I picked up Monster Hunter: World, which starts you in on fighting some low-level monsters that aren’t even proper “large” monsters, called Jagras. You next hunt a big version of them called a Great Jagras and the guy really gives you some trouble.
After going through several more monsters, each more challenging than the last, you’re asked to hunt a fire breathing T-rex called an Anjanath.
Your introduction to the Anjanath is a cutscene where it’s got a Great Jagras by the neck and is destroying the thing. Yeah, remember that monster that used to give you trouble? It’s nothing to this guy. And neither are you.
And of course while you’re struggling against this stupid dragon dinosaur, it runs into an area where it pisses off a wyvern called a Rathian and they start fighting and the Anjanath flees in terror before the Rathian. Guess what’s one of the next monsters you’re supposed to fight?
I imagine this escalation of, “AH! NOT THE SCARY MONSTER!” at no time ceases (it hasn’t yet), and I’ve heard that once you get through the game, it basically just continues on giving you even tougher versions of these monsters to fight. In other zones, I’ve encountered other similar situations, like fighting a monster near a sand pit, breaking down into a cave below, and watching as my prey fled in terror from the monster that lived in that cave. And then, of course, following suit before the scarier monster turned its attention to me.
Establishing a tough thing, and then having a tougher thing destroy that is a known trope (called The Worf Effect). And what I’m describing is related to but not quite the same as another trope, Make Way for the New Villains; continuing on along this immediate chain establishing further, tougher things is what my friend calls, “The food chain of badassery”. To be clear, this is pulling out The Worf Effect, but with several steps along the way. His example is a movie where there’s a bunch of Marines, who we all know to be tough and scary. They’re wiped out by some guy, who in turn finds his throat under the boot of another guy, who is obliterated by the villain of the film. If you don’t pull it off comically, then wham, instant establishment of power and fear.
As discussed on the TV Trope page, pulling off this instant command of fear can be ruined if the tough guy becomes a punching bag. Likewise, without the proper established respect for the lower rungs, the food chain is pretty meaningless. Just like my recounting my Monster Hunter experience here versus actually playing it, I’m sure – saying a Rathian is stronger than an Anjanath is stronger than a Great Jagras is great and all but what even is a Great Jagras anyway? I included a picture but so what? Probably explaining to you how nerve wracking facing off a Rathian is for me would be better accomplished if I regalled you with the tale of fighting it, what it was capable of, of how you have to cut off the stupid thing’s stupid poison barbed tail to make things less horrible, rather than just saying, “it scared off a fire-breathing T-rex that was also scary to fight”. That said, if I tried to explain how the Anjanath was horrifying to fight and you got the proper picture, and then said the Rathian was scarier than that, we start to properly invoke the food chain.
And the cool thing about Monster Hunter is you establish how tough all these monsters are and then you hunt them down and wear their hides. In the end, you are at the top of the food chain of badassery. And it feels pretty good.
But that’s the next part of what I think is a little hard about the food chain. Maintaining the proper order can be difficult; when you’ve already established what’s on top, what’s toughest, the middle parts that are also tough might start to suffer since they’re not the toughest, and then of course the whole thing collapses. It’s the same problem with just the Worf Effect – each time the Klingon is beaten up by someone else, you start to wonder if he was really that tough at all in the first place. Monster Hunter certainly does this fairly well – I can tear through a Great Jagras myself now, but if I assume that just because I can take down a Rathian, an Anjanath means nothing to me, I’ll find myself dumped at camp by my cat friends after the monster nommed my face and hubris off. For the most part, each new monster remains their own challenge, even if there’s a heirarchy that I surmounted.
Back again to more human characters – the other issue with invoking the food chain is follow-up. It’s great and all if your primary villain can be tougher than the guy who was tougher than the tough guy, but if they then fail to remain tough, that just means that the whole chain beneath him must be soggy paper weak after all. It’s not like your villain has to be tough all the time, but they have to remain capable of staying at the top of the chain.
A contrast of “This guy beat [scary person]?” to their actual skill can work out to amicable or comedic effect pretty well, and often does. But it’s a tough line to walk, so just take care that when you build a food chain of badassery, each link supports its position.