Trover Saves the Universe and Stakes
StoryScan: Critical Hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Trover Saves the Universe (Squanch Games, 2019), the comedy VR adventure from Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland. This essay will cover content up through the end of the game. Players who have not completed the game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
Content Warning: Like most of Justin Roiland’s work, Trover Saves the Universe contains heaping helpings of pitch-black humor, cartoon violence, and scatalogical-slash-sexual swears. Those who wish to avoid this content may want to set this article aside. For those looking for an alternative study of stakes in game narratives, check out our general essay on stakes.
Writing can be a frustrating endeavor, especially when money is involved. One of the ways writers get through the process is by joking about it, and few writers have told more jokes about the craft than Justin Roiland. As a driving force behind shows like Rick and Morty (Adult Swim, 2013) and Solar Opposites (Hulu, 2020), Roiland has peppered his projects with off-the-cuff meta-commentary about telling and selling stories. In any given scene, his characters may become self-aware enough to know they’re in a work of fiction, but only so they can joke about it. After the joke is over, it’s back to the plot, but only until the next round of riffing. It’s a style of comedy that doesn’t work for everyone, but for those who enjoy it, Justin Roiland’s shows are a gold mine—and to no one’s surprise, his games are the same way.
Under the umbrella of Squanch Games (formerly Squanchtendo), Justin Roiland has released several video games across various consoles, including Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. His most recent release, Trover Saves the Universe (Squanch Games 2019), is a VR title that combines first-person controls with third-person action to deliver a unique experience. That experience is enhanced by Roiland’s trademark brand of humor. The game script is almost entirely improvised, to the point that nearly forty percent of the recorded material landed on the cutting room floor.1 Yet despite this heavy improvisation, Trover possesses a sharp, goal-driven narrative with the same beats and arcs of more traditional stories. The specifics may not make sense on paper—eyehole monsters and chair-people working together to fight chicken nugget-shaped clones of a dog-napping god—but the story still works on a fundamental level because Roiland knows how to tell a story. His characters have goals, experience setbacks while working towards those goals, and each setback raises the stakes—even if the characters say otherwise.
What's at Stake?
Setting the Scene
At its core, Trover Saves the Universe is a well-polished vehicle for Justin Roiland’s jokes, but there’s still a story beneath the comedy routine. Granted, it’s an absurd story, and the story’s continuity is only as important as the next joke, but the basics are where they need to be. First, you’ve got your protagonist: the Chairorpian, a yellow, stick-like man whose people spend their lives in their floating chairs. Next, you’ve got your deuteragonist (also known as ‘partner’): Trover, a purple ‘eyehole monster’ who can insert smaller lifeforms in his eye sockets to gain their power. And finally, the antagonist: Glorkon, a rogue member of an ancient group of all-seeing alien gods with eyehole powers that put Trover to shame. Together, these three characters have the greatest impact on the plot, which means they’re the ones who stand to gain—or lose—the most, depending on how the story unfolds.
Trover establishes its initial stakes within the first few minutes of gameplay. When the story begins, the Chairorpian is enjoying a peaceful life with his two beloved dogs, but that peace is shattered when Glorkon steals the dogs, shoves them in his eyeholes, and uses their incredible dog-power to go on a galactic rampage. If that doesn’t make sense on the first read, that’s okay; the important thing is the underlying threat, which is that antagonist has taken the protagonist’s loved ones and is using them to hurt people. By cutting away the layer of absurdity, the stakes become crystal clear. The protagonist must rescue his loved ones, and if he doesn’t, other people will suffer. It’s an incredibly basic plotline, but the simplicity works because it creates space for the absurd specifics.
The introduction of deuteragonist Trover follows a similar pattern. When Trover enters the story, his goal is to bring the Chairorpian to the boss at Important Cosmic Jobs, then collect enough ‘space bucks’ so he can relax at his favorite club, Empty Peepers. This premise is ridiculous, but when you break it down, it’s an all-too-familiar plotline from countless buddy comedies. Trover is an overworked and underpaid employee of a faceless conglomerate, and all he wants to do is collect enough money to enjoy some downtime at his favorite spot. If he fails to bring in the Chairorpean, he doesn’t get the money, which means he doesn’t get to blow off steam at Empty Peepers. The specifics might not be relatable to anyone on Earth, but the underlying premise is all too familiar for anyone who’s ever had a long day at a tough job. That’s the charm of Trover Saves the Universe: it uses absurdity to breathe life into familiar tropes, making the audience care about stakes they’ve seen a million times before.
