Core Fantasies

So what's a “Core Fantasy”? The definition I tend to fall back on is this:

The Core Fantasy of an Intellectual Property is an assumption contained within the IP about the human condition that affirms something we already believe.

Again, it's easy to give examples, but it's hard to nail down a good universal definition. I say “affirms something we already believe”, which doesn't mean that all Core Fantasies make statements about the human condition that everyone agrees with. It means that we love stories that confirm things we already believe/want to believe. So, if the above definition didn't do it for you, let's talk about what the core fantasy is not.

The Core Fantasy of an IP is not the moral of the story. I would be hard pressed to say that Grand Theft Auto has a moral, but it still has a Core Fantasy.

The Core Fantasy of an IP does not have to be a positive message. Carol gave the excellent example of “Chinatown”, which says that there is evil in the world, and sometimes evil wins, and all you can do is pick yourself up and move on. You could argue that “pick yourself up and move on” is a positive message, but certainly not like “love conquers all”.

The Core Fantasy of an IP does not have to be unique to the property. “Titanic”, “Moulin Rogue”, and “Sleepless in Seattle” all have exactly the same Core Fantasy: Love can overcome all obstacles (even, in the case of the first two, death)

The Core Fantasy of an IP does not have to be tied to any one storyline. Transformers, Final Fantasy, and Bruce Springsteen all have Core Fantasies, but no single, definite narrative.

So, why does anybody care? First let's look at marketing. Knowing your Core Fantasy helps you know who you're trying to reach with this property. The idea that love conquers all obstacles clearly resonates with 13-18 year old girls (other people too, to be sure, but that made up the majority of the people who were repeat theater viewers of “Titanic”). No matter what the events of the story, a Core Fantasy about “going the distance” is going to appeal to primarily men. I'm no marketing expert, so I can't give you a complex breakdown, but if you're going to try to market any mature story, you need to understand what you're trying to say, and who will want to hear it.

Second, it gives you an understanding of how to craft peripheral events. I've thrown around the idea of “thematic consistency” kind of hoping no one will call me out to define it, but ideally, even the not immediately plot important events in a story will contribute to the Core Fantasy, or at least not counteract it.

Finally, it allows you to craft a climax that delivers powerfully on the emotional promise of the story. I reiterate here that the purpose of the climax is more to provide emotional satisfaction than logical satisfaction. If you understand what your Core Fantasy is, you can easily see whether your climax affirms this or not. If your protagonist triumphs over your villain, but not in a way that relates to your Core Fantasy, the audience feels cheated. If Apollo Creed had a heart attack right before the fight in “Rocky”, it sucks, but if Ferris Bueller only succeeds in the end through a massive feat of willpower and endurance, it's just confusing.

So, what does the Warrior Princess (see here for an explanation of the archetype) have to do with this concept? I submit that the inclusion of this archetype requires that the Core Fantasy be close to a certain archetypal Core Fantasy. The closer the Warrior Princess is to the main character, the closer the Core Fantasy is to this archetypal Core Fantasy.

This Archetypal Core Fantasy is not a clear cut Core Fantasy itself, but it is usually a variation on either the power of nature, or the incredible untapped power of the human being itself. Perhaps that humanity, in its natural state, possesses incredible power. It is invariably a positive (though sometimes bittersweet) message, and usually affirms the fundamental goodness of humanity, but also affirms the ability for them to go wrong when injected with hubris.

I considered working backwards through all seventeen of my examples, but I imagine that would be redundant. That being said, though, for your edification, here's my list of core fantasy examples: (Note, this list is confined to games and movies. Music, books, and anything else that can tell a story can have a core fantasy, but I'm keeping it simple)

Final Fantasy – “Nature is more complicated and more wonderful than humanity knows”
Grand Theft Auto, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Usual Suspects – “I don't have to play by the rules”
Titanic, Moulin Rogue, etc. - “Love conquers all”
Phoenix Wright, Lucky Number Slevin, Payback - “Eventually, Justice will be served”
Sideways, American Splendor - “No matter how many times you've failed, you can always try again”
Shining Force - “If I champion a righteous cause, people will follow me.”
Star Wars - “One person, no matter how small, can change the universe”
LA Confidential - “Just because I do things differently from you, doesn't mean I'm not doing the right thing.”

I could go on, but I like that list. Now, I throw the ball in your court. What are your favorite Core Fantasies? Do you disagree with any examples I listed? I'd even encourage you to leave comments with some Intellectual Properties, see if I can pick out the Core Fantasy.


Alison Turtledove said...

