Story in IF

Looking through my IF bookmarks/favorites, I found this fascinating discussion on Emily Short’s blog. I’m wondering … has anyone written the book she outlined? Or anything related thereto?

Although the blog entry refers to I7 and makes use of plenty of I7 examples, there’s nothing in it that couldn’t be adapted easily to other development systems.

As a companion book to a resource like this, I believe it could also be a good idea to put together a storytelling guide which introduces aspiring IF writers to the classic structure of monomyth, and how some of those key elements of storytelling could be translated into the world model of an IF adventure:

I haven’t played a lot of IF yet outside of the early Infocom games, but I would be curious to know if there’s any IF which closely follows the structure of mythic stories, as outlined in Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero With A Thousand Faces’?

Seems to me Campbell is simply describing the structure of plotted fiction. How and to what extent this structure can be applied to IF … we can debate about that. In my view, mythic tasks like slaying Medusa or stealing the golden fleece are not too different from puzzles. That is, the hero faces challenges. No challenges = boring story.

Oh, but there’s so much more wankery to it than that (ToaSK swipes at Campbell on a couple of occasions) … Campbell put a lot of work into hammering the square peg of world mythology into the round hole of his monomyth (that sounds dirtier than I meant it to, but on reflection, it should).

Tangentially, the late and groovy George Alec Effinger, when hired to write a Zork novel, took it as his chance to do a monomyth-based story, and did a very amusing one indeed … (and there, the swipe turns into a leg-humping, but you know … in that dignified way).

I’m only on the second chapter or so, but I think Aaron Reed’s book offers something very similar to this. Maybe a bit more “how to” and less “why”, though.

In one of my books on writing, I forget the name it was a long time ago, but the author talked about Campbell’s monomyth cycle in terms of a ‘Golden Paradigm’. Just as some artists will study the proportions of the Divine Ratio and Golden Mean, which tries to describe some principles of what makes a painting attractive and pleasing to the eye, this writing-craft book was an analysis of storytelling along the same lines. In all good storytelling, there are certain underlying themes which resonate deeply with us on a fundamental level, and Campbell made a good study of identifying those. When they all come together in a story, hitting all the right notes, it can be like a masterful symphony. How and to what extent this ‘golden paradigm’ can be applied to IF…well, I don’t know, I haven’t played or written enough for an in-depth analysis. But reviewing these principles has given me a lot of food for thought and ideas for constructing and plotting out the structure of my own IF adventure.

I think many examples of mythic storytelling lend themselves naturally to the format of an interactive game. The ‘slaying of Medusa’ challenge is a good example as a puzzle. But all too often I think games thrust the player directly into conflict and challenges, without any build up to allow the player become emotionally involved in the story or adventure. This is where I think some examples of mythic storytelling could be useful to bear in mind when you’re plotting out an adventure. Usually, in the beginning of a story, the protagonist is rather miserable and living under some unfortunate circumstances. The adventure can begin as an accident (he inherits a magic ring, or two droids crash land on his home planet), he can overhear a tale of buried treasure and go forth either of his own boldness - or reluctantly, because he needs the treasure to solve a greater problem facing him at home. But there should be some reason the adventurer picks up his brass lantern and sword of Elvish antiquity and heads down into the Great Underground Empire. There are a lot of ways a preamble like this could work inside the world model of IF.

In some stories the hero is reluctant to leave his hometown, and must be forced into taking drastic action. In IF, for example, a situation like this could be crafted to play out if the player becomes stumped at the beginning, or wanders around aimlessly for a specified number of turns – some event or action could be made to happen which forces the player to act, and moves the story along to its next phase. If the object for the player is to find a magic ring in the beginning, which sets up the story and adventure, but the player fails to discover it - then you could have a sagely NPC appear and give the magic ring to the player, and push him along on the adventure. Or the adventure could proceed as the result of a blunder, by failing to solve a puzzle in the game or act in time to prevent an event from happening. When it comes to creating your world model for IF, I think there are tons of ideas to be mined in studying the fundamentals of storytelling in this way.

