The Folklore of Video Games: Using Narrative Design to Create Player Agency
If you’ve been working in the Narrative Design and Game Writing business for a while, especially in the realm of fantasy, then I have little doubt that you’ve written your fair share of legends, myths and folktales.
You’ve toiled over research on long-dead cultures and fallen empires, trying to mirror and mimic their stories in your own so as to give it a sense of authenticity and realism. And yet, there’s something about this cannon of literature you may not be aware of. We tend to lump legends, myth and folktales all into the same mystical “genre,” yet nothing could be further from the truth.
Today my goal is two-fold. Firstly, I hope to bring clarity to these concepts, giving you more direction in your world building. Secondly, I want to suggest an approach to the narrative design of your content that will allow for a unique kind of “conversation” between you and your audience.
Before we get to that conversation however, we’re going to need to deal with the misconception I alluded to earlier. The misconception that Legend, Myth and Folktale are all interchangeable terms for the same phenomena. This is false. They are in fact quite different.
I want to begin by quoting for you perhaps one of the earliest folklorists in western tradition - Jacob Grimm: “Das Märchen ist poetischer, die Sage, historische.” (Grimm, 1905)
For those of us who don’t speak early 19th Century German, this quote means: “The tale is poetic, the legend, historical.”
Although they may contain elements of the supernatural or the miraculous (such as monsters, ghosts or divine intervention), legends are typically considered to be truthful in some way.
Their claims may be hard or even impossible to verify, but more often than not, they are considered on some level to be of historical origins. Legends are often based on real figures, places and events. Interestingly, this historical core becomes distorted and exaggerated over time due to the legend being passed down from generation to generation. With each new storyteller, the legend is edited, changed and added to, so that its narrative might become “better.” This unreliability, this elasticity of narrative – one might even say lack of respect to the original piece – is a trait we will see across all three of our terms, albeit, occurring in different ways.
Legends tend to take on cultural and sometimes spiritual significance. Stories like King Arthur and his Knights, Robin Hood, the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and even Homer’s Iliad all fit the bill when we talk about these stories having basis in some sort of historical fact.
In his essay “It Happened Not Too Far From Here…”: A Survey of Legend Theory and Characterization”, folklorist, Timothy Tangherlini takes us through a summary of definitions for legends, all the way from Grimm in the 1800s to modern folklorists in the 60s, 70s and early 90s. Although he was unable to find a definition that fits perfectly, he managed to distill the important bits into the following quote:
“Legend, typically, is a short (mono-) episodic, traditional, highly ecotypified, historicized narrative performed in a conversational mode, reflecting on a psychological level a symbolic representation of folk belief and collective experiences and serving as a reaffirmation of commonly held values of the group to whose tradition it belongs.” (Tangherlini, 1990, p. 385)
That’s a whole bunch of big academic words, but breaking it down into layman’s terms, Tangherlini is basically saying, legends are short, episodic, traditional stories that are specifically located in terms of their real-world settings. They are shared through oral tradition, and are an example of how beliefs, superstitions and collective experiences confirm the values and morals of the people whom the legend belongs to.
So, what is Myth then?
We’ll cover this one pretty quickly. The Oxford University Press’s A Dictionary of English Folklore by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud defines Myth simply as:
“Stories about divine beings, generally arranged in a coherent system; they are revered as true and sacred; they are endorsed by rulers and priests, and closely linked to religion.” (Simpson & Roud, 2000, p. 254)
We can immediately see some big differences here between Myth and Legend. Legend is based (supposedly) off of historical events, people and places. It focuses on humans, although those humans’ abilities can become exaggerated over time through the game of Chinese whispers played by its tellers.
Myth on the other hand, focuses itself on the divine and plays out on a larger, more cosmic stage. Myths can be deeply symbolic. They are not giving an account of an actual event, rather their focus is more on conveying an important truth to those who listen to its telling. Myths explain the unexplainable – creation, long forgotten migrations, the weather, what happens when we die, etcetera, etcetera.
We see here that the primary purpose of myth is to teach spiritual truth through allegory and mysticism.
“Das Märchen ist poetischer, die Sage, historische.” (Grimm, 1905)
“The tale is poetic, the legend, historical.”
