Something bad has happened in the setting. Something very bad. The player arrives some time later — days, perhaps, but possibly years, even centuries afterward. Their "official" goal is just to make it out of there with life, limb, and sanity intact, possibly liberating a treasure or two along the way. But in the course of achieving their own goal, they are going to find out a lot about the something that has happened, and the people it happened to. As part of the set-up, the player might have been sent or called specifically in response to the tragedy — to find out what happened, or rescue some one or some thing. Alternatively, they may begin not knowing even that the tragedy has occurred, just happening upon it through bad luck — the classic "Our car broke down so we'll take shelter in this abandoned castle" set-up.
Typically, often as a direct result of the player's investigation, they will find themselves needing to learn from what they can piece together of the past to stop this bad something from happening again — to them. In games with a supernatural angle, there will often be some component of "freeing the ghosts" of those involved in the past tragedy by resolving the situation.
Expect to find at least one diary (Scavenger hunts for journal pages are very common), a video tape or two, psychic visions of the past, and, very likely, notes on the wall in human blood.
This setup is not uncommon outside of video games, but the focus on discovering these fragments of the past is typically much stronger in the game — the interactive medium is particularly well-suited to this kind of storytelling, as it lets the player control the pace and order at which the story is told, but the story itself needs not account for the player's pesky free will getting in the way.
It also allows all the storytelling and character interactions to happen non-interactively (often in cutscenes), which actually increases realism, as these sorts of scenes are nigh-impossible to do well interactively.
There are some parallels with Ontological Mystery, although typically the characters know how they got there. Super-Trope to Slept Through the Apocalypse. Not to be confused with The Cavalry Arrives Late.
- This happens to Iris in the backstory of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Detonation. She comes home one day after having been off-base to play with the children of some of the scientists, only to find that everyone has been killed and her best friend Yuri was the culprit. This was actually invoked. Maxwell deliberately had the slaughter take place while she was away in order to trick her into thinking that Yuri was responsible.
- The last two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, with the narrative arriving late and Instrumentality being the party. It probably happened while Shinji, who is kind of an Author Avatar, was sleeping after the end of the previous episode. The second to last episode simply starts with Shinji confronting his own mind in Limbo, after all of humanity has been Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence.
- A very common occurrence for Subaru in Re:Zero. Many times, Subaru will enter a situation or area already devastated in one way or another and dies shortly afterward to try to prevent it.
- Parodied in the Doctor Who Magazine comic story "Death to the Doctor!", which ends with the Doctor arriving at an asteroid base strewn with corpses and lamenting that he wasn't there in time to prevent whatever happened happening. In the story the reader has just been laughing at, a group of loser villains who gathered together at the base to plot to kill the Doctor killed each other in paranoia that he was already there.
- Guardians of the Galaxy: The very first Guardians story begins with Jovian astronaut Charlie-27 touching down at his base after a long patrol to find it eerily empty and quiet. He then discovers that two months ago, the Badoon invaded the solar system and have killed or enslaved damn near all mankind, his family included.
- Judge Dredd: In Dark Justice, the Mayflower colony ship hasn't even left the solar system when the Dark Judges make their presence known after having stowed away in a human host. The rescue mission led by Dredd and Anderson can't get there until 12 days later, at which point pretty much every passenger has become a corpse.
- Rick Grimes' situation at the start of the The Walking Dead, having been rendered comatose by a shotgun blast some time before the dead... well, start walking.
- There are a couple of points in The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye where Something Bad goes down on the Lost Light (or, in one case, a duplicate Lost Light), and our viewpoint character misses it: Tailgate misses Sunder's rampage in "Speak, Memory", while everyone shows up late to the "Slaughterhouse" incident. Subverted with First Aid and the Protectobots in "The Plotter's Club", however; they're living through showing up Late To The Tragedy again and again, because Getaway has trapped them in a memory loop to keep them contained.
- Abraxas (Hrodvitnon): When the G-Team and Mauzer arrive at the abandoned Monarch outpost looking for survivors, there are only a handful of people left to save from the Many born from Ghidorah's DNA.
