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The Uses of Stereotypes
by David Kuelz on 06/21/14 02:50:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

I feel like writers, especially writers on the young-ish side like myself, can’t turn around without someone warning us about the dangers of stereotypes, like stereotypes are strangers wearing trench coats that own rusty vans with blacked-out windows, waiting to whisk us away to a place where our parents won’t be able to find us.  Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to be the new number one rule of storytelling; don’t use stereotypes.  If you’re writing a fantasy story with an elf in it, you shall be scowled at you until you shred and then burn the manuscript.  And do both, please, you can’t be too safe nowadays.

It seems to me like we’ve forgotten the real number one rule of storytelling: every rule has exceptions.

The fact of the matter is that stereotypes – and I don’t mean offensive stereotypes, I mean genre stereotypes – can be useful to writers who know how to handle them.  It’s a bit like playing with fire; yes, you’ll get burned if you make a mistake, but sometimes you’ll get fireworks.  I’d like to talk about how they can be helpful, and then afterwards I’ll lay out some tips that’ll hopefully keep our hands from getting blown off.

So, first, what exactly are stereotypes good for?  I think that there’s some truth to the argument that they strike a very powerful emotional core in us – they were popular enough to become stereotypes in the first place, after all – but personally I approach them in a much more practical sense.  They’re useful because they convey large amounts of information quickly.  If I tell you that one of my characters is an elf, you already know exactly what I mean.  You know that she’s probably tall, graceful, good with a bow, really friggin’ old, and you’re less likely to call bull**** when she starts talking to trees.

If I tell you that she’s a Xaqlika, I have to stop the gameplay dead in its tracks to explain what the hell I’m talking about.

Stereotypes are useful when it comes to cutting down on the amount of exposition you’ll need to feed players.  Take Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning as an example.  There was a lot of good work done in that story, but because it was all completely unique information it was entirely possible that the player would have to spend an hour or more completely divorced from the gameplay, simply listening to expository dialogue in order to figure out who was who and what was going on.  If the Fae were elves, and the Winter Fae were dark elves, I would have understood everything a whole lot quicker and we wouldn’t necessarily have to lose all of that interesting backstory.  We could have kept their culture exactly the same, but by invoking the power of a genre stereotype, the player gets a solid base of information right off of the bat that they can use to understand the plot much quicker, and we can correct the details from there.  Just because we’re invoking the power of a stereotype doesn’t mean we have to rigidly adhere to every aspect of it, but more on that in a second.

Stereotypes can also indirectly help gameplay.  I think the attitude that story and gameplay don’t mix is largely growing to be untrue as we develop our narrative design toolkit, but one conflict that still remains tricky is the balance between subtlety and clarity.  Good storytelling demands subtlety, it asks the player to keep guessing what’s going to happen up until the very end, which means it can never provide hard proof of anything too significant until that end.  But gameplay demands clarity.  Players need to have a sense of what exactly they’re expected to do and the exact set of tools that they can use to accomplish it.  Stereotypes are one of the few tools writing has that conveys such clarity.  If a dragon makes off with a princess, then the player knows exactly what they’re supposed to do.  If the player character is a handsome knight, they’re going to know exactly how they’re supposed to do it.  If a bat-eagle hybrid makes off with a middle-age bank manager and our avatar is a starbucks barista, yes we have a whole lot more originality to our story but we’re going to have to explain to the player exactly what we want them to do some other way. 

Lastly, and this is sort of a sidenote because it’s not really my territory, genre stereotypes are useful to marketing.  The most important aspect of a story, when it comes right down to getting people to pick up the box, is its ability to be quickly identified.  It’s an “epic fantasy” or a “noir mystery” and because of "x" it exists for this target audience.  Attempts to defy genre can be interesting and, truth be told, I think are in the best interest of the art form, but you’re also handing your marketing department a slingshot when everyone else is going to have a semi-automatic.  Your marketing department can sell elves.  They’re going to have a harder time with Xaqlikas.

So stereotypes can still be useful, but they’re also still pretty dangerous.  How can we use them to get everything moving quickly while avoiding the dreaded eye-rolls from critics and players alike?  Well, like I said earlier, just because we call on a stereotype to deliver some accurate information to the player doesn’t mean we can’t contradict parts of said stereotype.  Just because a dragon kidnaps a princess doesn’t mean they have to behave the way we expect them to.  The princess doesn’t have to be helpless.  The dragon doesn’t have to be the bad guy.

