Friday, 3 December 2010

The Seven Basic Plots: Are they found in video games?

Back in 2004, Christopher Booker's book The Seven Basic Plots received a large amount of critical and commercial attention. His assertion that there are only seven plots in all narrative is not unique (many have claimed that there are a finite number of plots in existence, though the number is frequently disputed) and Booker was criticised for dismissing homosexuality and failing to research films properly.

Christopher Booker's book
Booker's controversial take on narrative theory

But it raises an interesting talking point as regards narrative. How many plots are there? Is it a finite number? I would argue that all stories ever told have just one plot:

[protagonist] vs. [antagonist].

This doesn't mean that the protagonist has to be human or a single entity. It doesn't mean that there has to be a "fight". It doesn't mean that the antagonist has to be anything tangible, and it doesn't mean that there can't be several of these conflicts occurring in the same narrative. But I'm pretty certain that you can't have a story without a conflict, and all stories are variations on this theme.

It's fairly easy to argue that all games contain some form of conflict even if it's just against the game's engine or artificial physics.

Ryu fights Chun Li in Street Fighter
Ryu vs. Chun Li

But what about Booker's seven plots? Are there games which adhere to each? Are there games which don't adhere to any? Let's have a look...

Overcoming the Monster

Here, the protagonist sets out to destroy a malevolent presence which threatens their person/environment/home/community/world. These stories are often horror stories. Sometimes, the "monster" is inside the protagonist, and they must fight with and overcome their own shortcomings or flaws. And it's equally likely that in vanquishing an external monster, the protagonist comes to terms with something dark within themselves.

Examples: Jaws, Dracula, The Silence of the Lambs

In games: There's a lot of this sort of thing in video games. Given that the most basic game mechanics generally involve destroying something, it makes sense that a lot of video game plots place this destruction at the centre of the plot. In Dead Space, Isaac Clarke must destroy the Necromorphs that threaten the lives of his colleagues, his girlfriend Nicole and himself.

Isaac Clarke in Dead Space
Isaac overcomes with the help of a laser cutter...

In the much more sophisticated narrative of Silent Hill 2, James must overcome a whole range of gruesome monsters, all of whom represented dark parts of his own psyche. This is brilliantly explained in this episode of The Escapist's Extra Credits. I quote:
"Pyramid Head [...] was a shadow of the main character. It was the manifestation of his self-denied sexual frustration and violent nature."
This makes James' flight from Pyramid Head (who remains unnamed throughout the game) sickeningly symbolic.

Silent Hill's James and Pyramid Head
Pyramid Head looms out of the shadows

Although Final Fantasy X has strong elements of "The Quest" (mismatched gaggle of companions make their way across an epic landscape gathering strength and aeons) and "Voyage and Return" (the protagonist is mysteriously transported through time and space at the beginning of the game), it's ultimately about "Overcoming the Monster". Not only does the monster, "Sin" definitely threaten the peaceful world of Spira, but it is the physical manifestation of Tidus' betrayal by his father.

Tidus and Sin from Final Fantasy X
Tidus looks up at Sin, the monster in Final Fantasy X

The Quest

This generally features a MacGuffin, a plot device which drives the protagonists (and often some companions) in pursuit of it at the expense of just about everything else. Although quests often climax with the resolution/destruction/discovery of the MacGuffin (The Lord of the Rings), sometimes the MacGuffin is exposed as worthless. In these cases, the quest and what is learned during it is the real point of the story. This is perfectly illustrated in the Rob Reiner film The Sure Thing.

Examples: Lord of the The Rings, The Sure Thing,

In games: This is probably the most common video game plot after "Overcoming the Monster" (above). This is because often, video game plots are the excuse for the action. This is no bad thing. Donkey Kong Country features the most conspicuous of MacGuffins - the theft of Donkey's collection of bananas for his tree house - to ever prompt a protagonist to action. The game features an extensive collection of imaginative level settings, including a coral reef, a mine shaft and a jungle, and exploring these is really what the game is about.

Donkey Kong in the jungle with Rambi the Rhino
The jungle at night

This is similar to the theme of Super Mario 64 (and indeed most other Mario games), in which Mario cheerfully sets off on a perilous journey, risking life and limb for nothing more than a slice of Princess Peach's cake (as anyone who has played these games will know, this is unfortunately not a euphemism). What "Quest" games tend to have in common is a focus on environment above all else, where the MacGuffin is an excuse to lead the player through a collection of rich and detailed worlds.

Mario 64 Level
This had better be good cake.

The first three Tomb Raider games - where Lara sets off to find the Scion, the Dagger of Xian and bit of an asteroid without really being troubled by any personal issues - are all quests.

Lara Croft and the Scion
Lara Croft reaches for the Scion, the MacGuffin in Tomb Raider

Rags to Riches

The protagonist is plucked from poverty and receives great riches. This event is usually preceded by some form of conflict (such as in Cinderella), or alternatively followed by it (Great Expectations), when the protagonist is faced with the consequences of the sudden acquisition of wealth.

