Mark Rosewater is the head designer of the collectable card game Magic: The Gathering.

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I’m a big fan of his weekly podcast on game design called Drive To Work, through which I’ve discovered that game design and storytelling share many similarities.  (Perhaps because they’re both entertainment.)

One of the principles of good game design is structuring a game so that players are encouraged to do what they already want to do.  In Magic: The Gathering, beginners always gravitate towards creatures, the beings you have the ability to summon to fight on your behalf:

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However, there was a time in the history of the game when creatures were strategically speaking the WORST card type!  Many pro-level tournaments during this era featured decks with little or no creatures at all.  This was counter-intuitive, confusing, and downright frustrating for many players, especially beginners.  The part of the game that was the most exciting and the most fun simply wasn’t strategically viable.  The BEST cards in the game turned out to be odd and almost nonsensical in the eyes of the average player:

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After some time, game designers realized this and made some changes.  Creatures became more powerful, but they didn’t stop there.  The design teams started making the kinds of cards players had always wished were awesome ACTUALLY awesome, from a strategic standpoint:

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They did this in a way that didn’t take away the game’s strategic depth.  On the contrary, the designers realized that the kinds of counter-intuitive frustrations their player-base had been dealing with neither contributed to depth nor made for a good entertainment experience.  Instead, Magic gave its audience the epic fantasy gaming experience they had always wanted.

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(*Spoilers for Breaking Bad*)

I stopped watching Breaking Bad at the end of Season Three.  I didn’t stop because I thought the show had underperformed from a story standpoint.  I stopped because I was in PAIN.

In the beginning of Breaking Bad, we come to identify with Walter White.  He has cancer, he wants to provide for his family, he has this badass rebellious attitude due to his imminent death.

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Then what happens?

He actually breaks bad.

His decisions become more and more destructive until he becomes an absolute monster!  The end of Season Three is where this theme comes to an initial climax: Walt watches Jesse’s girlfriend asphyxiate and die, knowing that Jesse will blame himself for it, all because without her, Jesse will become his partner again.

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Let me get this straight…

We identify with a character, meaning we sympathize with him and essentially BECOME him to experience his story.

Then we watch him–ie we watch ourselves–kill an innocent girl in order to manipulate our friend according to our own selfish power schemes?

Good writing or no–watching ourselves commit murder in cold blood is PAINFUL.  It’s AWFUL!  Why the HECK would I subject myself to that kind of agony?  Is that REALLY entertainment?

(*End of Spoilers*)

Before I knew anything about writing, back when I was just another enthusiastic fan, if you had asked me what stories were all ABOUT I would have said something like ADVENTURE, or EXCITING ACTION, or THRILLS, or SEEING COOL STUFF HAPPEN.

Pose the same question to ANY western writer of any fiction of any kind and they’ll give you the same answer:

Stories are about CONFLICT.

To write a good story you have to torture your main character.  You have to chase him up a tree and throw rocks at him.  Good characters make bad decisions.  The BEST characters are chock full of unhealthy emotions and live their lives in self-destructive ways.  Everything becoming worse and worse is GOOD plotting. That’s what compelling fiction IS.

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Alan Moore (author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc) said the following:

“It’s not the job of the artist to give the audience what the audience wants.  If the audience knew what they needed, then they wouldn’t be the audience.  They would be the artists.  It is the job of artists to give the audience what they need.”

This is a true sentiment which I’ve heard from many great writers, but it is often misinterpreted.  People think it means that giving the audience what they want is BAD STORYTELLING.  If the audience wants a character to survive, we have to kill him.  If the audience wants two characters to get together, we have to make them hate each other.  If the audience wants a happy ending, we have to make them cry.

Negative emotions have become the GOAL of storytelling in western fiction.

Happy stories are for children.

Mature fiction means grim, gritty, tragic, cynical tales full of confusion and pain.

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I don’t like this model.  This isn’t entertainment.  It’s an exercise in psychological self-flagellation.

But there is another model.  I wouldn’t call it the Eastern model, though the genre that most epitomizes it is indeed Japan’s Shonen genre:


Shonen fiction is about POSITIVE EMOTIONS.

In the same way Magic: The Gathering reformed its confusing conflict-ridden strategy model, Shonen makes what the audience WANTS to see ACTUALLY AWESOME, from a story-telling perspective.

It gives us, the audience, what we NEED by giving us what we WANT.

Does that mean no conflict?

Not at all.

The conflict is STILL the driving force behind the story, BUT it is always there to bolster a positive emotion.  It urges the heroes to become brave.  It sets the stakes higher to make the outcome mean more.  It leads the characters to become creative with their solutions.  And sometimes, it really does take you into the depths of tragedy, but ONLY to make the journey back that much more triumphant.

