Missed opportunities

One of the little tragedies in life is to see great potential wasted: something started well and finished poorly; a good idea implemented badly; a missed opportunity to do something important. But great tragedies are interesting. They draw the eye and hold attention. In culture, this fascination often manifests as car-crash critical reviews and carpet bombing Metacritic.

Mass Effect 3 ending
The ending of Mass Effect 3 was widely regarded as a missed opportunity to reward player choice and change gaming forever

This isn’t a case of being fascinated with products and experiences that are simply bad and never held any glimmer of promise. I’m not talking about the Twitter storm over Sharknado. No, the truly fascinating cases – and the ones that draw the most visceral responses – are the ones where something could have been good, should have been good, but for whatever reason fell short of expectations. I’m talking about things like the almost pointless Matrix sequels, or the ending to Mass Effect 3, or watching The Dark Knight Rises for the second time, after the euphoria has worn off. I’m talking about those moments when people realize that what they’ve got isn’t as good as what they’d been led (or even hyped) to expect.

A missed opportunity is frequently the difference between our imaginations and reality. We imagine a perfect ending to the story we are immersed in. We imagine a game developer or a film crew working tirelessly and in harmony together. We imagine a world where the best artistic choices are always made, without compromise. And then we smash headlong into reality and our imaginations remind us (with perfect 20/20 hindsight) that we could have thought of something better.

The deflationary letdown we feel when we are disappointed with a promising cultural product is frequently a tragedy for the production teams (who might suffer cut bonuses or staff layoffs) but it’s also a tragedy in the conceptual space. It is a tragedy because this occurs at moments when the world is on the cusp of receiving a great idea shown to us in explicit detail, an idea that has the potential to change us, and instead we receive something devoid of significant meaning and we are left unaffected. Our minds feel confused and our hearts feel betrayed.

But the silver lining, if there is one, is that a sense of missed opportunity demonstrates the power of ideas and of our imaginations. It shows that we are always hungry for something more, that we want to be affected emotionally and intellectually, that we constantly strive for higher standards. And it is the sense of missed opportunity today that can inspire a new generation of film makers, game designers, musicians and more, with a desire to fulfil the promise of the grand new ideas that they have seen squashed and killed prematurely.

So here’s to all the missed opportunities. You are fascinating, in your causes and your effects. You are emotionally gripping. You are an artistic tragedy. And for every missed oppotunity today, there is a new chance to succeed tomorrow.

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