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The Hero's World or the Worldly Hero
by Josh Bycer on 05/29/13 03:05:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Storytelling in most video games is hero focused to the point that it upsets the narrative and presents a common trope of storytelling that we can examine.

Reprinted from my site: Game-Wisdom


It has been a while since I've written a piece on storytelling in games, but an earlier post on timelessness got me thinking about one of the tropes I hate to see both in game storytelling and storytelling in general. When it comes to narrative, one of the most popular structures is "The Hero's Journey": a guideline for the general path of a main character in a story.

However while The Hero’s Journey is a reliable structure seen in countless tales, there is a habit for writers today to subvert this structure and make a weaker story in the process.

Xenoblade Chronicles

Narcissistic Storytelling:

When we define someone as the protagonist or even the antagonist: they are the hero of their own story and for the reader/viewer the protagonist is our viewpoint of the world.

Over the last decade we have seen a number of books aimed at teenagers made the jump to movies: Harry Potter, Twilight and many more. Most of them suffer from the same plot point: the world is built around the protagonist instead of the protagonist living in the world.

In games, this trope is also known as "the chosen one": where the player discovers that all along they were predestined to save the world, kill the bad guy and get the girl.

Common elements of this trope are: the world doesn't exist outside of the protagonist’s perspective, the protagonist is always the center of all the situations, and nothing can happen without the protagonist.

Xenoblade Chronicles
The Diablo lore was a good pull for gamers in previous titles, but was downplayed in favor of constant JSH moments.

Now with that said most of you reading this are probably thinking: “you just described almost every game ever made" and you're right.

One of the elements that make up a lot of games is the concept of the "power fantasy": where the player as the hero must be the strongest, smartest bad-ass and will save the day on their own as a sense of wish fulfillment to make the player feel like they're in charge.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having the main character as the focus of the story since we mention that the hero is our viewpoint of the world.  But there is a trick that I like to use to measure how poorly written a story is.

The JSH Rating:

JSH or “Just So Happens" is a common phrase we can say when describing how the plot of the game or story progresses through the hero's eyes when the chosen one trope goes badly. Basically the world and plot are designed completely around the main character and conforms to them instead of standing on their own. The more times you can say "JSH", the flimsier the plot of your game/story is.

Spoiler Warning, the following paragraph will spoil the plot of Diablo 3

For instance in Diablo 3: The main character just so happens to be a nephilim who just so happens to be destined to stand toe to toe against Diablo who just so happens to possess the first character you meet who just so happens to be Diablo's daughter. And the other main character just so happens to be the mother who just so happens to betray the player as she just so happens to be in cahoots with Diablo this whole time.

End of Spoiler

The more times the world and side characters conform to the hero the less the setting itself can stand on its own. This can also make the narrative feel very generic in the player's eyes as the story doesn't appear to be moving forward thanks to the player, but by predefined elements. It's common to have JSH moments to occur out of nowhere preventing any kind of build up or momentum in the storytelling.

An example of a strong world narrative would be middle earth from Lord of the Rings. The world itself is full of a number of species, heroes and villains. While the plot focused on the fellowship, the world around them was still going on. There was a real sense that the world had this "lived in" quality to it that we don't see in other stories. In Lord of the Rings case: the heroes were a part of the world, as opposed to the world being built for the heroes.

Obviously the concept of the power fantasy goes with having JSH moments in your narrative. But if you can create a meaningful purpose for the character to be in the story, that helps in making the character believable and fleshed out.

While the God of War series may not have a complicated back-story, the developers have done what they can to flesh out Kratos with his motivations and role in the story. There is no question as to why Kratos is where he is or what he is doing and the narrative progresses as Kratos completes his goals.

Because the power fantasy and JSH moments are so interconnected, it's no wonder that the games with the best storytelling these days usually comes from titles that move away from the power fantasy. The Walking Dead was a good example with how Telltale developed Lee over the course of the season.

The story focused on Lee and Clementine, they were forced to adapt to the world around them and the situation they were in. It never felt like Lee was completely in charge of the situation and that helped add a sense of desperation to his actions as he tried to go on living.

