Review: Morphology of the Folktale by Vladimir Propp

Book: Morphology of the Folktale
Author: Vladimir Propp, Russian academic on folklore
Year: 1928 original, first print in English in 1958. My edition was from 2003.

Summary: This is not a book about games, but rather a systems-focused approach to dissecting folktales. Dense but delicious substance for deep systems designers who love narrative, but if that doesn’t describe you then do yourself a favor and skip this reading.

Morphology of Folktales Book CoverI picked up Morphology of the Folktale after seeing it mentioned in the book Quests by Jeff Howard as a very methodical approach to breaking down narratives into functional parts. I had a few fellow designers who are comfortable with more academic work recommend it to me as well.

The book is pretty short, just 117 pages plus a very useful reference table at the end. However, it’s translated from Russian, originally written in 1928, and was definitely written for an audience of fellow academics of folklore and literature. All those elements combine to create a fairly dense read with a rigorous, academic, dry, analytical tone. However, I found it easy to follow along and the academic references didn’t hinder comprehension (you don’t need to know the references in order to understand the topic).

Morphology of the Folktale is the author’s attempt to decompose fairy tales into their most basic components – a series of functions strung together in a particular predetermined order. While some tales may skip certain functions, the order (almost) always remains the same. A function for Propp is an event or verb – “an absence takes place” or “a warning is given”. Who gives that warning and who receives it doesn’t matter to Propp in this breakdown – the villain could be a dragon or a witch, the hero a peasant or a bird. It’s the action that determines the tale.

Each of these functions are given a specific annotation until a tale can be written like so:


Borrowed from Hypocrite Reader

A notation like β refers to a function – in this case it means an absence takes place. β² refers specifically to the death of parents, a variation on the absence that is common in tales, while β³ refers to the variant in which younger members of a family or household absent themselves (by going out). Each letter and number then has its own significance and allows us to read the ‘form’ of the tale without the details.

At the start of the book, Propp outlines why he feels the need to break fairy tales into components: all the current classification structures are inadequate, arbitrary, or overlap. They rely on themes or motifs but fail to define them thoroughly. The author claims we need to understand these tales at this abstract, formal, grammar level if we wish to start comparing tales across cultures. This should all sound familiar to game designers, as we wrestle with inconsistent terminology and difficulty classifying games by outdated genre definitions.

I really liked this book, but I liked it for its dry, formal analysis of literature that others may find lacking. Algorithmic approaches to storytelling and breaking down a tale into a specific formula fascinates me and horrifies many others. If you find yourself in the second camp I recommend skipping this book. If the mathematically annotation I quoted earlier doesn’t scare you off and you find the rest of the subject interesting, I highly recommend it. However, having a good understanding of the Hero’s Journey would be helpful as there’s a lot of crossover between the two books. For fun, I recommend checking out this PhD thesis that maps Propp’s morphology to the Harry Potter series.

I definitely think it’s worth reading if you are a systems designer with narrative tendencies, or interested in systems design and how that relates to story structure. If anything, it’s refreshing to see a highly formal structure emerge from an art (fairy tales) we’re all very familiar with.

Review: Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives by Jeff Howard

Book: Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives
Author: Jeff Howard, academic and professor of game design
Year: 2008

Summary: Not recommended, unless you’re looking specifically for a lesson plan centered around classic Western quest narratives. Even then I think the book is unfortunately outdated.

Quests Book CoverIt’s not much of a secret that my favorite subject is the intersection between game design and narrative design, and back in the day I studied medieval literature, so I was definitely looking forward to reading Quests. On the surface it purports to be a text for game designers looking to add more meaning to their quest design, for academics to better understand how quests translate to games, and for students to practice design lessons. Unfortunately, I felt it failed at all three.

The book is printed large like a textbook, but only clocks in at 230 pages. The structure starts off with an introduction to the topic and several chapters covering the main elements that make up a quest: spaces, challenges, objects, and characters. Each chapter is further divided in half between theory – the underlying concepts from both game design and literary studies – and practice – which takes the form of very specific technical tutorials for implementing that portion of the quest in the Aurora engine from Neverwinter Nights.