Games that begin with aimless wandering for a set number of turns are a discredited idea, aren’t they? (Or perhaps I just don’t like them. Planetfall, I’m looking at you.) They’re just begging for a “z z z z z” opening.

Better (IMO): Start the game as a slice of life, putting the player in a reasonably interesting setting and giving him or her some moderately difficult tasks to complete. Then, either as a timed event or with a specific trigger, have the real story interrupt.

But there’s a reason the hero’s journey is largely rejected in modern literature. It’s been done to death, it doesn’t require much creativity (as far as the plot goes), and it’s completely predictable. Much of the literature of the 20th century has been an exploration of how, or if, it’s possible to tell a complete, satisfying story without just reskinning the same plot over and over.

Of course there will always be room for the hero’s journey in the literary canon. But I don’t see any reason to seek it out or purposefully attempt to adhere to it.

I’m no expert on modern literature, but I can’t imagine very much of it (outside of purely abstract, experimental fiction) would represent that much of a departure from the hero’s journey if it’s a coherent piece of writing based on human experience. Most all the themes you find in the hero’s journey describe or represent some aspect of life we all face at one time or another. Whether it’s setting off from home on some adventure into the unknown, winning over the heart of the love of your life, overcoming fear, being guided by a mentor, picking yourself up after a punishing defeat, or battling against an enemy. These are all things we go through in life, and they’re also central elements to good story-telling, and sources of ideas.

I agree in its most hackneyed form the hero’s journey is enough to commence eyeball rolling. But I would say let’s place the blame where it belongs, with the author who implemented it, rather than dismiss it out of hand entirely. If it’s handled with some skill and/or comes from personal experience it’s probably going to be transparent in fiction anyhow, at least to most people who don’t critically examine plot structure. But if it’s done ineptly then I agree it’s going to remind you of a badly formulaic story or movie.

There is no one true answer when it comes to story-telling, of course. I only referenced it as a source of ideas and inspiration to consider when building the story around an IF game.

Thinking it over a bit more, the core of what I’m trying to say is that, while useful from a lit crit perspective, I don’t think there is much, if any, utility to the author in studying and applying Campbell. If his base narrative indeed encompasses all coherent fiction, which I doubt, then all stories will naturally fall into it whether they’re trying to or not; if it doesn’t, then that calls into question why one should attempt to follow his pattern.

(One respect in which the hero’s journey is more applicable to IF than to other genres of writing is that IF is almost inevitably goal-oriented; it’s hard to draw out the player’s participation if he or she isn’t trying to accomplish something.)

I prefer to be a bit careful about the terms “literature” and “literary”. Assuming you mean by them what I would mean, you’re right: Starting with the experimental fiction of the 1920s (Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and so on), literature began to be conceived of as high art and therefore as divorced from the long and distinguished canon of storytelling. This was emphatically not the case in earlier centuries, although you could certainly make a case for Tristram Shandy as a precursor of the avant-garde.

While it’s true that the traditional plot skeleton is not invariably adhered to in modern literature, it’s also the case that modern literature doesn’t tend to sell very well, in part because it doesn’t push people’s emotional buttons very well. If you look at hit films, which rake in millions of dollars, you’ll find that the hero’s journey is very much alive. And large doses of creativity are required to make it fresh and viable, so the fact that the plot skeleton is familiar does not for a moment preclude creativity. Hit films are not literature, and neither are mystery novels, which also sell pretty well.

In sum, I’m not convinced that an argument on the basis of what works or fails to work in high-art-form literature is very relevant to what may work well in IF.

And there’s plenty of works post-Joyce that are literary literature (or at least are celebrated and analyzed and appear in Lit classes and on bookshelves in the Lit section and the review columns of famous magazines) that do fit some version of the hero’s journey, even if it requires a little more work to locate it.