I find your concept of "core fantasy" interesting, but I don't understand how your condensed list of phrases at the end is different from a list of the morals of those stories. A moral is, according the the Am. Her. Dictionary, "the lesson or principle contained in, or taught by, a story, fable, or event." Your entry for GTA, for example, pretty much sums up the lesson GTA teaches, and the reason schoolteachers hate to see little kids play it. Anyway, I submit that stories, parables, and events would be useless to contain lessons and principles if these morals did not affirm something we already believed in, overlapping with your definition of core fantasy.

Maybe if you included some non-narrative entries on your list I'd see the distinction better. Bruce Springsteen is an interesting example, but you didn't go anywhere with him. What are the core fantasies of Bruce Springsteen, Picasso, Blogspot, Emily Dickinson, and Michael Moore?

Anonymous said...

I feel that by using the term "core fantasy" that you're distancing the medium from literature and literary critique, which I happen to think is a mistake.

Your examples of core fantasies are the central themes of the media listed. Why not simply refer to them as such?

Natalie said...

It strikes me that one difference between a theme and a Core Fantasy the way William's using it is that a Core Fantasy interacts more closely with the consumer than does a theme. William can correct me on this, but I think Carol had her finger on something important when she said that a Core Fantasy answers the question of why you consume one IP and not another.

If you look at it as a marketing or IP management standpoint it has certain features that are different from a theme. The theme of Titanic is something like "Love conquers all." The Core Fantasy of Titanic, I submit, is "Love exists, yes, even for me." I would say that the Core Fantasy of Titanic isn't about Rose, or Jack, or the Titanic; it's about the teenage girl in the theater watching the movie and relating it to the boy she just realized she's never going to date.

Contrast with Transformers, whose theme is something like "unflinching adherence to right principles will see you successfully through life" but whose Core Fantasy is "Love exists, yes, even for me." The Core Fantasy of Transformers isn't about Optimus Prime's moral fortitude, or about Sam finding the same strength of character in himself, even though that's the central theme of the movie. The Core Fantasy is that Sam ends up on the hood of a Camaro making out with Megan Fox, a strong, exotic, brilliant, brave woman with whom he has shared mortal peril and who admires him as a hero instead of a loser.

You can cast those Core Fantasies in different ways, but the point is that they're different from their themes because they're fundamentally about what they represent to individual (albeit hypothetical, in my examples) consumers. They make the consumer feel something that they already believe. I submit that's why Titanic and Transformers appeal to different demographics: the end result is the same, but how you get that result depends on the demographic.

The emphasis on feeling rather than thinking and the consumer rather than the author or the work makes a Core Fantasy distinct from the related concept of theme, and I think even from moral. Quake had a Core Fantasy before it had a story ("I am badass"). Quake players were not, as a rule, badass. If that's the lesson or principle that Quake taught, it's a false one. But it made its consumers feel like they were badass. Jedi Knight II has exactly the same Core Fantasy, even though both the moral and theme of that game are "Not even love justifies revenge."

The power of a Core Fantasy to make a person feel what they already believe is also, I think, why this is an industry-relevant concept. A strong Core Fantasy makes a product more valuable. A product's choice of Core Fantasy puts money on the table, and not aligning the aspects of the product with the Core Fantasy leaves money on the table.

RTS games fall into this trap a lot. The Core Fantasy of an RTS game is basically either, "I am badass" (though in a more intellectual sense than the JKII/Quake sense) or "I can endure the toughest of trials" - Diomedes or Ajax, the unstoppable force or the immovable object. I remember especially early RTS games like WarCraft II or Command & Conquer often got these messages mixed up. The story would have you, at one point, on the ropes and on the run - and yet every time you the player actually came into conflict with the enemy, you crushed them utterly. That's trying to impose the "I am badass" Core Fantasy on events that are supposed to carry a moral of "Just keep holding on." The Ajax CF would have been much more appropriate for those levels than the Diomedes. By more closely marrying plot and level design those games could have strengthened their Core Fantasies.

I'm not saying that those weren't good games, and of course they were great commercial successes. But I think they left money on the table that the Core Fantasy concept can be a valuable guide to picking up.

William said...

Alison: First of all, I'm not sure I'm familiar enough with Picasso or Emily Dickinson to say. I know some of their work, but I imagine a more all-inclusive understand is required to begin speculating on their Core Fantasies.

The Core Fantasy of Bruce Springsteen is this: It's just the two of us against the world, and no one understands us. It's going to be hard as hell, but we're going to make it through this thing together. Throw in a little bit about the sanctity of the working man, and there you go.

