Vladimir Propp was a Russian scholar who analysed Russian folktales in order to classify the basic plot components that comprised them. He identified common themes in these folktales, converted them to “morphemes” – the smallest linguistic unit that has semantic meaning – which in turn were transformed into “Narratemes” – the final 31 elements of narrative that were common throughout. (See Appendices.) He also defined the narrative function in these folk tales – “the act of a character defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action” (Propp, 1968) – as using characters as a tool for the hero to perform certain actions or take certain paths in the narrative. (Patrice Pavis, 1998) He also identified seven different character roles in these folk tales.
In this sense, Propp’s work has similarities to that of Joseph Campbell, who also defined a structure of basic fairy tale plot. (Jones, 2002) The main difference between the work of Propp and Campbell (Campbell, 2008) was that Propp defined folk tales by his Narratemes, which means that some of the specifics of the story may be lost in this definition. Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Campbell, 2008) attempts to seek out a pattern in these stories, but does not classify the entire genre by it. (Jones, 2002)
Propp also identified that there are five different categories of narrative functions which define not only the construction of a tale, but the tale as a whole. These five functions are as follows:
- The Narratemes – Common elements that were identified in the folk tale genre.
- The Conjuctive Element – Disclosures or Announcements.
- The Motivation – Why the Hero is doing what they’re doing.
- The Dramatis Personae – The appearance of the characters.
- The Accessories – Any accessories that the characters have which define them.
Propp combined these functions to create a structural analysis called the “Morphology” – “A description of the tale according to its component parts and the relationship of these components to each other and to the whole.” (Eladhari, 2002)
Propp’s work inspired many studies, both before and after his “Morphology of the Folktale” was translated into English in the 1950s. Claude Lévi-Strauss presented a Paradigmatic model of structural analysis as early as 1955, and published his work in 1960 (Strauss, 1960), suggesting that “the linear sequential structure is but apparent of manifest content, whereas the paradigmatic or schematic structure is the more important latent content.” (Propp, 1968) According to Strauss, “the task of the structural analyst…is to see past of through the superficial linear structure to the ‘correct’ or true underlying paradigmatic pattern of organization”. (Propp, 1968)
Some studies have presented criticisms of Propp’s work, such as Archer Taylor, who claims that Propp’s work is lengthy and convoluted, with conflicting inferences appearing as his work progresses. (Taylor, 1964) However, according to Morphology of the Folktale (Propp, 1968), some insight can be found in its criticism, such as that of Fischer (Fischer, 1963) who claimed that although Propp’s view is “too concrete for application to folk narratives from all cultures” (Fischer, 1963) it provides a basis for further study into more specific narrative structures.
Although most of the research conducted since Propp’s study has been specific to folklore and fairy tales, Alan Dundes applied Propp’s strategies to non-verbal folklore, such as that of children’s games. (Dundes, 1964) This can provide insight when applying Propp’s method to the narrative of videogames, as his definition of “non-verbal folklore” has some similarities with modern video games, as demonstrated below, using “Hare and Hounds” as an example.
This demonstrates the similarities between conventional folktales and games, albeit often children’s “playground games” – and so demonstrates the potential for Propp’s methods to have applications in game design. Dundes also notes that the main difference between verbal and non-verbal folklore is “Dimensionality” (Dundes, 1964) which brings to light the issue of linearity in folklore. In Propp’s Russian Folktales, there is only one level of dimensionality – providing insight into the conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist, where the actions of either one or the other are discussed at any one time.
This therefore brings to attention the nature of the game, and the concept of ludus and paidia (Caillois, 1961) which distinguishes two different types of play in games; where ludus is linear play and paidia is freedom and spontaneity in play. Ludus has more similarities with the dimensionality of folktales, while paidia gameplay represents a more complex narrative with more dimensionality – and these types of play must be considered separately when speculating the validity of Propp’s methodology applied to video games.
A Brief History of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
One example of a video game that can be used to demonstrate these theories is Blizzard’s “Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos” (Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, 2002). Released in 2002, the game was released for Windows and Mac OS, and had both single and multiplayer game modes. Although the game wasn’t highly innovative in the Real Time Strategy Game genre, it was praised for its “well-executed story, drum-tight game-play and a long shelf life as a multiplayer title”, (GamePro, 2002) and still has a loyal following of fans 8 years after its release.
