The Preservation of Traditional Narratives through Popular Video Games, featuring "Fable"


Image Credit: TheXboxHub



The following article was originally published May 30, 2020 through the LinkedIn database. Since originally publishing this article, it has provided a large amount of feedback, which includes users sending me private messages. On August 9, 2020, I started my own brand called #TheModernistSon. Thus, I am republishing this article so it is available for readers through my own domain.

Abstract: The world of video game culture frequently integrates stories from previously existing narratives, and this process is necessary in order for traditional narratives to remain relevant within a twenty-first century society. The following article highlights various examples of the aforementioned process through video game franchises such as (the) Legend of Zelda, as well as the testimony of video game fanatics from a folkloric perspective.

Introduction:

Within the realm of video game culture, players continue investing time in video games for reasons ranging from personal entertainment to treating symptoms of anxiety. However from my perspective, video games have always been a method of seeking entertainment through their suspenseful narratives and quests to become the Machiavellian hero of (that) video game world. Nevertheless, individuals also play video games because it distracts them from real world anxieties and challenges which at the time appear insurmountable. With respect of video games, this popular medium has always served as a gateway to transport players from our own world into the unknown; as well as providing us players with new places to explore beyond the mundane circumstances of the real world. Therefore, video games have proven to be an essential aspect of twentieth and twenty-first century society. In terms of video game culture, the preservation of traditional narratives allows players the ability to share traditional motifs with new audiences. Prior to writing this article, (for the first time) I spoke with a video game fanatic named Tyler who also happens to be one of my good friends. Through my consultation with Tyler, his perspective has provided me with significant insight in terms of what it means to be a gamer and why it is important to preserve traditional narrative motifs through mediums such as popular video games.

Romanticism and Video Games:

The issue of preserving traditional narratives ensures stories collected from the pastoral past remain significant, particularly in terms of modernity and the twenty-first century gaming world. With respect of modernity, from a folkloric perspective this term means something different for everyone involved. Modernity could have a specific meaning for myself, whereas my girlfriend could completely dismiss my idea. In order for traditional narratives to effectively demonstrate modernity, narratives must be experienced through modern cultural mediums such as popular video games. Furthermore, the integration of cautionary tales in video games allows new players the opportunity to further their knowledge of traditional stories through acquired interest while playing popular video games. In terms of how video game narratives work and operate Dr. Keri Duncan Valentine from the University of West Virginia highlights messages video games convey to players, as well as the relationship between video games and common elements featured in many traditional stories. Dr. Valentine states in her book Examining the Evolution of Gaming:



Contemporary video games are able to carry explicit political or moral messages, can retell fairy tales, and remediate myths from around the world. The narrative of the 2010 video game Alan Wake (Remedy Entertainment, 2010) released by Microsoft for the Xbox 360 and Windows PC, is, created through an amalgamation of several myths from different cultures around the world. Folktales are being shared by a global community who otherwise might never interact with them. These folk stories are in part, being kept alive by their inclusion in popular contemporary video games, breathing new life into tales no longer deemed relevant by a 21st century audience. (Valentine and Jensen, 38-39)



Valentine’s statement contributes to the significance of video games in folk life, such that folktales are consistently preserved through narrative motifs of heroism, cautionary tales, and lessons of morality. For instance, the Super Mario series demonstrates the issue of the Machiavellian hero through the individual’s willingness and ability to save the entire world for the “greater good”. Motifs of heroism have existed in narratives for centuries, such that Nintendo’s latest effort with the character of Mario (Odyssey, at the time of orginally writing this article), continues to preserve traditional narrative components through Mario’s quest to halt Bower’s plans to conquer the universe through his marriage and alliance with Princess Peach. Although a new Super Mario narrative is established with each iteration, (with the exception of remastered video games), the core elements of traditional narratives remain consistent. The process of preserving traditional motifs through popular video games ensures that stories from around the world remain significant and a focal point of modernity. The concept of romanticizing pre existing narratives in modern video games appears in franchises such as the Fable Trilogy, published originally by Lionshead Studios between 2004 and 2014. Through acknowledgement of the pastoral past, this process is necessary for the survival of valued narrative components; such that transmission of old stories through video games allows new audiences to experience heroism and morality in a newly romanticized form.