The word Märchen is defined as meaning: “A narrative passed down in the people, in which supernatural powers and forms intervene in the lives of men…” ("Märchen etymology google search," 2019)
As such, we can confidently say that Märchen - which translates as “fairy tale” in English - is a good place to start when defining the concept of a folktale.
Following Grimm’s premise here, we can also assume the folktale as being more “poetic” in nature, but that doesn’t really give us too much to go on.
And what do you think of when you hear the term?
My mind casts up images of leprechauns and changelings, doppelgängers and elves. I think of old wife’s tales or superstitions – placing iron above your doors to keep out the fae, or a pair of scissors beneath your pillow to ward against witchcraft…
Perhaps your mind goes somewhere a bit more modern – stories like Bloody Mary, The Hook Man or The Missing Hitchhiker. Perhaps you think of the countless Creepypasta’s that exist online – Slenderman, No-End House, Anansi’s Goatman, the list goes on…
It’s interesting that such a term casts up so many variations in our heads. Unlike Legends and Myth, the folktale is much more personal in nature. It’s not about gods or goddesses, demons or vast cosmic powers. It’s not about great wars, mighty heroes or exaggerated outlaws.
Folktales are about us.
They’re about our fears, our superstitions. They’re about the little things we don’t know or can’t understand in our world.
That definition of Myth I mentioned earlier from A Dictionary of English Folklore? It goes on to state that: “…Once the link is broken and the actors in the story are not regarded as gods but as human heroes, giants or fairies, it is no longer a myth but a folktale.” (Simpson & Roud, 2000, p. 254)
And so we come to something of a definition for this broad genre. Like Legends and Myths, Folktales are popular stories that move from generation to generation, person to person via word of mouth. Also like Legends and Myths, Folktales are often so old, the original author has been forgotten.
However, Folktales have a very unique point of difference in the way they are told. It’s almost as if they are less… sacred than the previous two. Why? Because folktales enjoy the ability to actually become like the doppelgängers they so often speak of – there will be many different versions of the same folktale going at once. They can be slightly different or vastly different, come from competing sources, and even be contradictory in nature.
Think of the tale of Bloody Mary for example. Who is Mary? Is she a corpse, a witch or a ghost? Is she friendly or evil? Is she covered in blood or not covered in blood? Does she scream at you, curse you, strangle you, drink your blood or scratch your eyes out when you see her?
The answer is, of course: that she is all of these things and more – depending on what version of the folktale you’re listening to.
So, to summarize...
Legends are stories based in historical fact. This historicity is greatly unreliable however due to the Legend being shared and changed by storytellers over time. They are shared between generations through oral tradition.
Myths are stories that focus on gods and goddesses. They explain the unexplained, such as the creation of the universe or how the weather works. They often contain spiritual significance and are shared between generations through oral tradition.
Lastly, Folktales are stories that focus on us as people – our fears, our beliefs, our superstitions. They are poetic in nature. They can exist as wildly varying versions of one another. They can be contradictory. They are shared between generations through oral tradition.
What we see here, are three very different genres of story that are often incredibly useful tools in the narrative designer’s arsenal. And now that we have them defined, it’s time we incorporate them into our understanding of how to develop interactive stories.
Case Study: The Cthulhu Mythos
I want to begin by talking about H P Lovecraft. Talk about a sharp left-hand turn, right?
But the truth is, Lovecraft has a lot to do with what we’ve been discussing so far. He is after all, the creator of the Cthulhu Mythos.
Before I get started however, I want to pay tribute to the wonderful YouTube channel Tales Foundry in regards to all this Lovecraft stuff. This case study we are about to engage with is not my own work. It is derived from their video Are H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos Actual Myth? (Tales Foundry, 2017) Which I will link below in my references for those who are interested.
It was actually their video that got me thinking properly about all this and formulating the ideas I’ve held in my mind for some time now. I will be building upon their research and directing it more towards my particular field of study.
Tales Foundry argue in their video that the Cthulhu Mythos is not just the product of clever world building, but is instead an example of an actual mythology being created in modern times. Now, I’m going to give them some leniency on whether or not they’re using the term “myth” in correct context, as I believe they are most likely just picking up the term Mythos developed by others and running with it.
In truth, the Cthulhu Mythos is more a modern canon of folktales than anything else. This is due to its inclusion of both humans and monsters. And while the mythos does contain “Gods,” it is debatable as to whether we should treat Cthulhu, Azathoth and Nyarlethotep in the same way that we would treat Zeus, Odin or Horus.
