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.


Part Three!

of a series that wasn't supposed to have more than one part.

For reference:
Part 2: http://htparnell.blogspot.com/2008/04/warrior-mother.html
Part 1: http://htparnell.blogspot.com/2008/04/final-fantasy-and-hayao-miyazaki.html

The important aspect that's been missing from the last two posts on the subject is a closer inspection of the purpose of the roundtable to begin with. If a game features a character like this, what does it mean about the plot arc of the game, and what does it mean for the game mechanics?

It's a little hard to say for the game mechanics. This archetype appears almost exclusively in Japanese games (though if you have any thoughts on Western products that fit the bill, I'd love to hear), and most often in Japanese RPGs. Ultimately, though, nothing necessarily connects the RPG format to the character, other than the prevalence of RPGs in Japanese games, and the prevalence of the character in Japanese RPGs. So, instead of attacking it from that angle, I'm going to come up with a story format that necessitates the character, and then see what game mechanics lend themselves most easily to that story.

The plot arc of the Warrior Mother is, much like the Brash Young Hero archetype, a coming of age story. Much like Joseph Campbell's journey, the Warrior Mother must become fully realized. She must discover her physical heritage. She must conquer self doubt. She must cast aside the example of her current mother, or embrace the example that her mother left behind. Finally, she must learn that her power is to be used for healing, not for war.

I use the word “healing” in the broadest sense here. Example: Mist (from the GC Fire Emblem) is the only one who can hold onto the talisman of ultimate evil without being corrupted. The peace at the center of her soul doesn't restore HP, but it means that she can keep the talisman hidden away from the forces that would use it for personal gain.

On a side note, I expect that FF7 was so popular with the 13-18 crowd because Aeris is the completely self-realized version of this archetype. She has no character arc, and it's her lack of faults that makes her death seem so tragic to the player.

All of this lends itself most easily to an RPG. There are enough facets to the story that a long narrative suits it best (though a very short one could be fascinating to see). Someone realizing that they're not destined to fight makes for a very difficult main character in a video game (though Ultima IV comes to mind), so the archetype lends itself to a secondary role, or at least a game with another primary character. None of this, however, requires any particular kind of game. It wouldn't work as a main character very well, but there's no reason this archetype can't appear in adventure games, FPSs, anything and everything. What is does, if the character is important enough to the plot, is fundamentally alter the core fantasy of the game. I've used the term before, but it requires a better definition. So, for next week, what's a core fantasy, and how does the Warrior Mother affect it?


Technical Difficulties

Well, not really, but a crazy week for work, so I haven't had as much time as I'd like. That being said, I'll have the second follow-up to the warrior princess concept up soon. Until then, I was particularly pleased to read this post, so I direct your attention to it: http://blog.pjsattic.com/corvus/2008/04/themes-of-isolation/

Enjoy, while I finish putting out fires.


Music and Lyrics

While there's plenty more to be said on the subject of archetypes, and I plan to post another little ditty on the subject, but until I'm done polishing the essay, here's this:

This time, I'd like to draw your attention to the following video:


For those of you who don't have 3 minutes, don't have sound, or are just too lazy to do any more clicking than absolutely necessary, it's a cut-scene from the re-release of LUNAR: Silver Star Story Complete. I'm not really here to comment on the quality of the scene, so I won't talk about the lip flap (terrible), the song (decent), or the direction (actually quite good). I'm here to comment on two things, the concept of vocal performance in games, and the host of comments on the YouTube video.

First of all, I'd like to point out, and please correct me if I'm wrong, that nothing like this song has been featured in a game before or since. Final Fantasy 8 contained the disastrous “Eyes on Me” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNefNLOHVYk for those who need a refresher), but even that was an actual event in the game. The characters heard on the radio a song sung by a plot important character. Xenogears, lots of Final Fantasies, even Portal all featured ending songs with words (some to greater effect than others), but the song from Lunar (Wind's Nocturne) is roughly akin to how characters would break into song in a musical. If the following events were happening in real life, there wouldn't actually be any music and nobody would be singing. However, since we can, we're going to use music and lyrics to help tell the story.

