This is a wide-open question, and historically around here the wide-open questions fall flat and deflate with a faint sad whistling sound. But I'll try it anyway.
What are the archetypes of interactive folk tales and fairy tales? I mean, what are the natural shapes of the things?
We have fairy-tale notions -- and maybe they date back no farther than Grimm and Lang, I'm no researcher, but we have them anyhow -- that if there are three brothers, then the first one gets the title and the second one gets the wealth and the third one gets to be poor and honest and goes off to be a protagonist. Three sisters (or nine, or twelve) are rarely even that lucky. You give a coin to a beggar so that he will turn out to be a wizard or the king of this-or-that; misery follows innocence and leads to triumph; and you always fail after succeeding twice, or succeed after failing twice.
(That last point should probably be tied to the observation that second marriages always work out miserably. I don't know where that one leads.)
But all of this pre-supposes a certain... certainty. Inevitability. These stories come to us in books, and there is a way the story goes. (Even if the movie then re-stitches the whole thing into a hat or a pterodactyl.)
What does a story look like when interactive tools appear, and the constraint of print and performance is removed?
I know, this is the core question of the game-design era, and I'm not going to solve it. But the fairy-tale approach appeals to me, because fairy-tale archetypes give us a model of story ideas that are simple -- boiled-down, even -- and yet still resonant. Surely we can say something as simple as "there were three brothers..." while incorporating player choice.
There were three... brothers? Sisters? Siblings? If the player merely chooses the genders and then lets the story run, is that interactivity? (Yes, and probably interestingly. But this addresses the gender roles of traditional fairy tales, rather than their static-fiction form.) If you choose the character, with his or her particular motivation, and then let that run? (Perhaps.)
There were three siblings, and the first was... The second was... Does the story have to be about the third? Can each sibling have his or her own adventure? (Certainly. This is too simple, though, if you just write three stories and paste them together at the front. The point of three siblings is so that we can cheer the least and unluckiest one to victory. Now, if each protagonist thinks he or she is the least and unluckiest -- because they all value different things -- and then each one sees the others stumbling somehow to failure, and sets off to rescue them, while being rescued along the way in two different and (from the interior view) less crucial ways... I think there's some silver to be mined in that hill.)
A child became lost in a forest, and... what happened next? The child traps or defeats the monster and escapes. (Or is devoured, sure, but that forest path doesn't need my feet to be well-trodden.) But how does it happen? (A cut leaf, a flask of spring water, the words to make the roses grow. Is it unreasonable to offer any of those tasks as the story, and let the player choose which one to unfold? The ending is inevitable, but the middle can go various ways. Or you could flip back and learn what happened before the beginning, when the innocent childhood wasn't so simple. Or it might be the beggar's story, after all, who gave the child a flask in return for...)
We have, to be sure, a set of fairy-tale tropes much like IF puzzles: fetch quests, token-gathering, and riddles. So we have the whole array of IF devices that apply to puzzles. Multiple solutions, optional puzzles, free ordering of puzzles, rewards or story events ordered independently of puzzle order. This is 1990s IF technology, and easy to take for granted, but worth mentioning.
@peterb suggested digging into the layers of retelling -- grandmother may tumble out of the wolf's corpse smiling, or maybe eaten is eaten, if that's what you want of it. Underneath the fairy-tale forest is the Schwarzwald, and below that starving bandits, perhaps. I like that notion.
We might have three stories stitched together more delicately: a cause here, an effect there. The interactivity is in choosing which story to follow, on the coarse level; but really the player must recognize the connections and cohere the fourth, unspoken story.
I'm not coming anywhere close to an archetype here, I admit. I'm listing particular patterns, if not specific game ideas. It may be that whereas condensed story ideas are recognizable, condensed interaction ideas are toys -- not compelling without their details of gameplay. I can tell you that you will decide who to adopt as your wise old mentor, or in what order you will defeat the conspirators, or even what virtue you will discover on the way to the witch's oven. Are these notions intriguing? They've been tried, and successes do not come to mind. Archetypes grow out of the stories we actually perpetuate, I suppose.
Comments imported from Gameshelf
Clara (Apr 20, 2011 at 3:16 PM):
What got me into studying games was precisely this type of common structure, which would appear both in games and fairytales. It turns out that a Russian formalist, Vladimir Propp, figured out the formula in the late 1920s. He wrote a book about it, Morphology of the Folktale.
People have looked at Propp's morphology as a way to generate stories, rather than realizing that it's really a system where characters have roles and behaviours (he calls each component "function", which happens to translate well into programming terms). Repetition of items is a common trope (usually a magic number of times, three, seven, twelve), creates expectations as well as extends the narrative.
So maybe the key is to extend the functions of the characters, having new ones or have them result in non-formulaic ways; we could also try to extend the repertoire of character archetypes. We can bring choice into fairytales and break down the formula. I'm all for breaking expectations.
Emily Short (Apr 20, 2011 at 4:59 PM):
What I'm interested in, usually, is using the well-known story to give the player a structure and expectations; perhaps even to skip to the end of the story. (Alabaster, Glass, and Bronze all start partway through their stories, because I can trust the reader to back-fill -- enough, anyway, that I don't have to explain.) Then from there I'm free to explore the motivations of the people involved: less what happened and more why it happened.
