Exploring Archetypes

In the previous article we looked at the Three Act Structure which governs the overall flow of a story. Within the story there are several character types to be found. These character types are known as archetypes and they all exist to support the development of one particular archetype, the “Hero”. The Hero is the character the audience follows on a journey of change.

Monomyth is the term that describes the formula that a hero follows throughout the story. It is most commonly referred to as The Hero’s Journey, and it gives us solid ground to understand character development, as well as to develop our own characters. There is much to be said about archetypes and the Monomyth. In this post we’ll look at archetypes as a whole, and I’ll focus on the Hero in my next post.

/* If you want to read other posts from GDC 17, or see how this connects to game design, check the GDC 17 index post */


Archetypes represent the different personalities that will assist in developing the Hero’s change, and keep the story flowing. It is possible that not all stories will include all archetypes, and it is possible that archetype roles could be shared by a character; however, all stories will make use of most archetypes.

An important note about archetypes is that together they make up a whole person. In reality the human psyche is a complex mingling of thoughts and ideas that bring about a personality. An archetype is a single aspect of a person. In stories, the characters do not have complete human personalities. They are a single character that embodies one aspect of being human. All archetypes combined make up a whole person.

As we step through the different archetypes, notice that even oneself will occasionally resemble each. Sometimes we’re the good guy, sometimes we’re bad (intentionally or unintentionally). Sometimes we’re funny, and at others depressing. Sometimes we share wisdom, and sometimes one is some crazy concoction of all of these; however, in a story a character will typically only be one. All of the characters come together to create a singular relatable experience for the audience. In a well realized set of archetypes there will be moments when one can identify with every character, even the bad guys.


  • Resolves the Main Conflict.
  • Primary audience identifier.
  • Growth (shows the most change)
  • Person of action.
  • Displays an ability to take risks, has phobias that deter them, and sacrifice the most.
  • EXAMPLE: Luke Skywalker. (this will be expanded on in the next post)


  • Teaching.
  • Gift giving.
  • Motivation source.
  • Conscience.
  • Commonly older in age; has wisdom or knowledge of the situation; demonstrates faith in the hero; not around for the whole story (typically dies).
  • EXAMPLE: Obi Wan Kenobi, and Yoda. Both impart wisdom to the hero. Both believe in the hero. Both die before the Main Conflict is resolved.

Threshold Guardian (Henchmen)

  • Tests the hero.
  • Blocks the path.
  • Supports the conflict.
  • Can be either defeated or turned.
  • EXAMPLE: Darth Vader. Vader is never the source of the Main Conflict. He only supports it. He blocks Luke’s path in multiple way, from physical interaction to emotional (the whole “I am your father” thing). In the end (ROTJ) he was turned.


  • Delivers the information regarding the Main Conflict to the Hero. The Herald is not the conflict, or in support of it. This archetype is simply the messenger.
  • Sometimes offers motivation in addition to the Mentor.
  • Offers the Hero a challenge.
  • EXAMPLE: This droid introduces Luke to the conflict via Obi Wan’s hologram. This instructs Luke that there is something for him to do, and sends him on his journey. The role is later shared between the two droids.

Shape Shifter

  • Plants suspicion or doubt.
  • Keeps the audience guessing at the final outcome.
  • EXAMPLE: Lando Calrisian. He seems friendly, but we’re never quite sure what side he’s on. His loyalties aren’t cemented until Episode VI. Throughout Episode V, Lando keeps us unsure of the stories outcome.


  • Villain.
  • The source of the Main Conflict.
  • Will defend the Main Conflict.
  • AKA, the “Final Boss”.
  • EXAMPLE: In episode IV, this is Tarkin. He is the one calling the shots. Even Vader is taking his lead. This shadow ends with the destruction of the first Death Star. The role of the shadow is then handed to The Emperor in Episode V.


  • Comic relief. Think “Daxter”.
  • EXAMPLE: This role is shared, but it largely seems to revolve around R2D2. Consider that every time the action gets thick, and a lot shots are firing, R2 makes some beeping noise and takes some action that makes the audience chuckle. R2 breaks up the drama to give us moments of relief. This fulfils the comic relief.

