A good story is key

The most successful kind of plot for computer games – and indeed for all kinds of other stories, from international folk-tale, to medieval romance, to the great fantasy works of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, is the quest. The hero sets out from home on a quest to find something or with a mission to do something imposed upon him. So in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is tasked by Gandalf and Bilbo with destroying the Ring by casting it into Mount Doom. On the way the hero acquires companions, encounters helpers or donors who give them the special, often magical, means to achieve the adventure, they are threatened by villains and quite often they fall in love. The Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp analysed his country’s folktales and identified the chief ‘functions’ as he called the characters’ roles as: Hero, Sender, Donor, Villain, and False Hero – who pops up to claim the credit. Propp also suggested that stories often started with a need or a lack; the hero might have to face many challenges in gaining the means to succeed; when the hero has defeated the villain there may be still more obstacles – like the False Hero to face. Here’s a link that lists Propp’s story-elements, or ‘narremes’ as they are sometimes called – smaller items that are used to build up a whole narrative. If you were writing a computer-game plot, which ones would you want to use? And what kinds of people would you create to fulfil the different functions of Hero, Villain, Sender, Donor and so on?

A really successful computer game – like a really successful fantasy world – will very likely consist of more than one single and linear plot. There may be more than one hero, many different villains, and several different storylines and quests being narrated at the same time, taking place in different parts of the imagined world. So, as well as Frodo’s quest to rid himself of the Ring in The Lord of the Rings, we have the adventures of the other Companions, the story of Aragorn’s winning the throne of Gondor, and the rise of the Ents to overthrow Saruman. Likewise, in Game of Thrones, currently the world’s most successful TV series, there are a large number of competing plotlines, often of different literary types, or genres.

So, we have the story of Arya Stark’s quest to get home to Winterfell, the battle to contain or destroy the White Walkers, and the campaign to sit on the Iron Throne – undertaken by lots of different characters with varying degrees of success. There are coming-of-age stories for the younger characters, a detective story (‘Who killed Jon Arryn?’), and elements from horror, comedy and tragedy, as well as the familiar quest pattern of medieval romances. These stories make use of many of the same moves that Propp describes. At the same time the story-lines of the characters can intersect with one another – like those of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen; the villain may seem to be vanquished, but return in another form – like all those wights and the White Walkers; and although you may think you are secure on the Iron Throne, you may be quite wrong. You don’t have to stick to the quest plot – though it will help to structure and move your game forward – you can bring other kinds of story-telling in too. Fantasy and other kinds of story set in imaginary universes aren’t just escapist or simply made-up; they often find ways of talking about the contemporary.


Create a storyboard for use in a video game, concentrating on the key characters, the shape of the narrative, and the development of the plot through the beginning, middle and end.


Professor Carolyne Larrington

I teach medieval English literature in the College, ranging from the earliest Old English to the beginning of the Renaissance period. I studied medieval English language and literature at St Catherine’s College, Oxford and my DPhil was on Old Norse and Old English wisdom poetry. Before starting graduate work I taught English in Japan for two years. My research often takes me to Scandinavia and Iceland, and I also travel widely for pleasure.

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