Real Time Strategy games typically do not require a deep narrative structure , but the format of Warcraft 3 means that as the player progresses through the game and it’s campaigns he gets to experience the narrative of the world from many different points-of-view, creating complex dimensionality. However, if we take each campaign as a solitary narrative, we are presented with a linear story where the player takes on the role of the hero, from the point of view of that race. The player must establish a base through resource management, using the assets available nearby such as wood or gold, and in most cases use this base to train minions to drive out all other players in the map, or protect the main base while quests are completed. Most of the quests involve exploring the map and defeating a main enemy, but there are also optional side quests which involve extra exploration or escorting and protecting allies. The player controls the gameplay through navigation of menus and management of troops.
The campaign “The Scourge of Lordaeron” from the RTS video game “Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos” is ideal for analysis using the Propp method of storytelling because it is a popular modern video game, that has been praised for its narrative.  (Fehrenbacher, 2002)
Furthermore, Warcraft III can be said to have a structure which is similar to that of common folktales, following an epic storyline with a hero protagonist spanning across entire kingdoms. Also, the nature of the Warcraft franchise means that sequels may change the story slightly as we progress through the generations of the game, resulting in an effect similar to the Chinese whispers effect on folklore over generations. The narrative follows with Propp’s concept of “Spheres” which summarise the Narratemes into themes:
- 1st Sphere – Introduction
- 2nd Sphere – The Body of the Story
- 3rd Sphere – The Donor Sequence
- 4Th Sphere – The Hero’s Return
During the 1st Sphere, the “Hero” Arthas, a paladin of the Silver Hand, The Captain and Jaina Proudmoore, the “Princess” and Arthas’ former lover and apprentice Archmage, are investigating a strange plague that is spreading across the lands of Lordaeron. (ABSENTATION – The hero leaves the security of the home environment, in this case to investigate the break out.) In the 2nd Sphere, to their horror, they find that the plague turns unsuspecting people into hideous undead warriors, and must move to stop the undead’s plans. (MEDIATION – Misfortune or lack is made known, hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc. The hero now discovers the act of villainy or lack, perhaps finding their family of community devastated or caught up in a state of anguish or woe.) After a string of hollow victories (many towns in the Plaguelands now being destroyed), Arthas decides that the best way to end the game was to destroy Mal’Ganis (the VILLIAN), the supposed leader of the Scourge. Mal’Ganis travels northwards to the icy lands of Northrend, and Arthas follows him. (FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR – Hero is prepared for his or her receiving magical agent or helper.) In the 3rd Sphere, Arthas aids an old friend, Muradin Bronzebeard (the DONOR), who tells him of a powerful weapon, sword called the Frostmourne. (the MAGICAL ITEM). Arthas obtains Frostmourne, at the (supposed) cost of Muradin’s life and uses it to defeat Mal’Ganis. (VICTORY – Villain is defeated: killed in combat, defeated in contest, banished). However, as a result, Frostmourne steals Arthas’ soul and turns to ally the undead. (TRANSFIGURATION – Hero is given new appearance.).
In this case the story fits with these themes, but the circumstances in which they occur have a very different meaning. For example, part way through the narrative of the campaign, the motives of the main character, Prince Arthas, become questionable, and the other characters begin to question his actions. At the end of the sequence, the “Hero” of the campaign does return, but in this case it is after he has undergone a transformation in the Transfiguration stage – where he becomes undead, and returns to kill his father, The King, to take his place. In this case the narrative fits the Narratemes but has significant meaning which is lost when analysed using this method.
One main difference between folklore and the narrative of videogames is the way that the player interprets the story and how the player interacts with it. For example, taking into account different player archetypes, players may take different paths through a game narrative. One player might strive to become the strongest they will be, collecting the most upgrades or power-ups for their character, without considering the narrative; whereas another may play the game to uncover the most about the narrative as possible. In some games, however, these two paths result in the same ending, and this can be seen in games such as Warcraft III. In order to progress as a character, the player must play through the levels in a linear path, resulting in the revelation of the narrative, and this makes the narrative structure of Propp’s concepts much more appropriate.
