Sorting Algorithm of Threatening Geography

"Every other Mario game has used pretty much the same roadmap: grasslands, desert, forest, jungle, ice world, fire world, boss."

Mainly a video game trope, this describes the odd phenomenon in which the landscape the characters travel through gets steadily scarier and more esoteric as they get closer to the end of their quest. The quest is likely to start off in a sleepy village nestled within a landscape of green meadows and idyllic woodland. After that, the adventurers tend to enter the wilderness areas: huge forests and mighty mountains. Toward the end of the quest, icy glaciers and searing deserts are common, whilst the climax usually takes place in a burning wasteland, creepy Monster-Shaped Mountain, intimidating giant machine, or outright Eldritch Location.

This can be justified if the lands they visit are steadily more influenced by the Big Bad. Often, however, this isn't the case, and the landscape just happens to look more threatening as the story goes on, even if it means placing the treacherous ice level next to the slightly-more-treacherous volcano level.

Another possible reason is that the land's steadily rising outlandishness is to signify that the characters are getting farther and farther away from familiar territory: things like their hometown and other villages or landmarks they visit regularly in their daily life. Any place tends to feel a little bit scarier during the first visit, and having the environment get more and more imposing as the journey continues helps convey the feeling that the heroes are in uncharted waters, at least for them.

Remember, this is about the appearance of the area, not its actual threat level. Characters might travel through the creepy Lost Woods completely unscathed, whereas the pleasant-looking plains could be the site of a climactic battle in which hundreds die. If the plains come after the lost woods, it is not this trope.

See also Video Game Settings.


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  • In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam travel from the peaceful Shire, to harsh wilderness, to well... Mordor. Justified with the homework Tolkien had done creating his universe. Frodo and Sam's path got progressively worse because they came at Mordor from the northwest, which was the path that Sauron fled Mirkwood between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and his influence was persisting. The rest of the group only really had Moria, which was also a direct result of Sauron's actions.
  • This also happens in The Hobbit. The adventure starts out in Hobbiton and proceeds through hobbit lands, then into the semi-wilderness Lone-lands where they meet the trolls. The party enters the Misty Mountains, passes through the darkness of Mirkwood and eventually reaches the Desolation of the Dragon - the "bleak and barren" land around the Lonely Mountain.
  • The Eye of the World also does this. It starts off in the sleepy farming country of the Two Rivers, progressing to various grand cities, then we go to the harsh, icy pine forests of Shienar and then to the plagued jungle that is The Blight.
  • In Pat O'Shea's fantasy novel The Hounds of the Morrigan, two children living in modern Galway are drawn into the other Ireland of myth and legend. As their quest progresses, the mythological landscape is at first funny, absurd, Disney-Oirish, even, with hints of something deeper beneath. It gradually becomes darker, bleaker, more sinister, as the life-or-death nature of their quest asserts itself, and the final showdown with the forces of Not-Good takes place in a Mordor-like bleak and barren place. It's like going from a leprachaun Hobbiton to a Mordor ruled by the Morrigan.
  • Played with in Murderess. The notorious Myles Mountains are about halfway through Lu’s journey, followed by the pleasant Myles forest; Doubly Subverted, as it turns out Lu’s prolonged stay in the forest could make her stay a Moondaughter permanently and unable to finish her quest. The road from the forest to the Refugee Camp is fairly calm and beautiful (and brief), while the Refugee Camp itself is where Lu has to get a Training from Hell.
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The journey through Oz begins in idyllic, rural Munchkin Country, and there are pleasant-looking spots along the way ... but the journey also progresses through (in this order) a deep forest, a field of poisonous plants, a country controlled by a wicked witch, a bizarre wilderness populated by fighting trees and creatures with heads on springs, and then, to top it all off, a city full of unfriendly people who are made of porcelain. Steadily more esoteric indeed.

     Mythology and Religion 
  • Journey to the West starts in what was then the center of the known world, through youkai-haunted no man's lands, and end up somewhere beyond this world. It's a good thing that the majority of the travelers possess magic.