Again, abstracting the issue from any question of quality of the Lunar scene, this requires the question: “Why hasn't anyone else ever done this?” Three obvious reasons spring out:

1. It's expensive. You need to pay somebody to write more music, write lyrics, and voice actors who are also required to sing most likely command a larger salary, to say nothing of hiring someone else to be the singing voice of an existing actor, or hiring someone for a game that otherwise wouldn't have voice actors. (I should point out, about voice actors who are also required to sing, I have no actual experience with the relative salaries commanded by voice actors, this is just my intuition)

2. It's time consuming. In addition to the extra time demanded by writing the music and words involved, recording a song takes much more time than dialog of equivalent quality. Really though, it doesn't require so much more time that this doesn't reduce to just an issue of money.

3. Studios don't think there's an audience that cares.

So, money is the big issue here. Becoming increasingly tapped into the writing for games industry, these really sound like the complaints that people have about why writing in a lot of video games sucks. Many studios don't want to hire writers when they can just fob off the writing task on some designer. (Not to say that there aren't designers who are great writers) After all, paying some one to do two jobs is better than paying two people, right? It's the general consensus that many studios are reticent to bring in professional writers, because it's unclear how paying a writer will lead to more profits for the game. I expect nobody experiments with the power of music and lyrics because it's not really clear how it contributes to making a better selling game.

And therein is my second topic. The power of music and lyrics. If you'll take a quick check over the comments on the Lunar video, people love it. They talk about it like it's the best thing since sliced bread. I've already said, the song is pretty good, in the Disney musical style genre, the directorial eye is fairly good about framing interesting shots, but it's not nearly as good as the comments would suggest.

Why is the response so powerful? Part of it has to be that nobody else does it. When somebody does something new, the threshold for being impressed is drastically lowered. Second, and this seems deceptively simple, people love music. Luna (the woman singing the song) wasn't a particularly unique character, and didn't have a really well written character arc, but because she has this moment of pouring her heart out in song, she instantly endears herself to most players. I'm not gonna try to answer why music allows us such quick access to emotion, but in a player that is concerned about story to begin with, less can truly be more. I'm willing to bet that players felt, after this song, a greater emotional connect to this character than could have been achieved with any dialog in three times the time.

(I also submit that the fact that there was only one song over the course of the game, and only one character who sang wasn't a sticking point, because the game set up from the very beginning that not only is Luna a signer, and commands some magical power with her singing voice, but she's also the only one really holds her deep thoughts inside, and takes quiet moments away from everyone else to reflect.)

Personally, I'd love to see someone try it again. Only a matter of time I expect.


The Warrior Mother

I was in the middle of writing another response to the discussion going on in my comments when I realized that there were enough issues raised to require a follow-up post. Unfortunately, they're a little disjointed, so bear with me.

For those of you not in the know, check the post immediately below this one, (or http://htparnell.blogspot.com/2008/04/final-fantasy-and-hayao-miyazaki.html if you so desire) and the associated comments.

First of all, I would actually go so far as to advocate the label “warrior mother” above the other labels. Permit me to explain why.

I realized, after putting this list together, that the motherhood of these characters is paramount to their personality, even without having any actual children. Again, as opposed to mounting some sort of structured argument, I plan to merely present overwhelming evidence. None of these characters have mothers. Some no longer have one, or never have one mentioned (Luna, Lufia, Alma, Rena, Terra, Aeris, etc.), but many have mothers that fail significantly at being a mother figure. (Elly, Schala, Kara) For those of you who aren't familiar with Joseph Campbell, he suggests that in order for the hero to complete his journey, he either must beat his father in some kind of combat, or his father must die. As long as the hero has his father over him, he cannot become the hero of legend.

None of the characters I list actually have children, but close to all of them act as a mother as an important part of their character development. I could talk about Mist serving as Ike's surrogate mother, or about the flashback to Cloud's mother as he's going to bed for the first time in Aeris's house, or about how Schala's lack of a real mother forces him to act as Janus's mother, but I'll limit it to two really powerful examples, both referenced in the last post.

