What If...?

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This is the 34th issue, and yes, The Watcher is not joking.

The seminal question of Speculative Fiction.

What if ... a person had superpowers? What if ... vampires existed?

You can classify a series or an episode quite well by saying it asks a particular kind of What If...?

Commonly used what ifs:

These were occasionally called "imaginary stories" back in the Silver Age of comics.

An Alternate Universe or Elseworld will usually be based off a single "What if?" For example, "What if Reed Richards weren't useless?" For Want of a Nail is a What If where the difference is a single, tiny change. In Spite of a Nail is a What If where a change results in a world almost identical to the original, but with a 'hole' in it where the missing or changed element should have been. Compare to What Could Have Been, which covers Off-Universe or Paratext examples.

Examples of What If...? include:

Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Jin Roh, an anime movie where the Axis Powers won World War Two.
  • Old-as-dirt children's anime Doraemon featured a device called the What If Phonebox. It was essentially a telephone booth that would transport the occupants to a dimension with the specified What If.
  • What if America lost the revolutionary war and France invaded England forcing the nobility to flee to the newly conquered America. Then over a hundred years later Britain invaded Japan with giant robots. What do you get Code Geass
  • One chapter of Angel Sanctuary featured Setsuna in a Lotus Eater machine where there was no... trouble in heaven, Sara wasn't his sister but is girlfriend and Kira was his kind and clever sempai that tutored him. He decided that the real world needed him.
  • The 9th One Piece movie use this for the basis of "Episode of Chopper". Which is a retelling Drum Island arc with a few differences in the cast (No Vivi, Franky and Robin are, who didn't join the crew at that point, were there), the crew already having the Thousand Sunny as their ship opposed to Merry, Wapol having a brother, etc)
  • Evangelion ANIMA is an Alternate Continuity take on Neon Genesis Evangelion, the point of divergence being End of Evangelion, where the JSSDF sides with NERV instead of SEELE, helping them fight off the Mass Production Evas and avert Third Impact. The story picks up three years later, where NERV, now under the command of Misato, is a much more benevolent organization, and the Eva pilots have had three years of relative peace in which to grow up and (somewhat) deal with their personal issues.
  • After War Gundam X premise derives from an unnerving alternative resolution of the One Year War conflict: "What if the Spacenoids, after losing the war, opted for the Taking You with Me route and instead of a single Colony Drop decided to use each and every single one of them against Earth?". The aftermath: 99% of the Earth's population got wiped out and civilization was almost destroyed in the process. And that's just the back-story to the events of this series.
  • The Full Metal Panic! series happens in a scenario where Mikhail Gorbachev was assassinated by terrorists and, as such, his political restructuring plans never came to pass, the USSR still exists, and the world is still entrenched in the Cold War up to the present day.

Audio Drama[edit | hide]

  • The Doctor Who: Unbound audio dramas apply the same principle to storylines from Doctor Who, asking "what if the Doctor and Susan had never left Gallifrey?", "what if the Doctor had not been UNIT's scientific advisor?", "what if the Doctor had escaped the justice of the Time Lords at the end of The War Games?", "what if the Valeyard had won at the end of The Trial of a Time Lord?", "what if the Doctor believed that the ends justified the means?"... One of them does something different by asking "What If Doctor Who never made it to TV?"


Card Games[edit | hide]


Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • The Marvel Universe had a series literally called What If?, which told stories where the events shown in the comics happened just a bit differently.
    • Not always "just a bit". Various cases included "What if Gwen Stacy survived?", "What if The Punisher received the Venom symbiote?" and "What if every member of the Fantastic Four received the same power?" to "What if Wolverine ended up in the Conan universe?", "What if Aunt May was bitten by the radioactive spider?", "What if Galactus was Ben and May's nephew?" and, of course, "What if Magneto, Iron Man, Colossus and Dr Doom got stuck in the same elevator?"?
    • This series is notable in that, aware it's a one-time thing and therefore freed from the limitations of Contractual Immortality, the body count for otherwise nigh indestructible heroes and villains shoots through the roof.
    • What if The Watcher were a stand-up comedian? That. Is. All.
    • Also:

Luke Cage with the power of Thor: By the gleamin' gates of funky Asgard, you suckers are gonna EAT HAMMER!