I think it’s worth considering whether some structure could be helpful. Pacing is not one of the strengths that immediately pops to mind when I think of IF, and I strongly suspect much of my discomfort with the endings of many works has to do with the lack of journey; often our protagonist is mentally, emotionally, and often physically in the same place as in the beginning of the game.

I think it can be helpful for an author to consider how their story progresses; the hero’s journey is not the only metric possible, but it’s vaguely familiar to many of us, so it might be useful. Similarly, holding a dissatisfying game up to various sorts of things can help pinpoint one’s dissatisfaction and hopefully help fix the issue. It can also do nothing of the kind, but anything’s worth a shot.

It seems to me, whether you’re writing mythic fantasy, IF, or a modern day tale, at some point or another you have to start out or refer to some skeletal framework in plotting it out and examining the details, as inelegant as that sounds, it’s usually necessary to keep things straight for both yourself and your intended reader. Campbell didn’t make up an arbitrary set of rules or patterns authors must adhere to, all he did was identify common themes underlying stories which were already there, and which resonate with most people on a deep emotional level. I don’t know, but maybe there are some avant-garde writers out there whose literary masterpieces arise fully formed as pure abstract thought and inspiration, like Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus, but I haven’t met any yet. Most slog through umpteen drafts of 600 page manuscripts trying to get it right, sometimes over the course of many years, to ensure that the reader doesn’t lose interest. At some point or another, every writer needs some kind of direction or guide to keep their inspiration going, and work their way through a complicated story. You could do a lot worse than Campbell.

Many of the stories I remember all share common themes; basically, they’re about someone living in a very ordinary and boring world which we can all relate to in some way. Putting us there beside them at the beginning of the story gives us a chance to identify and sympathize with the character, which makes us care enough to invest the time to hang around for awhile. It gives us an opportunity to identify with this characters drives, motives, flaws, interests, quirks, and problems. Usually the characters inner and outer problems are established, and he’ll have to come to grips with these at some point later in the story in order to move forward in life. Then, shortly after we’ve gotten to know him, some disaster usually befalls him which disrupts his life in the ordinary world, representing some challenge or quest he must undertake, and forces him into action. Whatever it is, it throws the character’s life into turmoil, and establishes the stakes involved if he ignores the challenge or doesn’t take up the quest. A formulaic story pattern? Yes, perhaps, and maybe it’s too uncouth for serious avant-garde literature, but its all about very common life experiences which make a lot of people pay attention, because we want to see how the character works out their ordeal.

Good mythic stories are usually about someone who has to go through Hell to attain a little bit of peace and paradise for themselves - and who can’t relate to that?

Since I’m metaphorically-challenged, I strip the specifics from the Hero’s Journey to look at the protag’s (and reader’s, by proxy) emotions in each phase. Contentment/comfort/boring instead of “the home life”, which precedes confusion/anxiety instead of “the call to adventure”, etc. I find it’s easier for me to fit the pattern onto other stories that don’t really look like a fantasy quest on the surface of things. :confused:

You are adorable. Just sayin’.

Or we get bored and wonder why the action hasn’t started yet. In medias res is one of many obvious ways that stories deviate from this pattern.

But it’s a very specific story pattern. I don’t think think you have to get very avant garde at all to come up with a story that’s very different from it. Pretty much every single one of the plot points Campbell came up with could be replaced with its complete opposite and be just as compelling (what if the hero has to find the strength to eschew leadership, rather than rely on a mentor; what if a dour, single-minded hero has to loosen up a little and give in to temptation, instead of temptation being seen as inherently corrupting etc. etc.)

I agree totally, there’s a million ways to tell a story. But most stories are about a change of state or fortune in somebody’s life. The themes Campbell identifies in myths are all largely about adapting to change and growth as it relates to the human experience. And myths have always held an important role in society in showing us how to make that passage.

I’m not saying everyone who writes stories should go out and read Joseph Campbell. But if you examine the structure of most good stories you will find many of those themes embedded in them - intentionally or not.

And there are plenty of examples where authors have tried to rely on that model and failed utterly. But that’s the fault of the writer.

