A fictional work features a virtual reality of any kind? A character is caught in a constant dream? A drug or brain implant can give you nice thoughts or pleasant emptiness for a while? Heck, sometimes even simple entertainments (such as comic books, video games etc) taken too far?
Even if your real life is the worst imaginable hell, the moral of the work — or the opinion of most characters — will be that reality is always preferable.
Sometimes the protagonist is the only one who can resist the temptation to escape reality, which is usually portrayed as a sign of mental strength. Characters who can accept reality are typically considered wise and responsible. Characters who do give in might be portrayed as weak or pitiful, since they lack the strength to face reality. Often, the 'stronger' characters make the decision to 'free' those caught in the dream world. Even if they are not happy about it, it is usually implied that after some time they will be grateful and recognize how much better real life is.
Interestingly, in Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism, both the idealistic and cynical sides will answer the same: that reality is preferable to escapism. The difference is in their reasoning: The idealist believes that by moving on and facing your problems, you can change your world for the better, whereas the cynic believes that people who indulge in escapism are immature and you should accept the suckiness of reality.
There are various reasons that might be given, depending on how complete and/or irreversible the escapism is:
- people in the real world depend on you, or would miss you if you were to escape reality
- the dream world is actually damaging reality, might collapse, or is harmful in another way
- staying in the dream world will kill you, because your real body still has needs and will decay
- escaping reality because your reality is painful is weak, immature and pathetic
- escaping reality does not solve your problems in real life and they will still be there when you come back.
- getting to the point where you Cannot Tell Fiction from Reality is completely counter-productive to whatever is the Aesop or final objective of the fictional work, not to mention you make people fear your mental stability.
- your real life circumstances have changed for the better — you don't need the escapism any more and holding onto it could hurt you.
There's also the concept of "The Vicious Cycle of Escapism" (see also Analysis.Escapism): Basically, you have real life problems that you can't solve → you escape to fantasy to relieve it → while you do, more problems appear; rinse and repeat. The only way to break out of this cycle is to face those problems — and thus this aesop is born. More painstakingly, the nature of fictional media is that they're always trying to get you addicted.
Note that despite all of the above, escapism is not inherently a bad thing — as the saying goes, "all things in moderation": Too much escapism leads to more problems, while too little escapism can leave you with a lot of stress and potentially makes you less productive (among other worse things). So it is wise to keep all things balanced, both with your Real Life routines and life, and with your escapisms.
Depending on how it's handled, it has a high risk of coming across as a case of Do Not Do This Cool Thing; obviously it's absurdly ironic for a work of fantasy to tell you to stop indulging in fantasy.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion. Shinji Ikari occasionally tries to avoid his interpersonal problems and self-loathing, and at one point he even says, "What's wrong with running away from reality if it stinks?!" The show makes it apparent that trying to avoid problems will not make them go away. The TV series closes with Shinji bravely, categorically, and specifically facing each one of his emotional and mental issues, alongside Misato and Asuka, with depictions of friends made previously honestly communicating with them every step of the way. The End of Evangelion, however, depicts a world where Shinji avoids facing these issues, attempts to short-cut to their correct answer by asking, then demanding it from a comatose, irresponsive Asuka, and eventually masturbates with her in mind to relieve his anxiety, which leads to her and Misato's deaths before he finally faces his weaknnesses in the mental projection of Asuka answering his original questions with sharp, precise, and scolding criticisms; having been successfully laid emotionally and psychologically naked before Asuka, he decides to kill his projection of her along with Earth's population as he concludes that no other person will/can help him come to terms with himself. Ultimately, the narrative closes with the assurance that all who died can be reborn provided they see reality on Shinji's terms: Asuka is the only character we see return before the credits roll.
- Paranoia Agent: This is one of the central themes of the series. The entire plot is driven by people's willingness to buy into what is ultimately revealed to be a lie in order to avoid facing the reality of their lives.
