Ellie and Joel from The Last of Us.

Stakes are what’s at risk if a conflict doesn’t go the hero’s way, aka the primary means of generating tension. If there’s nothing important at stake, then who cares how the sword fight or political debate goes? Some stories have little or nothing in the way of stakes, which means the plot starts boring and stays that way. But more puzzling are the stories that begin with compelling stakes, only to undermine or completely destroy them.

As you may have guessed, I have here a list of five stories that are plainly guilty of this crime. By examining them in painstaking detail, we shall discover why any storyteller would do such a thing. Or maybe just give ourselves headaches from all the facepalming. 

Spoiler Notice: Magia Record, The Art of Prophecy, The Last of Us  

1. The Book of Three

The Book of Three's cover, showing Taran hiding from the Horned King.

The first Prydain book begins with Taran of Caer Dallben setting out to find Hen Wen, who happens to be a large white pig with prophetic powers. Hen Wen has run away just as a bad guy called the Horned King is marching his army to conquer the land, which is really bad timing. Not only would the good guys like to have Hen Wen back so they can make use of her prophetic powers, but the Horned King also wants Hen Wen for the same reason. So now Taran has to find his oracular pig before the bad guy does. 

This quest drives the plot for some time, with Taran encountering several traveling companions, including Prince Gwydion of the Sons of Don, who are basically in charge of Prydain. But with Hen Wen nowhere to be found, Taran gives up his quest and goes with Gwydion to warn the Sons of Don about the Horned King’s approaching army. 

Well, that’s one set of stakes gone, but, hey, we’ve at least replaced them. Instead of being worried that the Horned King will find Hen Wen, now we’re worried that he’ll catch the Sons of Don unprepared. These are also decent stakes for an inexperienced hero like Taran, as he wouldn’t be much use in the actual fight. Plus, he coincidentally finds Hen Wen along the way,* so it’s lucky he turned back when he did. 

The problem is that these new stakes are soon settled. It’s hard to believe the Sons of Don haven’t already seen such a large army coming, and eventually, even the characters admit they’re too late. At that point, Taran decides to cut through the Horned King’s army in the hopes of joining the Sons of Don for a last stand. Uh-huh. 

At this point, Taran’s actions will have no effect on either his own fate or that of the larger battle. He either dies going through the Horned King’s army, or he dies on the other side. It’s not a fantastic way for our hero to ride into the story’s climax. Of course, that doesn’t happen. Instead, Taran just happens to run into the Horned King, and Gwydion just happens to be nearby after just happening to learn the magic word that will defeat the Horned King.* 

This kind of awkward ending is what happens when you have a protagonist/plot mismatch. The Book of Three’s throughline is actually defeating the Horned King, something Taran is in no position to do. Instead, we have this awkward sequence to arrange things so that Taran can watch someone else do it.

It didn’t have to be this way. The story’s climax could have focused on either of Taran’s existing conflicts: rescue Hen Wen or warn the Sons of Don in book one, and save the Horned King’s defeat for book two. Or the author could have found a way for a neophyte hero like Taran to defeat the big bad. It would be a challenge, but unlikely victories are a staple of the genre.   

2. Magia Record 

The main cast of Magia Record.

The problems with this anime’s stakes are difficult to explain because the plot is incredibly complicated, but I’ll try. As a spinoff of Madoka Magica, we start with the basic premise that magical girls fight witches until either dying or becoming witches themselves.* The witch transformation happens when a magical girl either uses too much magic or gives in to despair, whichever comes first.

The villains of Magia Record are the Wings of the Magius, and their stated goal is to save magical girls from their fate. This presumably refers to magical girls eventually turning into witches. 

At first, it’s hard to tell how evil the Magius even are. They act mean and sinister, but the show is very tight lipped about any harm they’re causing. Eventually, we learn that they’re releasing their own nonwitch monsters* to hurt and kill people, something the heroes clearly need to stop. The other critical piece of information is that, for unknown reasons, magical girls in this city don’t become witches when they use too much magic or give in to despair. Instead, they briefly turn into a different monster called a “doppel.” If this happens too many times, the transformation is permanent and is effectively the same as becoming a witch. 