- Checkmate. Estrella, District 4's tribute for the 74th Hunger Games, had snuck out past curfew and came back to find the academy razed and the other trainees dead after the Capitol decided that they were a threat.
- Hell and High Water: Princess Twilight was away attending a Hearth's Warming pageant in Canterlot and left the journal at the castle. As such, she doesn't learn about the Anon-a-Miss situation over on Earth until the end of Chapter 13. By that point, Sunset and Rainbow had pretty much moved on from the situation to focus on more pressing issue of taking down an Apocalypse Cult, but they still aren't amused to hear that their most valuable ally was off watching a play while they were getting beaten within an inch of their lives.
- “Remember Me This Way” opens with Sam Beckett (Quantum Leap) Leaping into the life of Colonel Jack O’Neill (Stargate SG-1) shortly after the death of Jack’s son Charlie. Sam and Al each question why Sam would Leap into Jack’s life after Charlie’s death rather than before, but come to realise that Sam’s purpose there is so that Jack will accept the mission through the Stargate (in Jack’s absence, the person who took the job instead apparently set off the nuclear bomb to kill Ra and took himself and the rest of the team with it, whereas even at his worst Jack would have ensured that everyone else made it home first).
- Sonic X: Dark Chaos: When Sonic and his friends leave their world to find the Chaos Emeralds, they quickly discover that the galaxy is a largely ruined Crapsack World devastated by the thirty-year Metarex War, fought over by Jerkass Gods, and nearly wholly devoured by the Shroud.
- With Strings Attached: The four are sent to C'hou, specifically the continent of Baravada, when its entire (dysfunctional anarchistic dystopian/utopian) way of life is dying out. There are hints of a much more orderly past to the planet, especially the magnificent Ghost City of Ehndris and the implied behavior of the Jerkass Gods some centuries in the past.
- In My Little Pony: The Movie (2017), after Canterlot is raided by the Storm King's forces, the main six ponies venture beyond Equestria to locate the hippogriff kingdom for help. But once they arrive, they find the kingdom in ruins and abandoned. They learn later that the Storm King had invaded and destroyed the kingdom years ago but the hippogriffs themselves survived by transforming into seaponies and hiding underwater, and Queen Novo refuses to help the ponies as to not put her subjects in danger.
- In the movie 28 Days Later, main character Jim wakes up in a deserted hospital after England has been ravaged by the Rage virus. This leads to a "last man on earth"-type scenario, at least until he stumbles upon some zombies and ends up being saved by survivors who actually know what happened. The first twenty minutes of the film are basically one long homage to The Day of the Triffids in general and the 1980s BBC adaptation starring John Duttine in particular.
- Alien: Alone: Hope is the last surviving crewmember aboard her ship, which is falling apart beyond the frontier of humanity.
- Ripley and the Colonial Marines in Aliens.
Sergeant Apone: Sir, this place is dead. Whatever happened here, I think we missed it.
- Similarly, Prometheus takes place well after the disaster that killed all but one of the Engineers, though video logs show what happened.
- Apollo 18: On the Apollo 18 mission's second day on the moon, Spacecraft Commander Walker and and LEM Pilot Anderson discover and follow a set of spacesuit tracks to the landing site of a Soviet LK lunar lander. From there, the tracks go in circles, leading Walker to infer that a cosmonaut must have gotten disoriented somehow. The inside of the LK lander looks as though somebody went crazy with a hammer, and an open first aid kid is visible with multiple bloody dressings. Then Anderson finds the cosmonaut's body in a nearby crater, with his helmet off. The reason for all of this reveals itself over the next two days.
- Avengers: Infinity War:
- The Guardians arrive to witness the aftermath of the explosion of the Statesman, with pieces of the ship and dead bodies floating in space. They later arrive on Knowhere after Thanos has already devastated it and taken the Reality Stone.
- This also happens when Thor arrives at Nidavellir to find that the forge has gone out and Thanos has killed almost everyone there.
- In Black Rat, Misato arrives late to the midnight meeting at the high school and finds the classroom smashed up and blood on the floor, but has no idea what happened.
