Anthropic Principle

For any given story, there exist basic elements that, no matter how improbable or impossible their occurrence, are required for the story itself to happen. Or there would be no story. In other words, there is no "resolution" without "conflict".

The original Anthropic Principle is the observation that it is impossible for any intelligent observer to be in a universe where the conditions for intelligent life do not exist, because for the intelligent observer to exist, the conditions necessary for intelligent life must exist. Thus, it is impossible to draw any conclusions about the abstract probability of being in a universe where it is possible for intelligent life to arise from our own universe because by definition our universe must be capable of supporting intelligent life in order for us to make that observation, no matter how likely - or unlikely - that may be.

The Anthropic Principle as it applies to fiction is similar: Every fictional universe has fundamental, axiomatic elements without which its story simply could not exist, and the reader must accept those elements in order to enjoy the work. The ultimate expression of this trope is Minovsky Physics - these elements are actually carefully planned in advance, ensuring a logical transition from real life to the fictional universe.

For example, the whole premise of Slumdog Millionaire is about a character able to get on a TV quiz show and do surprisingly well, to the point that the show itself becomes Serious Business. For House to happen, Dr. Gregory House must be able to keep his job as a genius diagnostician despite being a major Jerkass with a drug problem.note  You can't have Snakes on a Plane without somebody smuggling live snakes onto a plane somehow. It's easy to argue that the Eagles could have just flown the Fellowship to Mount Doom; Tolkien himself immediately applied the Anthropic principle before bothering to offer any in-universe suggestions as to why they couldn't.

The list goes on — for a Mazinger Z or Gundam series to happen, giant mecha must be possible to build, power, and pilot. And you cannot (to the frustration of many physicists and to the inspiration of many others) have a Space Opera without Faster-Than-Light Travel... and the resultant Cool Starships must have people on them (even if it's just because suitable machines can't be trusted) because it's hard to tell entertaining stories about unmanned probes. For an Adventure Game or RPG to happen, there must be someone whom the player can guide through the Sorting Algorithm Of Villain Threat and eventually beat up the Big Bad. And in all of the above cases, if Adventures of those types can be had regularly, it is an Adventure-Friendly World.

When it comes to seeking out enjoyment in fictional works, the MST3K Mantra and the Anthropic Principle are diametrically opposed philosophies: The former says that some details don't need to make sense because they ultimately don't matter, while the latter says that certain details of the story do matter because they are the foundation of the story itself, and accepting those details on faith is critical to the audience's enjoyment of the show even if it doesn't make much sense from an outside viewpoint.

This is why FanFic Headers need to issuing warnings about Alternate Universe Fic, and why Transplanted Character Fic is despised by many Fan Fic readers.

Many Real Life theories about the Anthropic Principle rely on notions of The Multiverse and probable alternate universes (which do not need to actually exist to be considered alternate universes, since it makes little practical difference to our universe and us in it.) Such theories excite the Daydream Believer. Not to be confused with Transfictionality, where the author creates his own Alternate Universe by imagining the story.

This scenario is actually the one currently favored by a lot of physicists, since String Theory (apparently) requires the existence of something like 10 to the power of 500 different sets of physical laws. A similar argument explains why we find ourselves born onto the relatively congenial surface of a planet, rather than inside a star or deep space. (Looked at that way, it starts to seem less like rocket science and more like "and?")

In a sense, it can often be assumed that the events portrayed, however unlikely, are still occurring within the realm of conceivable probability. For example, if a plot initiates because a character experiences an incredible event; even if the probability of said event was relatively unlikely, it can be assumed that the character also experiences many completely mundane events where nothing extraordinary happens, and that this event was simply the reason that the episode has been shown to viewers. (a.k.a. Conservation of Detail.) In short, the events portrayed are not chosen at random from an arbitrary sampling of all existing events (nor even the characters, locations, etc), they are simply the events which are deemed to be of interest. Unlikely events do happen in real life, just not all the time. Improbable does not mean Impossible. If someone were to select only the most interesting events that happened to the most interesting people, and write only about them, then even regular human life may seem extraordinary to the reader. It does not make those events any less believable.

