Late to the Party

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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Standard video game set-up, particularly for the Survival Horror and Adventure Game genres.

Something bad has happened in the setting. Something very bad. The player arrives some time later—days, perhaps, but possibly years, even centuries afterward. His "official" goal is just to make it out of there with life, limb, and sanity intact, possibly liberating a treasure or two along the way. But in the course of achieving his own goal, he is going to find out a lot about the something that has happened, and the people it happened to. As part of the set-up, the player might have been sent or called specifically in response to the Tragedy—to find out what happened, or rescue some one or some thing. Alternatively, he may begin not knowing even that the tragedy has occurred, just happening upon it through bad luck—the classic "Our car broke down so we'll take shelter in this abandoned castle" set-up.

Typically, often as a direct result of the player's investigation, he will find himself needing to learn from what he can piece together of the past to stop this bad something from happening again—to him. In games with a supernatural angle, there will often be some component of "freeing the ghosts" of those involved in the past tragedy by resolving the situation.

Expect to find at least one diary (Scavenger hunts for journal pages are very common), a video tape or two, psychic visions of the past, and, very likely, notes on the wall in human blood.

This setup is not uncommon outside of video games, but the focus on discovering these fragments of the past is typically much stronger in the game—the interactive medium is particularly well-suited to this kind of storytelling, as it lets the player control the pace and order at which the story is told, but the story itself needs not account for the player's pesky free will getting in the way.

It also allows all the storytelling and character interactions to happen non-interactively (often in cutscenes), which actually increases realism, as these sorts of scenes are nigh-impossible to do well interactively.

There are some parallels with Ontological Mystery, although typically the characters know how they got there. Super-Trope to Slept Through the Apocalypse.

Examples of Late to the Party include:

Game examples

  • Space Quest I In the very beginning, Roger Wilco awakens in his closet from the sounds of gun fire and commotion as the ship he is on is taken over by the enemy Sariens. By the time he exits the closet, the crew is already dead, the self-destruction sequence is already engaged, and he has to find his way to the escape pod while avoiding the invaders who are still looking for any living souls who they might have missed.
  • The 7th Guest and its sequels. The main character in The Seventh Guest is late for a literal party ? so late that all the guests are ghosts! It later turns out that he is, in fact, the eponymous Seventh Guest, and was on time, as he, too, is a ghost.
  • Myst. You, the player, find yourself on an abandoned island. After exploring a bit, you build up a picture of something dire that happened there before you arrived.
  • In Uru, the party you're late for just happens to be first four Myst games. And you'd just preordered them, too... * sniff*
  • Amber: Journeys Beyond is built on this trope. Your paranormal research partner has bought an allegedly haunted house and rigged it up with all kinds of barely-tested equipment. You find her unconscious with some of that equipment strapped to her head, the whole house dark, and all manner of creepy stuff going down.
  • Echo Night Beyond
    • The Echo Night series uses this in each installment. First one has Richard ending up on the Orpheus, a ship long lost at sea; second has his search for his missing girlfriend lead to a haunted mansion; Beyond takes the series into space and strands him on a lunar colony.
  • Shivers and its sequel.
  • The main story of Eternal Darkness has Alex Roivas trying to discover why her grandfather was killed by reading pages of the Tome of Eternal Darkness he left behind. Several chapters also involve this trope and a paper trail to follow.
  • Most of the Resident Evil games. Resident Evil 2, where Leon and Claire show up to a zombie-infested Raccoon City, takes it the most literally: Partway through, you find the party favors and decorations for a welcome party the Raccoon City Police Department was going to throw for Leon.
  • Dead Rising. Frank West enters Willamette to investigate a story...which turns out to be a zombie outbreak. Somewhat of an oddball example, as Frank's mission from the start is to uncover the story.
  • In Nosferatu: Wrath of the Malachi the protagonist is late for the wedding of his sister. He arrives the castle at 10 PM, and has time until midnight to find out what happened.
  • Half Life 2 has an overarching plotline of the player being Late to the Party for the subjugation of earth. There's a nested trope in the Ravenholm portion of the game, where the player is Late to the Party for the much more recent slaughter of an entire town.
    • Averted, however, in the first game, in that the player character causes the resonance cascade, and all the expansions except Opposing Force put the player as other Black Mesa employees present as everything goes to hell Xen.
  • Very common in Interactive Fiction, where it forms a subset of the situations described by "Adam Cadre's Theorem" (i.e. That in games, mysteriously abandoned places are common since they inherently have mystery and lack any difficult to program Non Player Characters). Examples include Planetfall, Babel, Glowgrass, Theatre, etc.
  • The Neverhood, a claymation game that starts off with the protagonist sleeping on the floor of a locked room with no explanation as to who he is or how he got there. The story is told bit-by-bit through little discs recorded by another character.
  • Partially subverted in the Silent Hill series—although fitting most of the criteria, right down to the scattered journal pages and the notes written in human blood, you never really find out what's going on. The most you can hope for is some personal closure, a rescued survivor, or maybe a long-lost wife brought back from the dead. (!)
    • The games do drop hints as to why the town is the way it is, and the nature of Silent Hill is explored in detailed in the expanded book "The Book of Lost Memories".
  • In God of War, Kratos can find several journal passages from the architect who constructed Pandora's Temple. They don't serve to forward the plot at all, but it's very interesting nonetheless.
  • Metroid Prime sets Samus on the planet Tallon IV without any clue as to what happened there, and then does two of these at the same time: the Chozo Lore tells you how things got this way, and the Pirate Data explains what has happened since the original Metroid and what the Space Pirates are doing there. As the pirate entries catch up to the present, Samus becomes the apocalypse.
    • The sequels do it too. Prime 2 has you landing on Aether in search of a lost platoon of Federation Marines; you find them all dead. You then have to single-handedly reverse the outcome of a just-completed war that had been going on for at least the last several decades. The third game has four instances of this trope: two planets and the wreckage of a battle cruiser. This is at least a bit better than the other examples, as the three planets were recently attacked, and Samus didn't go there immediately because she was unconscious from a previous attack.
  • And in Metroid fusion, where you arrive at the BSL research station after a mysterious explosion. Then the zombies show up.
  • Also in Super Metroid where you arrive at the Ceres Space station post receiving a distress signal but finding all the scientists dead.
  • Then there is Megaman Zero 2. Arriving at Neo Arcadia 2 only to find every soldier involved dead (with the exception of one)
  • The Asimov-inspired Robot City.
  • Star Control 2. The protagonist is sent to aid Earth and its allies in a war against hostile aliens, only to find that Earth was conquered twenty years earlier.
    • Done again later, when you go looking for the Androsynth homeworld only to find out that the Androsynth were researching something they shouldn't have, and were seen by something when they really didn't want to be seen. There are no more Andryosynth, only Orz.
  • System Shock and its sequel, both of which have the hero waking from cryogenic suspension and slowly discovering the ship/station he's on has been through some interesting developments while he was out.
    • Interesting to note is that System Shock's development actually necessitated a Late To The Party story, as then-current computers simply couldn't render believable character interactions.
  • BioShock (series) (from the makers of the System Shock games) takes place in an abandoned undersea utopia-gone-wrong, which the player character stumbles across, discovering more about what went wrong as they explore.