Furthermore, videogame narrative structure differs from that of traditional folklore in that players do not always consider the narrative important, or can perceive it in different ways. As mentioned before, Warcraft III is structured in such a way that the player can explore the narrative and develop their character at the same time – but it is important to note that the most popular aspect of Warcraft III is the multiplayer modes accessed through the online network Battle.net (Blizzard, Battle.net, 2010), which has no impact on the overall story, and only features a simple multiplayer narrative to motivate the player. This shows that a complex folklore-esque narrative is not required to create a popular game environment. This could, however mean that Propp’s theory fits better to these basic multiplayer stories, or typical action games where the story is merely motivation for the player to progress, as they use more common and predictable narrative techniques. Creating a balance between the narrative and the battle system and gameplay is a challenge which game designers face, as gameplay can break player immersion, again creating a scenario where the game narrative takes second place to the gameplay.
Similarly to fitting the Narratemes to the campaign of “The Scourge of Lordaeron”, it is also possible to infer Propp’s character archetypes within the narrative structure of Warcraft III. For example, see the following table showing the application of the Character Archetypes to Warcraft III. As you can see, some characters have more than one role in the narrative.
|Character Archetype||In-Game Character(s)||Comments|
|Villain||Mal’Ganis, The Scourge, Arthas||Each campaign has an individual villain, although the overall villain is the Scourge, the faction that the villains belong to. Arthas becomes a villain after his transformation.|
|Donor||The Prophet, Muradin Bronzebeard||The Prophet begins the entire journey, whilst Muradin Bronzebeard shows Arthas the way to the Frostmourne.|
|The (Magical) Helper||Jaina Proudmoore||Jaina is an apprentice Archmage, who guides Arthas until she objects to his actions during his transformation.|
|Princess or Prize||Jaina Proudmoore, Frostmourne, The Defeat of the Scourge||Jaina acts as the Princess, as Arthas’ lover – although this relationship is broken as he undergoes his transformation. The Frostmourne sword is also a prize, which is known as a powerful item at the start of the game but is revealed as being cursed.|
|The Princess’ Father||The King||Jaina’s father is unknown, although Arthas’ Father the King takes on some of this role as the person who rules over the kingdom and orders Arthas to protect it.|
|Dispatcher||The Prophet||The Prophet, “Medivh”, makes the lack known and sends the hero off.|
|Hero||Prince Arthas||Arthas is the Hero, at least of the Human Race for this campaign, whilst the player takes on his role.|
|False Hero||Prince Arthas||In this case the False Hero is the same as the Hero, only after he has undergone his transformation. He becomes evil, but still believes his actions are valid as he has become corrupted.|
As illustrated by the table above, Propp’s character archetypes can be applied to this game with relative ease. Some of the characters can be categorized using more than one archetype, and some of the attributes of the archetypes can be loosely applied to characters which only have a subtle link to the archetype’s name. For example, Jaina Proudmoore, despite not being a Princess, has traits which apply to the Princess archetype and the Prize, as she is the love interest of Prince Arthas. Furthermore, although the King is not the father of Jaina, he plays a similar role in the narrative as the archetype suggests. The archetypes, however, do not fully account for the alteration of character roles during the duration of the narrative, such as the character of Arthas – who takes on the roles of Hero, False Hero and Villain as he undergoes his transformation.
One main issue with the use of Propp’s theory to categorize videogames is the fact that it doesn’t look at emotion or depth in a story, or how two similar actions can have very different meanings depending on the context. This was shown in the earlier example of Warcraft III, where the Hero, Prince Arthas, returns home, but rather than returning with news of a kingdom saved, he returns to kill his father and seize the throne. Furthermore, he finds a magical object, and returns home with it, but in this case it is the Frostmourne, a magical sword that corrupts the Prince. In both cases the Narratemes could be said to fit to the narrative, but the emotion, depth and alternative meaning is not taken into account.
