Two Sides to a Story

We all know history is invariably written by those who gained and held the power for any period of time, and we tend to tell our stories from that same place – focused on the side that won. Any social scientist will tell you that approach is problematic, though, because it removes the other side of the story and in the process potentially eliminates critical historical information.

Good news for conquerors. Bad news for the conquered.

As an avid reader and a lifelong hobbyist anthropologist, I used to think about this a lot – the story from the antagonist’s point of view. And then I read Dragons of Summer Flame, which tells a section of the Dragonlance history from the side perceived as the enemy through Dragonlance Chronicles. The main character is the child of two of the Chronicles characters, fighting on his mother’s side (the enemy) for what he was raised believing is right while coming to his own understanding of his knightly father’s oppositional beliefs.

The Avatar: The Last Airbender episode “Ember Island Players” centers around the Avatar and his friends secretly attending a show in the Fire Nation, generally perceived by the entire Avatar-verse as the enemy. The performers have put together a show recounting the Avatar’s journey from the iceberg he was found in through the Earth Kingdom and into the Fire Nation, generally portraying the group and the Fire Nation prince who has joined as buffoons. The play ends with a fight between the Avatar and the Fire Nation princess, where she overpowers and defeats him for the glory of the Fire Nation. While viewers know what’s really happened, and what will most likely happen in the upcoming fight between the Avatar and the Firelord, the play is Fire Nation propaganda, pure and simple.

The story doesn’t have to be anything so complicated or grand. It could be the scientist willing to to do whatever it takes to accomplish a goal she believes will benefit mankind. It could be the friend trying to mediate a fight between other friends without stopping to find out why both sides are fighting to begin with. (Felicia Day once pointed out that many stories and real-life conflicts wouldn’t exist if the parties involved had just sat down together and talked, and she’s not wrong.)

I think the reason we’re starting to see so many projects interested in trying to collect and preserve the voices of a minority group or a defeated group is because we’re starting to recognize the value of having a more complete story. The more complete story allows us to better identify the biases and alterations that have crept in to the narrative as a whole, and can potentially give us a better idea of how a situation blew up so that future people can identify the warning signs and try to make better choices.

It really makes you think, doesn’t it?

World Lore in Cartoons and Games

While I do play a fair number of games that have little or no story wrapped around them (otherwise known as “casual” games. My current obsession is Angry Birds Go.), I am a storyteller and a cultural anthropologist at my core. I like a game with a story to it. I like game worlds where a writer or a narrative designer took the time to create an actual world, with a present, and a past, and a future. A world with quirks, with a conflict I can make myself care about.

What’s really funny is that my favorite game set in a game world, The Legend of Zelda, actually doesn’t have a connected story. Each iteration is a new glimpse into the life of Hyrule hero Link. It’s episodic…sort of. Final Fantasy, which I’ve had more fun watching than playing, has a similar issue. What’s even funnier is that the games I decided to look at in this post…are games I have little or no experience with. I’m just fascinated with how world lore and story came together to form each game’s world.

Twenty years ago, when a friend pulled out decks of odd-looking cards and tried to get us to play this hot new game, I glanced at it and went back to chatting. It looked like nothing more than a card game with five suits and funky art. Okay…so it was really cool art in a lot of cases. But still, it was just a deck of cards where you chose what suits you personally played with. The guys got into it; I just stole cards to look at the art. Eventually, I noticed the cards had text on them, beyond just explaining what that card did, and a passing interest with Magic: The Gathering was born. Through the flavor texts, I learned that the game was actually players re-enacting a duel between Urza and Mishra. (I always forget about Mishra when I try to explain this to people.) The flavor texts not only flesh out the world Urza and Mishra are dueling in, but sometimes highlight aspects of that legendary duel. Tie-in novels have actually arisen out of the game’s flavor texts and world design. I lost touch with the game years ago, but I understand Urza has gone on to duel a wizard named Gix.

Ten years ago, I fell into a cartoon that has become a bit of a guilty pleasure. Yu-Gi-Oh is a story about an alternate universe Tokyo where characters resolve their issues by playing card games. (Not even kidding. This was Takahashi’s intention. He thought it would be entertaining.) So, you have battles over souls and territories and egos…being resolved by a Magic-style game. Characters are rescued from certain death…by playing a card game. It’s really quite bizarre, and just as lame as it sounds. There’s nothing really notable about the card game itself. If your only contact with Yu-Gi-Oh was the game, you’d probably have no idea that the game has a backstory in the manga. Beyond the spirits inhabiting the Millennium objects, I probably wouldn’t have noticed, either, until much later in the cartoon. But about halfway through the first season of the cartoon, the character generally regarded as a moron (who becomes the poster child for what happens when you make unfair assumptions about people) shares the tales surrounding one of the monsters in his deck in talking through his strategy. It’s the first flash the cartoon gives (because it’s been so long since I read the manga that I don’t remember if it’s also there) that this story, and by extension the game, might actually have an interesting layer to it. It turns out later to be a rather tragic story, but still. Not bad for a world where all conflicts, small and life-threatening, are resolved through a card game.

When World of Warcraft (WoW) introduced the ability to take on lore as a profession, I briefly started paying attention to it. I still have never played it, but I was following one of the guys working on it on Twitter for a while. I didn’t realize until the announcement of the lore profession that WoW had a story aspect. Apparently, it’s had several, making WoW a far more interesting and complex massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG). If I’ve understood things correctly (and WoW players who actually play the story-related quests and activities, please feel free to chime in down in the comments), each release or expansion is a new storyline in this building exposition. And players really get into it. They will even call the narrative designers on continuity and logic issues.

Games really are pushing themselves to be a new storytelling form, through exploring telling stories in ways that make sense to the game’s narrative designers. The stories can serve just as the world background for the game, or can allow the players to help shape the world’s story through their play. As narrative designers continue to push and to work with game designers to explore different ways to deepen these worlds, games are going to become an immersive storytelling experience worth curling up with.

Storytelling, An Ancient Teaching Method

I was teaching one afternoon several months ago when a fellow teacher looked over at me and said, “You know, I know there’s a  difference between a fairy tale and a folk tale, but I don’t know what it is. Do you?” After a moment of thought, I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know, either. I’ve grown up with fables, fairy tales, folklore, and mythology my entire life, and I couldn’t tell you the difference between them on the spot.

What’s really embarrassing is that these stories are our history. Teachers’ history, I mean. Storytelling is one of the original teaching methods, and we’re now reconnecting with the power and strength of the story to make topics sticky enough to be learned. Those who wove these stories are really our masters now, those we should be looking to for guidance on how to re-incorporate the story into our teaching…and two teachers sat there realizing they couldn’t tell you which type of story was which.

It turns out sorting them out is relatively simple. The fable is a story, usually featuring animals, that teaches a moral or a life lesson. The folk tale, folklore in the collective, is a story that orally conveys the customs, assumed history, and beliefs of a culture. The fairy tale is a lesson wrapped up in a fantastical story. As they involve animals and humans, they are considered a subset of fables. Fairy tales were told shared orally as entertainment and education until someone finally started recording each story (and its many variations). The myth is a story about a god or a legendary hero that searches to explain the scientific observations of the originating culture. Some cultures have also woven bits of their history, exaggerated a bit, into their mythology as a means of asserting their dominance in an area or to assert cultural pride.

While these stories can’t be easily identified with a core subject, they’ve lasted throughout time, often teaching the modern people who hear them today.