Sometimes that takes directions I didn't really expect myself. Bronze I originally expected to be a cheerier and more romantic piece, but the more I dug into it, the more I realized that I couldn't tell a story in which someone who had been kidnapped and held and sexually pressured emerged from it by falling for her captor. I had to pull back a bit on how pressuring the Beast had been, and make Beauty's reaction a lot more ambiguous and suggestive of some psychological damage. Which several players have told me they really disliked. They came to the game expecting, more or less by contract, a romantic story with a sparkling sugar ending, and I broke the author/reader contract. (In my defense, all I can say is that I did try to warn them. The game isn't really packaged as a sparkly romance.)
If I were instead trying to do something where the player did have a lot of control over event ordering but I still wanted to capture the fairy-tale feel, there are ways to contrive that too, I suppose. Set things up so that the first two gimmicks the player tries (regardless of what they are) always fail. The third one (regardless of what that is) always succeeds.
Now the game is something completely different. It's not really about the player taking the role of the protagonist. It's about the player joining in in the creative aspect of the fairy tale and in fact cooperating in defining its meaning, because the arrangement of items (X and Y to lose, Z to succeed) is a means for the player to express a theme within the enforced fairy tale structure.
I suppose that's a variation on
I can tell you that you will decide who to adopt as your wise old mentor, or in what order you will defeat the conspirators, or even what virtue you will discover on the way to the witch's oven.
So maybe we know it doesn't work. But I think to succeed it would need to be overtly structured to emphasize the player's role not as protagonist with an arbitrary amount of not-very-interesting freedom, but as co-artist communicating within a highly constrained system.
Pavitra (Apr 20, 2011 at 7:34 PM):
The mostly-fixed nature of the genre formalism, with one's options reduced to multiple-choice among the pre-existing patterns, is precisely the structure of videogame interactivity. What we have here is the opposite of a problem.
matt w (Apr 20, 2011 at 7:51 PM):
Some of this feels to me as though it's solved already, or easily solved, though probably not in a way that you'd like. And I guess you aren't exactly looking for a solution. But looking at this:
you always fail after succeeding twice, or succeed after failing twice...
But all of this pre-supposes a certain... certainty. Inevitability. These stories come to us in books, and there is a way the story goes.... What does a story look like when interactive tools appear, and the constraint of print and performance is removed?
There were three siblings, and the first was... The second was... Does the story have to be about the third? Can each sibling have his or her own adventure?
Reminds me of the structure of a typical game story, where in fact there is only one way the story goes -- but you might not make it to the end of the story on each playthrough. That is to say, the first sibling might not make it to the end of the story, but then the second sibling knows not to go into that cave without a light source; and then the third sibling knows not to try to come without something shiny to give to the troll guarding the bridge, and so on until the last sibling succeeds. (Which means you'd better not say how many there are at the beginning.) Interactivity doesn't usually seem to mean you get to choose the winning path through the story.
I've played at least one game with this every-life-is-a-different-person structure and it made me think, "What are the elder sisters in fairy tales but extra lives thrown away so that the youngest sister win the game?"
Jon F (Apr 21, 2011 at 2:07 AM):
http://bigthink.com/ideas/37841 also mentions Propp's "Morphology". Apparently the natural shape of things this week is "spooky synchronicity".
Andrew Plotkin (Apr 21, 2011 at 2:08 AM):
"What are the elder sisters in fairy tales but extra lives thrown away so that the youngest sister win the game?"
Cute! That's a promising lead.
I will certainly have to read Propp (in my, all together now, "copious spare time"). I like the idea of distributing game elements and letting the player's experience determine which are the "building-up" repetitions and which are the "resolving" repetitions.
"It's about the player joining in in the creative aspect of the fairy tale and in fact cooperating in defining its meaning..."
When I wrote this post, I had (in the back of my head) the interaction between storyteller and child. The child may demand more detail in some aspect of the story, or may insist that it goes off in some other direction entirely. The storyteller, with a broader grasp of what's going on, responds to the child's lead. (And, ideally, the child learns that art in the process.) The listener identifies with the story's protagonist, but isn't identical to the protagonist. So this fits very well with your comment.
(A Telling of the Tales, a warped fairy-tale book which is a favorite of mine, describes this exactly. William J. Brooke. I brought it to the IF Suite this year, but nobody looked at it, of course.)
Naturally I'm describing a true collaborative experience, which IF can't actually do -- see Emily's recent blog post about narrativist IF, and the comments there. But I'm not giving up hope that IF can touch some of those aspects. (Narrativist RPGs often have very constrained stories, right?)
Jason Dyer (Apr 21, 2011 at 4:31 PM):
Re: the extra lives comment, the CRPG Faery Tale Adventure from the 80s took that literally. There are three brothers and if one of them dies you take over as the next brother.
Nathan (Apr 22, 2011 at 3:31 AM):
But I thought "learn by dying" was deprecated in modern IF.
Andrew Plotkin (Apr 22, 2011 at 2:39 PM):
Sure. But think about why.
matt w (Apr 23, 2011 at 3:15 PM):
Oh, I just realized that I mangled the link to the game I was talking about (and the comment thread from which I was, ahem, quoting myself).