Generally I think the book’s structure is solid and the division between theory and practice allowed me to skim the technical aspects, which I didn’t need, and focus on the theoretical ones. While the Aurora engine is old now and there’s better game development tools available to students for prototyping quests, I thought the lesson plan was fairly solid as a first game design project. However, it falls a bit short of challenging students to create meaningful quest content (it’s intended purpose) – instead I’d say it’s more of a technical introduction to building a quest with a checklist of game design elements.

From the theory half of the book, Quests‘s main thesis appears to be that quests are a structure in literature and an activity in games, and that we can learn from a cross-pollination of literary and game studies to make more meaningful quests in our games. The author backs this up fairly solidly with a dissection of the quest archetype in Gawain the Green Knight (among others) and comparing its structure to common quests in games such as Ultima and World of Warcraft. A quest involves goals, the collection of certain magical items, NPCs that represent quest givers, monsters or tasks that provide challenge, and a healthy dose of symbolism.

Unfortunately I felt the book was a failure. Its lessons on game design were very basic, more appropriate for a student audience than practicing designers. His explanations of quests in a literary sense did not provide much practical insight.

I believe the biggest flaw with Quests is that the book was untimely. A large portion of the introduction is devoted to defending against a ludology vs. narratology debate in academia, which in 2016 feels like beating a dead horse. The academic nature of the book leads to a lot of quotes and references to other academics, pitting their words against one another (particularly in the introduction) without much-needed context. I felt like much of the theory portions of Quests was spent arguing in defense of its thesis from a hypothetical reader than actually

(As an aside: the ludology versus narratology debate essentially boiled down to whether we can and should study games for their unique game-like properties (ludology) or use tools of analysis from other media, primarily film and literature (narratology).)

Austin Walker wrote a very good review of the book for First Person Scholar – I highly recommend it as he goes deeper into why the book feels so outdated compared to the modern landscape of meaningful game narratives.

From a game design standpoint, there was really nothing new I could take away. The author’s definition of quests narrowed down the possible content to a focus on a handful of medieval fantasy role-playing games with western cultural traditions – like Ultima – excluding Japanese role-playing games with obvious quest narratives or games from other genres (Call of Duty is certainly structured like a quest). The author is also quick to dismiss Diablo and other action-oriented RPGs from this limited view, giving readers even less opportunity to apply any insights widely.

I can’t really recommend the book for anyone – not academics, game designers, nor students. I think the topic – quest design – is still really relevant to game designers, but probably needs to be written from a much more practical point of view, and one that incorporates the wider palette of games that involve quest narratives.


Last week Emily Short hosted a pseudo game jam called #BringOutYourDead to encourage developers to share unfinished and abandoned work, and talk about what happened. This gave me a great chance to look back at the games I’ve worked on and. with hindsight, ask myself what went wrong. It ended up being a really good design exercise.

Most of my abandoned work exists in the form of text – when I get an interesting idea, I explore it in writing with mini custom game design documents. I’ve decided to skip those (since there’s so many) and go straight to the games where I’ve done some form of development. Some of these only exist as images and not in any playable form.

This is a long post. Below is a list of the games (in order of completeness) if you want to skip around.

  • Hero Adventure Quest RPG – tongue-in-check text role-playing game, unfinished but playable
  • Flesh Totem – text-based adventure game, horror themed, eventually cannibalized into other games
  • I Have No Quests Left To Give – play as a quest-giver in an MMO
  • Scratch-Off Simulator – the most unexciting lottery game ever
  • Historical Hangman – the most depressing hangman game you’ve ever not played
  • InfiniClicker – the most unexciting clicker game in existence
  • It Wore My Mother’s Face – a horror game-poetry experiment canceled because it’s too depressing
  • Tower of Babel – Unreal level design exploration of what a Tower of Babel game could look like

Continue reading…

Review: The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

Book: The Design of Everyday Things
Author: Don Norman
Year: 1988. There’s a revised and expanded edition for 2013 that I recommend over the original if you have access to it, but this review is for the original text.

Design of Everyday Things Cover

Summary: A must read for anyone who designs things – whether they are objects or games – for people to use. Very readable and no prior experience necessary.

