Tagged in: narrative

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:

algorithm

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.