In this way, it could even be reasoned that Truly Fantastical stories are conceivable within the defined universe. For example, Superheroes may seem to be continuously rescuing those in distress and foiling evil schemes, however these may very well not be everyday occurrences; they may even conceivably happen weeks apart, with simply nothing of interest occurring in between, and thus those events are the only ones the readers are told about. After all, who would be interested in seeing Superman taking a leak?

Compare Rule of Drama, Chandler's Law, Drama-Preserving Handicap, Necessary Weasel, Acceptable Breaks from Reality, Adventure-Friendly World. The Law of Conservation of Detail serves as the "Doylist" counterpart to this trope's "Watsonian" perspective. Inverse of MST3K Mantra.


This will be for shows, games, etc. where the Principle is mentioned, invoked, or demonstrated particularly well.

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  • There's actually a whole genre of comedy based on this sort of thing, films like Big Trouble and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and books like A Confederacy of Dunces. A lot of the fun comes from seeing just how much worse things can possibly get for the main characters, as a bunch of independent actors, all of whom have only slight knowledge of each others' actions if any, do exactly the wrong thing to screw up everyone else's day.
  • In a strip of Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin notices that his existence depends on everything that came before him, and deduces that the ultimate purpose of history must be to produce himself. Armed with this grandiose and self-affirming philosophy, he goes and watches TV.
  • In Marvel 1602, Reeds speculates on the Anthropic Principle, theorizing that the Thing can never become human again because he's more interesting this way.

    Film/Live-Action TV 
  • The Day of the Dead (2008) remake illustrates an example common to many zombie films. It is explained that the zombie virus can be transmitted by air in addition to being bitten by a zombie. When one character asks why all the main characters are uninfected, the scientist explains that "some people are just immune to the airborne aspect." Although it may seem like an incredible and unexpected coincidence, they would necessarily have to be immune to be main characters.
  • How I Met Your Mother has the narrator (Bob Saget as, presumably, an older Ted) telling the long and convoluted story to his kids on... how he met their mother. Therefore, sometime during the series, Ted will, presumably, meet the kids' mother.
    • Over the course of the series, a few other rigidly defined rules get put in to place by Future!Ted: for instance, Robin is definitely not the mother, as he refers to her as "Aunt Robin", and it's a common way of providing a plot twist when Future!Ted refers to individuals in the contemporary story in the present tense.
  • Next's Cris Johnson literally lives by means of this trope; he can see up to two minutes into the future at any given time, and in certain situations even further. It's as natural to him as seeing lightning before hearing thunder is to most people, and he can actually dodge an entire clip of machine gun bullets in this manner, visualizing his alternates dropping dead in his wake.
  • Pacific Rim: the unlikely scenario that Humongous Mecha are the most effective and practical defense against Kaiju is required to make a movie based completely on the concept of Humongous Mecha fighting Kaiju.
  • Why were none of the Jedi masters able to sense the presence of a Dark Side disturbance in their very midst? Put another way, how could they not detect the evil of Senator (later Chancellor) Palpatine who resided in Coruscant not far from Jedi headquarters? They clearly sensed darkness within Anakin, even before his Heel–Face Turn, but why not Palpatine who was already a full fledged Sith Lord and had been for a long time? Jedi may not be mind readers, but even good acting can't hide Force affinity, let alone the Dark Side smell that he would be emanating. Since Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader sensed the presence of each other in Episode IV, this seems to be a Forgotten Phlebotinum attribute. Convenient, since otherwise the prequel trilogy would have been very short and couldn't lead to the events that we know must happen.

