It feels like everywhere I turn in genre recently, people - whether that be characters in a show, books, games, whatever - are one-upping their heroic antics. The world is saved, nay the Galaxy! The Universe! All reality! Whatever happened to the small-scale heroes?
As you guys know, I play a lot of games, and recently I've been playing InFamous: Second Son - and it's been so refreshing to be part of a story where the stakes aren't about pitting yourself against a great evil that threatens the whole planet. Second Son's hero, Delsin Rowe, is a Native American from the fictional Akomish tribe - and the main drive for his story is that, using his newly found abilities to absorb superpowers, he wants to take the powers of the head of an anti-superhero Government taskforce, and use them to heal members of his tribe injured in an attack at the beginning of the game. So far there's been no hints of Delsin being part of anything bigger, or being prophesied as the one Hero to save the world - if anything, throughout the story Delsin constantly reminds those around him is that all he wants is to get the power he needs, get back to his community and be on his merry way.
The fact that it's such a rarity in big-budget games these days reflects a wider problem with the industry. Every year there's a new Call of Duty that somehow ups the stakes and bombast over the last one, and it feels like every other big franchise of late is all about saving not just earth, but the universe, from some ancient evil/precursor civilisation/giant monsters, the threat so great that if our hero fails, all of reality is doomed. All of reality's a pretty big concept to grasp, and considering I'm meant to be saving it in every other game, these epic stakes just don't really feel that epic any more. The need for every sequel in a story to up the stakes bigger and bigger until literally everything in existence is in danger has become so commonplace, that saving reality is no longer big or exciting. It's just kinda boring instead.
It's not just games that suffer from these constantly raised stakes either, we see it in genre Television too - lets take my other great passion for example, Doctor Who. Over the last 50 years the show has dallied with world-saving heroics from The Doctor and his companions, but as its 21st Century revival has progressed, it's practically every other episode that The Doctor is confronting a threat to a whole planet rather than a single entity or a small group of people (such as the well-worn trope of bases under siege so adored in the Classic series) - and fast forwarding into the era of the show under Steven Moffat, these threats evolve beyond just Earth or any other planet, but to Time itself, to whole universes and, once again, the whole of reality. Every once in a while the stakes are a bit smaller, like recent episodes such as Hide and to a lesser extent, Cold War (okay so eventually Skaldak threatens to turn the Cold War into a hot one and endanger Earth, but the story's impetus is about dealing with a lone Ice Warrior who wants to return home, rather than a massive Ice Warrior invasion or something), but they feel few and far between the sagas of every one of The Doctor's enemies coming together to take him out, or to uncover a secret that could destroy all of existence. With the stakes so high all the time, it stops feeling earned and starts feeling flippant and cliché - oh no, all of time is in danger again, just the usual then. We've become so numb to the epic to the point that heroes like The Doctor don't exactly feel all that heroic any more. The stakes have gotten so high, we've stopped actually feeling like they are that high.
That's not to say that saving the world is necessarily a bad thing - after all, part of the joy of escapism is that we can experience these stories that we can't experience in our own lives, and high-stakes adventures clearly have wide appeal, otherwise they wouldn't be so commonplace. But those high stake moments need to be used sparingly, so that when it comes to the stakes being raised, we as an audience are invested enough to actually care. I think it's something that Game of Thrones on the whole manages to strike right. Yes, there are epic elements - the return of magic and supernatural beings like Daenerys' dragons, or the White Walkers beyond the wall - but the impetus of the series' overall story is the control of Westeros' seven kingdoms, and Westeros is just one small part of a larger world. Martin's books, and HBO's series, tell the story of Westeros through smaller scale conflicts: sure, the actions taken have an impact on what many of the characters call 'The Game', but they are played out between individuals, or between families. And when we finally see that impact culminate in a higher stake, it's rarely all of Westeros that's under threat - for example, A Clash of Kings' Battle of Blackwater Bay serves as the culmination of Stannis Baratheon's war against the Lannisters, but it primarily affects King's Landing and its inhabitants, not Westeros or Essos or the whole world. When we think about the epic moments of Game of Thrones, either the books or the TV show - Ned Stark's execution, Blackwater, the sacking of Astapor, The Red Wedding - they aren't events that see Westeros and the world under threat. They all weave their way into the grand scheme, but on their own they're high stakes on a small scale.
We need more stories (and that's not to say there aren't any out there already - they're just rare in the mainstream) where the threat affects a single person or a small group, to mirror the epic tales and actually give them a scope to be measured by. When everything feels like it's telling an epic-scaled tale, it's hard to have a reference point that justifies them as 'epic'. I can't bring myself to care about saving the world when everyone's doing it.