Practice On Your Own

Soak in these archetypes and practice spotting them. Star Wars is the easy example, because it is beautifully formulaic; however, practice spotting them in less obvious stories. During the conference, Evan ran an exercise where we had to find these roles in movies such as “Aliens” and the newer “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Whenever you sit down to watch a film, TV show, or (*gasp) read a book. Make it an activity to identify these roles. Not only will it help you better understand storytelling, but you might find it raises your standard of media you choose to consume.

I for one, found that nearly half of my story intake is formulaic fluff. In the past few weeks I’ve found that I can guess outcomes to stories simply by identifying the archetypes early on. I’ve actually reduced my amount of movies and TV shows I’m willing to watch. I feel I’ve entered the realm of “story snob” and I am a better for it.

On that last statement, I should add that your mileage may vary.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned. The next post in this series will dive in the specifics of the Hero archetype and the journey associated with it.

#GDC17 Summary of Sessions, and Links to Articles

It’s that time of year again. Join me for video game (and board game) development insights at the 2017 Game Developer Conference in San Francisco!

As every year my strategy for maximizing benefit of the conference is to choose two topics I’m weak in, and gain some understanding and/or training. This year my topics are “storytelling” and “board game design”. As it turns out, the tutorial and boot camp sessions this year have day long programs on those two exact items. Check out the following descriptions and links to in-depth articles on insights I gained this time around.

More links will become live as I have time to complete posts. Check back frequently to see what’s new!

Story Telling Fundamentals

Speaker: Evan Skolnick

This was a day long boot camp complete with group exercises. I’m going to break down the day into several posts. Around 90 percent of the talk was about narrative structure in general, with the remaining 10 percent connecting the narrative structure to game design practices. For these articles, I’ll save the game connection for my final post so that we can focus on understanding the narrative structure first.

• Story Telling 1: The Heart of It All, Conflict
• Story Telling 2: Get Our Acts Together, 3 Act Structure
• Story Telling 3: Exploring Archetypes
• Story Telling 4: Uncovering the Monomyth, Hero’s Journey
• Story Telling 5: Tips and Tools for Pacing and Tone
• Story Telling 6: Connecting It all to Game Narrative and Game Play

Board Game Design

This is the inaugural year for board game sessions at GDC. The day of talks began with a focus on the psychology involved with play, and lead into some more inspirational talks from designers. Just about every board game presentation came from developers who published a board game, but are rooted in the video game industry. During discussions of player psychology and game mechanics, the line between video and physical games blurred. That’s a good thing.

• Board Games 1: Creating the Legacy Experience (by developers of Pandemic Legacy)
• Board Games 2: The Psychology of Loss Aversion (by Geoff Engelstein of Ludology)
• Board Game 3: Mech vs. Minions (an inspirational post mortem by Chris Cantrell of Riot Games)

Getting Our Acts Together

The Three Act Structure is probably the only term I remembered from past English courses I’ve taken; though I didn’t remember specifics about it. This was a great refresher, and more than that it was eye opening. “How could it be so insightful?” you might ask. Well, in the last article of this series we’ll look at how the Three Act structure is used to balance gameplay. This came to light not only in the story design sessions, but nearly every other design lecture I went to at one point or another used this structure to describe the flow of user experience in their games. I feel that understanding this, or at least bringing it back to my front-of-mind knowledge has helped me to better plan designs, and communicate with professional designers.

As mentioned in the last article, the insights and illustrations from Star Wars are coming from Evan Skolnick. The exception is the other movie examples I give in this article. That’s me applying these concepts to other stories. The concepts presented here end up in about every story we have in the west; though in some stories (Pulp Fiction) they’re harder to spot that others.

With all of that said, let’s dive in.

Who Came Up with This Anyway?

Let’s first give credit to the originator of this idea. The Three Act Structure was first envisioned by Aristotle, and published in his work titled ‘Poetics’. Aristotle and this particular work of his is considered to be the birth of western story telling. Its influence is very much alive today, even in video games. If you’d like to check out Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’, the entire classic work can be found for free online. Here is a link to the text, hosted by MIT.