  • Mystery Fiction genre readers have a lot of expectations about mysteries… those assumptions can be subverted (see Agatha Christie Twist Endings section). But as the So You Want To Write A Detective Novel Suggested Themes and Aesops section states, the principal message of Mystery Fiction is that all mysteries have a solution, that there is a logical outcome to any unexplained or unknown phenomenon or occurrence, and that the application of intelligence and insight is sufficient to determine it!. Even so, there is a trope where this doesn’t apply: The Unsolved Mystery, where the detectives don’t know the right answers, or even the right questions. All is a Mind Screw. This was recognized by The Watson in The Problem of Thor Bridge, where he states that there were problems even Sherlock Holmes couldn't solve, but they were not published by Doctor Watson because the audience would have felt cheated:
    Some, and not the least interesting, were complete failures, and as such will hardly bear narrating, since no final explanation is forthcoming. A problem without a solution may interest the student, but can hardly fail to annoy the casual reader. Among these unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world. No less remarkable is that of the cutter Alicia, which sailed one spring morning into a small patch of mist from where she never again emerged, nor was anything further ever heard of herself and her crew. A third case worthy of note is that of Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duelist, who was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science.
  • Given a Shout-Out in one BattleTech novel, where it's revealed that Vladimir Ward firmly believes in a personal version of this — that is, he's earnestly convinced that the Star League fell and the Clans came into being just so that he could be born at just the right time for the invasion and go on to conquer the Inner Sphere. To him, that's actually the simplest and most logical explanation for everything in his life up to that point.
  • The Discworld series have this as a major theme in general: Discworld is a world of stories. The world often conspires to get the people in the stories to play their roles, no matter what the consequences. The people often aren't happy with this. One book mentions the Unseen University Professor of Anthropics, who has created the Extreme Anthropic Principle: the theory that the universe is here solely for the Unseen University Professor of Anthropics. It is further mentioned that everyone, with a few changes of the Insert Name Here variety, secretly believes the same thing.
    • Some of the "About the Author" blurbs state that Terry Pratchett writes the Discworld books in accordance with the Very Strong Anthropic Principle, which states that the universe we live in is the way it is so that it is a universe that can support the existence of a guy who writes Discworld books.
    • And, in a very meta twist, characters on the Discworld who are well-versed in those stories can predict the future and act with imperfect knowledge because they know the Discworld will ensure that events unfold according to the story. More of a mythropic principle.
  • A common joke in China is wondering why Sun Wukung from Journey to the West (a demi-god who can jump over continents in one bound and carry half a mountain on his back) can't just carry Xuanzang straight to India.
  • The Silmarillion is a Dark Fantasy Creation Myth that goes continuously From Bad to Worse and is pretty close to being both a Shaggy Dog Story and shooting that dog. Then why bother writing it, let alone read it? Because there are wonderful and great things amid all the desolation. Author J. R. R. Tolkien would probably argue that the beautiful is made even more beautiful and valuable precisely because it doesn't last.
  • The Finnish Young Adult novel James Bondén ja kuuhullut (roughly "James Bondén and the Lunatics") by Kaarina Helakisa has an odd and complicated relationship with this trope in one scene. Given the situation the plot is at, for it to advance to one of its major points, two characters have to happen to type the same semi-random thing on their new Moonmad consoles, activating their special power. When they do, the improbability of it is lampshaded, but it's Hand Waved with an analogy that is incorrect for anthropic reasons — well, this may have been unlikely, but so is the fact that, out of all the possible children your parents could have had, they had you. (But, anthropic principle, of course assuming they were going to have some child, all options of "who" it was going were equally unlikely but they added up to 100%, whereas most random typings wouldn't activate the special power.) As for whether this trope applies in the straightforward sense,note  well... it does to the amazing Virtual Reality powers of the console existing, but the author could have avoided the Contrived Coincidence in activating them by changing small plot details.
  • S.M. Stirling's Emberverse series features a couple of main characters musing about their own luck in surviving (and thriving after) the Change. Of course, if they hadn't survived, they wouldn't be the main characters and we'd be reading about people who had instead!

  • King Lear has been criticized for the implausibility of a king dividing up his kingdom among his children without any contingency plan for the maintenance of his own status. That, however, is the necessary precondition for the story to occur at all.

