a way that I find deeply fascinating and exciting. Like the other texts I’ve focused on in this essay, Toren is magically realist. It takes place in a tower created by an ancient, dead civilization represented by the still speaking voice of a dead mage. The player takes the role of the Moonchild, a young girl tasked with restoring the moon at the end of the world and restoring life to the sun-baked planet. To do so, the Moonchild must acquire a magic sword and defeat the dragon guarding the tower’s peak.
Most of the game is spent hunting down the sword and playing cat and mouse with the dragon with the power binary between them flipping back and forth. I mentioned in my review of it that there are shades of Legend of Zelda, Shadow of the Colossus, Vagrant Story and others, but none of them alone really capture what Toren is (Review: Toren. PopMatters. May 19 2015.). The player will spend about half the game engaged in meditation represented by highly stylized backgrounds representative of the emotion the Moonchild meditates on in a given scene, while the mage relays a prose poem about how the world collapsed and the moon departed. While not all these segments are necessary to completing the game, most can be found without straying far from the game’s path. In these segments, the player must solve puzzles and trace sacred symbols, pouring salt into the shape as they walk over it. These quiet moments of prayer-like patience mechanize the meditation in the narrative and gradually reveal the story of the mage—the man who built the tower in the name of reckless progress—and Solidar—the leader banished for second guessing perpetual upward mobility. In these moments, the player enacts the second guessing, slowly tracing patterns and interrupting linear progress so that the player’s mentor, the mage can communicate his regret.
In the “real” world, the player divides time between infancy, pre-teen and adult avatars, but not in a straight line. Time and progress don’t flow in one direction. Additionally, when the Moonchild acquires the sword, the dragon becomes helpless before her; she occupies as much time as a hunter as she does as a prisoner. Significantly, the player also divides their time between beleaguered survival and heroic demi-godhood through the changes in tattered clothing and magical face tattoos. Sometimes the Moonchild shuffles forward in rags, sometimes she charges wearing a cape and a silver dress. These changes in costuming and the different forms of power they’re associated with don’t follow an arc of progress, moments of power lead to moments of helplessness, moments of death lead to moments of growth. These screenshots, hopefully, will illustrate the great changes between how the player looks while exploring the tower:
Toren‘s post-apocalyptic narrative becomes most poignant in its use of death. The game offers an achievement for the first time the player dies. Normally I ignore achievements as obnoxious paratext at best or exploitative Skinner boxes at worst, but here I think it points to the game’s aesthetic approach. One of the dragon’s powers is to petrify anyone not holding the sacred sword by gazing at them. Near the beginning, the player must race between columns while the dragon scans for them. One gap between columns is too wide to reach without a perfect sprint. Getting caught, the player freezes in place and turns to stone, the game returns to the last save state after the mage imparts a token of poetically cryptic wisdom. However, the player’s frozen avatar from the last attempt is still there on the next attempt. Meaning the player can now use the statue of their failure as cover from the dragon’s gaze the next time around. Death and failure are not permanent states: apocalypse offers resources for the next attempt.
Similarly, the player must defeat the dragon numerous times throughout the game: the world is not saved once, but is constantly placed in the same old peril and constantly saved only for the same monster to return. Slaying the monster is only temporary. The game finally ends when Solidar returns from his banishment to the stars back to the tower of salvation to confront the dragon along with the Moonchild. Together, Solidar’s shield must protect the Moonchild from the dragon’s wings while the Moonchild must protect Solidar from the dragon’s gaze. Ultimately, to kill the dragon, Solidar must die too. In this way, the three are made one, the Moonchild as a figure of rebirth and renewal, Solidar as the figure of leadership and questioning and the dragon as a monster ensuring destruction. When the Moonchild restores the moon and disassembles the tower, the credits roll over scrolling artwork of technological progress, ending once again with the tower, the dead mage holding a flower, which a new Moonchild plants in the centre of the tower, promising a new cycle of life.
The apocalypse is inevitable and renewal is inevitable. Furthermore, the main character, a baby/girl/woman is equal parts prey, champion, monster and deity through the nonlinear flow of time in an otherwise linear game. Finally, I think her gender speaks to something as well. I don’t know that the game would quite work with a male hero because the cultural experience of men as victims or as religious figures isn’t punctuated as sharply—although the fact that Solidar, the warrior king, is characterized through a shield, a defensive instrument, not a weapon is interesting.
The apocalypse is an end of all things, but that’s not all that it is. Unlike Tomorrowland or WALL-E, Toren does not contend that perpetual growth can be maintained with new outlook, nor does it contend, like The Waste Land or The Road, that the end of things as they are necessitates total violent collapse. Rather, Toren follows The Palm Wine Drinkard and Who Fears Death and even Revelations in viewing the end of things as a time of change and renewal. Not easy renewal, but renewal nonetheless. Death and apocalypse is instead framed as symbolic possibility, one that’s augmented by changing the recipe of conventions that made it.
1 Sarkeesian, Anita. “Damsel in Distress (Part 3).” Tropes Vs. Women. Feminist Frequency. Aug 1 2013.
2 Tzufit. “A Mile In His Shoes: Playing Shadow of Mordor as Lithariel as Talion.” Pop Culture Coven. Dec 30 2014.
3 Kahn, Juliet. “Smart, Nice and Sassy: ‘Good Girl’ Role Models Make Boring Heroes.” Comics Alliance. May 7 2015.
4 Robinson, Joanna. “Game of Thrones Absolutely Did Not Need to Go There with Sansa Stark.” Vanity Fair. May 18 2015.
Further reading: Beirne, Stephen. “Two Minute Game Crit – The Absence of Is.” Normally Rascal. May 28 2015.
Blythe Adams, Megan. “Interpellation & Apocalypse: Communication, Coercion, and Identity in Journey.” First Person Scholar. Sep 4 2013.
Warrick, Douglas. “I Fell in Love With a Sex Ninja at the End of the world.” Kill Screen. Jan 15 2015.
Oram, Caitlin. “I Am Alive vs. The Apocalypse.” Pixels or Death. Aug 27 2013.
Williams, G. Christopher “A Cleaner, More Hygienic Apocalypse.” PopMatters. May 15 2013.