Stories of Resistance Need to Stop Dehumanizing Everyone Who Isn't the Hero

This "the only one" trope of dystopian fiction needs to go, as evidenced by 'Black the Fall'.

by Rob Zacny
Jul 19 2017, 2:05pm

courtesy Square Enix

I've been playing a bit of Black the Fall right now, which in terms of design and aesthetic owes and awful lot (maybe too much) to Playdead's Inside and Limbo. It's a bleakly gorgeous game full of striking imagery and heavy-handed symbolism and abstraction. Set in a communist dictatorship inspired by the likes of Metropolis, Black the Fall divides the world between the gray oppressed masses and their thuggish, Cyclopean guards.

And then there's you. A worker who has made the decision to escape, your character travels through one diorama of misery after another. You sneak past lines of workers stretching toward the horizon, and scenes of guards administering pointless beatings.

But Black the Fall is at pains to draw a line between you and the workers, and therein lies my discomfort. It's not just that you're a player-character and they are scenery, or that you are visually distinguished from the rest for the sake of playability. It's that it feels like there is a complete lack of interest in the people suffering around you. The implication, intended or not, is that you must escape because you are special, you don't belong here among these drones. (This is what's known as "the only one" trope.)

I was starting to get uneasy about these vibes even before your character steals a key item from the guards: a kind of laser-pointer and you can use to take control of a worker and send them to flip switches and operate machinery that will let you escape a room. The workers whimper and cringe when you use it—to the point where the device begins to read as a kind of whip—and then shuffle toward whatever you are indicating. They don't engage with you otherwise, nor does your character acknowledge them. They're just tools, and you are content to control them just as the guards do.

Maybe Black the Fall changes once you escape into the wider world, though I'm not sure I'll be able to endure the Limbo-like pacing, where each room seems to hold some kind of insta-death trap which you must figure out how to deactivate. That kind of stop-and-go rhythm always turns me off a game, and Black the Fall has a bad case of it.

But I'm also tired of dystopian fiction that, whether intended or not, takes the view that the world is divided between hapless drones and the "specials" who have full consciousness and unique abilities that drive their resistance and dissent. It's a worldview that reaches its endpoint with Equilibrium where—for real—the dystopian regime's only objective is to suppress human emotion and the rebels are the people who bravely choose to feel things.

Because when I'm reading these stories, watching these movies, or playing these games, I always feel like secretly they're on the side of the oppressor. They may not know it, they may not intend it.

But when they divide their world between "proles" or their equivalent, and the only people who can resist or even articulate a case for their own humanity are heroic protagonists (or their adversaries) who go about taking meaningful action, the story is no longer about oppression and common humanity. It's saying, implicitly, that the real tragedy is that the wrong people are being oppressed, and that justice will be served once everyone gets what they really deserve.

A lot of dystopian fiction gets close to this line, while some definitely rejects this framing entirely. But I'm curious what your dystopian touchstones are, and whether you think they succeed in telling the story they intend.

Let's chat about this genre and its discontents in today's open thread!