Narrative Analysis: The Basics
Game Discussed: Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1981)
At their best, characters are complex, conflicted creatures that feel as real as actual people. Creating well-rounded characters from scratch is no easy task, however. To get things started, writers sometimes choose to use standard templates known as archetypes. Character archetypes, the stock characters that populate our most fundamental stories, have existed in some form or another for thousands of years. Humans have been using the archetypal characters in astrology and divination to make sense of their lives for ages, and psychologists have used similar archetypes to make sense of the human mind.1 Audiences feel the same compulsion, subconsciously grouping the characters they see into categories like Hero, Rebel, and Mentor. To quote author James Frey: “Readers and audiences like to type characters. It’s unavoidable. Whether or not you like to think of your characters as types, your readers will.”2 In other words, no matter how a writer conceives of a character, audiences will compare them to characters they’ve seen before. People take comfort in the familiar, and this comfort is part of why archetypes endure.
Like other forms of storytelling media, video games can use character archetypes to set up basic stories in a short amount of time. Early video games, having little room for cinematics (or even text), relied heavily on these archetypes to immerse players in the games in spite of limited resources. One of the first games to tell a story on-screen3, Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1981), did so by relying on the Hero and Villain archetypes. At the time, the Hero who would become known worldwide as Mario did not even have a name; his only defining traits were his red-and-blue clothes and his desire to save the princess. As the Villain, Donkey Kong’s only ambition was to kidnap the Hero’s girlfriend, the unnamed Innocent who would eventually be dubbed Pauline. While video game narratives have grown right alongside Mario and Donkey Kong, they still use these common archetypes to tell familiar stories without much setup.
Examples of Archetypes
Games Discussed: The Super Mario Bros series (Nintendo), the Half-Life series (Valve), Sonic the Hedgehog (SEGA), Guilty Gear (Arc System Works), the Final Fantasy series (Square-Enix), the Resident Evil series (Capcom), Silent Hill (Konami), Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream), The Legend of Zelda series (Nintendo), the Mega Man series (Capcom), the Donkey Kong Country series (Nintendo), BioShock (2K Games)
When psychologist Carl Jung first popularized archetypal theory, he did so with a list of twelve archetypes that represented the most common personalities and roles in storytelling.4 While others have adapted and expanded on his initial list, there are several archetypes that appear in every set. These include, but are not limited to:
- The Hero: Heroes are everywhere in storytelling. Their bravery and keen sense of justice make them ideal for the role of protagonist, as they’re always pushing the narrative forward with their ‘can-do’ attitudes. These traits make them well-suited for player characters in video games, as well. Narrative Designer Evan Skolnick elaborates on the Hero’s unique importance, saying: “There is no character more essential to your narrative than your Hero. In fact, as previously mentioned, the Hero is the only archetype that must be present in every story.”5 Well known video-game heroes include Mario (Nintendo), Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman (Valve), and Sonic the Hedgehog (SEGA).
- The Rebel: Rebels, also known as Outlaws, are the classic anti-heroes: characters capable of heroic feats despite their negative qualities, like selfishness, aloofness, or cynicism. Popular video game Rebels include Guilty Gear’s Sol Badguy (Arc System Works) and Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud Strife (Square-Enix).
- The Everyman: The everyman is the audience surrogate: the ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary world. Events that seem normal to the rest of the cast will seem strange to the everyman, and he’ll need things explained to him—and by extension, the audience. Well-known video game Everymen include Resident Evil’s Ethan Winters (Capcom), Silent Hill’s Harry Mason (Konami), and Heavy Rain’s Ethan Mars (Quantic Dream).
- The Mentor: Mentors exist to guide the protagonist. Although they are most often depicted as wise, elderly men, Mentors can come from all walks of life. They are also more likely to die than other archetypes, as their deaths force their protagonists to dig down deep and find strength within. Video game Mentors include The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s Rauru (Nintendo), Final Fantasy X’s Auron (Square-Enix), and Mega Man’s Doctor Light (Capcom).