Here’s the thing: storytelling is manipulation.  My job as a writer is to manipulate the player into feeling emotions that are going to make the experience more enjoyable, and once we accept that I’m here to lie to and trick them, that job gets a whole lot easier.  As Aaron Sorkin once said, and I’m totally paraphrasing: “The difference between persuasion and manipulation is whether or not they notice.  What I’m doing is just as manipulative as a magician doing a magic trick.  If I can wave this red silk handkerchief enough in my right hand, I can do whatever I want with my left hand and you’re not going to see it.”

My point is that we can use stereotypes as long as we hide the fact that we’re using them.  Here’s how.

There’s a principle known as “The Pope in the Pool”, which was originally taught to me by Blake Snyder in his book Save The Cat.  The name comes from the movie The Plot to Kill the Pope in which there is a scene where the very technical plot to kill the pope is laid out in an exposition dump for the audience’s benefit.  But, while the exposition dump is happening, the pope is swimming laps in his private pool while wearing a bathing suit.  You’re so distracted by the weirdly subversive sight (you mean he doesn’t have to wear that hat all the time?) that you don’t even notice as the exposition is fed to you.  The fact that the pope is in a pool is the red silk handkerchief, and the left hand teaches you what you need to know about the plot while you're distracted.

This technique is primarily used when it comes to hiding exposition, but I’ve adapted it to hiding any unpleasant aspect you need to introduce to the audience.  Say, introducing a stereotype.  When you’re introducing a stereotype to the audience, 99% of the information can fit their expectations and get all that information across quickly, but you also need to, simultaneously, introduce something flashy and fun and different about the stereotype that is so distracting and all-consuming the audience doesn’t even realize that they’re being introduced to another damn elf.  They were too busy noticing that the elf was bright green because she survives on photosynthesis. 

If you introduce any stereotype that’s 100% what we expect it to be, you’re going to get the same reaction as every other terrible fantasy story, but add a red handkerchief and we won’t even notice as you feed us all the information we need to get on with your gameplay.

 

David Kuelz is a freelance writer and narrative designer based in New York City.  If you like what he had to say, he has free monthly newsletter with tips and resources that you can sign up for here.


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Comments


Christian Nutt
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Well, what you seem to bee talking about in the case of Amalur is someone who is ALREADY using stereotypes but couching it in different terminology to pretend they aren't. Which is pretty pointless, yes.

If someone introduces a new race by saying "she's a Xaqlika" then they're not doing exposition right to begin with. Also, the game should be taking some of the load off here, since it has visuals to work with. Through her actions and what she says (either portrayed visually or in text, and this applies to any storytelling medium) we should get an idea who/what she is. There should be no need to stop the action.

Alex Covic
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I see three type of games repeatedly in this context.

The ones, which focus solely on the gameplay and game-mechanics. These type of games lack a story or real writing efforts. They are the 100% stereotypes. Their game title could easily be: "Yet another Elf/Dwarf/Magic game" - sometimes it's really called just that? In the end, it's all about "the blue dot hits the red dot". Story and stereotypes are the shrill lipstick.

The second is trying to tell a story, but I am too familiar with these stereotypes to give a damn about the 1% difference. It is not distinct enough to capture my imagination, unless the game itself (art/design) has something to offer which tells the lore. And it has to be an 'interesting'(to me) lore.

The third one is my personal favorite: a strong story. A story with very specific characters and NOT stereotypical, but also not anti-stereotypical (reverse engineering) characters and story and world. A kind of game, which could also stand a test as a good(!) novel.

This last type creates, invents and uses game design and game mechanics to tell this specific story. It would be a kind of CART LIFE of Fantasy games (SKYRIM can tell a story, by just letting you explore a dungeon. It is fed by my assumptions of Fantasy lore, but it still surprises me by the actual story within the places and finding items, etc. Also THE BANNER SAGA to a point).

But there are exceptions even in this triangle: procedural THE YAWHG comes to mind. It has absolutely stereotypical 'hero' characters players have to identify with, yet it tells an interesting (eventful) story, through game mechanics/design. For some reason, I don't mind it in that game.

Larry Carney
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"Here’s the thing: storytelling is manipulation. My job as a writer is to manipulate the player into feeling emotions that are going to make the experience more enjoyable, and once we accept that I’m here to lie to and trick them, that job gets a whole lot easier."

Some writers might disagree....some might say that the problem with gaming and most modern entertainment media is this very philosophy: that the audience becomes used to the same old emotional tricks, so the stakes must be raised, the emotions and characters must be more exaggerated, the old kick to the groin on Americas' Funniest Home Videos leading to the full-body punishing devices on America Ninja Warrior, the tiger jumping out of the bushes during the PS1 era becoming the snuff-porn in the latest Tomb Raider.

