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An Anthropologic-Historian View on Videogame Stories

An important aspect of Videogame stories that everyone kind of missed...the Cyclic nature of Videogame Stories and why that nature is more universal then all others.

Tim Tavernier, Blogger

March 5, 2010

11 Min Read

Prior Terms

I will be simplifying some definitions and concepts without hurting their basic premise. First up is Anthropology. This is the science that tries to define "human culture" to its fundamental building blocks (bad news: they haven't found them yet). They do this by spending years observing "untouched" civilizations in "deserted" contexts (tribes in the Amazons or small islands). One interesting concept they did found out is that their is a certain cyclic experience that everyone shares around the world.

This cyclic experience consists that we consider everything happening in reoccurring cycles. This offcourse has a very simple reason, we're surrounded by reoccurring cycles. The day-night cycle, the cycle of seasons, life and death and so forth. Culturally speaking, this cyclic experience has been subdued in recent centuries because of the discovery that Time is linear. Nonetheless, this cyclic experience is crucial to understand many pieces of literature from centuries past, certainly before the year 1500.

A very important story-telling cycle is of course that of the hero that saves the world from a certain evil. The Ancient Greek Epics are full cyclic stories: Odysseus defied Poseidon, got punished, repented and was allowed to go back home where he was allowed to restore order, this is even more articulated with his various attempts to circumvent Poseidon that all failed because of again, human fault, the very cause of Odysseus' punishment (he faulted himself to think to be the sole reason why Troy fell). Yes, the story is also a huge mirror set against human nature, but that doesn't disapprove anything. The cyclic experience was then a big part of that human nature. Shakespeare was a very creative proponent of this cyclic story-telling where he created emotional tension by letting the hero's fail and thus, breaking the cycle. Narratologists have sometimes trouble with analyzing Shakespeare just because they don't apply a cyclic story telling structure to it.

Historians are one of the few Human scientists who actually are aware and use this cyclic experience. From Ibn Khaldoun (15th century islamic intellectual) to Toynbee, Spengler and others who have come with cyclic theories to explain the rise and falls of human civilizations. Or even using the cycli of solar spots to determine when harsh winters will occur (seemingly this cycle is 11 years long). Medieval Historians are almost obliged to have the cyclic experience be "natural". For the Catholical church (and such a large part of medieval society) it didn't matter what year it was but what day of the year, an endless series of cycles of praising the lord on the right day with the right manners.

The cyclic experience is now much more subdued but still present. We still love the cyclic classics. We wake up, have breakfast, wash up, go to work, and so forth in a repetitive loop.

In essence, the cyclic experience is actually one of comfort and familiarity: the hero saves the day and gets the girl, children grow up, you wake up the next morning. Toying with this cycle can create some fantastic tension in stories as some video games will show. Not abiding to this cycle can create some very awkward results.

Also: Spoilers alert! I will be using story elements from a wide variety of games, so you are warned.

Cyclic Stories in Videogames

A lot of you probably have already figured out that A LOT of videogames use this cyclic experience to tell their story. Especially the "hero saves the world" one is very popular. But just using this cyclic experience is not enough. Understanding that the cyclic experience is part of human nature is crucial as well. The Classics among Videogames are the classics because they reflect a lot of human nature in their structure, the cyclic experience being the most used. Super Mario is about restoring order by saving the princess while being drenched in a Wonderland of weed-induced Japanese weirdness. The Legend of Zelda is again about the hero restoring the cycle of Hyrule, but also reflects Miyamoto's adventurous childhood experiences. Halo is about saving humanity against religious zealots. The rebellion of the Elites is actually also part of this cyclic feeling and is in a sense the reverse of what Ibn Khaldoun described. 

Ibn Khaldoun believed that urban environments corrupted the purity of the Islam and that a new wave of nomads (the true origins of the Islam) is needed to push aside the corrupted rulers and purify the belief again. Ibn Khaldoun wrote Islamic history down in this cyclic manner and thus became one of the first proto-historians of the modern world (side note: his belief of a pure Islam is not a extremist one, today's Islamic extremists he would define as the corrupted ones)

With the Elites it was the exact opposite. They were cast aside by the Brutes because the latter were more religious "pure" and also felt uneasy at the decision to not incorporate the humans into the Covenant as was done with other races (the expected cycle). knowing something was up, the Elites allied with Master Chief to restore order (restoring the cycle that was considered broken by them). This "treason" is of course a reflection of human "chivalry" where medieval knights could disagree with orders if it was against their ideals (this is offcourse the ideal, in reality they were a minority).

Final Fantasy 6 uses a very interesting way to play with this cyclic experience. A repeat of the dreaded cycle of war and violence is already hinted at the start but surprisingly this cycle didn't really happen. The pivotal scene with the three statues of magic, the emperor and Kefka happens. The emperor, the heavily hinted perpetrator of the fore-told dreaded cycle from the beginning actually doesn't upset the cycle, it is Kefka moving the statues. What happens next is very interesting. Your party of hero's fails and the world literally shatters. This is also what Shakespeare uses sometimes, the old cycle being broken and a new "evil" cycle starts because of the hero failing or not overcoming his own human faults.