    • Just look at the article for that issue (the cover of which illustrates this page) on the Marvel Database.
      • Later What If?s from Marvel have pretty much ditched the absurdist (or at least gag-inducing) settings for more plausible alternatives, for example "What if Captain America had won the Civil War?" or "What if the Siege of Asgard had been successful?"
  • Star Wars: Infinities is a series of one-shot comic issues built around this concept. Two examples include Luke dying on Hoth and Leia having to take up his mantle as well as her own, and C-3PO getting blown to bits in Jabba's palace... which somehow results in Darth Vader getting returned to the Light Side of the Force.
    • The 'what if?' for A New Hope is the craziest. The lynchpin for the change is Luke failing to destroy the original Death Star, with the rest of the story switching between bizarre events such as Leia becoming an obvious visual reference to an SS officer after falling to the dark side and the Death Star being renamed the "Justice Star," to "alternate" scenes that are really just copies of actual canon scenes from the movies with characters switched around, one of which even has Luke learning Vader is his father and saying the exact same line in response. The story ends with what one review describes as "Cosmic 9/11;" seriously, you have to see it to believe it.
  • DC Comics was doing these type of stories years before Marvel, but they called them "Imaginary Stories." In later years, the name "Imaginary Story" came to viewed as corny, so DC took to calling them "Elseworlds" stories, instead. The Elseworlds tales more frequently focused on plunking the characters into a different setting, rather than changing a historical incident, but some like Alan Davis's The Nail do take the classic, well, For Want of a Nail approach.


Fan Fiction[edit | hide]


Film[edit | hide]