Xenoblade Chronicles
God of War is all about living through a power fantasy, but the designers did a good job of developing what little plot there is to the fact that you are running around killing everyone.

One exception to the JSH rule is the classic situation of the protagonist being “in the wrong place at the wrong time" as we've seen in movies like Die Hard.

Generally having a few JSH moments does not condemn your story and they can do a lot to raise the tension or alter the narrative such as: "Luke I am your father."

Having a character who is a one man army also doesn't automatically make the narrative a JSH moment, as the story is based on the viewpoint of the character. However if it turns out that everything happening in the narrative was pre ordained (or the chosen one trope again) and not by the player's involvement, that's another matter.

An exception to the "chosen one" trope, there are cases where the designer uses it as the starting point for a story and then develops the world from there. Xenoblade Chronicles’s basic narrative was all about the chosen one who must end the plot's big war. But from there the designers did a great job of fleshing out the mythos and species of the world and the chosen one trope actually plays a big part in one of the major points of the story.

If the entire narrative hinges on moving from one JSH moment to another, your storytelling is going to suffer because of it. World building in a narrative is one of the hardest elements to get right, as both the writer or game designer are normally focused on the protagonist of the story. A sign of a talented writer is someone who can not only create an engaging character, but the world that they exist in.

The ultimate goal is to have a world that is developed enough that it could stand by itself and work with an entirely different character as the protagonist and that is something that we rarely see regardless of the medium. But pulling it off can turn a great property, into an amazing one.


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Comments


Robert Marney
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As usual, From Software cannily subverts this one in Dark Souls. The very first NPC you meet gives you a standard chosen-one quest, then the second one says, "Let me guess. Fate of the Undead, right? Well, you're not the first." The rest of the game follows through on this impression: "Chosen One" is just what they say to make you feel important, when really the world is going on without you.

Daniel Accardi
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Hey Josh,

Great article. It's one of those things I tussled with a lot myself, wondering if there might be better ways of doing things - for example, using procedural generation of content, and more naturalistic systems, to give the better impression of a world versus just a game space. I've always wanted a game where I tootled around doing sidequests, went back to the main quest, and was told, "You...you missed the battle. A bunch of people died while you were collecting feathers or whatever." While it may not be on that order of magnitude, I do think we might want to look to the Witcher 3 to see how a game can make this work when it's an explicit design goal from the beginning.

Also, we might be remiss to discuss the Hero's Journey and game narrative without making mention of Morrowind, which was also quite canny (good word, Robert!) in its treatment of the subject. You were the Chosen One - maybe - sort of? It turned out that you did Just So Happen to fulfill one or two of seven necessary prophecies, so the Emperor guided you through the other seven just to see if you could be the Chosen One, after all. It was a great commentary on games, stories, and the narcissism inherent in both.

Again, nice article!
--Dan

Josh Bycer
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Those are both good examples.

In keeping with this kind of narrative, MMO lore is arguably one of the hardest areas in terms of good world design due to the chosen one trope. As either the game paints you and the millions of other players as the chosen one. Or you're playing a game where everyone is just the gopher for the real heroes.

The only exceptions that I've heard of would be EVE Online, where it's essentially everyone living in the same Universe. I also heard good thing about Guild Wars 2 storytelling, but I haven't played the game yet.

" I've always wanted a game where I tootled around doing sidequests, went back to the main quest, and was told, "You...you missed the battle. A bunch of people died while you were collecting feathers or whatever." "

If you haven't checked them out yet Daniel, I would suggest looking at Din's Curse and Drox Operative from Soldak Entertainment: http://www.soldak.com/

Both are ARPGs that have quests that occur in real time. And if you take too long, the situation can become worse and affect things down the line.

Racquel Amie
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"while The Hero’s Journey is a reliable structure seen in countless tales, there is a habit for writers today to subvert this structure and make a weaker story in the process."

I completely agree with that. Just look at all these great stories http://www.youtube.com/clickokdotcodotuk , all built around and influenced by hero's journey.


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