This shows that Propp’s concepts cannot be used to analyse more unusual stories, as his narrative structure is a much defined one. The nature of stories usually means that the more uncommon and unpredictable the story is, the more popular it will be. One common method for constructing stories is to take a common structure, like those analysed by Propp, and adapt this story – the trick being to make the new story “unpredictable” (Cobb, 2004). Research shows that players require more unpredictable stories and deeper narrative experiences with a subtle balance with gameplay (Lindley, 2002). Furthermore, as the videogame market opens up to a more varied range of audiences – such as casual gamers and families – who are attracted by different genres of games – leading to the question of whether the structural similarities between game narratives are common just within their own genre, or in videogames in general?
Warcraft III is categorized as a Real Time Strategy game, and has similarities with other games of this genre, such as the “Heroes of Might and Magic” series of games (Ubisoft, 2010), and Blizzard’s other series of RTS games, “Starcraft” (Blizzard, Starcraft, 2010). Comparing Warcraft III to the Might and Magic series, it is possible to see many similarities in the gameplay, such as resource collection and allocation, and also in the narrative – Might and Magic also features a storyline that spans across kingdoms, with Heroes II focusing on a two sided conflict, similar to Warcraft III, with a power struggle within a royal family, also mirroring the narrative of Warcraft III (Ubisoft, 2010).
Using the Warcraft III campaign “The Scourge of Lordaeron”, that features Prince Arthas as the “Hero” and playable main character, provided some notable results concerning the analysis of game narrative using the Propp method of structural analysis.
- First of all, it is possible to conclude that Narratemes can be effectively applied to video game narratives providing they have an element of ludus gameplay. Games with a linear storyline can be analysed more effectively as the Spheres of narrative are more prominent.
- Furthermore, games within common genres have common Narratemes. Analysing videogames in general is always effective; however each genre has its own features which effect the construction and form of narrative.
- Research shows that video games require more complex narrative than ever before, as audiences for video games become more diverse, and more genres within the medium of videogames are evolving. Furthermore, complex but familiar stories can be constructed by taking the basic themes which are common in stories and adding unpredictable ones to the overall structure. This means the Narratemes can be used to construct stories, and then altered to create a more interesting story with increased player immersion and a more captivating player experience.
- Narratemes can be applied to the video game narrative, but show no meaning behind them. The Narratemes provide a very black and white way of analysing narrative, and often require further explanation as to their purpose in the story.
- Finally, although not all Narratemes can be applied to games, there are some narrative devices that are present in games that are not accounted for when using Propp’s method. For example, some issues that arise when dealing with interactive narrative – such as player death, or gameplay challenges.
To provide a more accurate representation of the application of Propp’s Narratemes to interactive narrative in video games, more research needs to be conducted in this field. For example, analysis of other games in the Real Time Strategy genre to distinguish common Narratemes, and further analysis into other genres of video games. Furthermore, creating a more modern set of Narratemes to apply to modern visual media would allow for a more relevant structural analysis than that applied to Russian folktales. As shown, much research has been undertaken into the field of Propp’s work, although mostly applied to stories and films. As games become much more sophisticated in terms of narrative to accommodate for more realistic games, immersive experiences and wider target audiences, more sophisticated narrative structures are required, although Propp’s core ideals are still unmistakable.
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The 31 Narratemes
1st Sphere: Introduction
Steps 1 to 7 introduce the situation and most of the main characters, setting the scene for subsequent adventure.
- Absentation: Someone goes missing
- Interdiction: Hero is warned
- Violation of interdiction
- Reconnaissance: Villain seeks something
- Delivery: The villain gains information
- Trickery: Villain attempts to deceive victim
- Complicity: Unwitting helping of the enemy
2nd Sphere: The Body of the story
The main story starts here and extends to the departure of the hero on the main quest.
- 8. Villainy and lack: The need is identified
- 9. Mediation: Hero discovers the lack
- 10. Counteraction: Hero chooses positive action
- 11. Departure: Hero leave on mission
3rd Sphere: The Donor Sequence
In the third sphere, the hero goes in search of a method by which the solution may be reached, gaining the magical agent from the Donor. Note that this in itself may be a complete story.
- 12. Testing: Hero is challenged to prove heroic qualities
- 13. Reaction: Hero responds to test
- 14. Acquisition: Hero gains magical item
- 15. Guidance: Hero reaches destination
- 16. Struggle: Hero and villain do battle
- 17. Branding: Hero is branded
- 18. Victory: Villain is defeated
- 19. Resolution: Initial misfortune or lack is resolved
4th Sphere: The Hero’s return
In the final (and often optional) phase of the storyline, the hero returns home, hopefully uneventfully and to a hero’s welcome, although this may not always be the case.