- Pokémon 3 The Movie: Spell of the Unown centers on this. A little girl named Molly has the Unown create a fairy-tale world for her so she can be with her "mother and father" forever. Unknown to Molly, her new world is greatly disrupting the old: as the crystal castle grows, it destroyed the surrounding environment; her new "mother" is actually Ash's kidnapped mother, Delia; real people on the outside are worried for her safety. In the end, she decides that she wants things to be real again.
- Martian Successor Nadesico goes about it in an odd way (and it could even be said it's more of a Space Whale Aesop): the villains of the story, the Jovian Lizards, are in reality a group of left-behind human colonists from the future, who got access to advanced technology, time travel and who have moulded their society around an In-Universe old-school Super Robot anime that the protagonists are also fans of because it was the only entertainment they had on hand. However, while the good guys can keep their head straight about the show, the Jovians' fanaticism of the show mutated into Black and White Insanity, with them (and the show's ideals) as the "white" side and humanity (and all of the moral grayness it (and reality) has) as the "black" side. And when a General Ripper rose amongst their ranks, all he needed to do was keep the insanity going in order to satisfy his bloodlust. The final scenes of the show have the characters tell the aesop straight and with pile-driving seriousness: stop taking Anime so god-damned seriously (or at least so seriously that you pull an I Reject Your Reality).
- Welcome to the N.H.K. has this as a main theme, but played more realistically. Sato is a nerdy, unemployed loner who basically has no life, and constantly retreats into escapist media and his convoluted daydreams. The toxic nature of his socially isolated personality is especially demonstrated when he becomes addicted to an online computer game at one point, and even develops a crush on a fictitious female character (who turns out to be his male friend). Sato's friends constantly try to help pull him out of his unsocial behavior, with awkwardly mixed results.
- In House of M, absolutely no one suggests that if a Reality Warper has created a world which is arguably better (yes, baseline humans are second-class citizens, but there's not really any suggestion they're mistreated, and they seem to be better off than mutants are in regular continuity) and where most of the main characters are happier, maybe they should leave it alone. The crossover issue of Exiles shows the darker side of the setting: non-mutants have basically no rights and innocent people are routinely killed by Sentinels simply for failing to get out of the way fast enough during a manhunt.
- Spider-Man: In One More Day, Peter Parker meets an overweight version of himself from a timeline in which he didn't gain his powers; instead, he channeled his anger inwardly and became a video game maker. Fat Peter rants, "We couldn't get the world we wanted, so we had to make a world we liked". Linkara, in his review of this in his 200th episode, found it to be hypocritical and offensive based on the fact that comic books by their very nature are based on escapism.
- The Unbelievable Gwenpool seemed to be setting this up: Gwen literally escaped into the Marvel universe from the "real world," but nearly all of her adventures were about her struggles and messing up. When she's forcibly returned to her world in issue 16, we see how miserable she is, and why she fled to her comics in the first place. Her brother stops her and convinces her to life in the real world, assuring her that she can turn her life around and be with the people she loves. Subverted in the next issue, where Gwen is shown to be miserable in her world even after it improves, and immediately jumps ship to Earth-616 when she can. This gets twisted further in later issues as it morphs into not only In Defence Of Storytelling but outright in defence of responsible storytelling, which could be read as Self-Deprecation so easily (kicking off Summer events just for the heck of it could be a bad thing you say?).
- A main theme in Coraline. The title character is a little girl who is bored and depressed after moving to a new house in an unfamiliar land, and being ignored by her inattentive parents. She discovers a portal to an alternate dimension that looks like her own, except (seemingly) perfect. But of course, not only is it really too good to be true, it's actually a death trap designed by a demonic witch who wants to eat her soul. After escaping alive, she learns to appreciate the real world and be grateful for her actual family and friends.
- The Matrix. Granted, the Matrix is not particularly exciting or beautiful, but certainly preferable to the mostly destroyed real world.
