Narrative Analysis: Next Steps
Tropes are narrative devices (i.e. plot points, characters, settings, themes) that have been used often enough for audiences to recognize them when they appear. Like archetypes, tropes act as a shared language, allowing creators to communicate large quantities of information in limited amounts of space.1 Examples of familiar tropes include allies betraying protagonists (plot), charming rogues (character), bustling space stations (setting), and good triumphing over evil (theme). As with all tropes, each of those examples could be developed to fit in a completely different story while still conforming to the original trope.
Tropes, like most tools, are neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Instead, their effectiveness depends on when and how they’re used. This trait sets them apart from their more recognizable relative, clichés, as clichés are narrative devices that audiences reject due to oversaturation. The user-driven trope database TVTropes elaborates on this definition of cliché, stating: “Tropes are not inherently disruptive to a story; however, when the trope itself becomes intrusive, distracting the viewer rather than serving as shorthand, it has become a cliché.”2 In other words, clichés are tropes that have worn out their welcome: the tropes that make audiences roll their eyes and say: “Not this again!” What constitutes a cliché varies between genres, time periods, media types, and cultures, but a fair rule of thumb is that the more frequently a given audience sees a trope, the more likely it is they’ll view it as a cliché.
Tropes in Video Games
Game Discussed: Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985)
Tropes exist in every aspect of video game design, including gameplay, music, and graphic design. Naturally, video games employ tropes in their storytelling, as well, and have done so since their earliest stories. One of the most well-known video game franchises, the Super Mario series, has relied on tropes since its first entry and been expanding on those tropes ever since. Even the first game in the series, Super Mario Bros., uses tropes for every kind of narrative device. In Super Mario Bros., a working-class hero (character) saves an aristocratic woman (plot) from a dark castle (setting), proving good triumphs over evil (theme). On the surface, these tropes come together to form an extremely common story template that’s been used everywhere from The Legend of Zelda adventure series to the Resident Evil survival horror series, but a look below the surface tells a different story.
Like all good stories, Super Mario Bros. sets itself apart in the way it expands on its foundational tropes. Mario isn’t just any working-class hero; he’s an Italian plumber who also has experience in construction. By the same token, the dark castle isn’t just any castle; it’s the fortress of King Koopa (also known as Bowser), an enormous reptile sorcerer who commands “a tribe of turtles famous for their black magic.”3 These clarifying details are enough to set the Super Mario Bros. premise apart from any other, transcending their defining tropes.
Playing with Tropes: Inversion and Subversion
Game Discussed: Luigi’s Mansion (Nintendo, 2001), Super Mario RPG (Square-Enix, 1996)
As tropes become increasingly well-known, storytellers who wish to use them without fear of being dubbed cliche have the option of playing with the trope to defy the audience’s expectations.4 If the audience is familiar with a trope, changing it introduces an element of surprise, which renews their interest in a story they might have otherwise rejected. Two common methods of twisting tropes are called inversion and subversion.5 In inversion, the trope is flipped on its head, or inverted, in defiance of the audience’s expectations. For example, consider the earlier trope of the working-class hero who saves a helpless aristocrat. An inversion of this trope would be an aristocratic hero who saves a helpless member of the working class.
Subversion takes a slightly different approach by using a trope in its most basic form, then changing the way it plays out in the story. In a subversion of the aforementioned hero trope, the story could begin as a working-class hero saving a helpless aristocrat, but in the end, the aristocrat turns out to be broke. Another subversion of the same premise would be to change the story’s ending, so the working-class hero was wealthy all along and was merely pretending to be working-class. Unlike inversions, subversions can come in several forms, as they only need to change one aspect of the original trope.
Video game narratives have been playing with tropes just as long as they’ve been using them. As a result, both subversions and inversions frequently appear across the medium. Even the Super Mario series has been twisting tropes since its founding, most notably with its diminutive hero, the titular Mario. The tall hero has been a trope as long as humans have measured height, yet Mario is scarcely taller than the weakest enemies in the game and half the height of his beloved Princess Toadstool (also known as Peach).
Mario’s height is one of the earliest, most obvious examples of twisted tropes in the Super Mario series, but the franchise has played with many tropes in the decades since its creation. These reversals of expectation are especially common in spin-off titles, which are games that aren’t considered part of the main series. The survival horror spin-off Luigi’s Mansion (Nintendo, 2001) inverts one of the most basic tropes of the series, Mario as hero, by making Mario the victim and promoting his brother, Luigi, to the role of protagonist. Another spin-off, the role-playing game Super Mario RPG (Square-Enix, 1996) boasts a story rich with subversions of established franchise tropes. Not only does Mario rescue Princess Toadstool halfway through the game, instead of at the end, he also joins forces with his greatest enemy, Bowser. Together, the former rivals fight alongside Toadstool to fight an even greater enemy, which is a subversion of the franchise formula. Well-executed trope twists like these are just some of the many reasons that spin-off titles like Luigi’s Mansion and Super Mario RPG are beloved by fans decades after their release.
Tropes have gained a bad reputation in recent years as being synonymous with cliches, but tropes are merely tools that depend on their user for their effectiveness. When tropes reach the point of becoming cliche through oversaturation, storytellers who wish to continue using them can twist them around with techniques like inversion and subversion. With these twists, the twisted tropes can take on new meaning, potentially becoming new tropes of their own and starting the cycle anew. Writers who wish to employ specific tropes in their own works should consider whether or not they have been overused, and if so, how to refresh them with a twist.
1,2 “Trope.” TVTropes, 2021.
3 Nintendo. “Super Mario Bros. Instruction Booklet.” Nintendo, 1985. Pg. 2
4,5 “Playing with a Trope.” TVTropes, 2021.
* Reference Footage (Super Mario Bros.): Retro Game.Stream. Super Mario Brothers – NES – Full Playthrough No Commentary. YouTube, 2015.
** Reference Footage (Luigi’s Mansion): LongplayArchive. Longplay of Luigi’s Mansion [HD]. YouTube, 2021.
*** Reference Footage (Super Mario RPG): LongplayArchive. Longplay of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. YouTube, 2020.