During recent discussions with friends, the question has often come up: “What’s so great about Adventure Time?” After all, its target demographic is children. Why is it such a hit with older audiences? Well, besides humorous situations, fun art, strong characters, and other countless reasons, I think the most important and engaging part of the show is its success in worldbuilding. To be honest, I think this is the hallmark of many great series.
Adventure Time spoilers below.
A well-built world increases the viewer’s investment in a series. Proper execution will make it feel like there was more care and thought put into the work. This can manifest itself in many ways; it’s all about cohesion. One basic strategy to achieve a cohesive atmosphere is to stick to a theming convention with environments. In Adventure Time, there are many kingdoms where characters live, many with a similarly themed princess leading them; Flame Princess for the Flame Kingdom, for example. The characters and the viewers know that kingdom system is in place, so when a character or location is introduced, we realize that there may be an equal location or character to be found (and vice versa).
Another great way to maintain cohesion is continuity. When continuity is maintained between episodes, especially beyond sequential episodes, events seem to have weight. While a spontaneous show with no real continuity may be fun for a while, it does make it hard to care about characters’ actions. If the reset button is always going to be pressed at the end of every episode, does it really matter what the characters do in the meantime? Regular Show handled this in an interesting way. While they often deal with the monster of the week and make it disappear, these villains aren’t necessarily down for the count. Take the episode “Exit 9b”, where many of the defeated bad guys came back to take revenge on the main cast. Not only was it a lovely continuity binge, but it backed up the idea that nothing is permanent in their strange world. Even though there isn’t always a direct episode to episode flow, there is an arcing continuity.
Related to this are subtle plotlines which carry weight, but might not always be the primary focus of episodes. Back to Adventure Time, there seemed to be a running joke of alternate universe (or past-life) versions of Finn that were missing their right arms. After a while, viewers began to speculate that this wasn’t just some throwaway joke, but foreshadowing. Sure enough, his arm was removed in a recent episode. This was a strange payoff for fans. On one hand, the speculation and theorizing came true; on the other, (or lack thereof, heh) a character lost his arm, which isn’t really all that cool. The satisfaction here came from realizing that writers are the type to put seemingly innocuous clues into episodes that will have significance later. They plan ahead, which is another sign of caring about the material.
When these sort of details aren’t maintained, it creates a dissonance. For example, let’s look at two episodes of Spongebob Squarepants: the pilot episode, “Help Wanted”, and “Neptune’s Spatula”, in which Spongebob is challenged to a cooking race by King Neptune. I choose this scenario because it stuck out to me even at a young age. In the former episode, Spongebob proves his ability as a fry cook by producing upwards of thousands of burgers in a very short time. In the latter, he goes to great lengths to create a quality sandwich, resulting in just one, causing him to lose. While the episode had an undercurrent of “use love and care rather than magic”, it didn’t make sense for this to lesson to be taught now. Some might handwave this as the absurdity of a children’s show, but Adventure Time shows that children are capable of thought and consistency. Essentially, this display in Spongebob demonstrates that there are no rules or sense of consistency in the show. Nothing matters.
The idea of a well-built world extends past television shows. One could argue that the whole success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is based on a shared universe. This was most apparent in The Avengers, particularly since much of the movie was based on character interactions. All the main characters had been built up in some way in previous movies, so we knew their histories would come into play. But, a well-maintained world can cause problems too. Again, in the post-Avengers Marvel Cinematic Universe, the big players all know each other. So if a character runs into a potentially world-threatening dilemma that they cannot fix single-handedly, our first thought is, well, why didn’t they immediately call the Avengers? Ego? Maybe, but this is a foolish reason at best. They couldn’t have possibly forgotten about their fellow heroes. This only invites more questions.
Asking these questions, however, shows how much fans care about the writers’ choices. It shows that there is a world to care about. For instance, in the movies before The Avengers, the worlds weren’t necessarily unified. The characters didn’t need to cross over yet. Since people expect them to now, it shows that the writers were successful in building a solid world.
Overall, this shows that successfully building a world in stories is useful and important to viewer engagement. Without it, stories may lose viewers’ interest over time.