- Deep Rising: The mercenaries were planning to rob the cruise ship and then sink it, but when they arrive the ship is deserted. All of the passengers were eaten while they were en route by a far more dangerous sea monster that is now infesting the ship.
- Event Horizon takes place when the title ship mysteriously returns, empty, after killing its previous crew in hyperspace.
- In Krampus, after Beth doesn't arrive home from her boyfriend's house, her dad and her uncle head over to find the empty house in ruins, with the fireplace cracked open as if something tried to force its way down the chimney, and goatlike footprints in the snow. The whole scene, with its eerie, icy atmosphere, is very much an homage to a similiar scene from The Thing (1982), described below.
- The Soviet two-part film Moscow — Cassiopeia, humans receive a signal from a star in the Cassiopeia constellation and send a relativistic ship crewed by teenagers to make first contact. The ship finally arrives in the second part and discovers only strange white pillars where civilization used to be. Then humanoid robots show up as well as survivors of the former civilization who explain what happened. There was a robot uprising, with the robots forcibly removing emotions from their creators to make them "happy", resulting in their extinction. The only ones who survived were aboard an orbital observatory at the time.
- After spending most of the movie being hunted by the Operative, the crew of Serenity travel to the planet of Miranda in search for answers as to what happened there. They find out. And it's not pretty.
- In Star Trek (2009), the Enterprise prepares to warp to Vulcan when Starfleet gets a distress call from the planet. The ship prepares to warp with the rest of the fleet there, but suddenly stalls. As it turns out, replacement helmsman Sulu forgot to deactivate the external inertial dampeners (or as Captain Pike refers to it, "the parking brake"). While it allows Kirk and Uhura to warn Pike of what may be there, it's too late for the other ships as the Enterprise arrives to a ship graveyard, the spacecraft destroyed by the Narada.
- The alien in The Thing (1982) got dug up by, and slaughtered, a
SwedishNorwegian expedition team before it found its way into the American outpost in Antarctica. Just before things start to go disastrously wrong with their own expedition, some of the Americans travel to the Norwegian outpost to figure out what's going on, and find that the place has been reduced to charred ruins with hints of a very nasty struggle, including a blood stained fire axe stuck in a door — and beyond that door, a man who apparently committed suicide by slitting his wrists and throat. The 2011 prequel film explores what happened at the Norwegian outpost. Given that John Carpenter has admitted to being a fan of H. P. Lovecraft, this could have been based on a scene from At the Mountains of Madness, where the protagonist arrives at Lake's camp only to find it in ruins and everyone presumably killed by the Elder-Things.
- Angels & Demons has the heroes reaching each of the four cardinals less late each time, but too late to save them nonetheless. In the film version, Robert Langdon actually saves the fourth cardinal.
- In At the Mountains of Madness, all of the dying happens before the viewpoint characters arrive.
- Dead Silence has the Ghost Ship Aurora, found 20 years after it was lost with dead passengers seeming to be doing mundane things like coming back from the pool, theater, dinner— or violently killing each other.
- In Kir Bulychev's The City Above, the Earth explorers are studying the centuries-old, nuked ruins on the surface. Meanwhile, Human Aliens struggle to survive underground. A "pipe-worker" fed up with this oppressive life leaves to search for "The City Above" or die trying. The book predates The Books of Ember by three decades, but the resemblance is coincidental.
- The Day of the Triffids opens with the protagonist waking up to discover he has quite literally Slept Through the Apocalypse. The first couple of chapters, as he stumbles around slowly beginning to grasp the sheer enormity of what has taken place, have been homaged by about half the entries on this page.
- In the Doctor Pavlysh novel The Last War, a joint expedition of humans and frog-like aliens goes to a planet whose Human Alien natives have recently nuked themselves into extinction. The frog aliens have a device capable of restoring/cloning a living being based on a sufficiently intact body. The goal is to attempt to resurrect the race and help them rebuild their irradiated and poisoned world (one side used nukes, the other released a poison). In the second half of the novel, they discover that the military junta that has started the war have survived in an underground bunker and are pissed off at the off-worlders for making themselves at home, threatening to launch more nukes if they don't leave.