It almost feels silly to review The Design of Everyday Things considering its reputation. I think most game developers that are somewhat serious about reading about their craft already have a copy. It’s certainly the one book that I find game designers recommend the most when asking about a book to read – despite not being about game design.

The Design of Everyday Things is a foundational text on usability and user centered design. It looks at everyday objects – telephones, doors, watches, radios, cars, teapots, remotes – and presents examples of good and poor design. The author delivers important lessons on how to design with users in mind to make their experience of using that object smooth by contrasting them with pages and pages of anecdotes of objects that frustrate and confuse its users. If you get nothing else from the book, you will at least gain a sense of horror about how poorly the world around us is designed.

If you’ve ever fumbled with a door, pushing when you should have pulled or vice versa, or pushing on the hinge instead of where the door swings, or pushing when you were supposed to slide it… then you will find the anecdotes in the book cathartic to read. And while the anecdotes are the easiest thing to recall, each are paired with concepts from usability: affordance, constraints, memory, feedback (a concept all gamedevs should be familiar with!), and so on.

There’s two sections of the book I want to call out as being particularly informative for me. The first is the stress on human error as an inevitable thing, as all humans will eventually error no matter how well a system is designed or how much experience they have with it. A designer’s role, then, should be to design controls to eliminate error as much as possible (for example, a water tap that you could never turn hot enough to scald yourself). When that’s not possible, you should design it so the error is reversible or limits damage as much as possible (for example, the recycling bin application on your computer, or autosave features). Of course, applying this to games, think about elements where it’s easy for players to make mistakes, like at an RPG vendor, and methods games have implemented to limit user error, such as the ability to buyback items you recently sold in WoW. Norman points out that in these situations just a confirmation prompt alone is not enough to prevent human error: if the error is still possible, you should design safeguards for that event.

The other section I found particularly enlightening focused on human memory. The author splits up memory between memory in the head (our minds), memory in the world (cues, post-its, event calendars, reminders, instructions), and memory associated with cultural standards (how to drive a car doesn’t change much between cars, so you only need to learn it once). There are flaws with relying on any given type of memory for users of your design, so the author advocates whenever possible to design so that those users do not need to use their memory – the design is intuitive as is. Recall switching between different games and trying to remember what controls go with what move. Luckily, there are standards that most games follow – left analog stick controls camera, right stick controls movement. But I’m sure most people remember playing a game where the controls seemed to break the rules and you had a lot of trouble not throwing a grenade at your feet (*cough* Call of Duty *cough*).

A lot of the content in this book crosses over into other books I’ve read regarding design. A whole section on how the brain works, with a focus on patterns, may remind you of Koster’s similar emphasis on patterns in A Theory of Fun for Game Design. I’d say a good portion of the principles in Universal Principles of Design are cribbed from this book – constraints, accessibility, chunking, affordance, and so on. Since this is such an important book, you’re likely familiar with some of its concepts already.

There’s two editions of the book out. I read the copy from 1988 and found it was fine, but if you were born in the 90s or later (and don’t remember what it was like to reprogram a VCR or use call-waiting system or a mechanical projector) I recommend picking up the newer one. It replaces a lot of the examples with more contemporary ones and I hear it’s still worth rereading if you’re only experience is with the original.

In case it’s not clear yet, I highly recommend the book for everyone. Its lessons are timeless, even if it’s examples aren’t. It’s written in an easy, approachable manner that makes it suitable for anyone interested in the topic, whether they are experts or hobbyists or students.

Review: The State of Play ed. by Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson

Book: The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Videogame Culture
Author: This is an essay collection edited by Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson, with a variety of authors.
Year: 2015

Summary: An anthology of essays about games culture, all of them somewhat autobiographical. They range from incredibly personal experiences to more academic critiques.

State_of_PlayTo get it out of the way, the full list of authors are: Ian Bogost, Leigh Alexander, Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Katherine Cross, Ian Shanahan, Anna Anthropy, Evan Narcisse, Hussein Ibrahim, Cara Ellison, Brendan Keogh, Dan Golding, David Johnston, William Knoblauch, Merritt Kopas, and Ola Wikander. Normally I like to identify authors by their occupation/relationship to games – many of these authors take on role of games critic, games developer, or both. All of them have careers in and around the game industry and many of them have a long history of writing about games.