- The movie Strange Days has the main character Lenny Nero as an addict to SQUID tapes which hold recordings of his life with his ex-girlfriend. His friend gives him a mild What the Hell, Hero? speech where she tells him that the SQUID tapes are a symbol of him being stuck in the past and that he has to let go.
- The movie Heavenly Creatures involves two girls escaping from the harsh reality they live in by creating an imaginary kingdom - this trope comes into effect when one of the girls starts showing signs of insanity and becomes more and more obsessed with the imaginary world to the extent of everything else. Even her parents' lives. This is a pretty significant divergence from the events the movie was based on, as such claims were part of Insanity Defense that was pretty quickly rejected. Rather, the girls were obsessed with being together; the imaginary world was only the setting for their novels and their "Fourth World" religion was deeply serious.
- Star Trek: Generations. Captain Kirk has been trapped inside the Nexus (a Lotus-Eater Machine where all of his desires are fulfilled) for 67 years. Captain Picard arrives and tries to convince Kirk to leave. Kirk is finally convinced when he makes a dangerous jump on his horse and realizes that he didn't feel any fear. This leads to the epiphany that he's living in a world without consequences, which means that nothing he does matters. He leaves because he wants to make a difference again.
- TRON: Legacy ends with the protagonist bringing Quorra (a unique lifeform, neither Program nor human) from The Grid into the real world. They ride into the sunrise on a motorcycle with her smiling, implying that she is amazed by the beauty of the real world. The virtual world inside the machine, the basis of his childhood stories and his father's life's work, is a visually-stunning nightmarish cyberpunk hell, run by an Administrator obsessed with perfection who exterminated all of Quorra's people. He meets no friendly Programs, even the great User-Believer Champion is a brainwashed attack dog on Clu's leash, and the whole thing ends with Flynn the Elder committing murder-suicide by destroying Clu and himself, ultimately proving his dream of Program and Human cooperation futile. An especially puzzling and cynical (especially for Disney!) case, since it completely inverts the message of the first film.
- Subverted in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Cecilia, who's been swept up in a romance with movie character come to life Tom Baxter, declines to live with him in a fantasy world when Gil Shepherd, the actor who played him, says that he loves her too. Except Gil was lying and returns to Hollywood without her, and Cecilia has no choice but to return to her abusive husband.
- Played straight at first, but then later subverted, in Ben X. The autistic protagonist spends a lot of time in an online game. There are occasions when game and reality merge for him, and he even builds a weapon from the game in real life. However it is always clear that the real problem is the heavy bullying he gets in school, and it seems like without the game world to escape into, he would have snapped in real life much sooner. Later, he develops an imaginary girlfriend, who seems to be real at first and is revealed as imaginary at the end in a Tomato Surprise. Nobody implies that this is bad, and it clearly makes him much happier.
- This is the In-Universe Aesop of Ready Player One, much like the book it was based on. While finding each challenge required understanding OASIS creator's James Halliday's passions, solving them required learning the lessons Halliday spent his whole life avoiding until the very end; Not to get so swept up in nostalgia that it consumes your life, don't be afraid to seek love, and never push your friends away when they are trying to help you. Main character Wade Watts takes this to heart when he wins ownership of the OASIS. He gives partial ownership to his Fire-Forged Friends, and makes a mandatory shut-down on at least two days so players will have to take a break and live life.
- Brave New World describes the drug Soma, which makes people happy and careless for a few hours to days. Yet two main characters refuse using it. One of them claims the 'right to suffer', but eventually gives up and starts using it when he actually feels terrible. The other actually kills himself after using it once, because he is so horrified about what he did in his numbed state.
- H.P. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath contains a deep analysis of this trope disguised under epic adventures. The hero of the story is looking for a place particularly beautiful in the world of the dreams, and he struggles through dangers and perils to reach it. However, he learns at the end that the place he is looking for was his own real world all along. Thus, the message is similar to most examples, but given in a more vitalist fashion: living in the reality is not better because it is real, it is because the real world is that awesome.
