It’s official folks, December is drawing to a close and another apocalyptic year lies ahead of us. This time of year calls for reflection, so I wanted to talk about a show I’ve had some opinions about for a while now. The Hollow was a Netflix original cartoon that aired in June of 2018. It was also a point of great disappointment for me, as it had an interesting premise brought down by poor execution. Now, I’m only speaking about the first season, because I haven’t seen the second. And while the show didn’t work for me, the general reception seems to be positive. But enough about that, because I’m not here to rag on a show I didn’t like. I’m here to talk about a trope that appears in the first season, the trope of: “It was a game all along.”
How The Trope Is Used
First, some context on The Hollow itself. Three kids find themselves in a strange room, with no memories in the slightest. They must face trials in various themed locations to return home while being influenced by a person called “The Weird Guy.” Close to the end of The Hollow season one, the characters begin to notice strange glitches in the world. This comes to a head when The Weird Guy reveals that the world is in fact a video game. He also reveals that they have to win in order to stop the glitches, and presumably return home.
Now, The Hollow was already playing around with the amnesia trope. That can be tough to resolve with one character, so I was very keen to see how they’d do it with three. However, when the “it was a game all along” trope got introduced, it stirred up some conflicting feelings. True, it does explain why they have amnesia. It’s a feature of the game! A weird feature that makes the tournament seem pointless. It’s the equivalent of having players get black-out drunk before a Mario Kart match. Sure, it’s more fun to watch, but there’s no way to know if the person who won was actually a better player. Still, amnesia resolved. Unfortunately, this trope was also why I lost any interest I once had in the show.
Why This Trope Didn’t Work
“It was a game all along” as a trope is reminiscent of another you might know better. The classic “It was a dream the whole time” story. Universally thought of as lazy, and generally hated. While they are functionally similar, there is a key difference between them. Dreams usually can’t affect the real world, but video games can. Video games are a multi-million dollar industry. Tournaments offer enormous sums of money as prizes, and like any industry, games aren’t immune to criminal activity. They also provide an escape, a showcase for skill, and can express ideas in an interactive medium. But let’s talk about why this didn’t work in The Hollow season 1.
The name of the game here is placement. Throughout the series, the main characters are put through seemingly life-threatening trials. Several fights, puzzles, and traps are portrayed as incredibly dangerous, but the heroes power through to solve the mystery. Then, in the seventh episode of a ten-episode season, we get the “it was a game all along” revelation and all the tension is gone. Retroactively removed, because the stakes are never replaced. The Weird Guy says they have to win the game to stop the glitches, but it’s never explained why that matters. Sure, they have to win to go home, by wouldn’t they go home if the other team won? In the end, this trope is a fun idea that ends the show about three episodes early. The mystery is solved, the fights don’t mean anything anymore, and I lost all investment.
How It Could Be Improved
Now, I think this idea can work. I wouldn’t have written this article otherwise. But let’s try and improve on it a bit. First of all, let’s change the placement of the reveal. As I said above, the reveal is a bit too late in the series to work with and ends up making the rest feel ironically hollow. There seem to be two options here, leave it for the end as a surprise twist, or have it be in the beginning to give the audience a sense of dramatic irony. Personally, I would have put it in the middle of the show, then brought the amnesia plot-line to a close. As soon as the characters know it’s a game, they remember everything.
That would allow the writers to work in some real-world drama, and tell us why this game is so important. Maybe Mira, the female lead, is using the game to escape her problems. Perhaps Adam and Kai, the two male leads, had a falling out before the game began. Alternatively, explain that this is a fascist future where the losers of the game are executed or imprisoned, to raise tensions. If that doesn’t seem very family-friendly to you, then I’d like to point out that death was a very real possibility in this show for about seven episodes. The point being, had the show introduced the trope earlier as a plot point, and leaned into it, the show might have been the psychological experience it seemed to want to be.
In the end, while a trope may have hurt this show, it wasn’t due to the inherent flaws of the trope. The Hollow was hurt far more by the trope’s implementation. While tropes can be boring, stale, tiresome, and other mean words, they don’t have to be. Whether it becomes a trope or a plot point depends entirely on how it’s used. For me, The Hollow revealing that “it was a game all along” was a trope. It furthered the story, but at the cost of the tension and the mystery, the two things the show had been building all season. So, the next time you are writing your story and it turns out it was a game all along, ask yourself. Is this a plot point? Or a trope? It’s very rarely both.