 Romanticism of traditional narratives through video games emerges quite often following the birth of the video game industry in the 1970s. Although some of the earliest video games were essentially digital versions of baseball among other sports, these classics became the stepping stones to masterpieces such as Super Mario Bros 3 released in 1988. In terms of the Fable series which was initially released in 2004, the primary objective of each installment transports players into a world that demands heroic expectations, or evil depending on the player’s in game morality. Fable’s narrative allows players to determine the fate of the fictional province of Albion, such that for the first time players had the choice of being good or evil within the context of video games narratives. However, the primary issue in fantasy video games draws from the pastoral past; through mediums such as medieval romances depicting heroes and good conquering evil. Medieval romances become a significant aspect of the literary world because the aforementioned narratives include lessons of morality, which influences the actions and perspectives of readers and audience members. Drawing from the pastoral past once again, popular video game plots emulate the pre existing role of medieval romances in order to attract a substantial modern audience. During my consultation with Tyler, he discusses the nature of traditional narrative motifs commonly preserved in the video game world through best-selling franchises such as The Legend of Zelda:


I have noticed the preservation of older story elements in games like The Legend of Zelda; maybe the oldest folklore trope that exists is the “damsel in distress” with the princess, who in this case, is probably more capable than her protectors. At the same time, there are different incarnations where she (Zelda) deliberately hides her powers from those sent to protect her, and that is when you have the central hero come and save her. As for the preservation being important, whether Zelda is trying to conceal her powers the basis of the story remains the same. The hero comes to her rescue regardless, and this gives us as the readers and audience members a way of believing in ourselves. (Interview conducted February 20, 2020)



With respect of Tyler’s testimony, the nature of his statement indicates the significance of heroism as a commonplace motif within traditional narratives. In terms of preserving narrative motifs, such traditional narrative elements frequently reappear in modern video games. Early Medieval romance manuscripts exist as forms of entertainment for mass audiences, as well as demonstrating moral lessons as a means of protecting children from the dangers of the real world. Therefore, the entertainment aspects of traditional folktales holds a relationship with the inherent purpose of creating and producing video games for global audiences. As a result, video game worlds frequently draw inspiration from previously existing narrative motifs as a means of introducing societal values of the past to a modern twenty-first century.


Romanticism and Video Games, a Personal Assessment:

A major component of fantasy video games draws from the issue of heroism, and players accessing the role of the hero as a means of escaping real world concerns. Something to emphasize is folktales frequently contain elements of heroism in order to establish narrative and contextual identity which remains significant throughout the plot of 1991’s Streets of Rage for Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. The video game Streets of Rage has since been remastered for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, among others. Nevertheless, Streets of Rage does not contain strict narrative development other than the introduction in which players assume the role of a police officer. However, the video game police officer demonstrates heroism as they rebel against the corruption of society. Drawing from the role of video game characters, the issue of players assuming this heroic role allows traditional story elements to resurface within the world of early modern video games. Although narratives transmitted as a means of entertainment do not necessarily encourage readers and audiences to complete acts of heroism, these narratives remain important because it allows players to have confidence.