     Video Games 
  • The popularity of the Green Hill Zone trope is based off this. Game creators ease players into the game by having a level that is less inherently threatening.
  • The Sonic the Hedgehog series, having codified the Green Hill Zone, frequently follows this trope, beginning with the aforementioned environment and ending with Dr. Eggman's latest base. This even carries over to Sonic 3 & Knuckles, a game built in two halves: the Sonic 3 half begins in the jungles of Angel Island and proceeds through moderately threatening levels, whereas the Sonic & Knuckles half is mostly compromised of levels building up to the climax.
  • World of Warcraft plays with this with each expansion. Classic WoW generally plays this straight: Virtually all the starting zones are very friendly looking, whilst the high level plaguelands most certainly aren't.
    • The Burning Crusade plays with this. The demon-infested Hellfire Peninsula fits this trope as it continues on from the classic zones, however after that are the pleasant looking zones of Zangarmarsh, Nagrand and Terrokar Forest. However the highest level zones, Shadowmoon Valley and Netherstorm fit this trope to a T.
    • Wrath of the Lich King plays this completely straight, going from harshly beautiful fjords and tundra, to the zombified Icecrown Glacier.
    • Cataclysm averts it. The high level zones are all very esoteric and threatening, except for the highest level zone Twilight Highlands, which is mostly verdant hills and woodland.
  • DungeonSiege opens up with a Green Hill Zone set in Ehb's farmlands. Once the player encounters his/her first Krug enemies, it could be considered Ghibli Hills. After the last farmhouse, it transitions into The Lost Woods, and then a crypt full of recently reanimated undead. It's nice and green again shortly after, albeit with much more Krug. The player then progresses to the Doomed Hometown. A kilometer of Ghibli Hills later ends at the entrance to a spider-and-undead-infested dungeon. After killing its Giant Spider boss, yet more Ghibli Hills are traversed. The player and party encounter a Door to Before, and shortly after enter a mineshaft. TO BE CONTINUED: UNDER CONSTRUCTION
  • EverQuest II's original expansion. Depending on whether they were good or evil, the first large outdoor zone players (in their 10s, level wise) explored was either Antonica (a Green Hill Zone) or The Commonlands (a savannah). In their 20s, players moved on to The Thundering Steppes (plains beat to hell by a catacylsm) or Nektulos Forest (The Lost Woods). In their 30s, it was on to Zek, the Orcish Wastes (a barren wasteland) and The Enchanted Lands (a beautiful but eerie cursed island). And then in the 40s, it was on to Everfrost (Slippy-Slidey Ice World mixed with Grim Up North) and Lavastorm (Death Mountain and Lethal Lava Land in one).
  • Minecraft has the Overworld, then the Underground caves, then the Nether, and finally the aptly titled End.
  • Portal also falls into this, with you starting in the clean, pristine test labs, progressing to more and more damaged/deadly labs and finally into the off-limits zones and GLaDOS's chamber.
  • Portal 2 initially looks like an inversion, where you start in the broken labs and move up into nicer and nicer ones. Then you end up in even more broken labs.
  • Super Mario Bros.:
  • Donkey Kong
  • Banjo-Kazooie:
  • In Kingdom Hearts I, you start in the eerily beautiful Dive to the Heart, a seemingly intimidating and foreboding place where only your inner darkness can harm you and a guiding voice reasures you that everything is alraight. You then go to the Destiny Islands, a quasi-utopic world where you play with your frieds and dream of visiting other worlds with them. When the island gets destroyed, you must go through worlds based off Disney movies. The first worlds you visit are mostly non-threatening, like Wonderland and Deep Jungle (based on Tarzan), but the more you progres through the game the darker and more dangerous the worlds get, culminating in Hollow Bastion, a labrynthine, sprawling deserted castle full of powerful enemies, and End of the World, a vacant and somber Eldritch Location made of destroyed worlds.
  • In Morrowind, as you progress through the main quest, you start on an ordinary-looking seashore, and travel to your first city through unthreatening countryside. During the course of your adventure, you visit deserts of volcanic ash, jagged rocky shores, labyrinthine lava scathes and reach the climax of the story in flat our a sprawling ruin built over an open volcanic crater. The Bloodmoon expansion works similarly, starting you off in a chilly-looking but generally green pine forest, passing through harsher and harsher arctic-looking climes, and culminating in and under a giant snowstorm-lashed castle atop a massive glacier.