You find Terra in the orphanage in Mobliz in the world of ruin. She refuses to leave because she's the only real mother these kids have. She suppresses it to some degree to fight Kefka, but the point is still made.

Elhaym van Houten has a very strong motherhood streak, and, as I have said before, serves as a surrogate mother to Fei. She steps into the role of the “Holy Mother of Nisan”, a religious leader, and is, in an unexpectedly literal way, the mother of all humanity. It almost suggests to me that they're intentionally pointing to the archetype.

Again, it's not perfect. Zelda has no mother, and no exclusively maternal qualities, but I think the point is made.

Second, in my response, I mentioned that someone I talked with constructed a very good argument for the Warrior Mother being a non-sexist extension of the woman's role in Japanese culture into a fantasy setting. (That was the worst sentence ever) The case went something like this. The concept of women in the workplace is quite a bit behind the western concept. Women are expected, much more than in the US, to stay home, take care of the kids, take care of the housework, and remain generally passive. However, within the domain of the household, the woman calls the shots. Interestingly enough, they also control the finances of the home. (This is all stereotypes, remember, so it doesn't have to be universally true) The husband has some authority within the home, but it is usually deferred to the wife, in belief that this is their area of expertise. If you buy that activity is the essential male quality, and passivity is the essential female quality, and don't assume (as the west in wont to do) that activity is somehow better than passivity, then try to make a game about those gender roles, I expect you'll end up with a main female character like the warrior princess (or mother, or something of the sort). She can fight, but doesn't like to; she nurtures everyone around her, and she has incredible power that largely operates behind the scenes.

Finally, regarding the staff chick, I think whoever wrote the article was keyed in to the idea of the archetype, but was much more concerned with the game mechanics side of the archetype (which does exist), and less about the character development aspect.

Corvus asked specifically how I think this archetype influences the game mechanics of the game. The simple answer is that it doesn't, but that seems a little glib and canned to me. There's a lot to say on the matter though, so I'll have an entire post on it next. I can't say too much about how it has influenced gameplay in the past, but I can say a lot about how it influences plot development, and provide some interesting suggestions for how it might influence game play in the future.


Final Fantasy and Hayao Miyazaki

For the April '08 Roundtable (see http://blog.pjsattic.com/corvus/ for more details) the chosen subject is “Variations on a Theme” asking what you find unifies all your favorite games. I have some thoughts on game mechanics, music, and art, but since it's what really fires me up, I'm afraid I'm going to limit it to story here.

I've written a little bit about the fundamental concepts I'm a fan of, but I'm going to push all that aside, and talk about an archetype. That archetype is: the main female character of the Japanese RPG. I know what you're thinking, “That's too vague to be an archetype”. Well, permit me to explain. Obviously, not all characters can be lumped into this category, but you'd be surprised what it does cover.

Imagine the following character: A woman, fairly young, of noble birth. She possesses some combat prowess, but doesn't enjoy fighting. She is often lost in thought, and is more passive and introspective than those around her. She is not terribly secure in herself and her abilities at the beginning, and frequently this insecurity is defused in the form of her being huffy. She is not that physically strong, but is very intelligent. When she fights, she tends to use magic, but beyond the magic that many people have, it is suggested that she has some special power that remains largely untapped for a majority of the game. When she is forced to bring this power to bear, you discover that it is very different from anyone else you've seen so far, and that that power is primarily used for healing, rather than conflict.

Sound familiar? I could waffle, but let's cut to the chase:

Terra – Final Fantasy 6
Aeris – Final Fantasy 7
Rinoa – Final Fantasy 8
Dagger – Final Fantasy 9
Yuna – Final Fantasy 10
Elly – Xenogears
Nina – Breath of Fire (pick anyone you want)
Elle – Terranigma
Marona – Phantom Brave
Rena – Star Ocean 2
Kara – Illusion of Gaia
Lufia – Lufia and the Fortress of Doom
Mist – Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
Zelda – Legend of Zelda
Alma – Final Fantasy Tactics
Schala – Chrono Trigger

It's possible there are more I've missed (these are just from games I've played), but the point is made. Very few of these entries are perfect: Terra doesn't really affect the outcome of the final few hours of the game with her powers, Marona isn't of noble birth, and Schala isn't actually the main female character, but the correlation is far too significant to deny. This is an archetype that Japanese game makers have relied on since I was a young boy playing games.