Video Games and Narrative Influence:

The preservation of traditional narratives remains successful because of factors such as variation, as well as the integration of pre existing stories. Outside the video game world, traditional stories are frequently integrated though mediums such as popular sitcoms, children’s books, and even various children’s television programs. The process of preserving traditional narratives has become commonplace for the twentieth and twenty-first century world, especially through mainstream video games as previously discussed through reference of Dr. Valentine’s book. Furthermore, professor of English Jonathan Ostenson’s article “Exploring the Boundaries of Narrative” highlights the issue of video game narratives influencing gamers to explore other cultural mediums. Professor Jonathan Ostenson of Brigham Young University states:



Video games have come a long way from the days of Pong and Pacman, and not just in terms of graphical complexity. The games of today have come to rely more and more on the elements of fiction in their design, and they represent unexplored territory in studying the nature and impact of narrative. As they become more mainstream, many have suggested a place for video games in the classroom- they can boost problem-solving skills and enhance reading skills, and that video game-based books can serve as bridges to other reading. (Ostenson, 71)



As previously mentioned, Dr. Valentine argues that the narrative world existing in video games allows players to explore other cultural mediums containing similar themes. In respect of Ostenson’s argument, his statement indicates that modern video games heavily rely on pre existing fictional elements that remain significant because of cultural variation. Within modern video games, the narrative possibility and content have significantly expanded since the early years of video game history. From my own experiences as a video game player, I have explored a variety of fantasy novels because of my admiration for Role Playing video games. In terms of a folkloric context, the transmission of fantasy motifs such as heroism and chivalry has increased my interest in manuscripts and novels depicting similar literary aspects. For instance, I started playing The Elder Scrolls in 2019 and my admiration for its franchise narrative content influenced my decision to begin reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, as well as fantasy novels written by Joe Abercrombie. Thus, the process of playing video games transports players to a world that has been constructed by pre existing narrative motifs which regain importance through its transmission to new audiences.


Emotional Responses and Authenticity:

The expressions of emotions in video games operates similarly to that of folk tales, as well as other traditional narratives. Individuals reading folktales or serving as audience members through oral transmission often learn lessons of morality, which influences their own emotional response towards the narrative content as the consumer. In terms of narrative function, the content of video games become authentic aspects of culture through player’s emotional response to critical moments throughout narrative development. I have been playing video games since 2003, and writers deliberately construct moments that manipulate player’s emotional experiences. For instance, 2010’s Red Dead Redemption from Rockstar Games successfully evokes various different emotions from the players through its narrative content. Following the final mission of the video game’s main plot line, the primary character John Marston is killed by Edgar Ross and his associates of the Federal Bureau Investigation. Despite Ross’ role as a federal agent, he serves as the antagonist throughout the course of the narrative. The post game environment allows players to assume the role of Jack Marston, the son of the aforementioned main character. However, players have been transported from 1911 to 1914 when the United States is preparing for the First World War. With respect of emotional responses to video games, Professor Ostenson states in his article referring to the 2007 masterpiece known as Bioshock:


I’ve spent many hours over the past few weeks immersed in a fictional, underwater city of Rapture, founded as a haven of Objectivists ideals but which has since become a ruined, dystopian nightmare. I’ve dodged genetically enhanced nightmares and I’ve wandered through the vast spaces of the city seeking an escape. Along the way, I’ve saved the lives of a handful of orphaned girls, innocent waifs exploited by a malicious businessman intent on using girls as part of his scheme for cheap, mass market genetic enhancements. As my life ends, these same girls- who have since matured and found peace and purpose in new lives outside the twisted Rapture- I’m grateful I made the choices I did. I could be describing my reaction to a novel I just read or a movie I just watched, and many of you readers would think nothing of my response- in fact, you might recall similar emotional responses you’ve had to literature or art. But the previous paragraph describes my (very real) reaction to the ending of a cinematic video game called Bioshock. (Ostenson, 71)



