The “It Was All A Dream” Trope Needs to Die

Literature and art are both riddled with tropes, and they always have been. As humans, we’re great at recognizing and replicating patterns, which can be used to great advantage. The use of tropes is often criticized, typically by holier-than-thou art critics who may have their underwear a size too small, but the reality is that they can’t be completely avoided. So, especially in recent years, the best course of action seems to be an attempt to use the best ones, or turn some topsy-turvy.

Good tropes, when used correctly, can add a lot of charm to any work. The emphasis there is on “used correctly”. You can take the time to imagine that in bold, underlined, 72-point font.

There is one trope, however, that boils my blood every time I see it. Unfortunately, it appears in everything, and usually in games I really, honestly love – until it sneaks up behind me and takes a big bite out of my shoulder.

“It Was All A Dream”

TVTropes has dubbed it “All A Dream.” Although it can happen at the beginning of a work, my only quarrel is when it appears at the end. At the conclusion of the story, the character (or characters) “wake up,” and discover that nothing has happened at all. They’re simply in their own beds, in their own homes. They were dreaming, nothing more. Variations on this trope include, but are certainly not limited to, comas, severe head injuries, or at times simply children playing pretend.

In all cases, it’s implied, and sometimes said straight-out, that everything the viewer just saw was fabricated, illusory, or otherwise fake. If the protagonists are children, their parents may come into the room, and if the child tells them what they witnessed, the parents will say something to the effect of “oh, honey, that couldn’t happen in real life!” If the writers feel merciful, they may allude to the idea that the “dream” may in fact be real after all.

I’ve encountered this trope more times than I care to recount. Most of the time, you don’t know it’s coming until the bitter end. It’s in movies, books, TV, and just about everything, and it’s found a niche in an unfortunate number of games.

This is why it’s ruining those games.

The story is unfinished.

In most of these games, it appears that the writers were building to something, and maybe it’s something big. Then, at the very bitter end, your character wakes up… And that’s it. Whatever story, whatever adventure you may have been on, whatever quest you had taken, is now abruptly over, whether you like it or not.

It’s frustrating. If a game is horrible, you typically don’t play it to the end, or if you do, it’s with the understanding that the end probably won’t be spectacular either. Where it really hurts is when the game is otherwise fantastic. You’re drawn in by the story, the graphics are beautiful, the gameplay feels smooth, and you’re just about to head to the top of the volcano to complete your final quest… And then you’re not. Do you make it? Do you die? Do you finish your mission? What happens next?

You’ll never know, will you?

It breaks the illusion.

Games are typically an immersive experience. When you pick up a game, you do so with the understanding that this game will not be like real life – and, for many of us, that’s something we desire. “Real” life is difficult, it’s frightening, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, so if we can make an escape to a world of magic and vampires for a while, that’s a welcome reprieve.

This understanding is called “suspension of disbelief.” In simpler terms, we choose to forgo our sense of reality to temporarily enjoy something fantastical. In order to maintain this suspension, the game we’re playing must make every effort not to poke holes in the tapestry it’s weaving, because if something seems a little too weird, it will take us out of the moment. At that point, we’ll be so distracted that really weird thing, we’ll miss the whole rest of the game.

And this trope? It takes a big ol’ pair of scissors to that tapestry, and starts snipping away.

Up until the bitter end, we are under the assumption that the events of the game before us are “real*”, conditionally. We can believe in magic, if it’s done right. We can deal with fantasy creatures, as long as they have some sort of root in reality. Superpowers? Sure, why not. The game offers us information, and we say “Yes, then what?” As the story goes on, it builds upon the foundation of the information before it.

Then, the game says “Hey, remember all that shit we told you? It’s fake!” And we say, “Wait, what?”

This creates further complications because in our minds, it means that the storytellers (the game, and the people that made it) are no longer trustworthy. We can’t believe the things they say because we know they’ve lied before. This means that any message, any further story within that game, will forever be marred by the feeling that this, too, could be a lie. If it gets bad enough, it may even extend outside one game and into other games in the same series, or by the same team, rendering all of those stories – however good they might be – useless.

It doesn’t do justice to the protagonists.

Especially in games, an interactive art form, players often find themselves rooting for their “player character,” whether it’s a design of their own creation or not. It helps that we begin to associate them with ourselves, because we dictate their actions. An emotionally impactful story will hit players harder if the protagonist is relatable and, for lack of a better word, “human,” even if they might not be a human in being.

This fact makes it all the more tragic when a character’s deeds are swept away with a simple “It was simply a dream.”

Over the course of the game, the whole team works tirelessly to establish a character’s personality, goals, and skills. Players choose how to progress, which actions to use, what gear to equip, and so on. Then it’s all gone! Poof! And in its place is a great big sack of nothing.

This is particularly detrimental to female characters, and characters from minority groups, such as LGBT characters and characters of color. The message being accidentally conveyed by this trope is that the character can only make a difference in their dreams, and for underrepresented groups, who don’t see characters like them in many games at all, that impact is no longer drowned out by all the normal, fulfilled characters in their media. It’s a direct, laser-focused hit to the heart, and another excuse to ignore those precious few characters.

It means everything the player did is now useless.

This is, by far, is the most grating facet of this trope. People play games for a reason. They want to get something out of it. Some of us want the thrill, some want the hack-and-slash, some want the story. In most games, they get it, and the game gives them a sense of gratification for the time and effort they put into their play.

With this trope, that no longer exists. Just as the characters’ actions no longer have any weight, nor does the work and dedication their player put into it. They’re left with a sense of emptiness, and perhaps a feeling of betrayal. Was it worth it to spend that much time on a game, and get nothing out of it?

Some of us can reconcile this by saying that the true reward is in the journey. The experience of playing through the game is enough, even if the ending is shoddy. For most of us, though, there’s an upset that won’t go away, because we feel that our time was wasted to achieve absolutely nothing. If you’re trying to make a game that will survive, this is the very last feeling you want to create.

The point of this piece is not to say this trope is horrible and irredeemable, or that it’s not worthwhile to play a game that ends with the character waking up. I don’t agree with that approach at all. My hope is that, in time, the gaming industry will either move away from this trope entirely, or improve portrayals to the point where these criticisms are no longer relevant. I don’t want these stories to flop. That’s why I’m frustrated to begin with.

Maybe I’ll wake up and discover it was all a dream.

About The Author

Ara Alexander

Ara Alexander is the latest addition to our Outerhaven family. An avid gamer, they gravitate more to the more chill side of gaming, as well as indie gaming.