Soap Opera Antics
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
One of the purposes of the Writing Game, from the beginning, has been to look at other mediums and what we can learn from them when making video games. Film is most often the medium games are compared to and draw their forms of criticism and vernacular from. But that’s not where I want to start. TV or more accurately, a particular genre of TV, is the best place to approach video games from in the beginning. And that genre is — Soap Operas.
“Every life of a character is within a context. If I write detached from a social and political background, my story looks like a soap opera where everybody is indoors, not working and living off their emotions.” — Isabel Allende
Soap operas are the ideal form to look at because, like games, so little changes. They just keep repeating and repeating the same things again and again. Characters exhibit little to no growth and constantly return to the same state. They are in essence acting out gameplay loops. This holds true for soap operas from South Korea, Turkey, Germany, Mexico, the UK and the US. It’s even true for any superhero show as they go through the same antics time and again.
The Berlanti-verse, aka the Arrow-verse which includes Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, and Black Lightning, is not above such measures. The fact is these shows are soap operas with people wearing an awful lot of leather and wielding weapons.
This is not me putting those shows down. I watch all of them given the opportunity. Something that’s in short supply of late. So regardless of your preferences for interpersonal drama having capes or doctor’s scrubs, we can still learn a lot from these types of shows. Just because you may not like something doesn’t mean there isn’t something to learn from it, especially if it’s successful. When it comes to creating art those lessons can be about production methods and methodologies, philosophies, practicalities, as well as marketing.
Soap operas are admirable for their ability to turn around content. That’s not even considering their popularity, variability, and teamwork requirements. Their ability to reach wide audiences is something to be envious of as well. Relationships are the basis of soap operas. The drama or more accurately the melodrama occurs between people with opposing goals, methods or purposes. Soap operas rely on melodrama more often than drama because in being overwrought, sensational or exaggerated it guarantees the audience understands the emotions and motivations of the characters.
Compare that with a show like Mad Men, which is squarely a drama and one that can long and drawn out in its story arcs. The rage and disquiet of Don Draper is something the character works hard to control and bury. We only see the roiling vat of emotions underneath his calm exterior when he’s been drinking or the world has fallen apart around him. Mad Men as a show wasn’t for everyone because the motivations, emotions and storylines weren’t immediately apparent nor swiftly resolved. As a production, it showed that the traditional television storytelling methods weren’t all that’s possible. But while it had critical acclaim and a sizeable audience it was never something with as wide an market as soap operas or their more modern day equivalent — reality tv.
The use of melodrama is seen in other genres as well, especially anime and manga. So much so that many of the tropes of those genres are connected tropes of melodrama. Just think of the over-expressiveness, the wild swings in emotions, or the overwrought acting. Whether it’s on the page or the screen anime and manga are soap operas played out in fantastic universes.
So what is there to learn from soap operas’ use of melodrama? Well… the old adage of show don’t tell seems very apt at this point, because that’s largely what they’re doing in these cases. Characters are emoting in such an exaggerated manner that the audience is able to determine their current state and motivations. It leaves little to infer and thus confuse the audience. Of course there are plenty of times when a character is being melodramatic while monologuing about their motivations and goals. But that tends to be something tied to anime and manga more than mainstream soap operas.
Games, especially ones geared towards a broad audience, aren’t generally going to be the place for a nuance narrative. Of course as writers we want those to be the very times we tell our greatest stories as we try to reach the largest audience. So it becomes a matter of balancing the message of your work with how accessible it is. Soap Operas are content production machines. Some shows release a new episode three or four times a week, like EastEnders on the BBC. To do that and keep things going they rely on a very basic technique when it comes to plotting.
For every two plots the writers introduce they resolve one. In this case plot and storyline, not necessarily character arc, are interchangeable. It’s not a hard and fast rule that it’s two new plots or problems but generally there are more issues facing the characters in soap operas then there are resolutions. Some of those plots or problems are “progressive complications… the escalating degrees of conflict that face the protagonist,” as Shawn Coyne writes in The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. Others are entirely new plotlines, and may or may not, involve a particular character.
Soap operas accomplish this because they are ensemble works. There is no singular protagonist. Sure there may be a character positioned as a villain, antagonist or heel to another’s protagonist, but at some point the writers will make them the focus of their own storyline and show how they’re someone to be empathized with. They’ll be the hero of their own story. Superhero soap opera like those of the Arrow-verse provide those progressive complications, or new plotlines, in a number of ways. One, through the introduction of new characters. And two, though the increasing power of enemies.
Take John Diggle for example, he’s a special forces trained soldier yet continues to get his ass handed to him by so called superheros. And ones that don’t even have superpowers. He may be able to overcome some basic street-level thugs but he gets beaten by people who ostensibly haven’t had the same level of training or experience as him. Arrow as a show continually says the latest addition, whether villain or otherwise, is the most powerful being. It’s a progressive complication that always requires Team Arrow to pull together to overcome and succeed. Until that point it’s failure and sometimes even loss.