Examples: Cinderella, Aladdin, Great Expectations, Josie and the Pussycats

In games: I like to think that "riches" can be interpreted quite liberally because the important aspect this kind of story is the change in circumstance. But in general, "riches" refers to power, however it's gained. Money, after all, is a kind of power.

But there's a fairly literal interpretation of this story in Fable II, in which young street urchin Sparrow (gender chosen by the player) acquires great power and can wield it however he or she sees fit. Players are given the opportunity to channel their influence into raising a family in a cosy homestead, but they're just as able to invest the treasure they find in the woods in property and businesses, bleeding the land of Albion dry in the process.
Fable II is lighthearted and witty, more concerned with finding humour in situations than it is with making moral points.

Sparrow looks scruffy now...

Consequently, choosing how Sparrow should direct his/her newly acquired wealth and influence is agonising, but only because players are so often driven to find the most amusing - rather than the most moral - outcome. This is something that games are again equipped to do rather well. Rags-to-Riches stories tend to be rather moral affairs, in which the protagonist is either rewarded for being good (Cinderella) or discovers that money isn't really important after all (Josie and the Pussycats). Being able to play with wealth is something that's fairly unique to video games. Sparrow gets to do it in Fable II, and so do so many protagonists who feature in games with economies.

In general, role-playing games feature simplified economies in which players are free to buy in-game items. This is generally made more engaging by having the player start with almost no assets, requiring them to go out into the wilderness and fight for them. Power and wealth tends to be acquired exponentially in role-playing games, so the more money you earn, the better the equipment you can buy and the more enemies you can slaughter, enabling you to a) steal their stuff and b) gain experience points. After a while, tantalising items which were impossible to afford for the first half of a game soon dangle within financial reach of the player.

The increase in bargaining power is often as exciting as the increase in physical/magical/whatever power and is far more fun to play with than it would ever be to watch or read about.

Voyage and Return

Whereas "The Quest" features a pro-active decision on the part of the protagonist to go after a MacGuffin, a "Voyage and Return" generally involves the protagonist being removed from their surroundings and being immersed in another world with different and often illogical rules. The protagonist generally learns something about themselves during a voyage and return.

Examples: Dreamquest, Sex and The City 2, Alice in Wonderland

In games: This is a tricky one. Whilst many games feature the protagonist being uprooted and placed in a foreign environment, the central plot mechanic in such games is usually either "The Quest" or "Overcoming the Monster". For example, in Heart of Darkness, Andy might slip through a black hole and into a mystical world of winged goofballs and shadow people, but he only ends up there because he was searching for his dog Whiskey, who is really just the MacGuffin from "The Quest". Similarly, although Eddie Riggs' mundane life as a heavy metal roadie is interrupted when he is mysteriously transported into a parallel universe in Brütal Legend, he spends most of his time "Overcoming the Monster", represented here by Doviculus, who's hell-bent on destroying the human race.

Andy destroys the shadow people in Heart of Darkness
Is Andy on a "Quest" or a "Voyage"?

Perhaps the purest example of a "Voyage and Return" is flawed classic Assassin's Creed. As I have whinged about before, the game isn't as well-executed as it needs to be to convey its rather brilliant plot, but never mind about that. It features a protagonist from the "real" world who is immersed into another world before returning, armed with both knowledge and experience. Desmond, a bartender and part-time fugitive, is kidnapped by the mysterious corporation Abstergo and forced to relive the memories of his ancestor Altaïr, an assassin in the Holy Land.

Desmond enters the Animus in Assassins Creed
Desmond voyages into another world


Often a love story, a comedy features an ideal state (for example a romantic relationship) which the protagonist arrives at through a series of misunderstandings or mishaps. Comedies often cross over with other plots (for example, The Sure Thing - not to give anything away - is arguably a comedy as well as a quest), but in comedies, dark forces generally repent rather than needing to be destroyed or killed, keeping the tone light. Key to comedy is deft plotting, and events tend to escalate. Coincidence, cause-and-effect and prophetic character traits are all important in comedies.

Examples: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Pride and Prejudice

In games: I'm not sure comedies really appear in games. There are lots of very funny games, to be sure, but comedy relies on events and characters more than any other "story" on this list, and it's hard to insert the intricate the intricate plot developments necessary for true comedy into the structural looseness of a video game.

Steven Poole, oft-quoted (by me) author of Trigger Happy: The Secret Life of Video Games suggests that video games are hampered in all methods of storytelling by their "reversibility", in contrast to stories which depend of irreversibility for their impact. I'd disagree and suggest that video games tell stories about overcoming monsters (see above) and indeed tragedies (see below), but I would agree with him as regards comedy. The precision which a true comedic plot requires does not sit well with the interactive nature of games, and I cannot think of a game which has conveyed a comedic plot successfully. Suggestions are welcome.


Unlike "Overcoming the Monster" in which the protagonist must vanquish the malevolent force, in a true tragedy, the protagonist is the malevolent force, and their demise is usually sealed as soon as the story begins.

Examples: Hamlet, Match Point, Requiem for a Dream

In games: Tragedy can make for some of the best plots in video games. This is because when you think about it, a lot of video game characters do fairly abhorrent things, like slaughtering birds, beasts and native peoples without a second thought, all in the name of progress. When you have a video game character who questions their own movies, you have an extremely interesting plot on your hands.