- The Innocent: Either a child or childlike, the Innocent wants no part of the story’s conflict yet often gets pulled into it anyway. They can be optimistic and kind, but also naive, which can lead others to take advantage of them to satisfy their own ends. If they’re lucky, they ‘only’ get kidnapped; if they’re not so lucky, they might die to motivate the Hero. Innocents include Super Mario’s Princess Peach (Nintendo), Resident Evil 4’s Ashley (Capcom), and Final Fantasy VI’s Terra (Square-Enix).
- The Villain: Almost as common as Heroes, Villains exist solely to stand in the Hero’s way. If there’s something the Hero wants, the Villain is going to stop them from getting it, and they’re not going to be nice about it. Because they sit in opposition to the Hero, they’re morally grey at best and pure evil at worst. Some recognizable video game Villains include Super Mario’s Bowser (Nintendo), Donkey Kong County’s King K. Rool (Nintendo), and BioShock’s Andrew Ryan (2K Games).
Putting Archetypes to Use
Games Discussed: Team Fortress 2 (Valve), League of Legends (Riot Games), Guilty Gear (Arc System Works), The Legend of Zelda series (Nintendo), the God of War series (Santra Monica Studios)
Like most literary devices, character archetypes can be extremely useful when employed correctly. In shorter, more straightforward stories, they act as a kind of narrative shorthand to quickly paint a picture in the audience’s mind. They also work well as background characters in more complex stories, keeping the audience’s attention where it belongs. “It’s important to let very small characters be flat,” says author Brandi Reissenweber. “Fleshing them out too much gives them an emotional weight that will mislead the readers or steal focus from the stars of the story.”6 Video games frequently employ character archetypes in genres where the story doesn’t develop through the gameplay, such as team shooters like Team Fortress 2 (Valve), battle arenas like League of Legends (Riot Games), and fighting games like Guilty Gear (Arc System Works). In these genres, archetypes provide enough information for players to differentiate the cast members without requiring excessive development and backstory.
As useful as archetypes can be, they are not without their problems. Writers who try to tell long, complex stories with nothing but basic archetypes are likely to turn off audiences with higher expectations. The more time someone spends with a character, the more depth they expect that character to have. By their nature, archetypes lack depth, so they’re ill-suited to carry sweeping narratives. “When all the reader’s expectations about a character are fulfilled,” writes James Frey, “when there are no contradictions or surprises in the character, you have a stereotyped character.”7 By adding those contradictions and surprises to an archetype, writers can take characters that were formerly flat and give them depth, making them suitable for longer works. Once-archetypal characters like The Legend of Zelda’s Innocent Princess Zelda (Nintendo) and God of War’s Rebel Kratos (Santa Monica Studios) have grown with their franchises, taking on traits from other archetypes while developing quirks that make them stand out. For these characters, their archetypes were merely starting points, giving them and their designers room to develop them as their stories grew.
Character archetypes have endured for millennia because of their comfortable familiarity and their ease of use. As part of a shared language that transcends cultures, they’re perfect for short, simple stories that anyone can understand. They also work well in the backgrounds of larger stories, as they don’t draw attention from the protagonists. Their usefulness is limited, however, as they can’t carry more complicated stories, as their lack of depth will lead audiences to reject them as cliches or stereotypes. Writers who wish to use archetypes in their works should consider what purpose they want their character to serve, then either choose or expand on an archetype accordingly.
1 Kenner, Corrine. “Tarot Archetypes of the Major Arcana.” Llewellyn, 2009.
2 Frey, James N.. How to Write a Damn Good Novel . St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
3 Gamesradar US. Gaming’s Most Important Evolutions. Gamesradar, 2010.
4 Owings, Shannon. The Twelve Literary Archetypes. Medium, 2020.
5 Skolnick, Evan. Video Game Storytelling (p. 38). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.
6 Publishing, Bloomsbury. Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction (p. 41). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
7 Frey, James N.. How to Write a Damn Good Novel . St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage (Donkey Kong): Carls493. Donkey Kong (Original) Full Playthrough (US Arcade Version, All 4 Levels, 3 Rotations, 0 Deaths). YouTube, 2018.
** Reference Footage (Sonic the Hedgehog): FCPlaythroughs. “Sonic the Hedgehog (Mega Drive/Genesis) playthrough ~Longplay~.” YouTube, 2016.
*** Reference Footage (Final Fantasy X): Livvy Valnain. Final Fantasy X HD – Auron’s entrance. YouTube, 2014.