(CC) Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

Towards a Story Revolution (I)

How our narratives make matters worse, not better.

The problem with our dominant narratives.

What makes it like this? Is it that we keep our our audiences distracted with just amusement? I predict all such products will seem more and more silly and naive as the real world crises grow. On top of that I think our narratives are driven by damaging tropes and paradigms . Let’s discover those tropes, because shifts will not happen when we add more of the same.

How Our Current Stories Are Part of the Problem

The laws of narration have certain rules, grown over time, that help us relate, get deeper into the story and feel more emotional invested. Yet these rules, all too often just create more of the same into one big box. Let’s expose how these influence us.

Too many Repetitions, ‘the Tyranny of the Success Formula’

(Explanation) You’re making video games? And you want to be original? You might be fantasising how to make a bigger, crazier end boss than anyone before. Ever considered how unoriginal that fantasy is? Haha. In the nineties Romantic Comedies all ended with a grand declaration of love in a as big space as possible. Or take buddy movies, with odd couples. Or Heist movies with a diverse team. And serial killers, each one leaving a crazier trail than those gone before. Or scary movies full of people enjoying cruelty to make it all so ‘exciting’ for the audience. Meanwhile Easter Eggs, Tropes, Memes have become so popular some movies just seem a series of ‘find-them-all’ quotes referring to other movies or games. Or is that too meta? And these copies of copies keep being watered down. Sigh.

Too many narratives enforce our own society as normal and make successfully ‘fitting in’ the desired objective.

(Explanation) You must have seen at the least a dozen movies starting in a normal suburb, and then things get out of hand. Yes, we consider suburbs as the median of normal. These destructive-car-dependent-energy-absorbing-alienating places are promoted as the starting point of normal. Here in most movies people start in a normal life, which gets upset, and they try to (un)successfully return to it, with lessons learned. Many horror movies are about infringements upon these ‘normal’ lives. Our biggest fear is our safe bubble will be burst. Rare are the stories that make this normal itself the weird.

Too many narratives even advertise ‘be a bigger success’ (by being blind to how that worsens the problems for the rest of us)

(Explanation) Many see the Fortune 500 as pinnacle of having it made. Consider all the movies, self help books, LinkedIn tips to join the ranks of these top dogs. Despite many narratives about greed and the excesses of the rich we still seem to strive for a palace of our own. Way too many games follow the extraction economy model. They advertise ‘the infinite growth on a finite planet’ as a game winner. This years weather clearly shows it leads to collective suicide. And then most narratives are either bundled into ‘weather’ (draught and heat are getting more extreme) and economy (people need jobs, more jobs is good). But many of those jobs make matters worse. Many success stories of huge profits have many victims, directly and indirectly and many many more to come.

Too many narratives overlook NPC’s and Extra’s as Consequential

(Explanation) In the new Game of Thrones series almost all servants are bystanders. A few characters fight over power and the throne and few others matter to them … and to the storytellers. Many soldiers, women, children serve and die for a few peoples ambition. And our ‘heroic’ narratives sell that as normal. We see the same trend in China. Now that inequality is back, stories with many lowly people being very obedient to the nobles are back. Those who are rich deserve it. Inequality itself is never questioned, only those that enriched themselves in dishonest ways. Yet from the times of slavery we know, even good willing people had slaves and prolonged the institution of slavery. It took many years and people to end this. So too, must we with all huge current inequality ask, is this system honest? How do the weakest in such situation fare, not just the (rich & powerful) main characters?

Too many narratives are escapism blinding us to anything not related to the story

(Explanation) I understand fixating on a few main characters makes narratives easier to follow. Too many roles and we get confused. Take your average romantic (Hallmark) movie. A career girl somehow ends up in a small town, meets a handsome local dude, and after some innocent hick ups they make it work. There may be a financial threat, like her aunt having to sell the family farm, but hey, she gathers the good people and saves the farm with charm. The local dude is often rich too. The 40+ hour workweeks for peanuts, unaffordable healthcare, racism, pollution, homeless in her town are all gone in these naive stories oblivious to everyday reality for many. Okay we have one sweet homeless side character who gets helped. Hey, the story needed an issue, no?