    • Quite literally late to the party in this case, since everything went down on New Years Eve.
    • This trope is lampshaded, perhaps inadvertently, in Bioshock's Alternate Reality Game. In Quain's "Utropolis" manuscript, it details his arrival at Rapture and discovery of the aforementioned New Year's celebration—at which point he muses that he was "Late for the party."
    • Averted in BioShock Infinite, however. Both factions are still fighting, and Columbia hasn't been reduced to the horrific crumbling state of Rapture where everything seems to be hanging by a thread and ready to flood at the slightest provocation. It's still going to be very dangerous though.
    • In Bioshock 2, there's a subplot of a busisnessman who stumbled upon Rapture looking for his missing daughter who was turned into a Little Sister told through audio logs. Right before you enter one area of the game, you hear - in the actual world and not an audio log - the man screaming to "get away from her." When you go inside, you can find a suitcase full of surprisingly-normal possessions and an audio log. The audio log ends with the businessman screaming the same desperate pleas you had just heard from outside the room. It turns out that you'd been mere minutes behind him for most of the way. You'd think that'd be the end of that plotline, but right before the finale you're late to the party again, because apparently the businessman didn't die there, and was instead dragged off to become a Big Daddy who would serve his own daughter as a little sister. You find an audio log telling you this directly after you encounter (and let's be honest, probably killed) a Big Daddy with a name matching the businessman from the audio logs, right next to an operating table for the creation of Big Daddies.
  • In Bungie Software's Pathways into Darkness the player is part of an elite special forces team sent with only hours to stop the Sealed Evil in a Can at the bottom of a nightmarish jungle pyramid dungeon from waking up. But your parachute malfunctions before you can land, and your team leaves you for dead. Since It's Up to You, you awaken hours later (also finding that the barrel of the awesome M16 in your Bag of Spilling was bent in the landing, rendering all of your ammo useless) to discover that your team has failed.
  • This occurs a number of times in Final Fantasy VII, usually involving a previous bloody massacre by Sephiroth or the shady dealings of the Shinra organization.
  • This gets ludicrous throughout the middle of Final Fantasy IX, wherein nearly every city the protagonist comes across is obliterated literally moments before he arrives. The list of console RPG cliches actually names this "curse" after the main character—who, granted, was created to bring destruction, but not by arriving five minutes after every plot-related catastrophe.
  • In the Lucasarts video game The Dig, the human protagonists are "kidnapped" by an advanced spaceship and arrive at an alien world whose civilization has apparently become extinct. At first they care only about survival and possibly finding a way to return Earth, but over the course of the game they discover clues as to the cause of the alien disappearance and end up bringing them back.
  • A similar setting appeared in Stanislaw Lem's novel Eden.
  • Played straight in Dragon Quest VIII, wherein the heroes often arrive just in time to see their next lead or target go up in smoke.
  • Grout's mansion in Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is like this: As the main character begins exploring the Malevolent Architecture of the mansion in search of Dr. Grout, they come across tape recordings by the Malkavian Primogen, discussing his condition and history. The further into the mansion you go, the less sane these recordings begin to sound, finally climaxing into some truly epic paranoid rantings that not only turns out to be utterly true, but utterly justified -- by the time you get to the inner sanctum, you find his obviously murdered corpse inside.
    • And if that's not creepy enough, wait until you see what he meant by "precautions to protect my beloved wife"--her corpse is sealed inside a huge Victorian belljar, surrounded by objects from her childhood and their courtship.
      • Maybe not totally insane: he has a medical mind and has accepted the concept of life beyond death, so protecting her body wouldn't seem useless, and (while it might have been a glitch in the map or my video card) there seemed to be something else protecting her - the corpse was only there from certain camera angles and locations. At least, none of the hostiles (the non-inhabitants, I mean) had touched her body yet, and some probably had motive to.
  • Portal does some...interesting things with this one. When Chell first awakens, she's in a room with a radio playing a trendy pop version of the game's Ending Theme. During the course of the game, GLaDOS the motherly computer-generated voice promises cake and a party if you successfully complete all the challenges set before you. The party she's referring to does not exist (but the cake does...), the employees are long dead, and Chell won't be getting cake... she'll be getting baked.
  • In Portal 2, considering Chell's been in stasis for years (estimates range from two decades to three centuries), she's really late to the party as far as the fate of mankind goes. She's also late to the party she herself set up by destroying GLaDOS in the previous game.
  • Shift, a game which evokes much of the spirit of Portal, uses this trope in Shift 3.
  • Uncharted: Drake's Fortune does it a few times over - not only the hero and the villainous enemy mercs but also Nazis and Sir Francis Drake were Late to the Party of a group of Spanish explorers who found El Dorado - and grew to wish they hadn't. In the present, the hero finds himself trawling through the wreckage of these multiple doomed expeditions.
  • Reading Blaster: Ages 9 - 12 does this, frequently incorporating the information about what happened into its language arts activities.
  • Bonesaw: The Game has one of these to help form its premise. The player character took a bit too long gathering some pulled pork sandwiches, and just happened to miss Ref M sucking the rest of his team into an interdimensional penalty box!
  • Knights of the Old Republic II Starts with the player being Late to the Party aboard the Peragus Mining Facility. After finding the culprit, the player promptly has his own party which makes the first party almost completely irrelevant.
    • The first game and the Hrakert Rift station. You know something happened, but then you and yours walk right into a survival horror mess with a bunch of crazed Selkath, chewed-up bodies, and if you're really unlucky, Darth Malak's excuse for an apprentice.