- 20. Return: Hero sets out for home
- 21. Pursuit: Hero is chased
- 22. Rescue: pursuit ends
- 23. Arrival: Hero arrives unrecognized
- 24. Claim: False hero makes unfounded claims
- 25. Task: Difficult task proposed to the hero
- 26. Solution: Task is resolved
- 27. Recognition: Hero is recognized
- 28. Exposure: False hero is exposed
- 29. Transfiguration: Hero is given a new appearance
- 30. Punishment: Villain is punished
- 31. Wedding: Hero marries and ascends the throne
Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos – The Scourge of Lordaeron Full Synopsis
1. The Warning
The Warning is the starting cinematic of the Human campaign: The Scourge of Lordaeron. The short movie features a meeting of the Alliance council with King Terenas, they discussed about Lordaeron’s problems like the orc uprising in southern Lordaeron and the misterious plague, then The Last Guardian, Medivh, appears before the Alliance council. Medivh tries to warn King Terenas about the coming of the Legion and the Scourge, but the king didn’t pay any heed to his warnings and told him that they were the ones that should choose what’s best to protect themselves. Medivh then said that he will find another who will heed his warning and that, now, their fate is their own
2. The Defence of Strahnbrad
Recent orc uprisings in southern Lordaeron have forced the Alliance to take decisive measures. To contain the orcish threat, King Terenas has sent two of the realm’s greatest paladins – his son, Prince Arthas, and the legendary Uther the Lightbringer – to deal with the orcs once and for all.
3. Blackrock and Roll
Uther Lightbringer and Arthas Menethil move against the Blackrock clan of orcs, who have recently captured citizens from Strahnbrad. Though they quickly build a base and recruit riflemen from smith and enchanter Feranor Steeltoe, Uther and Arthas arrive too late to save the villagers who were just sacrificed to the Burning Legion by orcs who have re-embraced their demon worshiping.
Arthas leads an assault against the Blackrock encampment, slaying every orc there. His vengeful fury foreshadows his coming descent into madness. After destroying the encampment, he defeated Blademaster.
4. Jaina’s Meeting
The interlude features a meeting of Archmage Antonidas with the Prophet in the Violet Citadel of Dalaran. In this interlude first time ever we meetJaina Proudmoore – a daughter of Admiral Daelin Proudmoore, brave admiral of Kul’Tiras.
5. Ravages of the Plague
Arthas and Jaina discover the source of the Plague.
6. The Cult of the Damned
Cult of the Damned is chapter 4 of the Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos human campaign, The Scourge of Lordaeron. It begins with Arthas and Jaina watching a group of acolytes build a gold mine. Arthas and Jaina killed some of the acolytes, but the rest escaped. They build their base and begin attacking an undead base. They reached Andorhal, only to find that Kel’Thuzad has already infected the granary with the Plague, and sent out the grain shipments. Kel’Thuzad leaves, but not before mocking Arthas and Jaina, and commanding his undead minions to kill them, but Arthas and Jaina managed to destroy the granary anyway. Arthas and Jaina pursued Kel’Thuzad, killed his undead guards, and then slew Kel’Thuzad himself. Before dying he told them that Mal’Ganis is in Stratholme, and he will spread the plague of undeath there.
7. The Prince and the Prophet
The Prince and the Prophet is the second interlude of the Human Campaign: The Scourge of Lordaeron. The interlude features Prince Arthas running along the road, where the Prophet accosts him.
8. March of the Scourge
“March of the Scourge” is the fifth chapter in the Human Campaign The Scourge of Lordaeron. It involves the player defending their base from a large undead assault. There is also a Side Quest in which the player is given the option to go out and destroy a caravan of plagued grain before it infects all the outer villages.
9. The Culling
The Culling is chapter 6 of The Scourge of Lordaeron. It was the slaughter of a large portion of the civilian population of Stratholme at the hands of Prince Arthas, who sought to prevent the spread of the Plague of Undeath at any cost necessary. This event also marked the (temporary) disbanding of theSilver Hand, as Uther the Lightbringer refused to follow the order of executing civilians. More importantly, the event marked Prince Arthas’s first major step to becoming a death knight by slaughtering his own people.