- Empire from the Ashes includes this in each book. First book: "What happened to Dahak's crew?" Second book: "What happened to the Fourth Imperium?" Third book: "What happened to Pardal's techbase?"
- In Hero's Chains, Derek arrives several centuries late to a world gone from a sci-fi utopia to a fantasy hellhole.
- Several examples in the Honor Harrington series, due to the interstellar distances involved and the setting's lack of Subspace Ansibles. It's not uncommon for ships to depart a system on some mission or another, and return only to learn that the system was attacked or even captured by the enemy while they were out of touch.
- The Lord of the Rings features the famous scene when the Fellowship arrives at Moria and sees that the entire city has been wiped out. Played with in that everyone in the know was already aware that Moria had become a ruin long ago (noted by the fact that Moria isn't even its true name, but what folks started calling the place after Khazad-dûm was razed). What they didn't know was what happened to Balin's expedition to reclaim and restore it.
- Portal: A Dataspace Retrieval by Rob Swigart is a novelization of the 1986 Portal game (see the Video Games sub-page). One-man interstellar expedition returns after a century and finds that humans left Earth. He uses a computer terminal to figure where did everybody disappear.
- In Prince Caspian, the characters arrive at the ruins of the castle, and, over the course of the book, discover that Narnia has been overthrown by evil forces and they have been summoned to save it.
- Star Wars Legends:
- Shatterpoint has the Clone Wars and the Republic at large be late to the "party" known as the Summertime Wars. Basically, conflict between offworlders and natives led to a war that starts when the winter snows melt and end when the autumn rains began. Each year. For thirty years as of the start of the book. The natives only support the Republic because the offworlders are supported by the Separatists. Mace Windu, the narrator, notes that his young native companions do not speak of what they will do "after the war". Because it's all they've ever known. Which makes it kind of heartbreaking when Nick admits his feelings about what he wanted to do with Chalk if the war ever ended, while holding her corpse.
- Ry-Gaul, a supporting Jedi Quest character is established in a later work to have been on a mission away from the rest of galactic society during Order 66, and was fortunate enough to encounter a couple people that warned him of the danger when he started home.
- Most of the surviving Jedi featured in Dark Lord—The Rise of Darth Vader experienced Order 66 up close, but Agricultural Corps Jedi Jambe Lu and Nam Proof were on a freighter in hyperspace, without any clones during Order 66 and found out what happened upon reaching their destination.
- In a tie-in novella to Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II The Empire destroys a town of smugglers and war refugees on Ruusan once they find the planet. Captain Jerg, the founder of the town, and man of his people were off on a smuggling run when they happened and while their return to find the town bombed out (and most of the people who'd stayed behind dead) isn't shown, this trope presumably applies to them.
- Shtum: As a child fleeing The Holocaust, Georg travels to Azsotto, the lake town where he spent his childhood summers, to rescue his autistic brother Jonatan from the nearby sanatarium. He finds the town completely empty and smouldering in places, with the windows smashed, and when he tries breaking into houses to look for food, he finds cartridge cases littering the floors and the mouldy remains of one hastily abandoned meal.
- In the pilot episode of Crusade, Gideon arrives to Earth days after the battle with the Drakh (see Babylon 5: A Call to Arms). All the crew see are ship wreckage and infected Earth. Matheson comments that they were late for the party even before they jumped. Then again, there's not much they could've done with a research vessel with only enough weapons to scare off an occasional raider or two.
- Doctor Who begins quite a few episodes with the Doctor landing right in the middle of a national/planetary/universal crisis, spending about half of the episode working out what's going on and the second half either fixing it or getting the hell out of there. There are a few examples, though, which fit this trope especially well:
- An unusual horror episode of Farscape, "Eat Me", has the characters arriving on a Ghost Ship infested with cannibalistic zombie-like creatures, discovering the horrible cause of events, and fighting to get out alive.
- At the end of Fargo Season 2, a little bit after the legendary Sioux Falls Massacre, Mike Milligan shows up, surveys the carnage, and immediately decides to just drive away.