The three acts are used to divide up the main plot points into bits of information digestible by the audience. The naming convention can vary. Here are the names the three acts go by. It is possible I will use them interchangeably throughout this and my following posts.

• Act 1 – Act 2 – Act 3
• Beginning – Middle – End
• Setup (of conflict) – Conflict – Resolution (of conflict)

Act 1

In the first act several things are accomplished to setup the story and usher the audience into the world of the Main Conflict. It is this act that introduces the hero of a story, the world the story will take place in, and the conflict that will ultimately resolve at the close of the story.

Introducing “The World”

When introducing the world of our Main Conflict, we need to communicate the following critical points. First, will we be fighting the world or attempting to save it. By “world” we are referring to the environment in which the Main Conflict takes place. This doesn’t always have to be a physical location.

The World of Independence Day

In some stories, such as Independence Day, it is literally our world. In ID4 we don’t have to spend time explaining the world, because it is the “real world”. The audience goes in understanding it.

The World of Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings)

In cases where it is a fictional world, more time is needed establishing the setting. For example, in “Lord of the Rings” one cannot assume the audience understands the ins and outs of Middle Earth. Time is needed to show what Middle Earth is all about. Once the audience has a reasonable understanding of it, they can see that the world of Middle Earth is one worth fighting to save.

The World as a Metaphor

In other stories the “world” could be metaphorical for such things as relationship(s), or the environment created by a relationship(s) (*cough, “50 Shades of Cliché”, *cough). It doesn’t have to be a world in the literal sense, but the immediate environment of the character(s).

Say Hello to Our Hero

Somewhere in the introduction to the world, the hero of the story will be introduced. While a story may have a number of characters that can be called heroic, there is one that will ultimately be “the Hero”. What defines the Hero of the story, is that it will be the character who is most (or entirely) responsible for bringing about resolution to the Main Conflict. The Hero of any given story is also the one who shows the most character growth. The components of a hero is a deep subject of its own, and we will look at The Hero’s Journey (aka the Monomyth) in the next post. For now, let’s just acknowledge that the Hero of a story is introduced in Act 1.

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is the element of a story that introduces the Hero to the Main Conflict. This incident will always happen to the Hero. It is what pulls them in, and sends them on The Hero’s Journey.

Once again leaning on Star Wars IV as an example, the inciting incident is when Luke receives the message for Obi Wan Kenobi hidden in R2-D2. It is this message that calls him to action. The action is to seek out old Ben Kenobi, which puts everything in motion.

Plot Point 1

The first plot point is when the Hero has been introduced to the Main Conflict, and receives understanding as to how the Main Conflict should be resolved. The close of Act 1 will conclude this first plot point.

Act 2

This Act is largely characterized as confrontation. The Hero, now understanding what must be done to resolve the conflict attempts resolution. During the confrontation, the stakes escalate. This is where the rising action comes in to play.

It is also here that we experience the midpoint which sends the story in a new direction. Upon Luke encountering Ben Kenobi, we are sent on a journey of escalation. The midpoint is encountered when the Princess is saved and Luke joins the Rebel pilots. Up until this point the Hero, Luke, understood resolution to be bringing the droid to the Rebels, then saving the Princess, finally he realizes it’s not over until he joins the effort to destroy the Space Station. We go from getting the plans to the Rebels, to a new direction of attacking the Death Star.

Plot Point 2

The close of Act 2 will conclude the second plot point. The second plot point is where the Hero understands the resolution. For Luke, this is when he lets go and uses the force instead of his targeting computer. He now understands how to take the shot that will resolve the Main Conflict. This will be the climax of our story, and usher in Act 3.

Act 3

The third act brings resolution to the Main Conflict through a series of events. Rewards and punishments are doled out to characters. The Hero receives confirmation of their growth; which cements them as the story’s Hero. This act is an epilogue that walks us down from the climax and brings closure to the story.