  • The main plot of Donnie Darko is essentially a few days of a "What If...?" scenario for a handful of people, eventually ending by returning where the tangential universe started in the first place and avoiding the "What If...?"
  • The Confederate States of America, a mockumentary about what might have happened if the South won the American civil war.
  • It's a Wonderful Life, "What if I'd never been born?"
  • Death of a President, another mockumentary about if George W. Bush had been assassinated.
  • Inglourious Basterds, "What if the plots to kill Adolf Hitler actually succeeded?"
    • Although the film doesn't actually explore possible historical consequences. The answer to "what if" is: then Hitler would get killed, and the movie would end soon after.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • The Animorphs book Back to Before has a battle-weary Jake ask "What if we never walked through the abandoned construction site?" Some of the results are amusing, such as Marco and Rachel going out on a date, but others...
  • Older tropers and ones who frequent used bookstores may be aware of a Sci Fi pulp magazine titled "if: Worlds of Science Fiction".
  • Naomi Novik's Temeraire saga can be best summed up as "The Napoleonic Wars WITH DRAGONS!".
  • The Tripods series of novels by John Christopher are a What If...? for H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds: What if the aliens won, and instituted Vichy Earth?.
  • 1632 by Eric Flint and its sequals very seriously ask, what if a West Virginia town got magically transported back to 1632 in Southern Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years' War? Mitigated by the fact that the first novel, while being predictable in places is actually fairly good and takes a serious look at how modern technology would affect the 17th century.
  • World War by Harry Turtledove asks "What if World War Two was interrupted by an Alien Invasion?" His other main series, Timeline-191, is based on the more conventional question, "What if the south won the American Civil War?" while his earlier novel Guns of the South poses, "What if a racist group from South Africa in the near future travelled back in time to supply the Confederacy with AK-47s?"
  • "What if"s are basically José Saramago's source of inspiration. "What if people suddenly went blind?", "What if nobody died?", "What if everyone cast blank ballots?", etc. He mostly uses these to make comments on society and politics.
  • A series of essays by eminent historians is entitled simply "What If". It includes topics like "What If the Americans lost the Revolution?" and "What if Pontius Pilate spared Jesus?"
  • Discussed in the Iron Man 2 novelisation, where Tony suspects that being brought up by an alcohol-and-rage-fuelled father in Siberia would have caused him to turn out like Ivan Vanko.
  • An Apology by Timothy Zahn is "What if Luke was killed instead of Luuke in The Last Command". Released as an April Fools Day, the introduction states the revelation that Luuke impersonated the original for the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe was planned from the very start and lasted over a decade instead of the story being hypothetical.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Fatherland, a 1994 TV movie on HBO (based on the novel by Robert Harris), set in a 1960s Germany in a timeline in which Nazi Germany more or less won World War II and got into a Cold War with the US while fighting a guerrilla war with a remnant of the Soviet Union.
  • Heroes asks, "What If... there were people with super powers running around in the real world?"
  • The Doctor Who episode "Turn Left" presented a world where Donna never met the Doctor, and humanity was more or less screwed.
    • And the Doctor Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures has a storyline asking "What if Sarah, rather than her best friend, had died in an accident as a teenage girl?"
  • Are You Afraid of the Dark?: Members of the Midnight Society (the original one, anyway—before the show jumped the shark) frequently included a "What if" question when introducing their story, i.e. "What if you found out the future held something incredibly evil, and there was nothing you could do to change it?"
  • Even if not the premise of a series, What Ifs can be used to carry a single episode's plotline. Example, "The One That Could Have Been", Friends.
  • News Radio had two of these episodes, both with an opening introduction by Phil Hartman:
    • What if the show took place on a space station and reported the "space news"? ("Space")
    • What if the show took place on the luxury liner called Titanic? ("Sinking Ship")
  • The BBC-made series If... was a serious docu-drama take on What If...?,'documenting' what might happen in Britain should some issue of the time become reality e.g. oil running out,blackouts or legalising drugs.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "The Wish": what if Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale? The answer: a lot of really bad stuff.
  • Perhaps the most successful example of this trope is the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Mirror, Mirror", which formed the basis of episodes from all of the subsequent series except Next Generation and Voyager... but they got theirs in a novel (A Mirror Darkly).
    • The "What if?" question being answered by that episode was, of course, "What if Spock had a goatee?"
  • Sliders used this trope as its main premise: "What if antibiotics had never been invented?" "What if America had lost the Cold War?" "What if traditional gender roles were swapped?" and so on.
  • One episode of Friends ends on a What If...? note. Joey, Chandler, and Monica imagine what Joey and Monica's lives would be like if Monica had married Joey instead of Chandler. It shows a very obese Joey in Monica's apartment sitting down to a really huge dinner prepared by Monica, who was more than happy to make all the food for him. The episode ends with the fat Joey saying his famous "How you doing?" catchphrase to a piece of fried chicken before he eats it.
    • Not to mention a two-parter for Friends (fittingly titled "The One That Could Have Been") which showed an alternative history for the group if 1) Ross hadn't discovered his wife was a lesbian 2) Rachel hadn't walked out on her marriage 3) Joey had remained on Days of Our Lives 4) Monica was still fat 5) Phoebe became a stockbroker 6) Chandler walked out on his job.
  • Trance of Andromeda has this as her superpower, basically seeing future possibilities and trying to steer the present toward the "best" one. She also prunes a bonsai quite often.
    • An episode explores what would happen if Rhade killed Dylan at the start of the Nietzschean rebellion instead of the other way around. While Rhade would still try to re-create the Commonwealth, his efforts would be futile, costing him many allies. At the end, he realizes that Dylan is a better candidate for this, goes back in time, kills his past self, and throws the fight with Dylan, leading to the series' timeline.
  • Party of Five's 100th episode entitled "What If" had Bailey in a coma where he imagined an alternate reality where his parents had never been killed in the car crash.
    • Among the alternate stuff: Julia's kind of a bookworm while Claudia is kind of a slut
  • Various alternate realities presented in Stargate SG-1 tend to have major changes resulting from Sam Carter not being in the military, among other things.
  • In Farscape John gets to view a bunch of "What if?" realities in the episode "Unrealized Reality", then has to figure out how to navigate his way back to the right one to avoid any of the "ifs" becoming permanent. When the gang goes to Earth in the past in "Kansas", John tells his friends that they have to save his father so he will be inspired to become an astronaut and go on to meet all of them.
  • During a production meeting for Felicity, J.J. Abrams off-handedly asked "What if Felicity was a secret agent?" to try and develop a plot with relatively higher stakes. It was a joke, but he'd eventually answer the question with Alias.
  • Both JAG and its spinoff NCIS did episodes that revolved around the main characters making different decisions (or events that occurred one way in the "prime" timeline happening the other way). The JAG episode was even titled "What If?".


