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Once upon a time – Fairy tales as a tool for game devs

Creating a meaningful game can be quite challenging, especially when it comes to how to embed a message. For my upcoming game, I decided to use fairy tales as a tool for that. The post talks about that choice and fairy tales as the mystic medium they are.

Tabea Iseli, Blogger

February 6, 2018

10 Min Read

As I mentioned in my last post, creating a game with a message I can identify with is very important to me. Creating a game is very time consuming, so I want to spend my time on something I'm passionate about. That's why I wanted to work on a project about women in tech and games for some years now. But there was always one question that kept me from starting it: How do I talk about the topic so it's interesting even for people that do not necessary agree with my position?

After all, that's the goal right? Delivering a message to people that think the same way as I do certainly is reassuring (maybe even for both parties), but it's not very likely to create any change. So if I want to tell people how it is to navigate a tech career as a woman, I have to do it in a way that is compelling to them. This is quite a challenge, as the topic is very controversial and sensitive.

In a land far, far away...

When I worked on a concept for a game about migration back in 2014, we decided to make a transition to a fictional world to talk about a topic which is likewise quite delicate. It allowed us to tackle migration without mentioning the local real life situations which are likely to be burdened with stereotypes and political dilemmas. The same applies for the issue I want to be the central theme of my new game AVA. Taking the issue out of the context of the current discussion, away from Harvey Weinstein, away from Nolan Bushnell, away from social justice warriors and into an environment, where people can reflect about the topic without the constraints of prejudice, where it is possible to look at it from a different perspective.
For AVA I decided to go for one of the most famous ways to change the environment to talk about an issue: Fairy tales. They not only are something most of us know and love from our childhood, but also never seem to grow out of style, even if their stories are extremely old.

What are fairy tales?

Even if most of us know tons of fairy tales, one question I started to ask myself when I tried to evaluate if and how fairy tales can help me to establish my message was: "What exactly is a fairy tale?" And to be honest, I still can't answer it. Fairy tales seem to be more ancient than the times they're talking about, and as they used to be oral traditions, it's very hard to trace their origins. Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy was the first one to call them "fairy tales" in the late 17th century, and many after her created categorizations.
Some of those definitions are rather vague, like for example Bruno Bettelheim's. Bettelheim was a psychologist for children, so his focus was on the effect fairy tales have on children. He put the emphasis for his definition on the happy ending. A lot of myths and fables do not have a happy end. In Bettelheim's words fairy tales need to have a happy ending so a child could live and play through it, knowing that everything will be alright at the end.
But there are other classifications. Vladimir Propp specifically studied Russian Fairy tales, and discovered 31 elements that appear in fairy tales. These 31 elements describe the function of a story part and usually occur in the same order (though not all of them have to be present, and sometimes some of them switch positions). Propp seemed to be a big fan of empirical investigation, so his categorization is rather analytical and doesn't leave a lot of room for deviations.
Picking one definition definition and going with that one is quite hard, as the authors of these classifications also wildly disagreed with each others. None the less it's probably save to say that fairy tales often describe fantastic incidents and have returning patterns – that sometimes even span across many different cultures. Both qualities that I think can be very helpful for game developers.

What can fairy tales offer for game developers?

Developing a fairy tale game can serve the simple purpose to create a game that appeals to kids. But there are more reasons, and even though fairy tales were rewritten into stories that are considered for kids nowadays doesn't mean that they were not intended to speak to adults or can not be used for that target audience anymore. I chose a fairy tale theme for my game for the following reasons:


As I mentioned before, changing the location sometimes helps when talking about a delicate topics. Not only that, but it is also a good way to make something ordinary or dark way more interesting and approachable. There are already tons of examples for this: Zombies, Run! motivates people to move by transferring their (boring) run into the exciting world of the zombie apocalypse. BoJack Horseman talks about depression, trauma, addiction, and self-destructive behavior, but it's set in a colorful world full of talking animals. Ghost in the Shell tells the story of a futuristic counter-terrorist organization, but it follows the question what makes us human and how digitization changes our lives. This spacial and narrative transfer also synergizes with one of gaming's strengths: Motivating players to do tasks that they otherwise would deem boring. (The best example for this in my eyes would still be Foldit!)