It's possible that, pointing out the similarities between these characters, some of you feel cheated, like the conceptual design for the later characters was lazy, not bothering to design a new character, and merely re-hashing old concepts. I, for one, do not feel cheated at all. I am a big Joseph Campbell fan, and strongly believe in the power of archetypes in storytelling. Just because a game tells the same story we've heard a thousand times before (redemption, love, triumph over evil), it doesn't make it any less satisfying when we see it. Likewise, just because we've seen Terra in the orphanage, holding the kids in her heart, doesn't make it any less touching when you see Elly slice open her finger to feed the monster at the wels plant.

Much of good storytelling, storytelling that provokes a cathartic release, is based on the power of these characters that bypass all issues of particularity in a story. We want a fresh and interesting take on a character, but unless it ties back to something that we can understand, and relate to in our lives, the emotional power is lost.

So then, perhaps you are willing to grant that something like this has always existed in some form or another in storytelling, but I hardly think that Jung elucidated the “Japanese RPG Female Character” archetype in so many words. So then, when did this combination of the warrior, wise woman, mother, and priestess begin? I have my theory, but I welcome all thoughts on the matter.

In 1982, as a part time job, Hayao Miyazaki started drawing a comic about a Princess of a small country in a post apocalyptic world. The manga was called Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, named for the minor character from the Odyssey. Miyazaki cited two primary inspirations for the character, Bernard Evslin's translation of the Odyssey, which expanded on the original princess's character significantly, and a Japanese story of an insect loving princess from somewhere between 800 and 1200 in Japan. Nonetheless, Miyazaki's portrayal of this character (and later in the 1984 movie of the same name) is the first record I can find of this archetype. She is born as the princess of a periphery country, and is skilled in the use of arms, but has a strong pacifist streak. She is thoughtful, introspective, and seems to exist on a mental level separated from all those around her. Finally, though the manga and film differ on this subject significantly, she is clearly possessing of some sort of quasi-supernatural power that allows her a deeper understanding of the world around her.

So, what does this mean? Since I'm such a strong believer in the power of archetypes, it only seems appropriate that I want to know what archetype I'm appealing to when I write, and even more, know what the history of that archetype is. To do otherwise seems something like trying to write a monster movie without watching the original Godzilla...

I've only played so many games, so if you know of any really good examples, or want to hear my reasoning for any of my 17 examples, leave me a note or drop me a line.


Phoenix Wright, continued

As promised, more about Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, than you ever wanted to know. I'm not really here to tell you what the game is like, I refer you to the excellently composed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_Wright) for that purpose. I'm here to talk to you about the thematic elements of the game.

So what the hell does “thematic elements” mean? Instead of answering that question, allow me to launch into a discussion of Phoenix Wright, then use that to wrap it up:

Throughout the first three games of the series (ones where Phoenix is the protagonist), Phoenix enjoys virtually unheard of success as a Defense Attorney. If you really break it down, Phoenix has the following things going for him: He's very smart, he's very good at reading people, and most importantly, he believes in the innocence of his client, no matter what. Being intelligent, imaginative, and being able to read people's reactions well are all obviously helpful for an attorney (even one operating in the bastardized legal system that the games take place in). His unwavering belief in the innocence of his clients, however, is what makes his a great defense attorney, like Mia Fey (his mentor) was. It's even suggested that this kind of faith is what separates defense attorneys from prosecutors. Edgeworth (Phoenix's rival) tells one of Phoenix's defendants that a prosecutor's job is to doubt, while a defense attorney's job is to believe in people. To go even farther, the game suggests that prosecutors are the kind of people who could make for good defense attorneys, but have had their faith in justice shaken, or are blinded by some glaring personality defect. To wit:
  • Edgeworth's life with law started when he defended Phoenix against the accusations of classmates in elementary school, but eventually he becomes a prosecutor, prompted by the death of his father (also a defense attorney).
  • Manfred von Karma and his daughter, Franziska, both have the intelligence and ingenuity, but are blinded by hubris, the former is too attached to his win record to see justice done, and the latter is mostly engaged in law as a way to prove her worth.
  • Godot was an excellent defense attorney, but was unable to continue in the face of the sheer injustice of Mia's death, so he became a prosecutor instead.
  • Even Lana Skye, featured in only a single case in the first game, and never as an acting prosecutor, has the tremendous baggage of trying to shield her sister from what she perceives as the cruel world around her, which prevents her from trusting Phoenix to see that justice is served.