Machinima[edit | hide]

  • Karzahni of Bionicle actually has "What If" as a superpower; he can give people visions of possible past or future outcomes. He tends to use this as a psychological attack, showing "What if you didn't survive that situation?" or "What if you couldn't save that guy at that crucial moment?" It's rarely pretty... and when it is pretty, it becomes a Lotus Eater Machine.
    • One character then manages to use it against him, by daring him to show them what would happen if the Great Spirit dies. When he does so, he finds out that the answer is "the end of the universe," and that he's not nearly as important as he likes to think. This revelation causes him to go BSOD.
  • In Red vs. Blue, Church tries to take advantage of this trope to change the future (What if Donut didn't kill Tex? What if Captain Flowers hadn't died?). Unfortunately... it didn't work out so well. In fact, trying to change the past ended up causing all the things he was hoping to avoid to happen anyway, including his own death.


Newspaper Comics[edit | hide]

  • For January 2012, Sally Forth did a storyline where Ted uses the 2012 Mayan prophecy as a reason to look back on their lives, which lead to a two-week bit where they show what life would be like if Sally and Ted had never met.


Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • An ongoing project is the Dornian Heresy. The trope is somewhat subverted, since rather than one point of divergence, there's actually several, but the spirit of the trope is still there. The premise: What If Warmaster Horus had not fallen to the powers of Chaos? Though rather miffed, the gods turn to Plan B: turn Rogal Dorn of the Imperial Fists instead. What then happens is a very odd mixture of Bizarro Universe and Mirror Universe (while some things stay the same, adding to the oddities). Here's just a few of the changers:
    • The World Eaters under Angron become the paragons of martial honor and virtue, and are by far some of the most well regarded of the Emperor's Space Marine Legions (yes, legions).
    • The Emperor's Children are still stuck up snobs, but they're perfectionists whose hearts are on the Imperials' side.
    • The Space Wolves have dedicated themselves to Khorne, and are now both figuratively and literally Ax Crazy.
    • The White Scars are so obsessed with speed and thrills while worshipping Slaanesh the Speed Freakz of the Orkz would be envious.
    • The Word Bearers are the priesthood of the Imperium and use their knowledge of the Warp to exorcise daemons instead of summoning them.
    • The Thousand Sons have renounced sorcery and become one of the most loyal Legions of the Imperium, and Magnus is the advocate and spokesperson for psykers everywhere.
    • Abbadon still hates Horus for being weak and a fool, and reorganizes the Sons of Horus into the Black Templars.


Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Shin Megami Tensei: if... was purely about "What If... a school were thrown into the demon world?"
    • As a result, it then presents another question: "What If... people were already aware of demons before the start of Shin Megami Tensei?" The answer isn't provided until the Devil Summoner series: "Thor would have been killed before he launched the nuclear missiles, instead of after, averting the main-series apocalypse and leading to a very different world." The Persona series before Persona 3 (and possibly even after, it isn't too clear if they're all absolutely in canon with one another) may or may not take place in this same What If scenario, although it's heavily implied with Tamaki's presence in the early Persona games.
      • Due to all this, of course, it's worth noting that the What If in Shin Megami Tensei: if... had the interesting effect of leading to the creation of an Alternate Continuity that has been far more financially successful than the "main" SMT franchise (with nine games and counting in the If/Devil Summoner/Persona line, compared to four in the "main" line), making it one of the rare What Ifs to actually overshadow its parent franchise.
    • Also, the Devil Summoner prequel games provide an Alternate History What If, hinging on the Taisho period lasting longer than it did in our world.
      • In that game, Raidou's antics in the time stream stopped the main Shin Megami Tensei series from ever happening and thus creating the world of the spin-off Megami Ibunroku games. The Megami Ibunroku series contains the Persona games, Devil Survivor, and was started with Shin Megami Tensei: if.... However, it can be debated whether Devil Survivor can really be counted as part of that timeline, because its events don't mix well with the Persona series. Most of the games brought to America were part of the Megami Ibunroku series but the localizers wanted to refer to it by the main series' title, thus we have Shin Megami Tensei: Persona3 and whatnot.
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert is based on a What If scenario after Einstein uses a Time Machine to erase Hitler from history. Turns out this leads to the Soviets starting the second World War instead. It is also implied to lead up to the first game, which starts out with another What If, a meteorite spreading a strange new material named Tiberium.
  • World in Conflict. In this what if, Russia invades USA during the cold war.
  • Little-known First-Person Shooter Iron Storm is set in a 1964 where World War I never ended and is entering its 50th year. In a subsequent re-release (only for the UK market, as far as I know), it was retitled World War Zero.
  • More recent First-Person Shooter Turning Point: Fall of Liberty features a world where Winston Churchill died in 1931, and the lack of his leadership was the cause of Germans winning WWII... And invading the USA in 1953, when the game starts.
  • Freedom Fighters by IO Interactive (better known for the Hitman series) put the players in the shoes of a plumber becoming a resistance leader, in an alternate reality where USA are invaded by an USSR that not only never collapsed, but was the real winner of WWII by dropping the first atomic bomb on Berlin.
  • Real Time Strategy game War Front Turning Point has Hitler assassinated in the early days of WWII and, under his successor, Britain occupied by the Nazi. After the Allies defeat them, the Russian take the chance to invade Western Europe, leading to the merging of the Allies' troops with reinforcements from the recently dismantled Nazi army. All this, with some science-fiction weaponry thrown in.
  • The Dragon Ball Budokai games have currently always a set of What If...? stories in Story mode which are usually unlocked when you win a battle that the original storyline has you losing. These range from the serious (Vegeta beats the Z-Warriors when he first shows up on Earth, achieving Super Saiyan in the process) to the silly (Cell accidentally absorbs Krillin and turns into a severely weak, miniature version of himself).
    • The story mode of Dragonball: Supersonic Warriors gives each playable character an "IF" story, in addition to having a story mode for the canonical events. For example, Piccolo,[1] and Krillin.[2] Even Goku's IF story is different from canon.
  • The World Ends With You: Question: What if Tin Pin Slammer was the biggest thing in Shibuya? Answer: TWEWY would be a great Beyblade-parody and Neku a Tyson with "Emo-urges". (As seen in the bonus chapter)
  • Lord of the Rings: Conquest has a campaign where you fight as the forces of evil, with the question: "What if Frodo failed to destroy the One Ring?" Answer: The world goes to hell.
  • Mega Man Battle Network could be seen as "What if Dr. Light worked in networking technology instead of robotics?" There was even a part where there is a debate whether to fund Light's (Hikari's in this case) project instead of Dr. Wily's robots.
  • The Force Unleashed's Downloadable Content are this, as in "What if Vader died and was replaced by Galen?" (using the non-canon Dark Side ending as a starting point, obviously).
  • The Hall of Memories in Adventure Quest is made specifically for this; it allows people to revisit past events and explore what possibilities might occur without impacting the real world.
  • The Dragon Age: Origins DLC story "The Darkspawn Chronicles" asks "What would happen if the player's Grey Warden died during the Joining ceremony, and the Wardens were led by Alistair?"
  • Several Gundam video games give the player the opportunity to explore alternate versions of the Universal Century. Gundam Vs. Zeta Gundam's extensive UC Mode offers a few distinct ideas (like "What if Kamille/Amuro/Char joined the Titans?" or "What if Zeon won the One Year War?"), but the most famous is the strategy game Gihren's Greed, which lets the player take any faction from the original series up through Chars Counterattack (and a few original ones like an all-women faction or a scientist faction lead by Amuro's dad) and lead them to victory or defeat. The most recent version even included updated, Zeta Gundam-era versions of several characters who died in the original series like Garma Zabi and Sleggar Law.
  • The Dead Rising 2 DLC "Off The Record" explores what would happen if Frank West was the hero of the game instead of Chuck Greene.
  • Brink has a handful of What-If missions, which follow on from certain story levels if the canonical outcome didn't happen. For example, Security have a What-If mission in which they have to defend a prison to prevent Chen from escaping. The corresponding What-If level follows on from the mission if Security failed to prevent Chen from escaping.
  • Silent Storm starts as a straightforward World War Two game, until the "What If" portion comes into play. What if a powerful secret organization bent on world domination was playing both sides against each other and supplying them with equivalent advanced weaponry in order to cause sufficient damage for the organization to take over after the war? While this would be interesting in itself, the game then had to bring in Energy Weapons and Powered Armor. Hammer & Sickle takes place in the same 'verse but during the Cold War era with both THO and the Sentinels playing their shadow games. If the player (a Soviet spy) fails, World War Three is unavoidable.
  • The Survival Pack DLC for Left 4 Dead within The Last Stand map explores the idea of what would happen to the survivors if they took a wrong turn and tried to hold out in being rescued. As the tagline says for the poster that shows the whole point of survival mode,It Doesn't End Well.
  • Fallout asks, "What if the sociopolitical aesthetic of the 1950s had endured for the next hundred years or so?" The results are not pretty, though the progression of the games shows that conditions are slowly improving again... after 120–200 years.