- Odd Thomas. During the book's finale, the protagonist's girlfriend dies. You don't find this out until a few pages later, because the protagonist can see the dead and kept convincing himself that her ghost was still the normal her. However his friends come by at his house with her ashes and break him out of this fantasy. He then lets her ghost go completely.
- The Red Dwarf novels feature a game named "Better Than Life", which allows the user to live out their fantasies. However, when you're playing the game, you do not realise that you are playing a game. This means that you can die of starvation from not eating food in reality.
- A Doctor Who story had the Doctor and Martha arrive at what they think is an underwater colony (they think it is underwater because they are in a structure surrounded by water and lots of sea life). They soon discover that this is not true — what they are seeing outside the structure is nothing more than a projection and the truth is the planet they are on is barren and in a wrecked state. The Doctor, Martha, and a boy they meet agree that the humans in the colony ought to know the truth and the boy deactivates the projection.
- The "reality has changed" type is found in Joanne Greenberg's autobiographical I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. Deborah actually isn't insane because she "spent too much time in her imaginary world", or because she's a gifted artist. These things saved her innate sanity. But after a childhood beset with agonizing surgeries (accompanied by Lies to Children), soul-crushing parental expectations and vicious anti-Semitic bullying, she remains true to her imaginary world, even when it causes her intense pain. As conditions improve in the real world, her allegiance is repeatedly tested, and it is this conflict which causes her "insanity". note The doctor acknowledges that reality has been very bad to her but she needs to trust that things have changed and that she can even make the world better.
- Curiously enough, Zilpha Keatley Snyder deals this trope at the end of many of her stories. Robin in The Velvet Room uses the said room for reading and daydreaming, but is forced to give it up at the end and comes to believe that it never was the enchanted sanctuary she had made it. Martha in The Changeling decides to "shut the door" on her childhood with its "endless daydreams". At the end of The Gypsy Game, the sequel to The Egypt Game, all six children decide to abandon sustained imaginative games and take on adult responsibilities.
- In Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Bonding", a crewmember is killed on an away mission and non-corporeal lifeforms from the planet attempt to form a relationship with the son of the deceased crewmember and take him to their planet to atone for killing the crewmember. The lifeform has to be convinced that what she is doing is wrong and that a fantasy will not help the boy. Earlier in development, the boy would have instead bonded with a holographic recreation of his mother. The moral would have been the same, though.
- In "What Is and What Should Never Be," Dean gets a wish granted by a Djin and winds up in an Alternate Universe where his mom is still alive and he and Sam have normal jobs. But when it turns out it was All Just a Dream, he has to choose between living a happy, normal life, or returning to his life of hunting monsters in the real world. He ultimately chooses the latter.
- In "Hunteri Heroici," an elderly psychic is starting to recede into his own mind, and doesn't notice he's bending reality around him to act more like the cartoons he watches at the nursery home. Dean and Cas have to enter the man's head in order to talk to him and to get him to snap out of it.
- Subverted in Babylon 5. Since character Marcus Cole died before he could have a real relationship with Susan Ivanova, a 'happy end' was later added for the two in Extended Universe: he wakes up out of cryogenic suspension hundreds of years after the end of the series, creates an exact clone of Ivanova (the real one being long dead) and lives with the clone happily ever after... yeah.
- Once Upon a Time pulls this off subtly by deconstructing one of the most iconic characters when it comes to escapism: Peter Pan. He is, prior to his life in Neverland, a washed up, down on his luck guy who had to care for his son. Long story short, the two ended up in Neverland where the only permanent resident there, a shadow that'd eventually become Pan's shadow, tells Pete that he's grown up and shouldn't be escaping to Neverland anymore. He, fitting the fourth item on the list of how to point out that the escapism is bad, ditches his son in a deal to restore his youth and live in Neverland. Right afterwards, the Shadow points out that now he'll undergo item three, slowly dying, as Neverland was meant to be a place to visit, not stay.