    Video Games 
  • Ace Combat created its entire alternate universe, Strangereal for this very reason. The two defining factors are that nuclear weapons were completely prohibited and that the landmasses and geography make it perfect for the large-scale conflicts the series is famous for.
  • Assassin's Creed I uses this to do away with a traditional video game trope. The plot of the game involves a man reliving the memories of an assassin ancestor using a special machine that reads genetic memories; what would be a Life Meter in most games is called a Synchronization Meter, explaining how in synch he is with the historical events. Performing actions that are badly out of character (like killing innocents) or just plain inaccurate (like dying) lower the Synch Meter. Incidentally, it was made by the same team as the Prince of Persia series, mentioned later. Logically, this implies that Altair was an incredible badass, since being hurt at all lowers synchronization- thus he never got hurt. In turn, we also know that Altair and Ezio must at some point have children, since they eventually become Desmond's ancestors. So when we meet Sofia in Assassin's Creed Revelations, it is even more obvious than usual that she is the Love interest.
  • If you fall off the level early in Bastion, the narrator says, "And then he fell to his death... I'm just foolin'." You magically reappear as if you never fell; you haven't met the narrator yet, so dying isn't an option.
  • BioShock. Near the end of the game, it is revealed that every action the hero has taken was the result of post-hypnotic suggestion compelling him to act. If you attempt to defy the mind control earlier in the game, not only do you not progress, but you never even get to the point where you can discover the true reasons behind your actions. Of course, if this happens, the plot stalls. There is only an interesting game in the first place because the plot proceeded the way it was meant to - you are playing it only because it happened that way.
    • Really, any video game plot where the player is used as an Unwitting Pawn works on the same principles, whether consciously or not. If Batman doesn't rescue Quincy Sharp from the Joker in Batman: Arkham Asylum, Sharp never becomes part of the Big Bad Ensemble in the sequel, and thus the entire plot of the sequel never occurs. If Snake never uses the PAL key in Metal Gear Solid, the terrorists never gain access to Metal Gear. But because the game presents no way to progress without triggering these events, the player must continue according to plan or stop advancing the plot entirely. You can even get a Game Over for failing to save someone when it's revealed later (perhaps even hinted beforehand) that not saving them would have saved a lot of trouble.
  • Cry of Fear: The whole story turns out to have been written by Simon as a form of therapy after the car crash in the opening cutscene. If he had not lost his ability to walk in the crash, he wouldn't have had suicidal thoughts, wouldn't have needed therapy, and the story would never be written in the first place. This is demonstrated effectively in the alternate "Co-op" and "Doctor" modes; the playable police officers get sucked into the book (now transformed into some kind of grief spawned Eldritch Abomination), and the only way for them to get out alive is to go from the end to the beginning and prevent the accident from ever happening. Dr Purnell however, enters Simon's mind willingly to destroy the book.
  • In the Chzo Mythos, as the game "Trilby's Notes" is a recollection of the main character, it only makes sense that he must survive to write them. Should he die at any time during the game, the game mentions how the notes "mysteriously end" at that point, and perhaps were not actually written by the protagonist.
    • Similarly, From the New World is narrated by a roughly 40-year-old Saki; since she's not anywhere near that age until the very last scene, we know that she can't die. The story eventually has multiple instances of Everybody's Dead, Dave, so this is pretty important.
  • A variation happens in Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist. The story is told by a local old coot, and would on a proper playthrough be about how Freddy saved the town. If you die, however, the Have a Nice Death message is the coot ending the tale of how Freddy died. "And that's how Freddy Pharkas drowned in the swamp."
  • Hideo Kojima really likes this trope a lot:
    • In Metal Gear Solid, Mantis comments on how many traps Snake has fallen into - the traps are instant-death pits, suggesting Mantis is able to see Snake's Game Overs.
    • In Metal Gear Solid 3, the death of Naked Snake or Ocelot both result in the infamous "time paradox" game over screen. The future course of the story depends heavily on these two characters, so it just wouldn't do for them to die in the prequel.
