Two very common elements in works of fantasy are Destiny and Prophecy. They are both variants of the same thing: The idea that the future (both for us and for our world) is never entirely in our control.
It is one of the oldest story elements, dating back to ancient days when Oedipus was told, "About your mom? Um, we have some bad news there."
People who write fantasy often feel a need to put in prophecies. After all, It's fantasy, right? Doesn’t the hero have to be told by God that he’ll win?”
Not necessarily. In fiction, prophecy has a purpose. If you don’t understand it, you won’t be able to make it work.
So time for a mini-deep dive. Destiny. Prophecy. Why are they there? What do they mean? What purpose do they serve in a story?
An Illustrative Example
I recently played God of War Ragnarok, which was a bloodless and wimpy retelling of Norse Mythology, with more annoying teens and fetch quests.
One of the most powerful elements of Norse Mythology is the prophecy of Ragnarok. Ragnarok is the final war, the apocalypse, the death of all things. It was a visceral acknowledgment that death comes to all in the end, even the wisest and mightiest.
Well, in God of War Ragnarok, all the characters know of this prophecy. As a result, we have this conversation about 80 times:
"We must prepare for this, because it's the prophecy!"
"No, prophecies don't have to happen! We'll prevent it!"
Again. And again. And again.
Of course, in the end, they defeat the prophecy of Ragnarok and save most of the Norse pantheon. Which is why worship of Freya and Thor is common to this very day.
The Problem With Prophecies These Days
There's no law against having a prophecy in your story. But if you're going to have it? Go for it! But you don't need some squeaky-voiced angsty teen talking about how prophecies are dumb every 17 seconds.
The mode of contemporary fiction is one of absolute freedom. Everyone can do anything. Every bad thing can be avoided. Everyone becomes a good person by saying they're a good person. Not even a gruesome, joyous bloodbath like God of War is immune to being made all squishy.
Everything is a Disney movie now. If you're a rat who wants to work in a high-end kitchen serving $300/plate dinners, that's cool! (NB: Rats should not be in kitchens.)
Why is this a problem? The answer is to focus on what is it about the idea of destiny that has made it an integral part of human drama since the beginning of recorded time?
You Have a Destiny. You. Yes, You.
Fundamentally, destiny and prophecy are reflections of one simple idea: We are all subject to forces outside our control.
This is true both within and without. Outside our bodies, we are part of a gigantic blob of humanity. Humans form into groups and nations and armies which dwarf us. History lurches onward, outside of our control. Almost all of us, when all is said and done, are ants.
(Which is why conspiracy theories are ultimately comforting, because they let us pretend that somebody is in control of this mess.)
Meanwhile. inside our bodies, we are trapped by our own minds and our own limitations. We all have the capability to change, yes, but not very much. Nobody can do everything, nobody can adjust to every challenge. A lot of growing older is just coming to terms with our increasingly limited capabilities. Until, of course, the final inevitable loss of all capabilities.
What does this mean? It means that the world in which you live, in both small and large scale, is going to change in ways that you can't control. We are all at the mercy of forces outside and inside us.
This Is Hard To Accept
And thus, we turn to art. Art, at its best, gives us a way to understand ourselves, the humans around us, and the world in which we live. When a story has a prophecy in it, it says, "The characters in this story can do what they want, but the fate of the world is out of their control. The best they can do is react and cope."
This appeals to us because this is the way we must live our own lives. This comforts us. It makes us feel less alone.
Lack Of Choice Can Be Comforting
The current mode in fiction is that we are free of tradition, free of duty. Everyone must entirely make their own lives from scratch. Our lives? Our job? Our moral code? Everything must be made anew. It is always Year 0.
For some people, this is great, but not everyone is built to manufacture a whole reality. For some, the idea of giving up some freedom in return for stability is reassuring.
Our fantasy can mock the idea of Destiny, but it will still inevitably turn to the idea. Dreaming of Destiny gives us a brief respite from life's unending and suffocating choices.
A Final Example: Macbeth
So, Macbeth is kind of awesome, right? Ambitious warlord walks through a swamp and meets some witches. They predict that his lust for power will drive him to kill the king and take his crown. And then it will all fall apart. And that’s exactly how all that goes down. (Warning: This paragraph contains spoilers for Macbeth.)
Macbeth is an entire story on rails. Witches say it happens. It happens. And it works, enough so that people are still going on about it four centuries later. Why?
Because prophecy in Macbeth is first educational and then reassuring.
The first prophecy is about the inevitably of evil. Greed, betrayal, paranoia, collapse, these are all inevitable parts of being human. When the witches say the ambitious psycho guy will take everything he can, it isn’t that much of a stretch. This is how how humanity works. It is inevitable.
Bad news, right?