- An interesting case in the Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams episode "Real Life", where the story alternates between a billionaire CEO named George (Terrence Howard), a straight black man in a slightly futuristic setting, and a lesbian white police officer named Sarah (Anna Paquin) in a distant future. Both use experimental VR technology to escape a trauma in their lives. However, the longer it goes on, the more each starts to suspect that their world is the simulation, doubting their own reality. In the end, they choose the less futuristic reality, which turns out to be the wrong choice, as Sarah is the real person, whose life is much happier than George's. Sarah's wife realizes that Sarah couldn't cope with Survivor Guilt and subconsciously wished to be punished. As a result, Sarah is left brain-dead, perpetually plugged into a machine and living out her new crapsack life as George.
- The main theme of The Wall, although more recent performances focus more on the political messages instead.
- In The Glass Menagerie Tom's mother complains about him wasting his money by going to the movies every night instead of staying at home, where he'd have to watch his mother and sister slowly sink into an abyss of melancholy. (Though she doesn't put it in quite those terms.) Eventually Tom joins the Merchant Marines and leaves his family, never seeing them again.
- Shadowrun Returns. In the Dragonfall DLC, you can regularly talk to a woman who is addicted to a virtual reality. She will eventually tell you that this virtual reality makes her feel brave, to which you can reply that 'it is better to be brave in real life'. Yes, have fun with your real life, alone in dirty, dark cyberpunk Berlin.
- In Dragon Age: Origins, you come across a desire demon who has sent a Templar into a dream in which he has a loving wife and a nice home - while he actually stands in a tower full of corpses after all his mage companions were slaughtered. The demon argues that he is much happier this way, yet you can try to break the dream, because 'it's not real'. Whether the Templar would have preferred the dream to reality if he knew the truth is never shown, since if you try to snap him out of it, the demon uses the illusion to make him attack you and you are forced to kill him.
- In Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, the main character feels this way. Despite the fact that he and the other main characters are far better off in Ivalice, he works to return everyone to their normal lives. This ends up causing him to come to blows with several of his friends.
- Not the driving Aesop of Soul Sacrifice, but a relatively important one in Delta. Upon realizing the truth of the Eternal Recursion, Terrwyn instigates a plot to trap humanity in a dream world free of monsters and cut off from the Feud of the Twin Gods. The idea is condemned as foolish and empty by Persapius, who refuses to take part in it. Terrwyn sacrifices him by force and creates the dream world, and it's up to the Player Character to break the illusion so that you can take the fight directly to the Twin Gods and truly end the Recursion.
- In Final Fantasy XIII-2, Serah finds herself in a closed world shaped by her own desires. In this world, her sister Lightning never disappeared, her fiance Snow never left in search of said sister, their two lost friends Fang and Vanille will soon be saved from crystal sleep, and everything is pretty great all-around. But, this is all just a dream. Serah has a choice of either accepting this fake world, or face reality and go back to the people who still need help (her new friend Noel included).
- While this is not the primary Aesop of Kemono Friends.exe (that being how Humans Are Bastards who claim to love animals, yet exploit them to the point of extinction), throughout the game, the animal friends tell you several times that you should return to your own world instead of keep on destroying theirs. This happens again during the Golden Ending, where Serval tells you to uninstall the game and go out there and enjoy the world, and how even though you can never meet again, you'll be the best of friends forever. If you decide to run the game again, however...
- Zig-zagged in Umineko: When They Cry. Sayo Yasuda's escapism (i.e creating numerous Imaginary Friends and creating at least three different identities with completely different personalities because they hated themself so much) is pretty much the only way they made it through much of their childhood, and a repeated point is how delusions and escapism serve as coping methods for much of the cast - in some cases even helping them develop their greatest strengths. But it comes back to bite Sayo in the rear later when the things they try to escape from become too great to completely ignore, and they even suggest that they regret having used escapism at all in one of their final lines to Lion - "I pray that you live as a human, without awakening as a witch."