Taken together, these paint a picture of prosecutors as broken down versions of defense attorneys, lacking the emotional/spiritual wherewithal to separate their own negative experiences from their interactions with the justice system. All of these prosecutors are deeply wounded people, which brings up another important facet of the game. Virtually every case has a complicated interpersonal element, which is fascinating to watch unfold (much more so than legal proceedings tied to impersonal things). People in these cases lie and commit crimes because of their fears and hang-ups, and in the course of discovering the truth, Phoenix exposes these wounds. In the course of bringing them to light in the courtroom, Phoenix slices through and resolves much of this baggage. Just in case you haven't gotten enough lists yet:

  • Phoenix cuts through Edgeworth's self loathing, and proves him innocent of murder not once, but twice, allowing Edgeworth enough confidence to step into the role of defense attorney, even for just a day.
  • Phoenix frees both Lana and Ema Skye from the burden of guilt associated with the Joe Darke killings.
  • Phoenix allows Franziska to admit that she got into law to avenge her father and prove her worth to Edgeworth.
  • Phoenix saves Godot from going any further down the path of self destruction, and saves Maya from the shame associated with the Fey bloodline.

Mia even tells her sister, during the final case of the third installment: “Don't worry, Phoenix will save everyone.” Clearly, Phoenix possesses some kind of preternatural power to cut to the heart of another person's character.

Whenever Phoenix takes a case, it always seems completely impossible that his client could actually be innocent, and it's usually suggested that no one else will take the case because of how hopeless it looks. If Phoenix doesn't take the case, it will be legally decided that his clients are guilty of murder (Phoenix takes almost exclusively murder cases). So, if you'll hold my hand at this kind of complicated jump, it's Phoenix's belief in his clients that makes them innocent. He doesn't have any magic powers to change the past, but without his interference, they'd be declared guilty in a court of law, legally affirming that that's what happened. Furthermore, Phoenix is pushed to the brink of defeat over and over again, but only makes it back by assuming that his client is innocent, and then going off that assumption.

It's long been a Japanese tradition to make fiction about relatively mundane proceedings, and dramatize it as a life or death conflict. You can find countless animes about sporting events, mahjong, go, even trading card games. (Interestingly enough, that's why the Yu-Gi-Oh show was a clever marketing move in Japan, as opposed to just a laughable concept to most of the American audience.) However, this style works perfectly in Phoenix Wright, not only because it is an issue of life or death (the death penalty is given in the Phoenix Wright universe, not to mention all the victims), but because of the larger than life character that Phoenix is.

To return, I submit that the core fantasy of the Phoenix Wright games is that if you believe in something enough, and work for it enough, you can make anything happen, no matter how improbable it seems. Tim Schaefer talks about wish fulfillment as a large reason why people play games, and if you use that framework, a huge draw of the Phoenix Wright series is fulfilling the wish that you too, can do anything if you believe in it and work hard enough. It sounds corny, but I believe that watching the truth unfold from Phoenix's unwavering commitment scratches the same cathartic itch that, say, “The Princess Bride” does. In “The Princess Bride” it's about believing in the power of love, no matter the obstacles. In Phoenix Wright, it's about believing in the power of justice, no matter the obstacle. There's much more to be said about the themes of Phoenix Wright, which I may get to later, but that's plenty to read for now.

Up next: The April '08 Roundtable! (More details here: http://blog.pjsattic.com/corvus/2008/04/april-08-round-table/)