The State of Play is not a book on game design or the development of games. Instead, the book aims to look at the state of videogame culture that exists in and all around the games we make, play, and critique with a series of autobiographical essays. Prior to this, I’ve read essays by about half of the listed authors before and generally liked what they had to say, so I was looking forward to this collection. I read this book slowly – about an essay a week – but it’s very short and could easily be finished in a couple nights.

I received The State of Play direct from the publisher before it was released, so I have an ‘uncorrected proof’ version with a different cover, but as far as I can tell none of the content is different from the consumer copy.

The individual essays range from “pretty good” to “outstanding”, and I’ll be commenting a bit on each one further down in this review. The collection as a whole, though, felt a bit misdirected. The first time I attempted to read it, I felt a mismatch between what I thought the book was about – analyzing the culture surrounding games – and what it really was about – authors sharing their personal relationship and interaction with games culture, like a series of snapshots in the lives of people involved in the game industry. Taking into account that many of these essays are personal in nature, each one follows a very different format – some more like a critical essay, others more biographical, others more like personal testimonials. Some lean more on the poetic, while others take a more pragmatic writing style.

However, taken as a whole many of the essays don’t feel like they fit in well with the group. Essays on personal interactions with racism or sexism in games, including the Gamergate movement, fit well together in a shared theme where authors expressed their joy and fascination with games in spite of the barriers they encounter within the often toxic mainstream gaming culture. But some of the other essays – on the viral phenomenon of Flappy Bird, for example – don’t fit in with the rest, taking on a more clinical and academic approach to their subject. Mind you, I consider those other essays excellent – my criticism is just that they don’t seem to match the more personal essays in a collected, coherent anthology.

All that said I’d say my review of The State of Play is mostly positive. If you already read a ton about games culture and have read a lot by these authors, then (like me) a lot of the content may feel redundant or preaching to the choir, without much new to chew on. Those few nuggets of wisdom and insight, though, are worth combing through the book for. Some of these essays are available in other publications so if one interests you I recommend seeing if you can find it free before deciding whether to pick up a copy of the book. It’s nice as something to read, but there’s no one I’d explicitly recommend it to. It definitely requires a high level of literacy in games in order to follow along for most of the essays, so it’d be appropriate for regular gamers and game developers but not for those with a passing interest in the medium.

Like Shooter, the other games criticism anthology I reviewed, I decided to do each essay justice by talking a little about it separately. Hopefully this also helps others decide whether they’d like to pick up a copy or look up a specific essay to read.

Advent by Leigh Alexander

This is an excerpt from Alexander’s book that covers her early experiences as a 6-7 year old, written in the style of a memoir. She recounts the computer as a riddle, a mystery for her to solve with great stubbornness. This is not one of Alexander’s best essays but it’s a particularly good one to start off the anthology with.

Bow, Nigger by Ian Shanahan

Shanahan’s essay is written as an action-packed play-by-play of a multiplayer encounter he had in Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. It hinges around the racist callout from another player, but the author unpacks the single statement into several layers: the game’s rules, the use of a slur to denote power imbalances, the strong player-enforced etiquette within the game.

Love, Twine, and the End of the World by Anna Anthropy

Anthropy writes this semi-autobiographical essay as a choose-your-own-adventure, telling you which section to turn to depending on what you want to know next. It flirts with several topics in a small space: her personal relationship with games, a tutorial for Twine, options for making money via gumroad and patreon, the development story behind Queers at the End of Time (note: I highly recommend this game). The deliberately meandering essay only works thanks to the choice-based structure.

The Natural: The Parameters of Afro by Evan Narcisse

This is the best essay I’ve ever read on the absence of blackness in games. Many of the topics were familiar, but Narcisse explores them all and with surprising depth and poignancy for such a short essay. Throughout he uses the titular example – that his most basic neutral black haircut does not exist in games – to explore what it means to lack representations of black culture in video games. I highly recommend this essay.