In game terms, there’s a couple of takeaways, and these may only really apply to live games like Destiny 2, Anthem, and The Division, MMOs like World of Warcraft and Neverwinter, or their mobile equivalents. Namely, to keep things going you need progressive complications. Those can come as either failure to succeed at a particular mission, battle or quest. Or through the addition of new plots. The introduction of new characters or enemies isn’t a given. But for the addition of new plots and enemies to succeed you can’t have each and every one of them be threatening to end the world. Having everything on the line in that manner means nothing is on the line. The audience becomes so numb to any drama presented by the situation that it becomes ineffectual to say, “if we don’t do X the world will die!”
Rather, the character’s world needs to be at risk. They need to have what they hold dear to them, and it’s not just their lives, be their stake in the story. Without something personal it’s hard to get invested in a character. Take John Wick for example. That’s a movie about a man who’s world has ended and he’s fighting to restore it. John Wick Chapter Two is about him trying to prevent the collapse of his world. Not the world mind, just the word around John Wick. But more on that in a future episode.
Back to soap operas and what we can learn from them. For games enemies are an easy thing to introduce, and more powerful enemies aren’t a challenge. Compelling ones another another matter. Again that’s something to cover in a future episode. For now let’s concern ourselves only with the lessons we can learn from plotting and producing soap operas.
In terms of stories you may need a larger cast of characters. Having a single person as the protagonist can limit the scope of your game. And that’s not a larger cast per se more NPCs like The Witcher 3, rather an ensemble similar to Brooklyn Nine Nine. Brooklyn Nine Nine has a sizeable cast, any of who can take the lead in a given episode or plot. It’s why such shows can have an A Plot, B Plot and sometimes a C Plot. Soap Operas, of the traditional sort, have more than that going on at any one time. Together with a large cast and multiple plots the show can readily change tracts with plots and character arcs if they’re not hitting with the audience.
Large teams and multiple plots are nothing new for video games. Take any RPG, Japanese or Western, like Dragon Age, Fire Emblem or Pillars of Eternity and you inevitably have a decent sized crew to pick from, befriend and do quests with. The only thing that doesn’t really happen, at least in Western-made RPGs, is the continual change of characters status in relation to one another. Video games that persist in the power fantasy are less likely to have the player character take on a role that varies as much as those of characters in soap operas.
That’s not to say there aren’t times where they can be an antagonist and others where they’re the protagonist. But the games that offer such opportunities like the Vampyr, Mass Effect or Shadow of War still firmly place you in the role of the protagonist. Granted every villain believes themselves the hero of their own story. But for video games to learn from Soap Operas that role has to actively change and not just be a matter of a single decision in a particular dialogue or event.
Soap operas, their plots and resulting character arcs work on the premise of short-term goals and changes. Short-term is relative to the length of the show. And it’s rare for anything to be permanent. Video games operate on a similar premise but because players can gain something by continuing to play the emphasis becomes on acquisition rather than story. Soap operas don’t have a way of rewarding viewers, all they can do is keep them hooked with new stories, characters and twists.
“Games as a service” like Destiny 2, The Division, Fortnite and Rainbow Six: Siege have this very issue. The story content is so swiftly consumed that it’s best forgotten. To maintain their player base they have to be rewarded, hence the loot grind. Albeit with the occasional story update. Granted the latter two games less so as they are session-based games.
Those games with stories that want to keep players returning and not rely solely on the grind for loot could learn something from soap operas. They’ve already established interesting worlds to play in. Now it’s just a matter of recognising how well soap operas and they twisting and turning plots mesh with game design to create productions that keep people coming back for more. To do that requires less of an overarching plot and more plot-lines, or focus on characters or factions and their various wants and needs. Most soap operas don’t generally have an ongoing thread throughout a season. The obvious exemption to that is the shows of the Berlanti-verse.
Downsides to Soap Operas
There are some obvious downsides to structuring and writing your game like a soap opera. For one, you don’t necessarily want it to become like the TV show Lost where people are wading through the middle episodes just to get to the end of the season when the real changes occur. Or maybe you do and in that case you’ve found your new form of grinding.
Melodrama may not be ideal for your purposes be they the message your work is trying to impart or the design of the game. Additional the topic you’re addressing may be ill-served by having characters be so flippant and easily-roused to emotion when for all intents and purposes you’re dealing with a somber moment. Of course you don’t have to go full soap opera for the entirety of the game and its story, there are elements from what I’ve mentioned that could easily be incorporated into your game without the others. It just takes some work.
As the great Marc Bernardin said on a recent episode of the Writer Experience Podcast, “Television is about emotion, it’s about character. It’s about making it so that the world can be super interesting and the plot’s going to be whatever the plot’s going to be, but the reason we tune in episode after episode is because I want to see what happens next to this person that I have an interest in. You know, not that it has to be a good guy, it can be a bad guy, it can be an awful person. But, you know, it’s figuring out ways that character is the most magnetic person you’ve ever seen before. Over and over and over again.”
Few games have grasped that concept, that the repetition, the continual investment by players is an emotional one and those emotions are best fed with story. So why not draw from one of the most popular forms of story for your games — the soap opera.