Upon the destruction of the Death Star, everything else is falling action. We see the characters celebrating, and are literally dealt medals (except for Chewie). Everyone on the Death Star is dead. This is just punishment dealt to Tarkin, and Darth Vader is left spinning through space. Everything feels fair and just. This is how western audiences like their stories to end. The entire third act of Star Wars IV is an epilogue to the story that was just concluded, and provides closure to the audience.

Star Wars has a way of following narrative structures with very literal examples. In most stories the hero characters won’t actually be given medals, but there will be some equivalent moment or action that validates the journey they have taken.

See You Next Time

Alright, that’s a lot to chew on. I’m guessing that for many this is a refresher. As I walk through this information high school is all coming back to me. In or next session we will look at the more detailed story structure of the Monomyth, or “The Hero’s Journey”.

Stick around, and thanks for reading.

Mech vs. Minions, an inspirational post mortem by Chris Cantrell of Riot Games

This was a particularly interesting session. Not because it offered any insight to game mechanics, workflow, or narrative, but because Chris Cantrell shared a highly personal journey he embarked on to see this game realized. This session seemed to fall into the category of a game “post mortem” while offering some highly inspirational thoughts that resonate with my current stage of life. With that in mind, this is the easiest post for me to write on the board game sessions and so it is the one I will begin with.

According to Chris the story of ‘Mechs vs. Minions’ begins with Stone Librande. While Stone’s (and Riot’s) professional pursuits are in the realm of video games, most notable of which is the infamous “League of Legends” (but I probably didn’t need to say it), he hobbies around with making board games for his family to play. Before coming to Riot he created a board game called ‘Weapons of Zombie Destruction’. Upon arriving at Riot He was asked if he wanted to develop his board game into an actual product. His role and experience is in video game design. He wasn’t going to put job security on the line by gambling his career on a product for a market he hasn’t experience with. As Chris tells the story, Stone felt the idea of him making a board game as a real commercial product would be absurd. He wondered what poor fool it would fall to as lead.

Enter Chris Cantrell, the Poor Fool.

Chris was happy to be the lead on anything. He felt he was “living the dream” to lead a game’s development, even if it wasn’t a video game. All seemed well and good, but what’s a story without conflict? Chris was handed Stone’s game ‘Weapons of Zombie Destruction’ and tasked with play testing it, getting to know it, and developing it into a complete product. After much play testing Chris realized something critical, he didn’t get it. He understood the rules, he just wasn’t having any fun. The people he played with seemed to have fun, but he couldn’t see the appeal.

The game became a chore. He talked with his superiors about this, and the advice he was given is that he shouldn’t make a game he doesn’t care about. There was a real chance admitting this would be the end of his time with Riot. It would be better for him personally and for the game to leave in favor of a project he does like, than to drudge through developing a game that he doesn’t. One does their best work when they believe in the game.

Pulling It Together

The game was in development for a few years, and after a while the stakeholders were getting restless. Chris reached out to two different individuals that the team felt would offer good insight to the status of their gameplay. The first was Tom Vasel of Dice Tower, and the second was Quinton Smith of Shut Up & Sit Down.

After play sessions with Tom, Chris’s team was feeling very motivated. Tom mentioned that they seem to have a complete game that works on their hands. He mentioned that he not sure what they have to be worried about. With that inspiration they weren’t sure if they needed Quinton to come out. Ultimately they did bring Quinton out, because the travel plans were already in place and they wanted to meet him.

Quinton had a very different view. He felt the gameplay was shallow. He said that with everything League has built, this board game feels like it should be a core. To be successful it needs to expand with missions and narrative that build on that core mechanic. He would also expect that sort of depth from the board game, given their other pursuits and source material.

In this moment Chris came to realize that he needed to design ten games instead of one. He still struggled with the idea that he was working on a game he didn’t really care about, and that his mentor(s) recommended he not lead the game if those are his feelings. At the same time he had stakeholders who were getting anxious for the game’s release. He discovered that he does care about the game when he considers everything he could do to expand on the core gameplay; so, in order to care about the game and lead it as a successful product he would need to reboot the design. This is close to starting fresh, and to do that he would have to convince his stakeholders.

