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The Problem with Adventure Stories

Your Take  

6 members have voted

  1. 1. What do you think of adventure stories in general?

    • They're great!
      2
    • They're good.
      0
    • They're alright.
      2
    • They're bad.
      2
    • They're terrible!
      0
  2. 2. Who is best antagonist?

    • Horse Witch
      1
    • Fuzzy Bully
      0
    • Motley Dragon
      1
    • Bug-Pony Monarch
      0
    • Luna's Tantrum
      2
    • Miser Brothers
      1
    • King Sombra
      1
  3. 3. What do you think about my analysis?

    • It's great!
      3
    • It's pretty good.
      2
    • It's alright.
      0
    • It's not good.
      0
    • It's terrible!
      1

During the self-imposed short vacation I decided to take after getting an article published to the Round Stable (which you should go read if you haven’t already, wink-wink-nudge-nudge), I decided to rewatch some of the episodes of Friendship is Magic that I haven’t seen in a while. I started to notice a distinct issue I had with “adventure stories,” or episodes that place a heavier emphasis on external conflict and lengthy excursions. Namely, when the show decides to engage in worldbuilding by introducing new villains, locations, or story elements, a lot of information is left, inevitably, unexplained.

 

For example, take the two-part introduction of the draconequus that I assert to be best villain, The Return of Harmony. Within this adventure story, we are introduced to Discord and the fact that roughly one thousand years ago, he reigned as the supreme monarch. And while we are told by Celestia that “he ruled Equestria in an eternal state of unrest and unhappiness,” and are treated to a stained-glass representation of the ponies’ suffering, we aren’t actually given a lot of information about him or his reign. What was the reign like, exactly? Did this period closely resemble what Discord did to Equestria upon his release from stone? What were Celestia and Luna like during his reign? How long did the reign last, and why did Celestia call it “eternal” if it eventually ended?

 

These questions, among others, are left unexplained. But this is not necessarily a fault of the story, or of the writers; there’s no way the episode could have maintained pacing while answering all of the questions raised by the introduction of Discord. As viewers, we have to allow the writers to leave certain narrative factors unaddressed. As long as our ignorance about these factors doesn’t interfere with the episode, it’s unreasonable to blame the writers for leaving them out. In fact, leaving out factors actually lent a hand in establishing Discord as a formidable threat; since the only detail about his reign we’re given is that it can be represented by an image of ponies on marionette strings bouncing over an inferno, we can allow our imaginations to fill in the details for us. And as has been observed in the past, nothing is scarier than what our own imaginations are capable of creating.

 

But eventually the curiosity can become rather nagging; exactly what happened that made Discord so terrible? And now that he has been re-introduced, reformed, and is implied to become a recurring character in the future, the details of his reign are no longer a missing piece of Equestrian history; they are a missing piece of the important personal history of Discord, Celestia, and Luna. Three important characters would have their characterization greatly improved should the details of Discord’s reign be more thoroughly explained. (Of course, resolving this ambiguity would inevitably result in a veritable army of ships being sent to dock, if you catch my drift.)

 

And these, the consequences of leaving Discord’s reign unexplained, are only the beginning. Everything that we don’t know about Discord necessarily represents a piece of the past. But another adventure story contains a rather massive piece of current, ongoing events in Equestria that the show seems to have just forgotten about.

 

Of course, I’m referring to the Changelings. Just like with introduction of Griffins all the way back in early-Season One, almost everything about Changelings has been brought to question and promptly dropped. We know painfully little about them- their biology; their culture; how sentient they are; their political structure; where they disappeared to after getting their holey flanks handed to them; the only things we know for sure are that they feed off love, they have a queen, and they can change appearance. Certainly the show wouldn’t outright suffer should these details about the Changelings go unexplained, but the fact that the writers introduced an entire new species, put them in the spotlight, and proceeded to never bring up again is indicative of a trend that I feel could really affect how people perceive the show.

 

As it is, one of the great strengths of Friendship is Magic is that is finds a functional balance between slice-of-life-style episodes, that focus on domestic and interpersonal conflicts, and adventure stories which, as I’ve said, emphasize external conflict, evil villains, and worldbuilding. But lately the show seems to be slipping into a less, let’s say, refined attitude of worldbuilding; namely, the writers have introduced a large number of different antagonists, locations, and historical events but have almost refused to expand beyond what is absolutely necessary for their initial introduction. This has the effect of making worldbuilding feel cheapened, new villains feel insignificant, and adventure stories, along with their serious, the world-is-about-to-die conflict, seem shallow, and at times almost facetious. King Sombra and his introduction are a perfect personification of this problem; a generic background (“one thousand years ago this villain did bad things, and now he’s returned”); a flimsy justification for why he’s been gone (“we turned him into shadow and trapped him in a glacier”); almost no actual screentime and roughly eight seconds of speaking time across both of his episodes (“Rargh.” “Yes.” “Crystals.”). And though the few details we’re given of his reign are rather grisly, the fandom has not been shy about poking fun at how ineffective Sombra was as a character.