The Core Fantasy of blogs is that everyone has something valuable to say. The belief that all you need is to get yourself out there to become popular. Kind of a take on the 15 minutes of fame idea, but without the snarky overtones.

Michael Moore I had a kind of difficult time with. Ultimately, I think he's about the fundamental goodness of humanity. All you need to do is put a good clean eye on the dirty ways of the world, and humanity will do something about it. Yet, all that doesn't seem to take into account his intense sarcasm, and (possibly healthy) disrespect for authority. Either way, I'm not trying to speculate on his politics.

I agree that there's a lot of overlap with the moral of a story. I tend to think of a moral of a story as being exclusively a positive lesson, but if we use the definition that you listed, that's not necessarily true. I suppose there's also the elemental of intentionality. I don't think GTA sets out to teach kids that they don't have to play by the rules in real life, but I maintain that that's the Core Fantasy. (Also, of all of the people I've talked to who strongly object to GTA, no one has payed enough attention to it to understand that that's what it's about. Everyone always seems to object because they think the moral is, “You can get ahead in life by killing hookers with a baseball bat”, or some such.)

Corvus: I agree that there's a lot of overlap with the idea of a theme too, but I think of a Core Fantasy as a much more all inclusive concept. Shining Force doesn't have a theme, it barely has a plot at all. Likewise, I'm not sure Bruce Springsteen has a theme, and I promise you that Krispy Kreme doesn't, but it does have a Core Fantasy: It's alright if you slip up on your responsibilities (read: diet) a little bit every once in a while. That being said, please make no mistake, I am strongly in favor of literary critique of games.

Natalie: I agree with your slight refinement of the “Titanic” Core Fantasy. I'm not sure I agree with your assessment of Transformers, however. The Transformers Movie was about how even the loser kid ended up being able to save the day and get the girl, despite the fact that he looked like a lameoid. There was, if you will, more to him than meets the eye. It was excellently designed to reinforce the same Core Fantasy as the rest of the Transformers media.

I also agree with your assessment of missing out on extra business. I don't know how many other people felt this way, but I enjoyed Max Payne 1 much more than Max Payne 2. When I play a Max Payne game, I'm signing up for the Core Fantasy that a man with nothing to lose is completely unstoppable. The first game delivered on this concept fantastically, but the second felt more like “North by Northwest”. You get way in over your head, and spend most of your time just trying to put out fires and stop people from killing you. I don't know for sure, but I imagine that harmed their business significantly.

Natalie said...

See, I would say that there being more to Sam Witwicky than meets the eye is an expression of the movie's theme - More Than Meets the Eye - but not really the Core Fantasy of the movie. I think the Core Fantasy of the movie is that the lameoid kid can get the girl, and by extension, you, the lameoid kid in the audience, can get the girl too. Somebody out there sees the hero in you and loves it. If you replace the character of Mikaela Banes with, say, an enlarged role for Sam's dad in coming to be proud of the responsible man his son has grown to be, you still have a theme of More Than Meets the Eye, but I think you'd have a radically different CF.

And yeah, I felt that way about Max Payne 2 as well.

Alison Turtledove said...

It seems that we are all getting mixed up on your meaning of "core fantasy" because you aren't clear on what types of "intellectual properties" can have them and which can't. Your blog is generally on the topic of storytelling in video games, and your list of core fantasies only includes games and movies, so Corvus and I related them to concepts from literary analysis. But you also mentioned in your entry that an entertainer's body of work can have a core fantasy; I buy into that, and I like your explanations in the comments. Later on in that comment, however, you're getting ambiguous again. How is Krispy Kreme an intellectual property? Are you talking about advertising? Actually, now that I think of it, the point of commercials is to hit people at some deep level and hook them through assumptions about what they want and need . . . and they're most effective when they do it through a mini-narrative. (There's a moment in a Neil Gaiman story where the embodiment of Desire tells a girl that every story, everywhere, boils down to this: "Someone wanted something.")

I think I agree with what Eric is saying, which seems to be that core fantasies are found most in media that consumers really participate in, like video games, movies, musicians' ouvres, and commercials. These intellectual properties may have lessons and themes that overlap with the core fantasy, or they may not. And some narratives may have useful lessons, but no core fantasies (like fables). Fables and parables generally incite little audience participation.

carol said...