    • In Skyrim you're first given free reign in the warm, wooded areas of the game, as opposed to the completely frozen parts you'll run into later.
  • Most games in The Legend of Zelda start with a forest-themed dungeon as it's traditionally the least hazardous, and continue with fire, water and (in fewer games) ice dungeons which are more devious (a notable exception is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which starts with the dungeon of the Big Bad and continues with a fire-themed dungeon. The forest one is the third). Special mention goes to the games with multiple worlds.
  • Touhou games typically start somewhere comparatively hospitable to humans, ending up somewhere else that is not. PCB starts on a snowy village, going up through storm clouds and end up in an Elysian afterlife. SA starts in a cave and end up in Hell.
  • Dust: An Elysian Tail starts in a glade where deer run by you peacefully and stays in forests, hills and plains at first. The middle part of the game is spent in a cave, cemetery and snowy mountain (complete with ice spikes and avalanches), and it finally ends in a volcanic area.
  • This trope is inverted in Final Fantasy XIII; the game starts in a ruined city and the party travels through many industrialized areas, but most of the endgame takes place in Green Hill Zone.
  • Guild Wars plays this straight in Nightfall (Start in the settled mixed terrain of Istan, than the deserts of Kourna and Vabbi, than the poisonous and empty Desolation, finally the dark hell like Realm of Torment), and somewhat straight in Prophecies (Pre-searing is Green Hills, and the game ends in the volcanic Ring of Fire), but with some mix-ups on the journey. Factions and Eye of the North largely avoid this.
  • Epic Battle Fantasy III plays this pretty straight, going from Green Hill Zone to Palmtree Panic to Slippy-Slidey Ice World to Shifting Sand Land with Ruins for Ruins' Sake to Lethal Lava Land in Mordor to Space Zone. Gaiden Games Bullet Heaven and Adventure Story are pretty good about this as well, with the former going from Green Hill Zone to Palmtree Panic to Shifting Sand Land to Lethal Lava Land and the latter from Green Hill Zone to Shifting Sand Land to Slippy-Slidey Ice World to Lethal Lava Land. Now the next game, on the other hand, subverts it pretty much all the way. The First Town is in the same setting as the previous games' opening stage, and the rest of the forest, the actual first level in this game, is full of fire and brimstone. The crystal caves are beautiful, but deadly. Then you find another town in this game, this one taking up the ice world. West is a really small, optional Big Boo's Haunt leading back home, but east is a great big Eternal Engine with a toxic sewer midway through and an ice bit right near the end. After beating that level, you can go to the Jungle Japes fourth level and find old friends from early in the last game (that are no easier than the guys from last level). After that's taken care of come the third and last town (in Shifting Sand Land with a bit of Palmtree Panic) and the last dungeon, a much more involved Temple of Doom leading up into Bubbly Clouds.
  • Diablo:
    • Diablo 2: The player starts with rainy grasslands for Act 1, moves onto desert for Act 2, jungle for Act 3 and then Hell itself for Act 4. The expansion moves into a frozen waste followed by a Volcano Lair afterwards.
    • Diablo 3:
      • The first Act is set in the same area as act 1, to the point they share a level, the second Act is set closeby Diablo 2's Act 2, in the same desert, then Act 3 moves to the frozen waste and volcano of Diablo 2's expansion before descending into the heart of Hell. Then in Act 4, you go to the now corrupted High Heavens, which get more Hellish as you go deeper.
      • The expansion sends you back to an average, normal world, but with everyone being made into reapers, giving the areas a very ghost-like and deserted appearance. It begins in Westmarch, which is under siege by Malthael's forces before then moving on to the poisonous Blood Marsh and the nephalem ruins of Corvus, and then traveling to the very heart of Pandemonium and its title fortress, which has changed significantly since the last time we went through it 20 years ago.
  • Ori and the Blind Forest begins its first act with the relatively easy Sunken Glades and Hollow Grove, progressing to Thornfelt Swamp, the underground Moon Grotto, and the jungle-like Ginso Tree, then the second act goes to the Valley of the Wind, Misty Woods and the icy Forlorn Ruins, then the final act ascends to Sorrow Pass, a Gusty Glade on Death Mountain in Mordor, and the Lethal Lava Land of Mount Horu.