    • In Metal Gear Solid 4, doing suicidal stuff to kill Snake and looking closely reveals invisible threads connected to him, as if he were a marionette. Much later in the game, he faces an enemy that can control others and uses the very same effect, implying those out-of-character suicides were actually because he was under mind control.
    • In Snatcher, while the Continue function works as standard, the Chief will shout at Gillian after the factory opening if he dies during the attack of the Insectors. "Do you hear me, Seed? No more Game Overs!"
    • In Policenauts, Jonathan will complain if you get too many Game Overs, and then suggest hints (and if you carry on failing, simply say "I'm going to get him this time.")
  • In Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, there's no way to die in the game, except one time where you are disintegrated in acid. The person you are telling the story to immediately calls you on this, as you can't have been disintegrated if you're there telling the story, looking very integrated indeed.
  • Persona 4 goes to an unusual amount of effort to justify its anthropic principle. The moment you discover the TV world, it's obvious you'll be going there and fighting monsters, but the characters react realistically to this discovery rather than rushing in, with the result that gameplay doesn't fully open up until about three hours in.
  • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time lampshades this. The story's Framing Device is the Prince himself telling the story of How We Got Here, with gameplay proper being the Whole Episode Flashback. Whenever you get the Prince killed, we hear him tell us, "Wait, no, that wasn't how it happened. Hold on." After all, if the Prince had died, not only would the game's story not be told, but he wouldn't be here at this very moment to tell it.
  • The game Sacrifice features the same conceit as the Monkey Island example above, with almost the same line: "Of course, that's not what really happened." The protagonist is explaining the story to one of the acquaintances he met during it.
  • In Space Quest V: The Next Mutation, Roger Wilco must keep his love-interest, Beatrice Wankmeister, alive, or else get a game over. Why? Because the fact that she and Roger eventually have a son is part of the premise of the time-travel laden Space Quest IV, as the son saves Roger in the opener of that game. If Beatrice does not survive, Roger Jr. will not be born, cannot travel back in time to save his dad, and thus Space Quest V can not happen!
    Narrator: Bea is dead. In an alternate future, she would have borne your son. In the future past of Space Quest IV, your son would have saved your life. But she didn't... so he couldn't... therefore, you aren't.
  • Part of the Interactive Fiction game Spider And Web: You're interrogated in a flashback, but with an audience, and if you do something unbelievable in the flashback, he'll stop you and insist you tell the truth. This is eventually subverted as the main puzzle of the game is to give a a plausible explanation for the starting conditions of the game, while at the same time hiding what you did prior to capture that will allow you to escape.
  • The gameplay aspects of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger are the memories of Silas Greaves as he relates his life to a group of saloon patrons - his memories dictate how you have to play. Unusually this is crossed with Unreliable Narrator, as Silas will sometimes change his mind about a memory and you have to play it again differently. Of course he, and therefore the player, didn't die, otherwise he wouldn't be telling his stories in the present.

    Web Original 
  • Though it is never mentioned explicitly, the anthropic principle is the entire premise of The Hero with a Thousand Chances.
  • In Homestuck, Terezi is able to weaponize the Anthropic Principle. When fighting an enemy that can change the winds of destiny, she makes sure that the only outcome that preserves the "Alpha Timeline" (essentially the main narrative) is the one where she wins.
  • In One Phone Call, Garth ends up in prison, so it's pretty obvious that none of the dangerous things in his story of how he got there end up killing him.

     Western Animation 
  • All but named outright at the start of Rango, when the titular lizard declares that his character is undefined and that "the hero cannot exist in a vacuum! What our story needs is an ironic, unexpected event that will propel our hero into conflict!" No sooner does he say this than he is forcibly ejected from his owner's vehicle into the desert, at which point the story begins.

Alternative Title(s): Story Existence Failure