Okay, I think that’s everything. Whew. For most of the show, our heroes are trying to stop the Magius, who in turn have a secret plan. Whatever that plan is, it’s got to be even more evil, right? You would think so, but then we get the big reveal: the Magius are responsible for local magical girls turning into doppels instead of witches, and the plan is to do some fancy magic that spreads this system to all magical girls across the world. 

This is supposed to be an “oh shit” moment, but instead, it takes the wind out of the plot’s sails. Is this plan something the heroes need to stop? They act like it, but why? Pessimistically, the doppel system is no worse than the default of turning into a witch. In reality, it’s a lot better, as it gives magical girls additional chances after they would otherwise become witches, like extra lives in a video game. Some dialogue even indicates that the balance can be preserved indefinitely as long as a magical girl doesn’t depend too heavily on her doppel. 

Eventually, we also get some dialogue about how this plan will cause a lot of damage and probably kill civilians, but this is clearly a secondary concern. We’re already supposed to be invested in stopping the Magius’s plan, but there’s no reason to oppose it. The world is so bleak that it’s hard not to cheer for any change, which is what the original show is all about. But in Magia Record, we’re supposed to cheer for maintaining the status quo? That’s a big ask. 

Oddly, the show actually pulls this trick a second time. You see, the Magius leaders are meant to be sympathetic villains* who the heroes can reason with. But once they do, we still need a final fight, so a side villain bursts in to declare it’s time for her master plan: turning everyone in the world into magical girls. Uh. Okay. Would that be bad? I honestly can’t tell. 

That second instance is clearly there because the writers weren’t sure how to have an epic fight scene while also talking the villains down. However, the doppel stakes indicate a more fundamental problem: this world is designed for exactly one kind of story. The status quo is so acutely terrible that any story that isn’t about changing things falls flat. That works fine for the original show, which is about this destructive cycle, but it means any other story has its stakes undercut from the beginning. 

3. The Art of Prophecy 

A woman with a sword from the cover of The Art of Prophecy.

This novel starts out with an interesting premise. The Zhuun people have a chosen one named Jian, and his destiny is to fight the Katuia people’s Eternal Khan, thus ending the centuries-long war between the Zhuun and Katuia nations. There’s only one problem: Jian isn’t anywhere close to ready, with his training is routinely sabotaged by political infighting. 

That’s where our protagonist enters the picture. Taishi is a cantankerous martial-arts master who’s well past retirement age, but she just can’t let Jian’s terrible training slide. Instead, she takes over his instruction, so we have a classic chosen-one scenario, except with the mentor as the main character. That’s a neat twist! We also have clear stakes: if Taishi can’t train Jian properly, he’ll lose the fight and, by extension, the war.  

Unfortunately, this section of the story doesn’t last. Instead, there’s a brief interlude where the Eternal Khan gets drunk and is killed by a random Zhuun soldier. Everyone’s expectations are thoroughly subverted, and now the story has no stakes. That’s okay, though, because we soon get new stakes, as the Zhuun leaders decide to kill the now-unneeded Jian so he won’t be a political liability. Taishi won’t allow that, so the story’s back on. 

Honestly, these new stakes are probably easier to write about, as it would be difficult to keep up a training arc for the entire novel. Instead, Taishi has to dodge imperial patrols, fight off stealthy assassins, and keep Jian alive in the wilderness. At least, for a few chapters. Then she drops him off at a friend’s martial-arts academy, where Jian is effectively safe from discovery. That’s our second set of stakes gone. 

All of this happens before we’re even 30% of the way through the book, so what’s the rest of the story about? Unfortunately, not much, and the author mostly kills time by shifting between a bunch of POVs. Taishi goes on a journey to see if there’s anything else to the supposed prophecy. An unrelated Katuia woman looks for her sister. Jian hangs out at the academy and theoretically has a character arc about becoming less arrogant, even though his arrogance is basically gone by then. A random assassin also gets her own POV as she follows Taishi around, for some reason. 

