It has been a while since I’ve written a piece on storytelling in games, but last week’s 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.
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 make 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.
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.
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.
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.