He was again ready to hear that his project would be canned or taken from him, but that didn’t happen. Now that he had personal buy-in, the stakeholders felt it worthwhile to give him the opportunity to rebuild the game. Had Chris not proposed this, his only other option would be to release a bad game. To a good designer, that is a fate worse than being let go.

Once the vision was in place, they began daily tests. They optimized their process by “failing faster” (a concept I teach my students, and I’ll expand on shortly) and having targeted playtests. At this point the rest is a ride to success for the board game and for Chris. He had a few more points to make, but I’ll discuss those in my personal take-a-ways.

Image from surrenderat20.net
Image from surrenderat20.net

Hodge’s Take-a-Ways

I got some practical advice on how to care for your game out of this. Let’s break it all down.

1. Over the course of a life one will work on a finite amount of projects with a finite amount of time. Keeping that in mind, it is best to work on something you want to make, even if the process is terrifying. The project you are on might be the only one you ever do. Make sure it’s something that you personally want to give to your audience.
2. Self publishing has many perks. The largest seems to be that the costs spent on marketing and publishing can be redirected into the quality of the product’s physical presentation. I feel this is good advice, but probably works best if one has a built-in audience. Riot already has a legion of fans. This might be a harder point to work in if one is an unknown.
3. If you have the means (typically money saved by self publishing) put care into the box for your game. Nearly every product on the market is designed to have its packaging thrown away. With board games the packaging is part of the experience every time it is played. Make every game begin as a well crafted experience by making it a joy to unbox every time it is played, and put away. Chris referenced the experience he (and others, including myself) have when first unboxing an iPhone. Apple puts attention to detail in every aspect of their product experience, right down to the packaging. The goal is for players to have that feeling every time they play.
4. Make a game you think your players will like. “I would rather make a show 100 people need to see, than a show 1000 people want to see” – Joss Whedon. Don’t get to caught up in all of the ways to monetize your game. It needs to be a game you and others want to make first. Starting with “what’s the current trend in profiting from games” is a sure way of starting a project one loses personal attachment to, and doesn’t realize it’s full creative vision. (that last part was me expanding Chris’s comments)
5. Targeted play testing is a great way to fail faster. Instead of focusing on the whole game every play session, choose an aspect of the game to focus on during each play session. It streamlines the ability to find problems within individual components of the experience.

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t play League of Legends. It’s not that I don’t like to or would never play, it’s the matter of “finite time” mentioned earlier in the post. I’m a newly minted mid-thirty year old with lots of “adult obligations”. When I have free time, I choose to spend it working on my game. If my wife and daughter become LoL players one day, then I’ll likely get into it with them.

That said, I love Riot Games. This is not the first time I’ve heard a member of Riot speak. I’ve heard session from Stone Librande and others. One thing they all have in common is passion for the games the make, and the people they make them for. That is very noble and I believe that they would put player experience before profit, a quality I hope to emulate in my own pursuits.

Alright folks, be sure to check out my other posts from #GDC17 and thanks for reading!

Story Telling 1: The Heart of It All, Conflict

This is the first of five posts discussing narrative design and its relation to game development. This information was gleaned from Evan Skolnick at his 2017 GDC narrative boot camp. Unless otherwise noted, it’s safe to assume all insights in this article come from Skolnick.

The Heart of it All

At the heart of every story is conflict. It is the one essential ingredient that turns a situation from ordinary into a series of attention grabbing events that can be concluded to an audience’s satisfaction (emphasis on can be, because not every story does this well).

Conflict is fuel for story. Without it the narrative has nothing to push it forward. The underlying conflict of any story, or even sub story can be found by asking a question in the form of the formula X wants Y but Z. X, Y, and Z are variables that any conflict will fill in. For example, at the beginning of Star Wars IV when the Rebels are fleeing the Star Destroyer, nearly any moment contains this equation.
• Rebels want to escape, but they are being shot.
• Storm troopers want to shoot the rebels, but miss.
• Vader wants the plans, but he can’t find them.
• C3P0 wants to go one direction, but R2D2 wants to go another.