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The characters in Shonen don’t always make good decisions, but they’re still good intentioned, which maintains the level of conflict while preventing the agony of experiencing an immoral decision through the eyes of a character you’ve identified with.  When they DO make good decisions, conflict comes from the world around that character–STILL leaving the audience in a positive place: I’ve made the right decision, now I have to fight for it.

Shonen makes fiction ENJOYABLE, which is what any form of entertainment should be.

I’m not arguing that all forms of fiction should conform to this model, but I DO think the western world is biased against positive emotions in stories.  They’re stuck on this word “conflict”, and have defined the whole of their craft through the negativity dragged along in its connotations.

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I think this is because stories ARE about feeling strong emotions, and its easier to both feel and evoke strong negative emotions than it is to do either with positive emotions.

The ONLY positive emotion the west doesn’t seem to have a problem with (precisely because feeling and evoking it IS more straightforward) is humor.  Which is great.  It opens up avenues to innumerable uplifting stories that couldn’t be told in the otherwise grim world of modern western fiction.  But if you ask me, what we need now more than ever is stories that represent OTHER strong positive emotions: triumph, joy, recovery, courage, hope, admiration, harmony, etc.

These stories can and should be FULL of conflict and negative emotions.  They should feature characters making bad decisions and a world that gets darker and darker.  But ONLY in service of giving the audience a powerful and positive emotional experience.  If we’re talking about what people need, look no further.

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Stories like One Piece, Naruto, Cloud Atlas, Journey have all delivered this kind of mind-blowing emotional high for me.  They’ll serve as my inspiration as I strive to bring this revolution with my own writing.

Until then, the fate of the western world of fiction is in the hands of this man and those like him:

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  1. Ken says:

    i think the goal of storytelling is catharsis, which is positive. ***SPOILERS*** take walt, who begins as a relatable, down on his luck every-man. we identify with him in terms of the I: I am walt. then, slowly, walt moves from being the I to being the it , which is a fantasy; if one could allow the I to surrender itself to the it, he would transform himself into a pure emotive, lustful force, with neither conflict nor compunction, as we see happening to walt. But the attraction is not simply that he’s become pure force of desire – it’s that he transformed into it. now, while walt is a monster, the viewer is still a more-or-less fully intact man. the viewer’s critical faculty recognizes the viewer’s engagement in this fantasy and is displeased, evoking repulsion in the viewer in proportion to his attraction to the fantasy. the viewer is in conflict. he must continue to watch to have the conflict resolved one way or another (this is the reason lots of people didn’t like the ending to the sopranos and why it left everyone with a sense of incompletion). the viewer forces himself to continue watching, no matter walt’s descent farther and farther, in search of catharsis; the deeper walt’s descent, the greater the need for catharsis and the greater the catharsis itself upon its arrival. simultaneously, Hank assumes the role of the critical faculty, determined to reign in this pure, raging force of it, and jessie, finding himself in the role of the underdog, allows the return of the I. at this point, the entire psyche is represented. finally, catharsis is attained, and in no small way: in the annihilation of the entire psychic structure except for the I itself in the form of jessie, the pure I, radically atoned

    • Schnee says:

      I agree that that’s why people DO keep watching. But the conflict you talk about isn’t only resolved by continuing to watch. If the viewer walks away and thereby dissociates completely with Walt, the conflict is also resolved. This kind of story urges people towards both options, depending on the viewer’s personality.

      To me, this is analogous to big info dumps in sci fi books. (Info dumps are drawn out expositions of backstory or worldbuilding, eg pages-long explanations of how a certain technology works.) This is also a situation where many people have to force themselves to keep reading in search of some big payoff at the end, which makes it all necessary. Others just stop reading because it’s too painful. I don’t think that kind of writing is BAD storytelling, since many people don’t find it painful at all and actually LOVE it. But I do think it’s a mistake to hold that genre up and say “This is the definition of good storytelling”, which I think people HAVE done with Breaking Bad.

      Basically, what I question are the two conclusions people seem to draw about stories like Breaking Bad, that:
      a) That degree of conflict is synonymous with good storytelling, and
      b) That degree of conflict is necessary to bring about catharsis (or at least catharsis of a certain high caliber).

      (I’m not saying that you’re advocating either of these positions by the way.)

      I’ve experienced too much positive-emotion driven storytelling to believe either of those conclusions to be true.

      • Ken says:

        I agree entirely…except for one thing: walking away isnt a resolution of the conflict, but a lack of or a dis -engagement from it, whether because of boredom (lack of engagement) or pain (resulting in disengagement). i especially agree with, “it’s a mistake to hold that genre up and say ‘This is the definition of good storytelling’, [sic] which I think people HAVE done with Breaking Bad.” But I think, and i think you’d agree, that the body of a story is driven by the illustration of a conflict, but in the last analysis, the fulfilment of a story for the audience is catharsis. so it depends on how you look at it

  2. Tamar says:

    Reminds me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s not a happy movie. Yet somehow, it ends up uplifting and satisfying without being non-believable.

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