Video games offer players an authentic experience in terms of emotions evoked from the narrative content, such that modern video games create a unique identity that draws from folktales and narratives of the past to establish something new. In further relation to the structure of video game narratives, players often complete video games with feelings of satisfaction and appreciation for the narrative development throughout their experience. According to Ostenson’s argument, he emphasizes that the description of his emotional experiences following the completion of 2007’s Bioshock is comparable to watching a cinematic film or reading a suspenseful novel. From my own perspective, I had a similar experience with 2015’s Fallout 4. The narrative of Fallout 4 follows a male or female character, (the sole survivor), who is quite literally a person out of time searching for their lost son who has been taken from them by The Institute. However, the narrative of the aforementioned video game twists when the sole survivor’s son is revealed as the leader of (the) Institute. Moreover, the player is given the choice to become a member of the Institute or work against it. With respect of video games evoking emotional responses from players, the player assumes the role of a parent who must decide whether to support their son or save the rest of the Commonwealth from the hypothetical boogeyman. Following the final acts of Fallout 4’s main quest, should the player choose to side with the Brotherhood of Steele, (ad victorium), they will witness the death of their son and other members of the Institute in order to save the lives of those constantly threatened by the Commonwealth’s greatest enemy.


Drawing from the emotional response evoked through playing video games, responses range from happiness, anger, and often sadness based on narrative composition. For instance, critical moments within video game narratives deliberately evoke specific emotions from players such as sadness following the death of a major character. The issue of video games evoking specific emotions plays a significant factor in the transmission of traditional story elements, through which players and audience members are encouraged to obtain a moral lesson from the experience. Within the context of traditional stories, frequent motifs sometimes include the heroic central character sacrificing themselves so other characters achieve freedom. Moreover, the issue of heroic characters sacrificing themselves establishes lessons of morality which provides a significant source of entertainment for audience members.


Further illustrating Authenticity:

The authenticity of video game culture does not entirely rely on emotional responses, such that authenticity is preserved through cultural transmission and hegemony. Within the video game world, the composition of video game narratives establishes an expanded fan base which includes apparel merchandise, action figures, as well as groups existing on social media. From a folkloristic perspective, something to consider is the process in which video game fandom establishes a shared cultural identity; known as hegemony. In terms of hegemony, video game fanatics often possess a collection of items related to the corresponding narrative which demonstrates one’s identity as a gamer. Furthermore, John Storey describes cultural hegemony in his book Inventing Popular Culture:



This produced a situation in which the interests of one powerful section of society are “universalized” as the interest of society as a whole. Our identities are made in culture, rather than something we inherit from nature. In other words, the roots and routes of our identity are staged and performed in culture with culture. (Storey, 88)



Storey highlights that identity is established through culture, and through the shared identity between individuals, (as gamers within this context). Within the context of video game culture, hegemony is expressed through events such as gaming festivals as well as personal collections of video game memorabilia. During my consultation with Tyler, we discussed the significance of collecting items related to video game narratives:



I usually buy things related to video games whenever I get a chance. Not only does it allow me to have a display of video game related items, such as Pokemon and Legend of Zelda figures, but it helps me share my identity as a gamer for anyone who sees my collection. Even those who are already gamers could see my collection, and this leads to a natural bond between us. (Interview conducted January 18, 2019)



The concept of hegemony remains significant in video game culture, considering that objects such as video game based figures establish shared identity between members of the video game community. From a folkloric perspective, identity and cultural significance plays an essential role in transmitting values to others. Nevertheless, video game narratives successfully resurrect traditional narratives of the past and establish their significance through emulation. The process of narrative emulation allows for, the expansion of cultural opportunities with action figures representing the video game world. From my own perspective, cultural hegemony within the video game world is undeniably important. Although I no longer have possession of these items, I once had a collection of video games related items which established my identity as a gamer. I have since sold my video game related merchandise, however, this does not diminish that gaming identity is accurately depicted through physical fandom such as posters, bobble heads, or even a model of a “PIPBOY” from the Fallout video game series.


Conclusion:

The narrative world of video games has attracted players since the 1970s, and has significantly increased in popularity following technological and narrative advancements in the twenty-first century. Although it does not appear this way at surface value, video games effectively reconstruct traditional stories and concepts as a means of sharing its value with new audiences. As a result of advanced narrative development, modern video games successfully retell and recreate valued stories of the past which allows traditional narratives to achieve prosperity with new audiences.


Final Note: I would like to thank my good friend who allowed me to use his testimony in the completion of this article. I appreciate it.

(c) The Modernist Son, 2020


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