Whichever way you cut it, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is fascinating because unlike the world building in other fantasy canons of literature, Lovecraft’s mythos exhibits something known as Mimetic Circulation.
We’ve been talking about this mimetic circulation throughout the entire article now, though I’ve not mentioned it by name. Mimetic circulation is when a story is told and altered, then told and altered, then told and altered again until it becomes so changed by this continual exchange that it reflects something about those who tell it.
The actual content of Legends, Myths and Folktales become unimportant at this point. That content is now, more akin to props on a theatrical stage. These props are used primarily out of habit to project the ideas, feelings and fears of the cultures and people who are telling the stories.
Somehow, H P Lovecraft, a down-on-his-luck pulp-horror writer managed to do this.
If you’ve read any of Lovecraft’s work, you’ll have noticed something quite weird about it (asides from the rampant homophobia and racism). Throughout his collection of short stories and novellas, Lovecraft makes often throw-away references to random books, artefacts, gods, monsters and other such “props.” These random references then appear again in later stories with greater detail, effectively tying his work together with a kind of underlying framework.
The town of Arkham was just a reference originally appearing in Lovecraft’s The Picture in the House, before becoming a hub for the supernatural. Dagon began as the title of a short story completely independent from the great and terrible God that would one day be worshiped by evil cultists in his greatest work, The Shadow over Innsmouth.
On top of his seemingly flippant approach to world building, Lovecraft also encouraged his writer friends to develop their own stories using his fictional creations. They would adopt his props into their work, and in return he would adopt theirs into his. This also broadened the “mythos.”
The writer Clark Ashton Smith created the toad-like entity Tsathoggua in his story The Tale of Satampra Zeiros. Lovecraft later used the same creature in The Whisperer in Darkness. Frank Belknap wrote of a version of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon (an ancient evil grimoire) as being translated by the real world scholar John Dee. Afterwards, Lovecraft began referencing the “John Dee translation” of the Necronomicon in his own work.
As a result of all this swapping and connecting of ideas, a larger body of literature began to grow around a pantheon of gods, monsters and their human victims. Sometimes this body of work was badly written. It was oftentimes contradictory. But it started something. A spark was lit, and from it, Lovecraftian “folklore” was born.
The Folklore of Video Games
So why am I talking about Lovecraft and his work? Because I want to prove to you that this Mimetic Circulation that creates real legends, myths and folktales can be done today without an entire people group. It can be constructed, like Lovecraft did, among smaller numbers.
You’re probably starting to see what I’m getting at here.
The idea of creating real legends, real myths, real folk stories within your games.
What you’re probably not expecting, is my next suggestion:
Have your players create these for you.
Like Lovecraft gave permission to his peers to build on his world, so too should we, as narrative designers and game developers give permission to our players (and perhaps even other studios) to build onto our worlds. Encouraging this kind of interaction is a powerful tool, one that gives players a sense of ownership in our games, creating stead-fast fans who will be personally and powerfully impacted by our work.
Returning to Tangherlini’s article on Legends, the writer makes a very interesting comment relevant to us in the field of interactive narrative. He states that:
“During legend performance, the boundary of narrator and audience blurs, transmission taking place interactively. The conversational nature of legend, in turn, adds to the believability of the narrative and its function as a mechanism for reaffirming beliefs since the narrative is not set off by any distancing formula.” (Tangherlini, 1990, p. 384)
What this shows us is that the telling of legends, and let’s include myths and folktales into this, is an interactive moment between the teller and the audience. The teller waxes on and the audience receives the story before using it to confirm their own beliefs on the subject, cementing their convictions as being true.
For games this is particularly important when it comes to giving your players agency and a personal stake in the narrative. Allowing this exchange between narrative designer and player means giving fans the freedom to bring not only personal meaning to the game, but also the opportunity to build on the lore in an equally valid way.
Players begin to reach plurality – they are able to hold potentially conflicting viewpoints about the same subject in tangent with each other because the content itself is not the most important aspect. The most important aspect is what they believe is the narrative truth behind these viewpoints.
