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Archetypes and stereotypes

A short lecture on archetypes and stereotypes.
Building on our discussion of the core and shell model, we will now consider the narrative shell of game characters by looking at techniques and conventions related to storytelling. Firstly, we will discuss archetypal characters, how these are useful to telling of stories and the situating characters within larger narratives, and also the pitfall of creating characters that are in fact stereotypes. So if you were taking a course in creative writing or screenwriting, you’d begin discussing archetypes fairly quickly. This is because archetypal characters are one of the main ways in which both writers and audiences categorise characters. Archetypes are in effect universal categories of character that appear in the stories we all tell, both internationally and through time.
Archetypes appear in folk tales, in poetry in novels, in film and television, and of course in video games. As a result of this proliferation of archetypes, audiences are already primed to understand who a character is and what they are likely to do based on their previous experience with character archetypes in even rudimentary stories. Archetypes serve as a form of characters shorthand.
With this in mind, what are the current archetypes? Well on this front, it is important that we note that there is no singular or definitive list. There are many guides and books on character design and writing that will list and consider different archetypes. Often these archetypes overlap, or archetypes can be read as subsets of other archetypes. However, the best place to start is with Carl Jung’s work. Jung’s discussion of archetypes is often cited as an important resource when it comes to writing characters.
As a psychoanalyst, Jung took the position that archetypes exist within our collective unconscious, which we can define as a general knowledge shared by all of us, and not simply as knowledge that is learned in specific contexts, which would lead to cultural variations.
Jung identified four primary archetypes. The Self is considered to be the complete personality of an individual, which as character designers we may correlate with the audience. The Self is a character that has attitudes, thoughts, and motives that gamers can somehow connect with, as they see a reflection of themselves in the character. The Shadow is a dark reflection of the Self, symbolising wildness, repressed urges, and personal flaws. In game character design we can see this correlated with adversaries who come into conflict with characters who epitomise the Self. The anima/animus are, respectively, images of femininity from a male perspective, and images of masculinity from a female perspective.
In character design we can see the anima/animus as characters who come to understand each other’s nature over the course of a narrative. And finally, the Persona concerns how we present ourselves in different social contexts, using social masks. In game design, we might consider how characters come to be defined by these masks, for example the social role a character plays in terms of their abilities, function, occupation, or relationship to other characters. Beyond Jung’s work, character designers tend to consider a wide range of narrative archetypes that we can identify analyse within all literature. Many of the dominant character roles designers work with stem from Joseph Campbell’s seminal work on the hero’s journey.
The hero’s journey includes character archetypes that we can readily understand, most obviously the hero archetype, which is a staple of most video games. Heroes can also be anti-heroes, which make for more rounded and interesting heroes given their personal flaws and conflicts. Other character archetypes relate to the hero on their journey, often connecting to key stages in the plot. For example, the mentor is the character who trains the hero. They often provide the background context for the journey the hero is about to embark upon, and to oversee the transition of the hero from novice to expert.
In games, mentors are reliably used within what is in effect the game tutorials, when the player is learning not only the narrative context, but also how to play the game. When we focus purely on framing what a character does and how they act within a narrative, we may also consider simpler lists such as Philips and Huntley’s eight narrative archetypes. They break their archetypes into two categories, drivers, and passengers. The former includes those characters who moves the plot forward, including the protagonist, or hero, antagonist, the opposing force, the guardian, more similar to the mentor rather than the guardian of the hero’s journey, and the contagonist, what we might describe as an opponent of the guardian, providing obstacles for the protagonist.
The latter archetypes provide context but are less important to the plot. This includes the sidekick, very common in many video games, both for game-play and narrative purposes, the sceptic, an opponent to the sidekick who is generally more pessimistic of the player’s chances, reason, the character who is cool and level headed, and emotion, the character who is uncontrolled and mostly likely to react emotionally.
With the above in mind, it is clear that some of what we’ve discussed runs the risk of being poorly applied, leading to what we might instead call stereotypes. This can be as a result of simply applying the description of an archetype wholesale, rather than using the archetype as a general framework for developing an original character. We can imagine the archetypal hero of a video game narrative, but at the same time I’m sure you can also think of a video game hero who is in fact a stereotypical hero.
More problematic is when characters become stereotypes for particular demographics, for instance of gender, or sexuality, ethnicity, or age. For video games, gender stereotyping is notable as a particular problem, perhaps best epitomised by the damsel in distress trope. In game-play terms, the damsel in distress as an archetype serves a good purpose. This is a person to be saved, and therefore we have a game-play objective. But this can be poorly applied when the damsel is taken literally, and often represented as female, as physically weaker than all other characters, as dependent on the assistance of the hero or male characters generally, and often represented literally as a princess. Both Blatant and unintentional stereotyping can be problematic for a video game character design.
It is therefore important that we consider how we use archetypes, as a framework rather as a tool set, to ensure that we developing meaningful and well-rounded characters.
To conclude, archetypes can be one of the most useful techniques we can use when it comes to defining a character’s principal role in a game narrative. Archetypes establish a loose idea of the nature of a character. They also provide clues as to the part people play within a plot, and help us to make connections between characters. But it is important to be weary of slippage into stereotypes, which can be regarded as particularly problematic in many video games where tropes can oversimplify characters and lead to two-dimensional, repetitive narratives.

When it comes to developing great characters for narratives, one of the first concepts we might consider is the application of archetypes.

Archetypal characters and characters that appear again and again within the stories we tell, from oral legends to literature, from cinema to video games. Archetypes work as a form of shorthand, helping audiences to make sense of the role and purpose of a character within a story. But archetypes can also overlap with stereotypes: characters that are repeatedly used to the point that they come to generalist the traits of a particular group.

What non-player characters in video games have created an impression on you? What archetype(s) do you think these characters fulfil?

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Video Game Design and Development: Video Game Character Design

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