Too many narratives are stupefying their own audience

(Explanation) I wonder why current TV shows seem soo populated with very stupid people. Tell a story about ‘normal’ people and you’ll make them a little over the top and simpler for the story. Commercials also present everything in neat to understand slogans & desires. News Shows are cheaper to make with short videos (expensive) and long explanations of a few talking heads (cheap). And these talking heads neatly fit an ‘in favour’ and ‘against’ format, preferably in a heated debate. Stimulants to think more complex things for a longer time are kills for fast thrills. That’s your audiences reference. And generation after generation we copy our references. And shows copy and simplify their audience. And this audience makes that their reference again. Etc. And year by year, it seems, we get closer to Idiocracy.

Too many action narratives increase ‘Us vs Them’ paradigms

(Explanation) Paranoia is good for stories. “Evil terrorists just want to destroy America.” In reality such people exist very very rarely. They probably see themselves as heroes working to open the eyes of the citizens of Empire USA to their own regime, killing innocents across the world. Some terrorist bosses may even have a short monologue in that direction, and then go back to being evil.

Too many action movies, especially American ones, don’t seem to be able to rise above ‘the good guy with a gun’ trope

(Explanation) This includes all the times when the man is a woman or a team and the gun a super power. For an exiting ending most (action)narratives work towards a final confrontation, where the hero beats the final boss. Go watch ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ to see a brilliant exception. And try to find the rare few other exceptions.

Too many (action) heroes are psychopaths

(Explanation) Many action heroes have no qualms to kill anyone in the way. When do they even suffer after effects of all their murdering? And then we’re not even talking about all TV shows where the heroes walk away with a final episode joke, just after a shooting. Or consider the thousands of games that can only be won, by leaving a long looooonnngg trail of bodies. It feels too often that we must assume that we must disconnect from feelings to achieve big results. Of course there are many stories where arrogant or stubborn heroes learn to be more humble, ask for help or learn to love. Still even then we need to ask, is it to be more human, or just to serve the purpose?

Too many narratives focus on taking down ‘this one bad guy’, not on confronting the system as a whole

(Explanation) Take a great action movie focussed on malpractices in justice. The hero has to save an innocent member of a minority falsely imprisoned by a corrupt police officer. The movie may explain how this case worked, point a bit to a stuck system, but it always ends with taking down the corrupt officer. Story resolved? A slow zoom out to all other similar cases should be the least little addition. Take ‘Dark Waters’ that exposes Duponts malpractices poisoning many. ‘Erin Brockovich’ was basically the same story. These victories against the poisoners are sadly rare. Many corporate victories and manipulations are out there. More Flints anyone?

And then 11 days after posting John Oliver makes a whole episode just about the manipulative influence of ‘Law & Order’

Too many narratives portray one hero(ine) making all the difference

(Explanation) In many movies and TV shows innocent naive citizens must be protected from global evil, by a few superheroes. Real protection or change takes many. Selma is an awesome Marten Luther King movie. And still, for the narrative we focus on MLK making it work. But those who pay attention see many others contribute little and big things to make it happen. Each protestor on the street has a personal story and personal drama that brought them there. We should not forget that.

Too many Fantasy Stories help to create the reality they offer an escape from.

(Explanation) Fantasy also often feeds into the paranoia, of ‘us good and evil threatening outside’. A small group of heroes then has to stop some ‘Dark Evil Rising’, bent on destruction of all the good people. Our heroes save them after a shitload of violence against the dehumanised bad guys, like inhuman ghouls, demons, zombies, goblins, orcs, etc. Even when the story is about corruption within the elites, it’s once again never the system, it’s evil lurking within the hearts of a corrupted few. And how we love stories of heroic princesses, noble kings and paladins. Perhaps it’s time we question whether even they deserve to be our ordained authorities. Didn’t most nobility start with robbing some land, occupying it long enough and adding a story of divine right to make it legal?

Too few dystopian or escape-to-space narratives hint at things we can actually do to avoid dystopia

(Explanation) You know one reason why game designers so love dystopia? Picking up things in games works best with very limited resources, hence dystopian environments. Also such environments, where all heroes are under constant threat, are just more exciting than stories about successful change on a nice planet. The overdose of scarcity narratives where we fight each other over resources, and the lack of collaborative solutions, are increasing the sickness and the acceptance of it. We make it seem impossible that more desired outcomes are (still) possible.

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Floris Koot

Play Engineer. Social Inventor. Gentle Revolutionary. I always seek new possibilities and increase of love, wisdom and play in the world.