Fairy tales are full of metaphors. Some of them did emerge due to the many changes fairy tales went through, such as the expurgation of extreme violence and sexual themes (to make fairy tales more fitting for a young audience). Some of them probably were there for a long time. Some psychoanalgysts studied the metaphors in fairy tales and linked them to our psyche. Marie Louise Von Franz for example described fairy tales like this: "Every fairy tale is a relatively closed system compounding one essential psychological meaning which is expressed in a series of symbolical pictures and events and is discoverable in these". She saw fairy tales as the "purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes". If I understand her words correctly, she did not pick out single characteristics and assigned them metaphorical meaning, but saw the whole story as symbol of a psychological meaning.
Bettelheim on the other hand described the meaning of certain elements as the same across all fairy tale stories; the stepmother for example (something that appears in several fairy tales) stands for the oedipal jealousy of a daughter towards her mother. By splitting the mother into two people – the real mother and the stepmother – the child listening to or reading the fairy tale could fully engage with their negative oedipal feelings towards their mother, without feeling guilty about it.
But again, those interpretations are quite controversial. The stepmother for example could just as well be reflecting the historical fact that many women died in childbirth and their husbands remarried – leading to the situation that stepmothers weren't that uncommon in the past. But even if the metaphorical elements and meanings of fairy tales aren't that clear, I still think they offer a great tool to deliver a message. Metaphors certainly are mysterious and enthralling, which has the same effect as the change to a fantastic location. It makes the story more compelling. Furthermore it gives a little task to the player: "Unravel my mystery and meaning!" Letting the player discover the message by themselves is just so much more exciting than just plainly shove it into their face (quite like show, don't tell).


Fairy tales are full of patterns. Almost all of them start with a phrase such as "Once upon a time ...", "In a land far, far away ..." or "There once was a magical kingdom ...". Oftentimes the protagonist is a prince or a princess. The hero has to do a task three times and only succeeds the third time. Such patterns are an easy way to establish your world and your story. There is a wolf? Great. Since wolves are almost always evil in fairy tales, your audience will already be very suspicious towards the wolf. Of course the established rule set of fairy tales can also be a great way to sneak in a surprise: What if the wolf is not evil after all? How would this change the story? Breaking a rule here and there could be a good source of change, but I probably wouldn't overdo it. Fairy tales are something that most of us are very familiar with. Diving into a fairy tale world gives us the feeling of familiarity and coming home. Those positive feelings are a great advantage you can have as a creator. If you mess with them, be sure to do it with a good reason.

The happy ending

So to sum it up: Fairy tales are a great mystery, we don't know exactly where and when they came from, we don't know what exactly they want to tell us. And yet, we feel a great familiarity around them. When creating a game with a fairy tale theme, this is a big plus: Mysterious stories cast a spell on the audience. Those stories feel like home, and still there are many things yet to discover. Speaking through metaphors reinforce those feelings. And the journey into a fantastic and magical land not only makes a game more compelling, it also offers a welcome change to our complicated and knotty world.

Recommended reads

If you'd like to dive further into the world of fairy tales, here's my list of books and media I greatly enjoyed:

  • "Morphology of the Folktale" by Vladimir Propp. This gives you a nice overview on fairy tale structure. Propp's style is very analytical, so it can be a bit dry from time to time. Still, probably one of the most important books on this topic.

  • "The Uses of Enchantment" by Bruno Bettelheim. If you're interested in fairy tales for children, this probably is a must. Bettelheim was a huge fan of Freud, so be prepared for tons of Freudian psychology. Also: Bettelheim was largely criticized for his violence towards children, among other things, so I recommend to read him up to get a better picture.

  • "Märchen als Therapie" by Verena Kast. This one is in German and doesn't seem to have an English translation. If you speak German and are interested in the psychological analysis of fairy tale, this one might be for you.

  • "On Fairy Stories" by J. R .R. Tolkien. Yep, everybody's favorite author also has written an essay about fairy tales. This is one of fundamentals and gets cited by almost everyone else writing about the topic. Of course it is also a good read if you are interested in the backstory of LotR.

  • "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C. S. Lewis. A classic, though it doesn't seem to be that popular in the German speaking area (where I'm from). Some compare it to LotR, but I think it is way closer to fairy tales. Definitely interesting to see how fairy tales merge into a "modern" story.

  • "Pan's Labyrinth" by Guillermo del Toro. Mixes fairy tales with a war story. Del Toro cites many other stories (as well visually as in the narrative), so it's definitely worth to check out breakdowns of the movie.

Closing words

This post does not talk about game mechanics or specifics of my game. This is a topic for another post, so please keep in mind that discussing game mechanics was not the goal for me here. The game itself is in early development. I finished the proof of concept a month ago and currently am focusing the story. If you would like to keep up to date with the project (or my random ramblings about games), you can do that on Twitter or in the game's newsletter:

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