BTW, if anyone wants to see a pretty humiliating (but funny) example of how an attempt to tell a mythic story can go horribly wrong, you should check out Mr. Plinkett’s review of the Star Wars Prequels: … om-menace/

If you’re offended by profanity or off-color humor, or you believe the Star Wars Prequels are the greatest thing, though, I’d skip this one…

That’s fair, but when you only rely on the Hero’s Journey as a model for mythic structure, you really have just that one single yardstick with which to measure. Ghalev’s reference to a square peg in a round hole is apt. Yes, you can stretch the hallmarks of the monomyth and apply it to most stories, but I can’t really see what you’d gain by it in terms of structure and clarity. There’s a real risk of grinding down the uniqueness of your work so as to be able to say you’ve ticked all the Campbellian checkboxes.

I could agree that it’s the writer’s fault if a work of monomyth fails, but I’d say that’s because both success and failure largely rests on the writer.

Stoklasa makes a number of good points. Honestly, though, I dearly wish he’d condensed them to the required five minutes. There’s something to be said for precision and brevity.

True, but this is what my college writing professor would call a TBNI (True But Not Interesting). In order to make most stories fit into the Hero’s Journey, you have to dilute it down to something like “stuff happens to the protagonist,” which is far too vague to be used to analyze or plan your own story. But if you use a more complete version of the Hero’s Journey, then not only do most stories no longer fit (including entire genres, like tragedy and most romance), but there’s no longer any reason to make them fit.

For instance, I agree with Pacian completely about in medias res. I also think that the common idea that the hero should be an everyman so that people can relate to him is completely misguided. It’s insulting to the reader (as if you wouldn’t care about someone who wasn’t like you) and it leads to bland, nondescript heroes who get eclipsed by their supporting casts and who, because of their lack of distinguishing features, are actually harder to relate to, IMO. As a reader, especially when I was a kid, I always sought out the stories where the protagonist was a dragon or some such and was particularly irritated when the main character was a person from our world who gets brought into the world of the story, as if that’s the only way we would care about the story.

[rant]And it’s also part of why such a huge preponderance of main characters are straight, white, male, middle-class Americans (and why those who aren’t are virtually always only different in one respect). Leave those weird people in the supporting cast–audiences can’t relate to them.[/rant]

I’ll say again in medias res is not incompatible with the Hero’s Journey. All that really means is that the story has a back history to it, which most do.

Actually, many of the main characters in this kind of story categorically don’t fit into the societies that they’re brought up in. They’re the complete opposite of the so-called “everymen”, the square pegs who won’t fit into the round holes, the misfits, the outcasts. I never said the hero should be an everyman, and neither did Campbell as far as I know. I said he should be someone that the audience can relate to. So it all depends who your audience is.

And in answer to your rant, there’s an entire thriving world out there of literature and films across every race and culture represented on the planet. If you’re tired of the preponderance of straight, white American middle-class characters there’s certainly no lack of alternatives to choose from out there, especially in this day and age. But I’d be willing to bet that a lot of them would still conform to the shallow Hero’s Journey model.

Much of Campbell’s writings on the Hero’s Journey doesn’t come from European sources exclusively…the themes he writes about are found all over the spectrum of world mythology. I’d guess that the majority of it is probably derived from non-European mythology (Asian, Indian, Native American, Polynesian, African, ect.). Campbell was largely a mythic theorist, there’s nothing dogmatic about how you have to use it in writing, unless your imposing it on yourself.

I’ll stand by what I said before, it provides a useful lens for plotting out and analyzing different stories. If you disagree with it fine, but don’t go around suggesting its obsolete and no longer relevant to storytelling, because that’s just simply not true.

You didn’t address my first paragraph, which was the point of my post (the second is merely an example). I’ll reiterate:

In order to make the Hero’s Journey as applicable as you’ve previously claimed it was (you’ve said that it encompasses all stories except avant-garde literature), you need to make it so broad as to be essentially contentless, and consequently useless as a plotting or analytical tool.