The ability to do this opens up a whole new branch of possibilities both within the story world and outside of the story world. Within it, the players can now interpret information on a personal level and find emotional meaning that is true to them. Externally, players are able to then super-position themselves through social media (YouTube, Reddit forums etc.) to develop their own fan-theories and create conversation and debate around them.
Before we know it, an endless universe has been created. There is now a greater narrative universe at play. There is now more going on for the players than what is directly dealt with in the game’s plot.
But how do we do this? What are the tools we need to set such a complex process in play? Well, you can rest easy – I’m not suggesting you hand over the keys to the player base. Narrative Design is not going out of business. You can still create your own lore, you’re simply allowing the players to co-create alongside you.
Begin by building your lore based off the definitions I have provided. Establish legends that are distorted versions of historical people and events found in your story world. Establish mythologies around gods and goddesses that contain “spiritual truths” for the characters who worship them and then, distort that as well. Write folktales that reflect characters beliefs, fears and superstitions on a personal level and distort them too, through contradiction and competing versions of the same idea.
Do as Lovecraft did, and pepper your worlds with little props here and there – props that provoke questions that don’t necessarily have any answers. Have NPCs tell different variations on the same folktales that belie any sort of narrative consistency. Suggest ambiguity through your environmental design. All of these things establish a kind “story sandbox” in which your players can muck around in.
Although I can’t personally point to any current piece of interactive narrative that are doing exactly as I am suggesting (asides from my own work), we can look at the games of FromSoftware – Sekiro or the Soulsborne series, as toying with the collaboratory nature of folklore as I’ve described it.
FromSoftware’s Creative Director Hidetaka Miyazaki is of course rather famous in our circles now for his unique approach to storytelling. It is an approach that currently best exemplifies what can be achieved through allowing players narrative design agency. An article by The Guardian summarizes his approach in this way:
“When Hidetaka Miyazaki was a child, he was a keen reader, though not a talented one. Often he’d reach passages of text he couldn’t understand, and so would allow his imagination to fill in the blanks, using the accompanying illustrations. In this way, he felt he was co-writing the fiction alongside its original author. The thrill of this process never left him – and it is very much there in his arcane and fascinating video games…” (Parkin, 2015)
This co-writing of fiction is what makes his games so special. A quick trip to the subreddits or YouTube channels that focus on Dark Souls or Bloodborne exemplifies this quality in action. There, you will find a rabid fan base obsessively compiling theories, categorizing information, and even teaching history lessons on the lore and worlds Miyazaki has created.
As we as writers and developers begin to understand in greater detail different aspects of narratology and folklore, working in the games industry becomes more and more exciting. With this knowledge, new doors are unlocked and we can see how truly different and amazing the medium of video games can be in its establishment as a mega-genre of literature.
So next time you’re beginning to build your game world, next time you’re sitting down with your narrative designer or fellow developers, consider how you can take the lessons you’ve learnt about these three genres of legend, myth and folktale, or the concept of mimetic circulation, and start to incorporate them into your work.
Your fans will love you for it.
Grimm, J. (1905). Deutsche sagen. Berlin, Germany.
Märchen etymology google search. (2019, April 4). Retrieved from https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1GCEV_enNZ838NZ838&ei=XZ-mXNP7HM7az7sPqJGFiA0&q=M%C3%A4rchen+etymology&oq=M%C3%A4rchen+etymology&gs_l=psy-ab.3..35i39.4506.10384..10584...10.0..0.279.4110.0j13j7......0....2j1..gws-wiz.......0i67j0j0i20i263j0i22i30j0i22i10i30j33i160.HrlYdmGd6nw
Parkin, S. (2015, March 31). Bloodborne creator Hidetaka Miyazaki: 'I didn't have a dream. I wasn't ambitious'. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/31/bloodborne-dark-souls-creator-hidetaka-miyazaki-interview
Simpson, J., & Roud, S. (2000). Myth. In A Dictionary of English Folklore (p. 254). Retrieved from https://epdf.tips/a-dictionary-of-english-folklore.html
Tales Foundry. (2017, December 10). Are H.P. Lovecraft's mythos actual Myth? ? H.P. Lovecraft series [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sHYz5skIBU&t=441s
Tangherlini, T. R. (1990). "It happened not too far from here…": A survey of legend theory and characterization. Western Folklore, 49(4), 371-390. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/cc71/ecd029721d576b4478a025c8c2d41e0f5590.pdf