What It’s like to Always Play the Bad Guy: On Portrayal of Arabs in Online Shooters by Hussein Ibrahim

The author describes what it’s like to be a games critic in the Middle East where the most popular games – first-person shooters like Call of Duty – often feature nonsensical and highly offensive Arab representations. These caricatures bear nothing in resemblance to the people and places these players know personally. The author notes that players seem to have just given up without a fight for better representation, not realizing the power they have to enact change.

A Game I Had to Make by Zoe Quinn

This essay jumps to different snapshots in time before, during, and after the release of the author’s game, Depression Quest. It’s poignant and poetic and really drives home both how personal the game was as well as the harassment that followed it. The tense – written in the second person “you” – to help readers step directly into the author’s shoes rather than treat her as a character/celebrity in a famous story. Quinn’s an excellent writer and I highly recommend the other articles, often similarly personal in nature, she’s written on her blog or in other publications.

Your Humanity is in Another Castle: Terror Dreams and the Harassment of Women by Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross

Sarkeesian and Cross follow the topic of harassment in games but specifically from a feminist point of view. Cross recounts how she navigated World of Warcraft as a female player, while Sarkeesian describes the unending flow of garbage she receives in the form of harassment for the crime of critiquing games. Together, they propose these, and other, experiences aren’t all that different from one another and explore what it is about games culture that drives these toxic actions. (As an aside, Cross’s critical work on games is excellent and I highly recommend her Gamasutra articles).

The End of Gamers by Dan Golding

Golding explores the identity of “gamer” and why so many gamers took up the Gamergate banner in reaction to what they perceived as an attack on their identities. The author explores their own personal discomfort, even as a teen, with being labeled a gamer, and uses that to launch into how games themselves changed but the identity of “gamer” never evolved to keep up.

The Joy of Virtual Violence by Cara Ellison & Brendan Keogh

Written as a series of letters back and forth between the authors, this essay explores why violence is so ubiquitous in games and why it feels so, so good to partake in it. It’s a somewhat literary essay (they talk about Paradise Lost of all things) and flirts with all kinds of little ideas, concerns, and ethical implications of how violence is used in our games.

The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird by Ian Bogost

An excellent – albeit rather hyperbolic – exploration of Flappy Bird as a viral success. Bogost claims that games are objects you operate, that they are broken machines meant to frustrate you in ways no other media does. The author attributes Flappy Bird’s success to its earnestness in how awful the experience of games really is.

The Making of Dust: Architecture and the Art of Level Design by David Johnston

This is the one essay in the entire anthology that I think every level designer should read. Johnston talks about his early experiences making levels in Wolfenstein and Doom before creating the famous Dust and Dust 2 maps for CounterStrike. He discusses his approach to level design, but also compares it to the trends in level design at the time when these tools were new and experimental.

Game Over?: A Cold War Kid Reflects On Apocalyptic Video Games by William Knoblauch

The author is a professor who teaches on the Cold War and reflects on how games have changed the way they treat nuclear warfare, and have moved into different types of apocalyptic scenarios. Knoblauch points out that the new generation of gamers have lost touch with the harsh reality of nuclear warfare and that games have an opportunity to impress upon them this seriousness.

Ludus Interruptus: Video Games and Sexuality by Merrit Kopas

Kopas talks about the poor portrayal of sex – and the lack or avoidance of sex – in mainstream video games as compared to violence. She describes how that influenced her to create positive, playful games about sex and uses this essay to direct the reader toward other experimental games in this sphere, and where games may progress toward in the future. Keep in mind that the essay deliberately avoids Japanese games, and instead talks specifically about Western culture.

The God in the Machine: Occultism, Demiurgic Theology, and Gnostic Self-Knowledge in Japanese Video Games by Ola Wikander

Wikander is an Old Testament academic that talks about cultural trends in his youth, the 90s, that focused on gnosticism, occultism, conspiracy theories, and how they were reflected in various Japanese games at the time. This is a fairly academic essay that explores some philosophical elements – including the relationship between “creator” and “created” – in several games. While I liked it, this is a good example of an essay that’s much too short to give full credit to the topic. (Contains major spoilers for Final Fantasy X and Deadly Premonition).

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