That's not even getting into the merits of the art of writing. We wave the red handkerchief, we hear the roar of the crowd, toro toro toro, but how long will it distract the audience from our bull?

Michael Joseph
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I agree. Good writing maintains it's integrity towards it's story and it's characters. It's not self conscious of it's audience and pandering to it every chance it gets.

Good writing also has "something to say." It has something honest to say. And that implies that a lot of thought, research, and effort went into the creation of the plot and it's characters in order to serve the themes and messages. But if the primary goal is to sell as many copies as possible, then it's not concerned with artistic integrity, it's only concerned with fun/entertainment. And there lies the line between honest manipulation and dishonest manipulation.

But I don't think this article is meant to inspire good writing... just "effective" writing.

David Kuelz
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I feel like just because I approach stereotypes as a tool doesn't mean I don't have something real to say. I'm using these stereotypes as a tool in order to accomplish what I have to say.

And yes, I believe that the realms of what will sell and what is artistically "good" are separate. I believe that something can be "good" without being commercially successful, and I believe that something can be commercially successful without being good, but I also believe that it's possible to exist within both, which is what I strive to do. I would argue that it isn't the tools I use (i.e. stereotypes) that make my work "good", it's how I use them. I consider Dragon Age: Origins to be "good", and I think the fact that it used elves helped to both cut back on the amount of exposition we needed in order to get right into the darkspawn invasion.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you feel a specific approach is what makes something "good", then we have a fundamental disagreement about art.

Julien Dassa-Terrier
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I think the problem is more to distinguish an archetype from a stereotype. To quote (loosely) John Truby and his very good book "Anatomy of Story", the archetype is a useful tool, this is a type of character that you instantly recognise with his role, weakness, and stuff. Like a "king", or a "warrior". Those are very, very generic. This archetype turns into a stereotype if you have nothing more to it. You need to add quite a lot on it.

The archetype is the foundation of most character (even the ones that pretends not to be stereotypes), the first building block, this is your 1%, not 99%. Like building a house: everyone should know if this is a house, a mansion, a castle or a flat from the outside. The surprise will come from the walls, the roof, the inside, the windows, anything. Just as a good character.

It is a hard balance to find. People need to be familiar with your story/char/stuff so they don't feel lost and excluded from it BUT they also need to be intrigued so they want to understand what this is all about. 1% is not enough.

Michael Joseph
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I see no practical difference between an archetype and a stereotype. The former just sheds the negative isms that comes to mind with the latter.

Good writers invent the archetypes other writers will later copy.

Julien Dassa-Terrier
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I must say I disagree. There's only so many archetypes you can invent. Thousands of years of writing took care of that. I hate to be adamant about something but I am quite convinced that this is (almost) impossible to come up with a new kind of archetype. Probably even more to come up with a "new" character which was never used by someone someday.

Being original is more about the way you assemble things together in my opinion.

Edit: Also, I am not sure if you disagree with me or if I wasn't clear. There is a practical difference between an archetype and a stereotype. The archetype is a building block and a very general (and hopefully inaccurate) summary of the character, a simple step in the process of creating the character and the story. The stereotype is a character which happens to be only an archetype, with no layers, no depth, nothing more than the most basic elements.

Carole Vaudry
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I agree with your Julien, although my terminology is borrowed from tvttropes.org:

"Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means "stereotyped and trite." In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them."

A trope is the writing equivalent of a visual shorthand. Let say your character is entering some foreboding woods. The set dresser or artist will probably use darker colors, twisted vines, and fungi or spider webs. The writer can describe all that and add a note about how these are known as the Lost Woods (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheLostWoods), or some other name to run away really fast (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NamesToRunAwayFromReal
lyFast)...

Yes, I do know tvtropes a lot more than I probably should....

Jeff Spock
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I would say that the classic bit of (game) writing advice is to use a stereotype - be it a character, a language, a culture, a monster, etc. - in order to have something that a player / reader / viewer can quickly relate to. "Oh, they're Elves." It's familiar, understood, rapidly digested.

The magic, however, is in adding a twist in there somewhere that makes it different and new; a sideways look at a time-worn trope is pretty much guaranteed to make people think for a moment. "But their love of making things grow has turned them into builders and architects; they're not just sad hunters with good hair" -- that's a twist that might make them a bit more memorable.

It has been said (accurately, I think, otherwise I wouldn't repeat it :) that all the archetypes have been developed and all the stories have been told, because we have been doing this for millennia. As always, it will be a particular writer/designers take on existing ideas that will make their creative effort something special.


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