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • The Futurama "Anthology of Interest" episodes had the characters view, via one of the Professor's inventions, various "What if" scenarios. In the first one, it reveals that the entire framing sequence is itself such a scenario.
    • What If Bender Was 500 Feet Tall? He fights a giant Zoidberg and dies
    • What If Leela Was More Impulsive? She kills everyone except for Fry, whom she sleeps with
    • Parodied when Fry's What If is 'What If Bender Was 500 Feet Tall?', because he liked it and wanted to see it again.
    • What If Fry Never Fell In The Freezer-Doodle And Came To The Future-Jiggy Reality falls apart
    • "Interesting stuff!"
    • The second one presents the following scenarios:
      • What If Bender Were Human? He stuffs himself on food, booze and smoke, and dies of morbid obesity
      • What If Life Were More Like A Video Game? Video game characters invade Earth demanding quarters
      • What If Leela Found Her True Home? She winds up in Oz and becomes the new Wicked Witch of the West. Unlike the others, though, this was just Leela's dream after she was knocked out and not an actual projection of the What If? machine. Indeed, Leela discovers her true home (Earth) later on.
  • An episode of Ben 10 springs this on you at the end. Ben finds himself back on the day he finds the Omnitrix. He remembers everything that happened but Max and Gwen don't... and then Gwen gets the watch instead of him. Initially the episode seems to be a time-travel make-things-right-again episode but at the end of the episode Grandpa Max ends up with the Omnitrix and the episode is presented as a What If.. which just makes you wonder why Ben could remember the 'real' timeline.
  • The Family Guy episode Meet the Quagmires shows what would happen if Peter was married to Molly Ringwald instead of Lois. Al Gore would be president and Chevy Chase would host the Tonight Show.
    • As soon as Brian finds out that this world is a paradise compared to ours, he insists that Peter leave things be. Of course, Peter can't do that.
  • The Phineas and Ferb episodes "Phineas And Ferb Get Busted" and "Phineas And Ferb's Quantam Boogaloo" are about what would happen if Candace succeeded in busting her brothers. The results weren't pretty.
  1. Planet Namek is not destroyed, Goku and Piccolo defeat Cell using the same method they used to beat Raditz, and Piccolo revives and merges with Demon King Piccolo to defeat Buu
  2. He takes down Cell. Krillin takes down Cell