Raising the Stakes
Nothing bogs a story down like a lack of escalation. Audiences need movement, and one of the best ways to keep a story moving is to raise the stakes. As a screenwriter who’s spent at least five minutes in Hollywood, Justin Roiland has likely heard this axiom enough to joke about it in his stories. This experience is particularly apparent in Trover Saves the Universe, as the characters will run head-first through the fourth wall to acknowledge when the stakes have been raised.2
According to literary agent Donald Maass, there are two kinds of stakes to raise in a story: the public and the personal.3 Trover Saves the Universe plays with both types as the plot progresses, making life harder for Trover and the Chairorpian while escalating the threats to the universe. The first time escalation occurs after Trover and the Chairorpian meet with the Abstainers, the intergalactic deities who possess the power to see across all of time and space. Usually, the Abstainers abstain from interfering with the fate of the cosmos—hence the name—but Glorkon’s most recent scheme has forced them to abstain from abstaining. As it turns out, Glorkon’s local rampage was only a warm-up act for his real goal: destroying the cosmos and everything in it, including the Chairorpian’s dogs and Trover’s beloved Empty Peepers. This nefarious plot is a personal threat to the Chairorpian and Trover and a public threat to the cosmos. If the protagonists don’t act, they’ll lose the things they care about, and countless others will suffer. Naturally, this leads Trover to inform his boss that the stakes have been raised, which should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention. As Trover says to the Chairorpian, “Shit’s been all crazy with the stakes—they’ve been raised!” Indeed they have, Trover. Indeed they have.
Higher and Higher
The cat-and-mouse game between Trover and the Chairorpian and Glorkon continues to escalate as the protagonists uncover more of Glorkon’s scheme. As it turns out, Glorkon isn’t just planning to destroy the cosmos; his ultimate goal is to smash a bunch of worlds together, creating a ‘Mixed World’ that will spawn the creation of his One True Love. While this plan will still result in the death of the Chairorpian’s dogs (along with whoever gets smashed to pieces to make Mixed World), it won’t destroy the entire cosmos after all, which means Trover doesn’t have to care anymore. Empty Peepers will be safe, and so will his friends—or so he thinks.
When Glorkon succeeds in creating Mixed World, stranding both Trover and the Chairorpian in an unfamiliar landscape, Trover discovers that his beloved Empty Peepers has been destroyed. Everyone he’s ever known is dead, too, from his favorite waitress to his mute barber. Finally, Trover understands what’s at stake: the lives and loved ones of the people who get in Glorkon’s way. If Trover doesn’t help the Chairorpian rescue his dogs and stop the creation of any more Mixed Worlds, more people will suffer, and the patrons of Empty Peepers will have died for nothing. Justice is at stake, along with countless worlds and two little dogs. The stakes are at their highest point, which means it’s time for a final battle that ends with a twist that must be seen to be believed.
Trover Saves the Universe is no ordinary game, but its absurd exterior hides a well-crafted story. The protagonists have goals that shift as they encounter new obstacles, and there’s always something meaningful at stake. Writers who want to make audiences laugh while telling stories that hold up under scrutiny can look to Trover Saves the Universe as an example of how raising the stakes can elevate even the simplest stories.
What happens if a character doesn’t achieve their goal? What happens if they do?
The imbalance of information between the characters and the audience keeps the story interesting.
StoryScan: Super Mario RPG and Tone
Super Mario RPG makes the most out of its lighthearted, comedic tone by integrating it in both story and scene.
1 Harris, John. “Making the Bizarre, Hilarious World of Trover Saves the Universe.” Game Designer, 2019.
2 This is a great technique because it not only makes the audience laugh, but also makes my job easier! That’s right, now I’m breaking the fourth wall. If you got this far into a serious analytical article about a Justin Roiland game, this is your punishment-slash-reward.
3 Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel (p. 78). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage: ILLUMINAT3D. “Trover Saves The Universe – Full Gameplay Walkthrough | PS4 Pro.” YouTube, 2020.