Tales of Symphonia uses another interesting use of cycles. The starting cycle is way before the game starts and actually has the Original Hero falling for his faults, disrupting the cycle and creating a "evil" cycle, creating the two worlds with shifting mana-balance to revive his loved one. You, as hero Lloyd, first are charged to uphold this "evil" cycle, but in the end, breaks it and restores the Orginal cycle. The effect of this, on me at least, was overwhelming. While already invested 45+ hours in the game, the ending had me going "Yeah, I want to explore this new world!! Bring it!" The most interesting role in this game was that of Kratos. As part of the Orginal Heroes he faltered, was Lloyd then a kind of way of passing legacy/responsibility to restore or uphold on of the cycles? If it was, it would have been a wonderfull reflection of human nature.

More recent is Dragon Age: Origins that again uses a great way of using cycles. From the start you are submerged in background story of reoccurring Blights because of "Hubris of Man" and the Deity of service leaving mankind. Someone at Bioware must have been reading his/her Greek mythology. The Blight in Dragon Age: Origins on the other hand is a very special one. It ends very early and depending on your choices, even ends without a Grey Warden sacrificing himself/herself. So yeah, cycle restored...but something is funky (the expansion pack even hints at it). Not to mention the cycles you can end or start in the game. Do you kill Flemeth and with her a possible Ancient part of the world itself? Do you give the Dwarven elite their oligarchy or their Jules Ceasar? Bioware does sell these as "moral" choices but really they are far more reaching then that to such a point that "morale" doesn't play a part anymore. The game gives the player effectual Universe-altering interactive powers. yes, yes, the story is well-written and the characters are memorable, but all that is icing on the actual delicious well-constructed cyclic cake. Only one big glaring fault...if they needed archdemon blood to make Grey Wardens...how were the first ones then created? Cyclic speaking, it would be a big thing if one of the orginal tainted mages actually sacrificed himself to help make the Grey Wardens as an act of seeking redemption (seeking to restore the cycle).

A recent game that really did a bad job of using cyclic thinking: Mass Effect 2. The ending...very disappointing. Sure some trilogies of movies and books use somewhat awkward endings, but at least they try to coherently end each part with an cycle ending. However, the game does have situations where you can decide to disrupt or restore certain cycles, question offcourse...will Bioware pick up on them? Seeing that the consequences from part 1 to part 2 are very minimal at best I'll probalby won't count on it. The fault of this? Because these decisions are "narrative"-driven and not Story-driven. They are narrative driven because they're all about "moral choice" and "deepening the characters" and other posh writer terms. In Dragon Age this is also the case, but the ending screens detailing possible effects of your choices give it an extra boost, giving YOU a sense that YOU altered the story and trough that, the game-Universe. 

Mass Effect 2 just ends (with me going "but I want to kick those invading aliens their butt! This can't be the end!!" I had the same feeling when Unreal 2 and CoD4 ended) with a sour "hahaaa now you'll have to buy Mass Effect 3 don't ya!!" taste. Don't mistake this with the same feeling like I had when Tales of Symphonia ended. Yeah I wanted to play in this new Universe I CREATED!!! (interactive story-telling at its finest really) but I wasn't sad that I couldn't. I disrupted a long-running evil cycle and restored the True Cycle, saving the life of the girl and maybe even easing the burden of my father...that's enough stuff done after 45+ gaming hours.

The ultimate point in this? Well, ideally, everyone fires their writers, especially if they start dabbling in narrative nonsense, and replace them with historians and anthropologists (hihihi). Joking aside, I wanted to show that videogames can tell stories on an level that writers or gamedesigners seem to forget or ignore or aren't even aware off. Taking into account that the cyclic experience is a important aspect of human nature and the reason why people love the "Hero saves the day" stories. As long as the Universe around the story is engaging and interesting enough though. But also that this cyclic experience is also a field with a lot of experimential potential, both in good and ways.

Edit: Another good example that I missed of quite creative use of cycles: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Also one of the rare games where the cyclic experience is so intertwined with the actual gameplay. Off course I refer to the time-travel dynamic in the game but that's not all. The start alone just breathes "a modern version of classic story-telling". You start as boy, a peculiar boy, clearly destined to go about and restore some cycles, if he doesn't fail offcourse. The themes of childhood, coming of age and others are very powerfully present and off course are very recurrently used in all the cyclic Classics. But then, you have the three gems and you go to the Temple of Time and claim the Master Sword. With that act not only do you free Gannondorf, you zap yourself 7 years in time, actually giving Gannondorf 7 years do his "evil" cycle bit. "Adult" Link comes in a world that has shattered because he failed as a hero...look at what you caused!

Wind Waker also uses this concept of the hero failing at the introduction. The game even uses Vico's cyclic theory (dating from 1725) that humanity goes trough three phases: Gods, Hero's and Humans with the last one delivering reason and wisdom for all. Since the Hero didn't came in Wind Waker, people turned to the Gods, actually regressing as a civilization (in Vico's vision). In Wind Waker the Hero returns, restores the cycle and is even set to the task to find new lands or aid in stopping the regression so that civilization can begin anew.

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