How to apply a storytelling lens to any creative product.
Miyamoto showed us that storytelling and narratives could be the perennially engaging glue of any creative experience. Wil Storr explained why storytelling has such a grasp on our psychology by showing how the value of stories is imprinted on our physiology. But how can we start to apply these lessons and perspectives to our work and creativity? For that, we can turn to Mark Otero. Otero is the CEO and Founder of Azra Games, a new independent game company. While you may not have played any games from Azra yet (they are still working on their debut), you may be familiar with Mark’s work from his time at renowned game publisher EA, where he worked on Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes and influenced the massively popular Marvel Snap with the same formula. Mark is an expert at designing what he calls “collectible and combat” role playing games, a free to play game model that has exploded on mobile platforms. His philosophy on what makes these games so engaging, a philosophy he calls the “Philosophy of Fun”, contains the same principles of storytelling defined by Storr at their heart, applied to the same medium that Miyamoto pioneered decades ago.
Mark Azra got his start in games as a player. He credits the hours of Dungeons and Dragons he played during his youth in South Korea as the ignition for his love of games of all types. Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop game that pioneered the genre of role playing games, or RPGs, in both tabletop and video games. As the name describes, role playing games are games in which players assume roles, character, or archetypes and attempt to gain skills, powers, or items for their characters in order to win increasingly difficult battles or challenges. The overlap in this mechanic with storytelling may already seem clear if you’ve read the other essays in this series. RPGs essentially make a game out of the moments of change and challenges along a hero’s journey from chaos towards the ultimate stability of winning against the final villain.
Azra immediately gravitated towards the RPG genre due to its potent mix of storytelling and game play. He knew from a young age he wished to parlay his love of playing these games into creating these games. This led him to one of the largest publishers of games, EA, where he worked his way up to ultimately getting a chance to direct a game for one of the biggest properties in EA’s portfolio: Star Wars. To win the pitch for this game, and to execute its eventual success, Mark leaned on a framework he developed which he calls the Philosophy of Fun.
Azra realized that story is at the heart of most perennially successful works of creativity, and sought a way to distill what these experiences had in common. The Philosophy of Fun is a mental model he created to aid that distillation, helping any creator apply a storytelling lens to their game or technology product. What Azra noticed is that at the core of games like Dungeon and Dragons, is what he calls a root human desire. The ultimate prize at the end of a long story full of challenges and obstacles along the way. Through the lens of Storr’s view of storytelling, one can also view these desires, whether they are fantasies of power, love, wealth as a means for social belonging, the ultimate utility of stories.
In Dungeons and Dragons, Azra felt this was a power fantasy at its core. People play the game in order to feel powerful. Azra feels that with the Philosophy of Fun, any perennially fun or engaging experience needs to have one, and only one, ultimate fantasy or desire as the carrot at the end of the long stick of gameplay and story. This is what hooks the player to craft a story of their journey along the way towards that prize. While Azra may have developed the Philosophy of Fun on the back of his experience playing Dungeons and Dragons, he executed it to perfection in his first major game release: Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes. Azra noticed that Star Wars, like Dungeons and Dragons, is essentially a power fantasy between the forces of light and dark. He also looked at Star Wars’ long history of commercializing that fantasy through action figures and toys. He combined these two elements to create a game where the collection of increasingly more powerful digital toys granted the player the power to defeat increasingly more difficult enemies and challenges, all on the quest for the ultimate prize of complete victory for your side, forming a “collectibles and combat” RPG. Sound familiar to Storr’s view of storytelling?
Let’s look back on Miyamoto’s work in Donkey Kong. While a more primitive and intuitive version, the same principles are at play. Donkey Kong’s capture of Jumpman’s girlfriend sets the stakes. The skyscraper, barrels, and tools are the obstacles or moments of change Jumpman must surmount to fulfill his fantasy. The entire game is a story played out on one screen towards a single fantasy in the Philosophy of Fun. But where Star Wars or Dungeons and Dragons may be using power as the ultimate prize and the symbol of belonging, Donkey Kong is a love fantasy. Jumpman, and the player, is battling through these obstacles to reunite with their girlfriend and earn the carrot of social belonging through love within their reunion.
The Philosophy of Fun is a lens with which we can use to evaluate a perennially engaging work of creativity. What is the fantasy carrot at the end of this story and game stick? Is there one obvious fantasy, or multiple competing fantasies that confuses the audience? Are the obstacles or moments of change along the way towards this fantasy fun and engaging, or are they perhaps meaningless or too difficult. Any creator can use these questions to test whether their creative experience, whether it's a movie, game, or technology product, has the best chance of success. Using the Philosophy of Fun as a lens, we can leverage storytelling in any creative work to create unforgettable experiences that audiences both will love and pay for.