- Ends up being a theme in Hatoful Boyfriend Holiday Star, where a spirit has built a pocket of the afterlife For Happiness - but the thing is if anyone wants to leave or isn't happy, they get assimilated and made happy. And if they're not actually dead, well, clearly they've got to be killed so they can stay. Escapism and forgetting any bad memories is the lure the ruler puts out to get people to agree to stay.
- This is the intended aesop of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, whose main cast accidentally create a magical dreamworld where their personal desires become reality. The main character wants to undo this spell partially because of this trope and partially because everyone in their hometown has become trapped within the Lotus-Eater Machine as bit-players to the children's fantasy.
- Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal: "When we discovered how to live in virtual worlds, we escaped to fantasies as often as possible."
- The Order of the Stick: Roy, Haley, and Elan are briefly trapped in an illusion in Girard's pyramid where they defeat all of their enemies and all of their longstanding goals transpire. They only break out when Elan realizes that many of his dreams are childish juvenile desires that aren't realistic...and yet they seem to have happened anyway.
- An episode of Batman Beyond involved the villain Spellbinder hooking up miserable teenagers into virtual reality machines. Their personal fantasy worlds are so mentally addictive, that he exploits their withdrawal by forcing them to steal things for him.
- The Justice League episode "Legends" involves the heroes visiting an alternate universe inhabited by a superhero team called the Justice Guild (who are coincidentally the main characters from John Stewart's favorite childhood comic book). This dimension looks like an idealized, optimistic world straight out of a Silver Age comic book, where nothing too bad ever happens. Unsurprisingly though, this place is hiding a much darker secret: it's actually a post-apocalyptic wasteland that was destroyed by global nuclear warfare. The real Justice Guild are long dead, while Ray Thompson (their young friend) is actually a hideously deformed mutant who survived the bombing of their city. Ray became completely insane and, out of refusal to accept his tragic losses, used his new reality-bending powers to create a hyper-realistic illusion of the pre-war world from his childhood, while forcing other survivors to go along with it instead of rebuilding their ruined world. The moral of the story: even if you've lost everything you ever loved, it's extremely unhealthy to revel in nostalgia to the point of denying an unpleasant reality, and (like it or not) you have to eventually move on from your traumatic past.
- The Simpsons episode "Lisa the Drama Queen", as a Whole Plot Reference to Heavenly Creatures, has Lisa making friends with a newly arrived girl and the both of them creating an imaginary kingdom, and said girl becoming more obsessed with said kingdom (and acting crazier) as the episode goes on. Most important to Marge is that the new girl seems to be dragging Lisa down with her and wants to separate them.
- In Silver Surfer, there is a planet of mostly ugly and poor creatures who live in a daydream fantasy created by a special machine that brainwashes everyone on the planet. This machine makes them think that they live perfect lives with no problems and everyone being beautiful. The episode ends with Silver Surfer turning off the machine and the creatures concluding that the right thing to do is to deal with the challenges of the real life.
- In the Adventure Time episode "Dungeon Train", Finn is despondent over a recent breakup when he and Jake encounter the eponymous train. Each car contains progressively stronger enemies to fight which give up progressively more powerful weapons and armor when defeated. Does This Remind You of Anything? It quickly becomes clear that the train runs on an endless loop and the enemies inside are no threat to the kingdom; Jake becomes bored and leaves, but Finn is enamored of the place and seems content to fight there forever. By episode's end, Jake finally persuades Finn to leave the train and face both his problems and the drudgery of everyday life. Downplayed somewhat because it goes the moderation route; Finn would stay on the train until old age but decides not to go that far, only a little while longer until he's actually satisfied to leave, rather than avoiding his problems indefinitely.
- The second-to-last episode of Gravity Falls involves Dipper trying to rescue his sister Mabel from a perfect dream world that was created as a prison by Bill Cipher. Mabel is living in a sickeningly sweet fantasy land in order to escape from her reality, which involves a lot of familial conflict with her brother.