  • Valiant Hearts does a variation on this, where the opening levels are non-threatening (A train station on the way to the front and a short boot camp sequence) and even the first real level starts with a rather pleseant countryside that quickly turns into a war torn battle field with corpses and shell craters everywhere. The final levels include a battlefield where you are forced to hide behind disturbingly large piles of corpses to avoid being cut down by machine-guns and being led to your own execution for killing own of your own officers who was continually ordering your comrades to their deaths.
  • Gatling Gears plays this straight. The prologue and especially first chapter take place in Green Hill Zone, the second chapter takes place on a Death Mountain, the third chapter in a stormy Remixed Bleak Level of the prologue, the fourth in a barren desert (that was once an ocean), and the last one in Katharsis, a suffocating Eternal Engine Mordor. Interestingly, the final two stages in Katharsis is actually an artificial Green Hill Zone.
  • Mini Robot Wars: The first chapter is Green Hill Zone, the second chapter is Shifting Sand Land, the third is Under the Sea, the fourth is Slippy-Slidey Ice World, and the final level is an Eternal Engine Mordor.
  • The Pokémon games do this to different degrees, but the main series games will always, always, start out with a few very short, grassy field areas. Also without fail, a couple towns over there's always a forest that's darker, creepier and longer than the routes seen thus far. Additionally, every game has more areas unique to it that also fit this theme:
    • Pokémon Red and Blue and the remakes have the aforementioned settings as Route 1 and Viridian Forest, respectively. Then, in between the occasional road and field, the player encounters Mt. Moon (a cave), Rock Tunnel (a cave and a Blackout Basement), Pokemon Tower (starting a proud tradition of putting uncharacteristically scary areas in cute monster collection games to give kids nightmares), Rocket's Hideout (incidentally, every game also features at least one criminal hideout, which often overlaps with Container Maze and/or Eternal Engine), Seafoam Islands (a cave in the sea that combines Slippy-Slidey Ice World with treacherous currents that drag you around), and Pokemon Mansion (the derelict ruins of a house that used to double as a lab where some, er, less than ethical experiments were conducted.)
    • Pokémon Gold and Silver mostly averts this trope, unlike its predecessor, for several reasons. For one, this game introduced a Day/Night cycle, with the night versions of routes being automatically more threatening (Ghost types would appear at night in many routes and buildings, but as a result, no area devoted to them was introduced in this game). Also, the forest appears much later in these games, and before it the player explores two tunnels (one of them a Blackout Basement), a well (that's also crawling with Team Rocket grunts), and the Ruins of Alph, which appears very early on and has a very foreboding aura to it. Much later into the game, the region does feature an ice cave, Dragon's Den, Victory Road, and in the postgame, Mt. Silver, but that's about the closest it gets to this trope (they're harsher than other areas, yes, but not much more than the previous ones. Ok, maybe save for Mt. Silver). And then, come the postgame, this is inverted: The player starts out in Vermillion City (which in the original games was almost halfway through the game), and then the exploring order is all over the place, but mostly you'll go from hard and threatening to peaceful and breezy (also, most areas will have very weak Pokemon, which is only natural since the player of the last game beat most of them as a rookie).
    • Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire plays this straight again, with the field/creepy forest format being followed by increasingly more hazardous environments. This game is notable for introducing new settings that have been absent from previous games, which have been recurring ever since. Specifically, these games feature a desert, a volcano, and two overgrown routes showered in perpetual rain, all appearing across the middle/later half of the game. And further east, you get a huge span of ocean (featuring a ton of aquatic Goddamn Bats) that houses the undersea lair of Kyogre/maybe Groudon (depending on the version) and the ruins that house Rayquaza, as well as the Victory Road.