One story, told twice

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So I’m going to tell you about two characters.

The first is FN-2187, aka Finn, from 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He’s one of the protagonists of the movie, a coward with a heart of gold who starts out as a Stormtrooper but stumbles into an adventure while fleeing from the First Order.

finn-star-wars

The second is Rhys, from 2014’s Tales from the Borderlands. He’s one of two playable characters in the game, a middle manager at Hyperion who stumbles into an adventure while attempting to dethrone his asshole boss. The player can choose how he responds to certain choices in the course of the story, making him a snarky jerk or a coward with a heart of gold-ish substance.

rhys-borderlands

Here, let me describe their arcs in more detail. (Spoilers for both stories below, of course)

  1. He begins the story working as a minor stooge for the main villainous organization of the franchise.
  2. Instead of climbing the ranks, he ends up being demoted to janitorial duty on the villainous organization’s big bad base. This base can shoot missiles through space to attack planets. Ships without clearance cannot get through this base’s force field.
  3. He’s got a nemesis in the villainous organization: not the person at the very top of the food chain, but a hyper-competent manager who’s keeping a close eye on him.
  4. His character design is deliberately intended to make him look innocent and not battle-hardened. He has a round jaw, a beardless face, and no visible scars. He’ll stay beardless even in situations where shaving is clearly not a priority, such as while wandering in the desert and while unconscious. Despite the fact that his one-syllable Celtic name is uncommon in America, he has an American accent.
  5. On a desert planet, he’s confronted with the true consequences of working for the villainous organization, and decides that he’d rather be out for himself.
  6. He has a close friend who travels with him from the villainous base. This buddy is his best bro; they work well together, and they’re never set up as rivals in romance or in their careers. For a long stretch of the story, this buddy appears to be dead, but pops up again to rescue him later, having improbably survived an attack by the enemy.
  7. On the desert planet, he runs across a spunky brunette with an unglamourous career on the margins of society. Though the two start off on the wrong foot, they eventually develop a mutual respect.
  8. His arc with the spunky brunette is not about being saved from evil by the love of a good woman, nor is it about his destiny as the chosen one relegating her to sidekick status. She’s the one who kicks butt and takes names; his role in the story is to be impressed and give her valuable intel about the enemy.
  9. The spunky brunette has unclear parentage. She wears a distinctive brown outfit that includes an asymmetrical pouch on one hip. She receives a small gun as a gift from a cantankerous old con artist who is a father figure to her, but not her biological dad. When it’s time for them to ride a hunk of junk into space together, she’s the pilot. A protagonist from an earlier installment of the franchise becomes a mentor to her, symbolically passing the torch on to her.
  10. His time on the desert planet will involve a lot of sequences in which he’s shocked, hit on the head, knocked down, or forced to do something gross. Watching a card-carrying member of the villainous organization suffer will be played as both a catharsis for the audience, and the beginning of a redemption arc in which his suffering gradually transmutes him into a sympathetic character.
  11. In his travels, he meets a ball-shaped robot with child-like characteristics. This robot has a map that leads somewhere very important, and his journey involves following the robot across the world. Powerful, dangerous people are on the hunt for this robot. The spunky brunette will initially be tempted to sell the robot, but will decide against it.
  12. In at least one scene, he will need to climb something using the spunky brunette for support, and she will complain about it.
  13. Halfway through the story, our heroes end up leaving the desert and entering a forest. There, they meet a spry elderly person with round googles with interchangeable lenses. This person gives them a tool they need to continue on their journey. When an enemy searching for the robot outguns them in the forest, the sequence ends with a woman being kidnapped.
  14. A former friend from the villainous organization will attempt to kill him.
  15. At the climax of the story, our heroes need to sneak onto the enemy base with the help of his insider knowledge. Although the spunky brunette appears to need rescuing, she’ll end up holding her own just fine in a fight, and he’s actually the one who’ll need to be rescued at the end of the sequence. A protective figure dies and falls towards a glowing blue light. The enemy base explodes. At the end of this sequence, he passes out.
  16. The story ends with him electing to remain with the friends he’s made on his journey, who are the enemies of the organization he started out with. However, he does temporarily part ways with the spunky brunette, who is parted from him not knowing whether he’ll survive.
  17. As a visual indicator of his change in allegiance, the jacket he is wearing changes. By the end of the story, he’s wearing a jacket with an eye-catching reddish strip over the left breast.

So, which one ripped the other off? Neither–they were both in development at the same time, and both projects were developed in secrecy to avoid spoilers. The similarities might be uncanny, but the writers weren’t cribbing off each other.

Of course, both stories exist in the shadow of the same science fiction edifice: the original Star Wars trilogy. Star Wars shaped so much of how we imagine a well-worn science fiction universe that it’s just inevitable that certain aesthetic trends will carry over: blue-tinted holograms, robotic prosthetic hands, run-down desert outposts, escape pods, spaceships held together by creative engineering and prayer, and so on.

Plus, both franchises reference classic Westerns as well as films by Akira Kurosawa (The original Star Wars is heavily inspired by The Hidden Fortress, and The Force Awakens references it too; Tales from the Borderlands uses the framing device from Rashomon). It’s not that surprising to see a similar set of tropes coming out of the same cultural well.

And then, sometimes story elements just manage to bubble up from the collective unconsciousness in many different places. In a world filled with obedient robots, the idea of a human getting demoted to janitorial duty is particularly funny. It’s satisfying for modern audiences to see the trope of the damsel in distress turned on its head. A lifetime of Western media consumption has left most of us with subconscious associations about face shapes, costumes, and hair colors and styles. We have an instinctual tendency to anthropomorphize robots and to think of rounded objects as childlike. The banality of evil and the redemption arc very, very old themes.

These are far from the only stories with remarkably similar parallels. Go on, try the same exercise with Simon Tam from Firefly, Jake Sully from Avatar, Commander Shepard from Mass Effect 2, Wikus from District 9, Douglas Quaid from Total Recall, and Nux from Mad Max: Fury Road. Not every detail will line up perfectly, but you’ll be able to pick out a generous handful of common character types, themes, images, and scenes from any two stories on the list. These two happened to line up so perfectly in part because they started from the same place, as spin-offs of a massively successful franchise that had already established its setting and its villains.

What I've been up to
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