We all know these stories: “We don’t know how to destroy the ancient evil that arrived to our land! Thankfully, once upon a time there was a great nation with more powerful and efficient technomagic. They had flying cities and huge laser weapons, but somehow they vanished. We should go to their perfectly preserved ruins and find the powerful artifacts that can save us!”
Some storytellers use these tropes well. In the Numenera roleplaying game, the succession of civilizations provides unique adventures that highlight the everlasting futility of human efforts. The trope can also be used to cycle between magic and technology. Once magic arises in the world or disappears from it, ancient solutions become obsolete and are replaced by new waves of discoveries. We see this in tabletop RPGs such as the Shadowrun / Earthdawn family, video games like Arcanum and The Longest Journey, and even in popular literature such as Game of Thrones. However, more often than not, these clichés head in lazier directions.
We Love to Glorify the Old Days
As our own world teaches us, our species loves dreaming about the never-existing better times. Even the ancient Greeks spun tales of the Golden Age, when humankind used to live in peace and prosperity. Nature itself was said to be fertile and generous, allowing people to spend their time any way they desired.
If we need a great person or culture to look up to, many of us can only find them in the past. After all, no prophet is accepted in their own time. If there’s no appropriate example, we love to create them in the most ridiculous ways. A simple feudal lord wearing rags and an aketon may one day be remembered as the powerful King Arthur. Even imaginary ancestors find followers.
Many people seek comfort in these nostalgic legends about long-gone greatness. That can be a healthy psychological process. However, it causes cognitive errors.
You can see this in many forms in everyday life. For instance, you might hear “back in my day there were no weird medicines or vaccines and people were much healthier!” Then there’s this classic: “people are so evil now, like never before, I saw it on television!” Of course, the reality is different. People now live longer than they ever did before, they don’t die in massive plagues all the time, and childhood mortality is at an all-time low. Whereas humankind used to practice mass human sacrifice and attend gladiator arenas, today violence is also less common. Fewer people die from war, acts of terror, murder, or enslavement than ever before.
Our Nostalgia Colors Our Stories
It’s difficult to understand how privileged we are today, and exploring that privilege in fiction is awkward. When our heroes enter a tavern, we don’t want to hear them chat about better hospitals, the new kind of plow farmers are using, or how great the new coopers are. We want to hear about the goblins, armies of darkness, and killer robots from space.
We also don’t find much pleasure in making stories about hungry children, beaten women, dissenters burned at the stake, and the suffering of people with disabilities. It’s more uplifting to write about a bizarre old witch with a lot of witty repartee than a person with a disease in a world without modern medicine.
So when our heroes feast at an old lady’s house, they obviously will eat the most delicious bread, cookies, and roasted meat they’ve tasted in a long time. Because there’s no “artificial” components or GMOs, and old ladies are always traditional cooks. As storytellers, we ignore the fact that in the past, people in the villages were eating groats, sour fruit, and weak, disgusting beers.
This is basic escapism. We cut out the boring things and embrace the past in a way that is difficult to justify, because doing so is comfortable and soothing. After all, digging into these complex topics may put off some of our customers, players, or readers.
In Stories, Nostalgia Is Presented as Reality
Unfortunately, many fantasy and science-fiction storytellers build this reversed progression into their worlds as though it’s plausible or even likely. This distorts our view of the world further. For example, take the word artifact. It technically means “an old item that archaeologists find interesting,” like a spoon or comb. In our fictional worlds, almost every artifact is preceded with the word “magical.” And if not, it’s because it’s an old, weird computer that’s intelligent enough to instantly understand English and give us a convenient doom-protecting exposition. When we hear the word “artifact,” we now assume it’s an item that’s not only ancient but also somehow powerful as well.
Many of us think that a mythical golden age needs to appear in our fictional worlds – not as a deconstruction of a psychological concept, but rather as an invariable property of human civilization. However, the only world we know* doesn’t support this perspective.
Let’s assume that a civilization achieves some greatness, even though this sort of evaluation is completely subjective. It’s true that some great civilizations have fallen, and their disappearance forced surrounding lands to take a technological step back. The most famous examples are the Bronze Age collapse and the fall of Western Roman Empire. With the fall of civilizations, some cool technologies like Damascus steel have disappeared.
However, we need to remember that in reality everything lost was also surpassed by new inventions. Humans are innovators. Our ability to collect resources, spend our time with pursuits other than survival, be supported by other members of our communities, and engage in cultural progress is something extraordinary.
Ancient Artifacts Have Become a Plot Shortcut
Since the beginning of history, we’ve made and borrowed writing formulas. These patterns help the public follow our plots and understand our worlds with less explanation. Because stories of lost civilizations are so common, plot solutions just need to be old to feel justified. Putting staffs of power, enchanted swords of slaying, or plasmatic nuclear engines in ancient ruins lets our protagonists experience some sort of adventure before they unlock their deus ex machina.
This is especially common in roleplaying games. There are so many fantasy RPGs, and very few of them focus on investigation and research. Going to an isolated place where we can fight people and get treasure is usually more exciting than actual problem solving – creating scientific experiments, gathering and analyzing the data, waiting for results, and so on. In adventure tales, it’s more convenient to just find things than it is to push the story into the future and figure out the consequences of such a jump.
Sometimes these mostly static fantasy settings will include small drivers of change such as academies of magic or “magical research” that lead to new inventions. But there is something terrifying about these incoming transformations, about unrolling the unlimited power of imagination. “The world is changing” is one of those phrases that movie trailers keep abusing, because change is scary for some, even if it is exciting for others.
While it’s important that we understand these writing patterns, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the ideas developed by other creators. To avoid becoming cliché, we need to evolve and innovate.
We Can Do Better
Strong, innovative worldbuilding requires historical sensitivity – a basic understanding of historical, cultural, and sociological processes that shape our reality. When storytellers don’t master it, they often create fictional worlds that don’t change socially, culturally, or technologically for thousands of years. Many of these settings copy real-world social structures for no reason at all. For instance, the extremely complex and specific feudal systems from Europe are just thrown into the fictional realms because these systems have knights, peasants, and kings.
In your next work, avoid ancient, yet for some reason superior, civilizations, and show how much easier life has become over time, even in fantasy realms. Sure, people in Westeros may be sad that magic is not as powerful as it used to be, but at least there are no freaking dragons flying over their heads or zombie armies right in front of them (wink wink).
Analyzing real cultures puts our stories into new, interesting perspectives. It allows us to show how much our characters and societies can achieve with a more realistic, even scientific, approach. It allows us to show how the world moves forward, or rather, how we move forward.
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