These are just four example in the opening of the film. The work groups at the session found around 2 to 3 times as much.

The Main Conflict

With all the conflicts that can be found in a story one is chosen as the overall conflict, or the Main Conflict. It is this conflict that either directly, or indirectly creates reason for all other conflicts to exist. The resolution of this conflict will signal the conclusion of the story. For example, in Star Wars IV the Main Conflict is the Rebels attempt to destroy the Death Star. While this may not seem most important when compared to Luke’s embrace of The Force, it is the conflict that causes all other conflicts to come into play. Upon the destruction of the Death Star the conclusion begins. All other conflicts or story points that don’t have a conclusion (i.e. What now for Luke? Or, what about the relationship between Luke, Han, and Leia? How about Vader, he’s still out there, what’s his deal?) Are left for sequel stories; however, the film ends on a satisfying note, because the Main Conflict introduced in the beginning and running throughout the film has been resolved.

Sub Conflicts

To push forward towards a conclusion of the Main Conflict, a series of sub conflicts are needed. These sub conflicts may be short, or they may span nearly the same amount of story as the Main Conflict; however, the resolution of sub conflicts does not signal the conclusion of the story. As sub conflicts resolve they begin triggering the resolution of the Main Conflict.

One of the most notable sub conflicts in Star Wars IV is Luke’s attempt to understand and “use The Force”. This sub conflict concludes when he turns off his targeting computer and takes that fateful shot. At this moment Luke is tuned in with The Force and his conflict is resolved, which immediately signals the conclusion of the Main Conflict. Luke’s sub conflict resolution directly triggers the Main Conflict resolution.

Other sub conflicts include the character changes within Han Solo. When we meet him, he cares only for himself. Throughout the film he struggles with emotions of beginning to care for Luke and the gang. He denies these emotions and leaves before the final attack. Han’s character sub plot is resolved when he gives himself over to caring for others and makes his timely return to the battle. He knocks Darth Vader off Luke’s tail, leaving Luke free to concentrate. The conclusion of Han’s sub plot, allows for the conclusion of Luke’s sub plot, which brings about the conclusion of the Main Conflict.

Micro Conflicts

In contrast to sub conflicts, micro conflicts are sub conflicts that are quickly presented and resolved. Sometimes they happen so fast that the audience may not have realized there was a conflict; however, the micro conflict’s presence pushes forward the story in a natural way that fits with the overall pacing. Micro conflicts connect the story from moment to moment.

A good example of this is when R2D2 and C3P0 have their conflict over which direction to go on Tatooine. This conflict happens very quickly and results in the two droids going their separate directions. Moments later R2 is alone and stalked by Jawas. The micro conflict becomes “R2 doesn’t want to be captured, but the Jawas are too overwhelming”.

These conflicts go by very quickly, but without them the story cannot progress. Let’s stop to consider what would happen without them. Had the two droids stuck together they may not have been overwhelmed, or found a safer path. Had the droids evaded capture, they would not have been purchased by Luke’s Uncle. Without being purchased, Luke would never connect with the droids, and R2 would have never presented our hero Luke with the story’s Main Conflict. In short the story would have ended, or gone on without ever introducing Luke’s character (or the writers would have factored him in some other way). As it is, the writer’s chose this progression of micro conflicts to further character introductions for those that would eventually resolve their sub conflicts (Luke and The Force, Han and caring) and bring about resolution to the Main Conflict (Destruction of the Death Star).

To conclude, let’s over-simplify this into a couple of equations. Game developers like equations.
• Multiple micro conflict resolutions = resolution of a sub conflict.
• Multiple sub conflict resolutions = resolution of the Main Conflict.

There you have it, conflict(s) are the reason stories exist. As a rule, there is no story without conflict. Now as with any rule, it can be broken; however, one should not attempt to break the rules before they have a solid understanding of what they are, and why they exist.

Catch me for the next post where we’ll break down the Three Act Structure.