Take Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, for example. Both games feature antiheroes whose histories of crime leave them no choice but to continue down that road. Rather than delight in their anarchy, they descend into self-loathing. In both cases, their inability to escape the downward spirals of circumstance and their own ciminality results in bloodshed and the betrayal of their respective families. It's not that these games aren't devilishly enjoyable, but that they turn the video game convention of wilful destruction (how many power-ups in video game history are obtained by breaking things?) into something dark and troubling.

John Marston, the tragic hero
John stares into the flames

In both cases, the player must participate in the protaginists abandoning of their good intentions as circumstances and their own nature conspire against them. The inevitability of Nico and John's descent into crime is obvious from the opening scenes as both characters - vulnerable thanks to their pasts and origins - are ripe for exploitation. Powerfully moving though both these games are (especially the final two hours of Red Dead Redemption), playing them is at times like watching a car crash.

No pun intended.

Car crash in Grand Theft Auto IV
Nico Bellic digs himself deeping into a life of crime

God of War is a Greek tragedy which uses interactivity to great effect, by allowing the player to embody a fairly abhorrent character.  This episode of The Escapist's "Extra Credits" explores storytelling across the entire God of War trilogy, and if you're interested in video game narrative I strongly suggest watching it.

Kratos: A tragic hero


Similar to a tragedy, except that the protagonist realises their error/flaw before it's too late and is able to avert the crisis and repent.

Examples: Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol/Muppet Christmas Carol, Return of the Jedi

In games: What's interesting about a "rebirth" story is its relationship to "tragedy" and "overcoming the monster. Red Dead Redemption is so nearly a story of rebirth, and Silent Hill 2 can be a story of rebirth if the player manages to unlock the right ending. If the player is forever running ahead of the spooky Maria and ignoring her pleas to slow down, Silent Hill 2 morphs from a monster story into a tragedy. Stick by her and bravely face down the darkness within yourself, and the game becomes redemptive, allowing James to be reborn. And yes, despite the gynaecological horror of Silent Hill 2, I mean this allegorically.

James and Maria in Silent Hill 2
James contemplates leaving Maria to her fate

Similarly, both Bioshock and Bioshock 2 can be either stories of tragedy or rebirth depending on the decisions made by the player throughout the game. In both cases, the player takes on the role of a weak man (interpret that term however you wish) who must exploit all those around him and mutilate his own body in order to survive. How he goes about it determines whether the end of the story is redemptive or damning.

Bioshock good ending
Is this what redemption looks like?

Straightforward tales of rebirth are slightly harder to come by. Given that video games have only really started exploring tragedy with any seriousness in the last ten years or so, this is perhaps not surprising. Tales of rebirth are harder to pitch, as they can be slushy and predictable when clumsily approached. But it can be done.

Although the main character isn't really "flawed", Portal is a powerful story of rebirth. At the beginning of the game, protagonist Chell is a passive lab rat, obediently completing the tasks she is set in return for the reward (the infamous "cake") that she has been promised.

But as Aperture Science's tests become gradually more sadistic, Chell is forced to begin thinking outside the box. In several cases, she must do this literally.

Chell from Portal
Chell must think her way out of a lot of boxes during Portal.

Because Chell never says a word, it's down to the player to take the initiative that our jumpsuit-clad heroine must find if she's to be reborn. Just because stories of rebirth generally feature redemptive character arcs at their centre doesn't mean that characters must be unpleasant or "bad" characters at the beginning of the narrative. Readers of The Phantom Tollbooth (as much a story of "Voyage and Return" actually) will remember that Milo is initially an unlikable protagonist not because he's cruel or selfish but because he doesn't really care whether he's been bad or good.

Although one imagines Chell has been through worse before the events of Portal than Milo has before the events of The Phantom Tollbooth (one presumes he's just been to school as opposed to undergoing dehumanising scientific procedures), but her initial acceptance of GLaDOS' commands suggests that she must become more proactive and independent if she really is to receive cake. It's only by questioning her situation and surroundings that she is finally able to gain control of her destiny. The fact that Portal is set almost entirely underground gives the "rebirth" metaphor a chilling significance.

*     *     *

This has been an extremely interesting exercise. Many games (like many non-interactive stories) straddle two or more of Booker's seven plots. Though I don't necessarily agree that there are indeed seven plots, thinking about the ways stories are put together is a good way to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the interactive storytelling medium.

I hope you enjoyed this week's post as much as I enjoyed writing it (it's good to get back into Well-Rendered's comfy saddle following the ups and downs of the last few months), and if you can think of any great examples of any of the above that I've missed (or care to dispute anything), you know where the comment box is.


  1. Fantastic post. I think I agree with the original premise, though you might want to call it "conflict and release", the way that you might describe music in Shenckerian analysis.

  2. Great article! I wanted to write about video games and how they fit into the 7 basic plots, but it looks like someone already did it and did it well. I may have to look at doing something a bit differently. Excellent read!