But the second prophecy is one of hope. It says that evil contains the seeds of its own downfall. The qualities that make you steal and kill and the same qualities that will make anything you build fall apart. It is inevitable.
Prophecy is a plot device of remarkable power, because it helps us accept the inevitable, good and bad.
If I Put a Prophecy In My Story …
I shouldn’t advise other artists about how to make their art, but I can say what I would do.
If I am giving a character in my story a Destiny, I’m saying this is a thing that HAS to happen. So, why?
Perhaps I believe that there is a reason it has to happen, like it or not, having to do with the nature of humans, or reality, or society. (The Macbeth route.)
Perhaps I think it adds something to the story, a bit of a perverse twist, that takes a dark story and gives it a bit of ironic spice. (The Oedipus route.)
Either way, though, when I say something is the Prophecy, that crap is gonna’ happen.
So Respect Destiny
Again, there's no law that says your story has to have a prophecy or destiny in it.
But if it does? Respect it! If you say a character has a destiny and then weasel out of it, you are cheating. Your work is dishonest.
As for me, I've written 18 distinct works of fantasy, and none of them have had a prophecy. Not a one. This is fine, because I have a different focus: I put the player in the position of one of the few, rare people who can make choices that actually affect the world.
This enables me to explore the human condition in a different way. It's also a nice balm for the players, who, like me, experience life as a long period of more-or-less powerlessness.
Because while defeating destiny is satisfying for a time, eventually reality will catch up with you. It's bleak, but it's necessary preparation. Whoever you are, eventually you start to run out of choices.
We don't know when that dark day will come. Thankfully, art can help us prepare.
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About the only time I really like prophecies are when they're true but open to enough interpretation that it isn't obvious what exactly is going to happen and the signs are kind of like a mystery where the player/reader can try to sleuth what might happen next, or when you explore the actual ramifications of the prophecy and how it informs why people do or act the way they do. How an Odin-type rails against Ragnarok but then ultimately accepts and makes plans for how to meet destiny in the best way, let's say.
Defying fate is a fun concept that can feel powerful but it fate can be defied then it wasn't 'fate' in the first place, as you say. It can be done if you take care to show that the entity that claims to be controlling fate is unreliable and imperfect and how the idea of 'Destiny' is being used to control people when there really is no such thing.
I think I don't mind a 'destiny on rails' kind of situation where you're a defined character with a defined story, but I agree it'd be considerably more frustrating in one of your games where you're supposed to be defining your own character and making decisions on how you feel about things and what direction you want them to go.
Interesting comments on how it all relates to our real lives. Makes sense though why it's enjoyable in games to feel you have a say when you might not have as much say as you like in reality.
I’unno… “Destiny” is entirely specific, while “you can’t control every aspect of the future” is just existence set to normal.
Besides, “destiny” also implies the existence of “greater” forces than you dictating your life in specific, purposeful ways. That can be a very uncomfortable thought. Rarely are the powers that be 100% benevolent in fiction, so much so that, “eight overdressed teenagers kill god” has become a meme whenever JRPGs are discussed.
But I think the biggest potential pitfall of adding traditional destiny to your story is you’re basically framing your story on a spoiler. Which isn’t as inherently bad thing as that term has come to be, but you’ve effectively locked your story down to what you’ve told your audience it’s going to be in act one. And maybe watching it unfold is still satisfying – suspense vs. surprise and all that. But you’ve gone from, “anything can happen” to “this specifically happens” which takes your story’s options from ∞ to 1.
Now, you can still subvert this to an extent even in the classic sense – “interpretation” of prophecy throwing curveballs is almost as central to the idea as any part of it. But either that, or some subversive analysis of the idea of prophecy really feel like the only two paths for the idea these days – some twist or play on words, or some diatribe about how prophecy is kinda a messed-up idea.
And maybe that’s why stories where prophecy is played straight *are* something we need more of. When it turns out that, no, actually God isn’t secretly evil and we don’t need to send a team of J-pop stars to stab him a bunch, I’m more shocked and engaged than when that is the case. This could easily be the same thing. Perhaps the idea of prophecy has been subverted and over-analyzed into paste. Is there anything left of it to meaningfully subvert or analyze beneath all the tongue-and-cheek upending or weighty think pieces?
That said, defying destiny itself is too much the ultimate power fantasy to ever truly go out of style with video games. A character going “you’re not the boss of me, God/destiny/fate/providence/ineffable-forces-of-the-universe!” and actually backing that up will always have too much appeal to ever really go out of style. And this isn’t entirely a bad message either – yes, you’re limited in what you can control, but you should also be empowered to control and impact what you can. And if a plucky fictional hero can go out and successfully stand against some universe shaping metaphor, then there’s hope that you too can go do the thing.