  • The general theme in Mass Effect: it's galactic civilization that's late to the party, to the point of the last party being held for the Precursors.
    • The Protheans being close to stopping said party and being as smart as the.... hosts... If the full party had happened on the current civilisation's watch... well one of the ships was battling the entire combined force of the galaxy's sentient beings on it's own... Imagine millions of the things. Or at least, you probably won't have to in Mass Effect 3.
  • The Fatal Frame/Project Zero games revolve around this trope:
    • In the first game, the main character is searching for her brother, who disappeared while on a missing person hunt of his own - looking for his mentor, a novelist researching his next novel by visiting the supposedly haunted Himuro mansion.
      • This is the only example of a three layer Late To The Party pile-up this troper has ever encountered.
      • Make that four-or-five-layer, actually. In addition to all that, Miku later happens upon the sad tale of a folklorist who moved into the mansion with his wife and daughter, not to mention the failed ritual that made the mansion so maliciously haunted in the first place.
    • The second game, Crimson Butterfly, has twin protagonists Mayu and Mio getting lost in the woods and stumbling into All Gods' Village, a place that vanished off the face of the earth many years ago. The first section of the game revolves around following the trail of a woman who followed her missing boyfriend to the village.
  • Dead Space does this by the book. You are a literally called in to fix the broken communication system of the mining space ship Ishimura, only to find the crew replaced by hideous necromorphs. Like in Metroid Prime, you can recover sets of video, audio, and textual logs left by various members of the dead crew to piece together how and why the party went down (It wasn't a very nice party).
    • Dead Space 2 on the other hand has you present as the 'party' is starting, although things have been building up for weeks or months beforehand.
  • In Super Smash Bros Brawl: The Subspace Emissary, this occurs right before the final boss fight, when Sonic, the fastest playable character in the game, shows up out of nowhere with no notice whatsoever and damages Tabuu's butterfly wings, weakening his 'Off Waves' ability and allowing a battle with him without dying by default.
  • In Starflight (So old the Sega Genesis version was a re-release) you find yourself centuries Late to the Party. You're from Planet Arth, whose star is about to collapse, on a mission to find a hospitable planet to which the populace can relocate. Along the way, adrift in deep space, you find a sleeper ship from Planet Earth...rendered inhospitable (see Apocalypse How, Class 5) long ago. So long ago, in fact, that your culture lost all knowledge that your civilization originally came from Earth. Eventually you find Earth itself, and on its surface locate 'artifacts' in the form of newspapers vaguely describing its downfall. Eventually you have to use three artifacts together to stop a crystalline entity that was the cause of both Earth's downfall and the near destruction of your solar system.
    • ... How? Smack its nose with the rolled up artifacts?
  • The entire world of Fallout is based around this trope, having been destroyed by a nuclear war a few hundred years before the game begins.
  • Heretic 2 has you arrive at you home town some time after a magical plague has been unleashed.
  • Doom 3 has you both early and late to the party, you're there when everything goes to hell (or hell come to it) but it's clear a lot has been going on before your arrival.
  • In Alpha Prime, your original goal is to simply travel to a sealed off mining station to rescue a friend. Once you meet him, however, you learn that the asteroid was sealed off in the first place due to the Company who owned it's failure to acquire the MacGuffin they sought. By the end, you learn that not only was the villain only there to make another attempt at collecting Glomar's heart while eliminating any witnesses, but it was the real reason you were sent there.
  • Jonathan Boakes's Dark Fall is another good example: "you" get a telephone Distress Call from your architect brother: "I know what you're thinking: you're thinking, 'He only ever phones when there's something wrong.' Well, something is wrong. Very wrong." You hurry to help him with whatever it is, and find yourself alone in a railway station fifty years abandoned. You get to explore and find out what the strange sounds are, and why the lights turn themselves on and off, and just who it is you hear singing in the restaurant kitchen, and why the star-map you find shows constellations unlike any we know, and what those strange symbols and words are in the bathroom, and what's in the basement ...
  • The Mystery Case Files series tries out this trope, complete with video Apocalyptic Log, in Dire Grove.
  • A Flash game called Found Lost is pretty much the whole trope. You as the character get lost in the back country on a way to a Halloween party and break down in front of an old house that beckons you in. Some scattered news clippings, a journal, and some scary imagery later, you find out exactly what happens to the previous owner. And it ain't pretty.
  • Halo 3: ODST has the Rookie trying to catch up with the rest of the squad after being unconscious in his drop pod for several hours. The subplot with the audiologs would probably also count.
  • Ghost Trick plays with this trope. Your character is regularly late to any party, leaving someone dead, but his abilities include traveling back to 4 minutes before the person's death, making you catch the party after all.
  • Odium. All contact with a Polish city has been lost some time ago. Now, the city is in ruins and bizarre monstrosities roam the streets. There is actually practically no exposition as to what happened until the very end.
  • In Trace Memory, the protagonist goes to an island to meet her estranged father. She finds out that the owners of the island died decades ago, and her father's whereabouts are unknown.
  • The Golems of Amgarrak DLC for Dragon Age offers a double dose of this trope. Not only are you exploring the fantasy equivalent of an abandoned laboratory where the researchers were killed by their creation, but you are following in the steps of a previous expedition that attempted to explore the place and were slaughtered.
  • Every level in Killer7 amounts to this - the titular assassin group arrives to perform a job, and Travis fills them in on why, exactly, someone has to be killed.