Divergent Courses is the third and final interlude of the Human Campaign: The Scourge of Lordaeron. The interlude begins with Jaina surveying the wreckage of Stratholme, as the surviving villagers pile the corpses of the dead onto pyres.
11.The Shores of Northrend
After travelling to Northrend, this chapter involves the player setting up camp here and encountering new monsters.
This chapter shows Destruction of Alliance Naval Fleet, annihilation of the Mercenaries by the Alliance.
Frostmourne was the final battle between Prince Arthas Menethil and the dreadlord, Mal’Ganis. It was the climax of Arthas’ pursuit of the dreadlord in his quest for vengeance against Mal’Ganis’ acts against the people of Lordaeron. It would see Arthas taking up the accursed runeblade, Frostmourne at the expense of his old tutor and friend‘s life and drive his cold, hungry, and exhausted forces to certain death while using the cursed sword’s power to vanquish Mal’Ganis’ forces and eventually the dreadlord himself. While Arthas was in his search for the runeblade,the Alliance Captain bravely defended the Alliance base. It is not known what happen to him after the battle though he could have been killed in battle or by Arthas himself.
Arthas travelled back to Lordaeron months later, and the kingdom rejoiced at the return of its champion. Arthas knelt before the throne, then approached his father, King Terenas, and ran him through with Frostmourne. The king’s bloodied, broken crown remains lost to this day.
All plot content: Blizzard Entertainment© (WoWWiki, 2002)
 The Villain, The Donor, The Helper, The Princess ( & Father), The Dispatcher, The Hero, The False Hero
 “In “Hare and Hounds,” the boy chosen as the Hare (the choosing by counting out rhymes or other means may be construed as pre-game activity) runs away to hide. Usually a fixed time span, a specific number oi- minutes, or counting to some arbitrary number, marks the formal beginning of the chase, much as the iteration of an opening formula marks the passage from reality to fantasy in the beginning of a folktale. In fact, some games actually have opening formulas such as “Ready or not, here I come,” The game, then, begins with a lack, the missing Hare, The quest, so popular in folktales, is equally popular in games. The Hounds attempt to find and catch the Hare, just as the hero in folktale seeks to liquidate the initial lack (function XIX).” (Dundes, 1964)
 Dundes noted that “In games, however, one finds a contrast: there are at least two sequences of actions going on simultaneously. When A is playing against B, both A and B are operating at the same time, all the time. This is theoretically true in folktales, but only one side’s activities (usually the hero’s) are described at a given point in the tale. A folktale is, therefore, a two-dimensional series of actions displayed on a one-dimensional track, or, conversely, a game is, structurally speaking, a two-dimensional folktale.”
The campaign that will be used to apply these theories will be the first campaign (excluding the prologue campaign) “The Scourge of Lordaeron” – in which the player takes on the role of Prince Arthas, as the hero of the Human Race.
“Prince Arthas, a paladin of the Silver Hand, the Captain and Jaina Proudmoore, Arthas’ former lover and apprentice-Archmage, are investigating a strange plague that is spreading across the lands of Lordaeron. To their horror, they find that the plague turns unsuspecting people into hideous undead warriors, and must move to stop the undead’s plans. After a string of hollow victories (many towns in the now Plaguelands being destroyed), Arthas decides that the best way to end the game was to destroy Mal’Ganis the (supposed) leader of the scourge. Mal’Ganis travels northward to the icy lands of Northrend, and Arthas follows him. There he aids an old friend, Muradin Bronzebeard, who tells him of a powerful weapon, a sword called Frostmourne. Arthas obtains Frostmourne, at the (supposed) cost of Muradin’s life, and uses it to defeat Mal’Ganis. However, as a result, Frostmourne steals Arthas’ soul and turns to ally the undead…” (WoWWiki, 2002) See appendices for full campaign plot.
 “This combination of narrative and gameplay is one of the most impressive aspects of Warcraft III, and it continues throughout the long but never dull single-player campaigns.” – (Fehrenbacher, 2002)
 For example: Achievers, Explorers, Socialisers, Imposers (Bartle, 2003)