None of these split-POV sections are especially strong, but even if they were, they wouldn’t be able to match the stakes we had at the beginning. Taishi is effectively invincible, so no threat to her safety is as serious as a threat to Jian’s. For his part, Jian’s character arc could happen just as well if he were fighting for his life at Taishi’s side. The other two characters are simply extraneous, adding very little beyond some worldbuilding exposition. 

That’s probably why the story’s climax has all the POVs randomly reconverge for a big fight over Jian’s life. And I do mean randomly. The assassin just happens to overhear where Jian is hidden while following Taishi, and the Katuia woman just happens to recognize Jian one day on the street. That means our stakes have finally reverted to whether Jian lives or dies, like they were much earlier. 

Presumably to add even more irony, once Jian is safe and the bad guys defeated, Taishi says that now she’s ready to train him. So buy the next book if you want to see that! It’s like a weird sandwich, with the two sets of stakes forming the bread on either side of a meandering, multiple-POV filling. It also feels like the story has gone in a giant circle, since Jian is largely back where he started at the beginning of the book. Why not just train him then and skip all this faffing about? 

4. Chilling Effect

Cover art from Chilling Effect, showing a woman and two cats in space suits.

This space-opera novel stars Captain Eva and her motley crew of misfits, making it one of many books that’s trying to crack the Firefly formula in prose form.* After a starter conflict of wrangling a bunch of adorable cats that have gotten loose on the ship, it’s time to crack open the main plot. Eva’s sister, Mari, has been abducted by the Fridge, a criminal conspiracy that keeps its victims in cryostasis. Now Eva has to do whatever jobs the Fridge gives her, or it’s a permanent deep freeze for Mari. 

This conflict is great for a Firefly-type story. It allows Eva to go on a series of episodic adventures so we can learn more about the world while also keeping a larger goal in mind. We also have some social conflict, as Eva can’t tell her crew who they’re working for, and a moral dilemma, as the Fridge slowly cranks up the immorality of the jobs it hands out. Clearly, we’re building toward a moment where Eva stops letting herself be strung along. She’ll turn on the Fridge and free Mari the old-fashioned way. 

And behold, that moment arrives about halfway through the story. Eva and her crew try to nab one of the Fridge’s operatives, but the mission goes sideways. Soon Eva is captured and tossed into a cryopod, oh no! How will she rescue her sister now? 

Turns out she doesn’t have to, because Mari rescues Eva instead. In the next chapter, we learn that Mari was never actually kidnapped at all. Instead, she’s been working as a Fridge agent while undercover on behalf of the Earth government. Extorting Eva to do jobs for the Fridge was actually Mari’s idea as a way to prove her loyalty. Mari would now like Eva to slink off and not have anything more to do with the Fridge, as it might endanger Mari’s precious cover. 

We learn two things in this section: Mari is the worst, and Eva no longer has a compelling reason to fight the Fridge. The stakes of the conflict are gone. But there’s still nearly half a novel left, and that novel is about fighting the Fridge, so Eva is gonna keep at it. Why? Two reasons. 

First, Eva says she wants revenge. Revenge for what, though? Everything the Fridge put her through was Mari’s doing. Since the story has been so focused on Eva and her crew, we haven’t even seen the Fridge do anything else for which they might deserve a smiting. They’re still bad guys, but this is a much weaker motivation than saving Eva’s sister. 

Second, Eva wants to get her old ship back, as while she was in cryo, Mari took the ship for her mission. Remember, Mari is the worst. The problem here is we have no special attachment to Eva’s old ship. She certainly does, but we’ve barely spent half a book with it. Less, since Eva spends big sections off on her own. In that time, there’s been nothing exceptional about the ship to help us build attachment to it. In fact, Eva already has a replacement ship, and this one has built some attachment, since we watched Eva and her crew work hard to make it spaceworthy. 