 

Perhaps worst of all, King Sombra is, as of yet, our latest new villain. So there’s no telling if, Faust forbid, we’re going to be introduced to more Sombras as time goes on. But the problem, even though it is exacerbated by characters like Sombra, is still present when we’re given well-developed (by comparison) villains; there are volumes of fanfictions that attempt to fill in the blanks about Discord, the Changelings, Griffins, and even Princess Luna and Nightmare Moon.

 

So it’s not Sombra that’s the problem, (though I’ll never tire of reminding him how much of a problem he is on his own); it’s the sheer amount of worldbuilding that the show has employed. If there are dozens of questions raised by Sombra alone, there are too many to count that relate to everything else the show has introduced. At this rate, no matter how well-developed they are, introducing more villains threatens to turn Friendship is Magic’s adventure stories into mere baddie-of-the-week distractions.

 

Which is why, in order to remedy this and rescue the adventure stories from the cusp of irrelevance, I think the greatest solution is to stop introducing more villains. At least, for the time being.

 

But Metaright!, I hear you hypothetically interjecting. If they don’t introduce more villains, where will the adventure stories come from? The answer lies, paradoxically enough, in the same season as King Sombra. Trixie. Discord. Babs. Princess Cadence and Shining Armor. Starswirl the Bearded. All of these characters have something in common: The writers never forgot about them. They all returned, sometimes against our wildest predictions, in Season Three. Some for redemption, some for character-building, and some for plot, but they all once appeared to be one-shots.

 

And this is a terrific trend that the show has started. At this point, sixty-five episodes strong, we have enough characters and unanswered questions to allow the writers to stop giving us more. This would have two grand benefits: One, it would prevent more characters like King Sombra from seeing the light of day. Two, and most importantly, it would necessarily lead to development of the characters we already have. In fiction, a small cast of well-developed characters is infinitely more interesting than a large cast of Sombras, and reserving adventure stories for the development and growth of characters we already have will help mitigate the huge amount of unresolved possibilities.

 

The greatest hurdle the show would have to tackle with this approach is that the adventure stories might not have an actual antagonist. But at the same time, the bulk of the show’s episodes don’t have antagonists, and rely on conflict between protagonists. There’s no reason, then, that we shouldn’t believe the same could apply for two-part adventure stories.

 

And yet, the opportunity is still there for antagonists without going through the motions of introducing an entirely new character. The Changelings and Queen Chrysalis are missing-in-action, and their return would lend itself well to an adventure story. Nightmare Moon could show up once again, and the writers could put to rest the question of whether she is part of Princess Luna or an external creature*. Even Discord, who is, for the moment, redeemed, could begin to relapse into his old ways.

 

Clearly, then, adventure stories can continue to exist without introducing any new villains that would open more questions than they answer. The show is in the perfect place to expand the elements we’ve already seen and to grow the characters we already know. This could even work in tandem with Twilight’s ascension to the life of an Alicorn; as familiar faces return and are thwarted, the Mane Six could begin to feel more confident in themselves, no longer having to tackle mysterious threats that they know nothing about.

 

Will introducing new villains anyway doom the show? No, of course not. But there are so many ways that it could benefit from bringing the focus onto expanding and growing what it’s already introduced, so even presenting us with more well-developed villains might prove, eventually, to be a detriment.

 

And if more villains means more Sombras, “detriment” is an understatement.

 

--

 

*I know something about this was covered in the comic series, but I like my canon to be presented from the infallible pens of the show’s actual writers. Plus, not everyone reads the comics.

  • Brohoof 1


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if i didn't know better it would almost seem as if you are half saying that writing more background episodes about characters would introduce more drama oriented things into the show. Which although emotion is a big deal when conveying messages. So is fresh content. Sometimes you need something new in order to convey a certain message or lesson or heck, even something to get people excited about. Although you raise valid questions about Discord's reign, was his actions in the episode proof enough of his way of thinking only served himself?

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I feel that this is the biggest problem the show faces with its gradual tilt towards more epic fantasy stories: it requires more detailed world-building and continuity than the writers are really interested in.

 

The show works best as a slice-of-life comedy with fantasy elements, anyway.

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if i didn't know better it would almost seem as if you are half saying that writing more background episodes about characters would introduce more drama oriented things into the show. Which although emotion is a big deal when conveying messages. So is fresh content. Sometimes you need something new in order to convey a certain message or lesson or heck, even something to get people excited about. Although you raise valid questions about Discord's reign, was his actions in the episode proof enough of his way of thinking only served himself?

 

I agree with you, actually. There's a balance that needs to be maintained, just like with most story elements.

 

 

The show works best as a slice-of-life comedy with fantasy elements, anyway.

 

That really is where the show shines. Usually, in my opinion, their pacing of the adventure stories is not optimal.

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