- Foundation (2021) has the Imperial warship Invictus found centuries after it had gone missing. It lives up to its reputation as a Ghost Ship by having all the onboard crew dead, the result of a malfunction in its navigation system which left it jumping blind around the galaxy. Because Hyperspace Is a Scary Place, the crew eventually went mad once they ran out of sleep drugs, and died in a combination of mutiny and hull-breach. When the protagonist boards it, it proves both dangerous and creepy with corpses and automated defenses everywhere.
- Lost was partially inspired by games such as Myst in which the character finds himself in a strange place with little information, including the objectives of the game. As the characters have explored the island, they've found the abandoned Dharma stations, numerous skeletons, and what was once a large statue, which now has been reduced to a lone foot.
- Don Eppes of NUMB3RS has been known to complain that being in law enforcement basically entails this.
Don: Look, I'm tired of picking up the pieces, okay? It seems like all we do is get there too late.
- Charlie makes a similar complaint a season later, comparing the FBI to doctors trying to treat car crash victims thrown through windshields (the solution is not to come up with a better way to treat said wounds, but to come up with a means of preventing them, namely seatbelts). He actually tries to figure out a way to prevent crime with math, but is forced to concede that it's too complex a system to be undermined in the way he intended.
- Power Rangers Ninja Storm begins with our heroes-to-be late for training yet again... thus missing the Big Bad's initial sacking of their training hall.
- Star Trek:
- Star Trek: Can you say "Assemble an away team to explore the derelict/ruin"? How about "Jim, this man is dead!"?
- Star Trek: The Next Generation: In "The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2", the Enterprise-D arrives at Wolf 359 after the battle. The fleet it was supposed to join has been destroyed by the Borg. The shot of the Enterprise moving through the burning debris, while Ron Jones' score soars ominously, is haunting. We get a glimpse of what a hopeless battle it was in "Emissary", the pilot episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
- Done in a really tragic way in the Big Finish Doctor Who story "Lucie Miller"/"To the Death". When a plague is sweeping across Earth Lucie Miller sends a message to the Doctor. However he arrives years later, by which time the Daleks have invaded Earth. It is revealed the Meddling Monk was responsible for the Doctor arriving late.
- Warhammer 40,000: The description of First Contact with the tyranids in the 740s.M41. Inquisitor Kryptmann went to investigate why a group of Imperial worlds had fallen off the map, and discovered they had been cleansed of all life and drained dry. In the ruins of the Adeptus Mechanicus's local headquarters on Tyran, he discovered an Apocalyptic Log that the facility's Magos had the foresight to conceal before activating a nuclear Self Destruct, and realized what the Imperium was up against. He then spent months chasing behind Hive Fleet Behemoth before he was able to find some tech to boost his astropath's signal so he could penetrate the fleet's warp shadow and warn the Ultramarines of the oncoming Horde of Alien Locusts.
- Taken to a ridiculous degree in 8-Bit Theater where the protagonists were late to the final villain's defeat when they briefly fled from him and a group composed mostly of characters we've never seen before killed him.
- Downplayed in Sinfest: Criminy arrives back to find Fuchsia's painting things spread over the ground and no sign of her. But she emerges a second later to tell him of her Flashback.
- Jay in Marble Hornets begins his investigation nearly three years after the events recorded in the tapes. Most of the cast has scattered or disappeared and several locations trashed by the time Jay looks for them.
- Averted at the same time though: As Jay starts going through the tapes, it becomes apparent that he had much more to do with the party than he remembered.
- Star Wars Resistance: In "The Core Problem", Kaz and Poe explore a desolate star system after the First Order has completely wrecked it (Star Killing, coring out all the planets, the massacre of an inhabited moon), but aren't able to find any clues about their motives for doing so before they have to leave.
- Teen Titans: In "Snowblind", by the time the Titans arrive, the village is already pretty thoroughly destroyed.
Cyborg: The signal we got must've been a distress call.
Starfire: We are too late.
Looks like you were late to the new edit party... Do you want some cake? I baked it. Those monsters don't want it.