Eventually, Eva finds some additional stakes, but even these are painfully vague. Near the end, she learns that the Fridge has grabbed an ancient alien artifact that they might use to do… something. It’s not even clear that they can use the artifact for anything, but that’s still better than the other stakes we’ve been given. It arrives too late to be useful, but nonetheless, an effort was made. 

This is the second story on our list where the problem arises from a big twist to subvert expectations. That may give you some idea of why I’m so leery of authors setting out to do that. A proper subversion is great fun, but often the storyteller destroys something their story desperately needs. That’s certainly a surprise, but not for the reasons they want it to be! 

5. The Last of Us

Tommy and Joel reunited in The Last of Us.

When Joel and Ellie first head west in this fungus-zombie-apocalypse show, they have two reasons for doing so. The first is that Joel wants to find his brother, Tommy, who’s been out of communication for several months. The second is that they want to reach a special lab that can theoretically turn Ellie’s mysterious fungus immunity into a vaccine for everyone. 

Believe it or not, that first set of stakes actually creates more tension than the second because of urgency. Tommy’s been missing for months, so he’s probably not about to perish in the next 24 hours, but he could still be in trouble. That’s why Joel wants to leave as soon as possible rather than just hang out for a bit. 

In contrast, getting Ellie to the lab has almost no urgency at all. There’s nothing to indicate that her immunity will go away, that the lab might be under threat, or even that enemies are hunting Ellie and the lab is a place of safety. You’d think there would be an urgent need for the vaccine, but there isn’t. It’s been 20 years since the initial outbreak, and the main threat to humans is other humans, not zombies. When zombies are a problem, the threat of being killed by them is much higher than being infected. At least, that’s what we see in the show. 

Don’t get me wrong, a vaccine would still be nice to have, but it’s hardly a game changer. Heck, from episodes three through eight, there is exactly one major zombie incident that isn’t in a flashback. If the writers wanted us to think the vaccine was urgent, that’s an odd strategy. 

The reason I bring all this up is that the show resolves Tommy’s story in episode six, which is puzzling. Turns out he was fine. He just happened to find the one well-run town in the entire world, and he had to go radio silent so the unwashed masses raiders couldn’t find the place. Okay, cross that off the to-do list, I guess. 

The problem is that now we’re left with getting Ellie to the lab as the only stakes for our journey, and that’s just not as compelling. I don’t mean Ellie isn’t a compelling character; she’s fantastic. I mean that there isn’t anything important on the line that requires getting her there in a timely manner. 

Indeed, the writers don’t seem to care much either, as episodes seven and eight are largely filler. Episode seven is a flashback of Ellie’s past, which does little more than go into more detail on character traits we already knew about. In episode eight, we pause the journey to fight some cannibals. This one at least develops Ellie a little, as it’s the first time she’s had to kill another human being. But it doesn’t move us any closer to that lab, which is supposedly the entire reason for Joel and Ellie to be out there in the first place. 

Technically, these two filler episodes could still have been written even if the lab stakes were more urgent, but I don’t think they would have been. It seems like the writers took their weak stakes as an excuse to just kill time in the season’s second half, which gives the show a listless feeling, like we’re just waiting for the finale instead of doing anything important. 

The good news is that The Last of Us doesn’t suffer as much from its weak stakes as the previous entries on this list, because other elements of the show are still extremely good. And by “other elements,” I mostly mean Bella Ramsey’s spectacular performance as Ellie. But not just that! Joel and Riley are great characters too,* and the action remains top notch. 

It’s just a shame that Joel and Ellie’s main reasons for traveling fizzle out for a while. The best travel stories have stakes that aren’t so urgent that the characters can’t ever stop to smell the roses but are still urgent enough to keep everyone on their toes. The Last of Us can’t quite manage that balancing act. 

The nice thing about stories undermining their own stakes is that there’s a very simple solution: if you’ve got a good thing going, don’t ruin it! Remember that without meaningful stakes, all the conflict in the world means nothing. Don’t toss out your hard work for a temporary subversion or because you got tired of it. Your story deserves better. 

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