Our reaction to a story often comes down to our expectations going in.
This shouldn’t be a surprise–the unexpectedly great dark horse is always more beloved than the hyped series that turns out to only be okay. Absolute quality is an elusive myth, and it’s often in the disparity between expectations and quality where classics are made.
But it’s not always about whether the story is good or not. Sometimes the problem comes when we misunderstand what type of story we’re dealing with.
I’m reminded of this as the next season of Sword Art Online looms close. SAO isn’t actually bad. It’s not great, but it doesn’t deserve as much hate as it receives. I understand why it gets it though, and only part of it is because of the hype. The rest is because it’s a fundamentally different kind of story than many of us expected.
When I heard about SAO, I thought it was was going to be an MMORPG story. It’s not. As an MMO story, it’s terrible, because it violates the essential ideals of MMOs–of class balance, that nobody is special, that there’s no One True Hero, and that everybody must work together to accomplish anything great. Without those, it strikes those of us who have played–and loved–MMORPGs as false.
But it’s not an MMO story, not really. Sword Art Online is a fairly standard fantasy story with some loose RPG trappings. When you stop expecting Log Horizon and begin expecting more “standard” fantasy tropes – knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, slaying dragons, etc – it stops looking so bad. It may not be great, but it’s no longer as terrible as some treat it.
The problem is that our expectations were misled, and rightly so. It’s not that we thought SAO was going to be the greatest anime of all time, it’s that we thought it was a certain kind of story (an MMORPG tale) when the author had little desire to play that game. And you can argue–and once again, rightfully so–that if the author didn’t want to make an MMO story, then he shouldn’t have given it MMO trappings. I agree. But judging it based on that is both correct and wrong, both fair and unfair.
It reminds me of what Guardian Enzo said on the latest RandomC podcast, about how stories that appear to be one thing but turn out to be another often don’t sell well. It looks silly and turns out to be serious? The people who wanted silly will be disappointed, whereas the ones who prefer serious won’t be watching because they thought it would be silly. It might be a better story for the misdirection, and for the pleasant surprise from those who tried it out, but it loses out in sales because its proper audience doesn’t realize it’s telling a story they would have loved.
As important as tempering our expectations about quality is, it’s equally important to judge stories based on the kind of story its trying to be, not the ideal we hold in our minds.
And for me, as a writer, it tells me that I need to be very clear about the kinds of stories I’ll be telling you, so that no one goes in expecting B and gets angry when it turns out to be A. Then at least we’ll be on the same page.