For the uninitiated, in 2004 a book was written by a man named Christopher Booker entitled The Seven Basic Plots. In it, he outlines what his work of 34 plus years has driven him to conclude about the world of storytelling – that there are really only seven general story structures, adapted to fit the needs of the individual storyteller. He applies this mostly to literature, but also to film and television. In this post (and those to follow in the series), we will be illustrating that games are no different – many of the best of their genres follow these basic structures, some almost religiously.
First on our list is the “rags to riches” archetype. In this, a poor or downtrodden protagonist rises to the occasion in spectacular fashion, climbing his way up the totem pole to end up a hero/king/rich. A perfect example of not just a game, but a series, that follows this story line with a fervor is Bethesda’s legendary Elder Scrolls series. From the third game in the series, Morrowind, onward, each game begins with your character as a prisoner. You then proceed to escape (usually by some incredible circumstance), and gradually grow in power until eventually you participate in some epic event to (mostly single-handedly) save the realm. While this may seem like some streak of laziness from Bethesda’s writing department, it is more akin to a stroke of genius – Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim scored 9.4, 9.3, and 9.5 respectively from IGN, one of the largest and most important game reviewing sites. Each of the games was tremendously popular and tremendously successful – Skyrim itself made nearly $1.3 billion on a budget of only $85 million.
So how does a series get away with – nay, succeed spectacularly by – reusing the same general story repeatedly? Because, simply, it is a powerful one. It is a basic human desire to better oneself or one’s situation. These games take that to the extreme, starting the player in the shoes of a lowly prisoner with nothing to his (or her) name and only limited skills. As their character evolves into an immensely powerful and renowned hero, the player is able to empathize with their character, drawing them further and further into the game. And in the case of many players, by the time they’ve finished with the experience of one journey, they are hungry for another.
Of course, it helps in the case of these games that there is also a tremendous amount of diversity and many groundbreaking mechanics. But the next time you find yourself being unable to put one down (or one of the many others that fit into this archetype – the RPG genre fits it very well), perhaps consider how much you are actually being drawn to your character and not just the play of the game.