To address Alison's question, I believe STRONGLY that anything that can be defined as a "brand," can be spoken of as such specifically because it has a core fantasy. Otherwise, it's just a product. Canada Dry Ginger Ale is a product, but Mountain Dew is a brand. Why? Because by drinking Mountain Dew, I am making a statement about who I am. Harley Davidson is a brand, and I promise you, it has a core fantasy. I participate in that fantasy, not just (or even) by driving a Harley, but by having Harley wheel covers or putting Harley diapers (yes, they exist) on my baby. Whether or not I've ever been near a motorcycle, I'm telling the world that I am born to be wild -- or, more importantly, that I want to think of myself that way.

In order to have a core fantasy, an IP has to be one in which you can participate in some way. By virtue of that, it becomes a marketing "tool." To Alison's literary point, I don't feel that the idea of core fantasies is as pertinent in literature. What statement would I make about myself by wearing a Great Gatsby baseball cap? One doesn't "participate" in a book in the same way. If I tell you I'm a "Deadhead," you immediately make some assumptions about who I am and what my values are. If I tell you that The Great Gatsby is my favorite book, what does that say?

Anonymous said...

Now, I find that idea very interesting--Core Fantasy as marketing/branding tool. It's like the younger, slicker, brasher sibling of the literary theme.

Halo's Core Fantasy is, "you're 1337." Fallout's Core Fantasy is, "you're old school." GTA's Core Fantasy is, "you're a bad boy." Zelda's Core Fantasy is, "you're a bit of a romantic." My blog's Core Fantasy is, "you've got something of value to add, if only you'll find your voice and use it."

Interesting... put in this light, the Core Fantasy is potentially manipulative and misleading (Colgate's Core Fantasy is, "people will want to kiss you if you use our product") but it's very much about creating a feeling within the audience that they're a part of something bigger.

Natalie said...

To Allison's game point, I think that most games' Core Fantasies are themes or theme-like, but that's because game designers from the late 90s until just a year or two ago were largely obsessed with the discovery that games could behave like literature. That means many games' Core Fantasies are themes, at least for modern games. But games as a whole are not literature, so a Core Fantasy isn't necessarily a theme. Guitar Hero and Wii Fit have Core Fantasies but they don't have themes in the literary sense.

For these literary games, though, I think the critical design point to be made here is that because a theme can be a Core Fantasy, it can have monetary value.

I think this is obvious to design studios and publishing houses for games like Guitar Hero. GH has a Core Fantasy of "You're a rock star," and you can tell somebody picked up on that by looking at Guitar Hero's promotional materials. Someone somewhere along the line said, "I can take rhythm gameplay and add value to it by linking it to the Core Fantasy of being a rock star."

When it comes to literary games, it seems to me that this jump is made much less often. We've listed a number of games here, I think, where the Core Fantasy is the theme. How many of those games were marketed accordingly? How many of them poured large amounts of resources into crafting those themes? And more importantly, how many poured large amounts of resources into crafting those themes in the recognition that doing so enhanced the value of their brand (or even turned their "product" into a brand)?

By "pouring resources into" I don't mean just hiring a writer. I mean making the literary elements a guiding principle of the entire design process, so that every part of the product makes the consumer feel like they're participating in the theme-that-is-Core-Fantasy (e.g., RTS level design, as in my earlier example). And matching level design to plot is a very crude example. How many games are built that way?

I'm no industry expert but my guess is not many, particularly in the American market. My impression is that the state of the industry right now is more characterized by business interests on the one hand, who want to know how "pouring resources into" the writing of their game makes it more profitable; and by artists on the other hand, who want to craft a literarily satisfying game because they're artists. The Core Fantasy concept, I think, is the link between the two: the concept that could make a studio go, "I have a narrative game and I want to maximize its profitability. Somebody get me a damn good writer and get him involved in every part of this process."

William said...

To suppliment Natalie's point, I think that games with a blank slate instead of a protaganist (Fallout, Half Life) or no protaganist (Guitar Hero) tend to tap into this easier. It's very easy to market things around "If you play this game, you will feel like you are _____!", and much harder to market games around, "If you play this game, you will feel like this broad metaphysical concept is true!"

It could most definately be done if it intentionally plays into the concept of archetypes, and the traditional hero's journey. Everybody wants to be a hero, and everybody wants to believe that heroes can ultimately succeed.

The question is how you pitch a
Core Fantasy that's more abstract, like, "Humanity is always capable of completly reinventing itself". We like stories of redemption, but would people buy a game they saw promo-ed as a "Story of Redemption"? Maybe so.

Natalie said...

I'd think the movie industry would have some good insights into that dilemma. They're used to selling stuff like that.

Flint said...

This is great. I have to read it more thoroughly (I'm doing this wile sitting on a conference call, but great.