Other examples

  • The last two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, with the narrative arriving late and Instrumentality being the party.
  • In the book Prince Caspian from The Chronicles of Narnia, the characters arrive at the ruins of the castle, and, over the course of the book, discover that Narnia has been overthrown by evil forces and they have been summoned to save it. Classic.
  • In the movie 28 Days Later, main character Jim wakes up in a deserted hospital after England has been ravaged by the Rage virus. This leads to a "last man on earth"-type scenario, at least until he stumbles upon some zombies and ends up being saved by survivors who actually know what happened.
  • Star Trek: Can you say "Assemble an away team to explore the derelict/ruin"? How about "Jim, this man is dead!"?
  • Doctor Who begins quite a few episodes with the Doctor landing right in the middle of a national/planetary/universal crisis, spending about half of the episode working out what's going on and the second half either fixing it or getting the hell out of there.
    • There are a few examples, though, which fit this trope especially well:
      • "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead:" the Doctor and companion (and an archaeological expedition) arrive a century after the "event"
      • "Blink:" as told from the perspective of Sally Sparrow, she is learning of actions the Doctor took decades earlier. Which he hasn't done yet.
  • Lost was partially inspired by games such as Myst in which the character finds himself in a strange place with little information, including the objectives of the game. As the characters have explored the island, they've found the abandoned Dharma stations, numerous skeletons, and what was once a large statue, which now has been reduced to a lone foot.
  • Ripley and the Colonial Marines in Aliens.

Sergeant Apone: Sir, this place is dead. Whatever happened here, I think we missed it.

  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with a literal party. Still, it's not quite over.
  • Angels & Demons has the heroes reaching each of the four cardinals less late each time, but too late to save them nonetheless.
    • Not entirely. If memory serves me correctly, Robert Langdon arrived early to where one of the cardinals was going to be executed, but was unable to keep the cardinal from drowning.
    • Perhaps in the novel - in the film version, he actually saves the fourth cardinal.
  • Power Rangers Ninja Storm begins with our heroes-to-be late for training yet again... thus missing the Big Bad's initial sacking of their training hall.
  • In At the Mountains of Madness, all of the dying happens before the viewpoint characters arrive.
  • John Carpenter's The Thing got dug up by, and slaughtered, a Scandinavian Norwegian expedition team before it found its way into the American outpost in Antarctica.
  • Taken to a ridiculous degree in Eight Bit Theater where the protagonists were late to the final villain's defeat when they briefly fled from him and a group composed mostly of characters we've never seen before killed him.
  • Jay in Marble Hornets begins his investigation nearly three years after the events recorded in the tapes. Most of the cast has scattered or disappeared and several locations trashed by the time Jay looks for them.
    • Averted at the same time though: As Jay starts going through the tapes, it becomes apparent that he had much more to do with the party than he remembered
  • Empire From the Ashes includes this in each book. First book: "What happened to Dahak's crew?" Second book: "What happened to the Fourth Imperium?" Third book: "What happened to Pardal's techbase?"
  • In the pilot episode of Crusade, Gideon arrives to Earth days after the battle with the Drakh (see Babylon 5: A Call To Arms). All the crew see are ship wreckage and infected Earth. Matheson comments that they were late for the party even before they jumped. Then again, there's not much they could've done with a research vessel with enough weapons to scare off an occasional raider or two.
  • In Hero's Chains, Derek arrives several centuries late to a world gone from a sci-fi utopia to a fantasy hellhole.
  • Star Wars: Shatterpoint has the Clone Wars and the Republic at large be late to the "party" known as the Summertime Wars. Basically, conflict between offworlders and natives led to a war that starts when the winter snows melt and end when the autumn rains began. Each year. For thirty years as of the start of the book. The natives only support the Republic because the offworlders are supported by the Separatists. Mace Windu, the narrator, notes that his young native companions do not speak of what they will do " after the war". Because it's all they've ever known. Which makes it kind of heartbreaking when Nick admits his feelings about what he wanted to do with Chalk if the war ever ended, while holding her corpse.
  • With Strings Attached: The four are sent to C'hou, specifically the continent of Baravada, when its entire (dysfunctional anarchistic dystopian/utopian) way of life is dying out. There are hints of a much more orderly past to the planet, especially the magnificent Ghost City of Ehndris and the implied behavior of the Jerkass Gods some centuries in the past.
  • The Post Apocalyptic tabletop RPG The Morrow Project starts with this premise: elite troopers were equipped and put into cryogenic suspension, to be revived just after the coming nuclear war so they can help rebuild society -- except something went wrong and they don't awaken until centuries later.

Looks like you were late to the new edit party....Do you want some cake? I baked it. Those monsters don't want it.