Narrative Deconstruction: What makes a team of super heroes?

Understanding the Genre

Superhuman Tactics is a game about a group of super powered humans who fight against evil super villains.

The design of the game has so far been driven primarily from exploring its mechanics.
Now it's time to dive into the narrative of the game!

To that end, I spend the last two weeks:

  • Leveling up my Narrative Design skills by going through Robert Mckee's excellent book Story, taking detailed notes for each chapter. (Let me know if you want a pdf of the notes!)
  • Analyzing 4 of the highest rated movies about super hero teams out there to better understand the genre, in terms of typical setting, plot, team dynamics and character journeys.

What follows is an analysis (WITH MASSIVE SPOILERS!) of:

  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • The Avengers
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • X2

What does watching movies have to do with designing a game?
While the format is different there are many similarities in how to set up a story, what kinds of decisions come up, and how to escalate events to a satisfying conclusion.
Since my game is about a super hero team, analyzing the structure of well known stories is a good way to get insight into what makes this kind of story compelling or problematic.

The Raw Material

For each movie, I watched them taking moment-to-moment notes on everything that happened.
The result is a  collection of google spreadsheets that look a little like this:

For your enjoyment here is a link to all the spreadsheets:

Plot Outlines

In case you have forgotten the plot of these movies, here they are!
If they burn vividly in your mind, feel free to skip ahead to Comparisons below.

The plot of The Avengers

Premise:
Loki steals the Tesseract, and plans to use it to open a portal, letting aliens invade earth. 
Nick Fury must assemble a group of heroes to help stop Loki's evil plan.

Major events / themes:

  • Recruiting the Avengers: At the beginning of the movie each hero gets approached and is asked if they want to help with the quest to stop Loki. They all express some minor concerns but are not too hard to convince. Iron man mentions that he doesn't work well with others, but shows that he's still willing to help.
  • Capturing Loki: Loki walks out in the open to distract the Avengers from mind-controlled Hawk-Eye getting some Iridium for opening the portal. They capture him easily. Thor shows up and wants to take him back to Asgard, but decides to join them instead after fighting Iron Man and Captain America.
  • Battle on the Helicarrier: After Loki is captured his evil staff makes everyone angry. The Hulk transforms and starts wreaking havok. Mind-controlled Hawk-Eye attacks with some Loki-minions.
    • Act 2 ends with Loki escaping, having killed Agent Colson in the battle.
      Fury holds a speech about working together, Iron Man storms out, gripped by emotion.
  • Act 3 Climax: Battle for New York: Loki succeeds in opening the portal. Aliens come out and everyone has a massive battle! The government fires a nuke to stop the invasion. Iron Man makes a tough decision to grab the nuke and fly it into the portal, risking death. He survives and the day is saved!

The plot of Guardians of the Galaxy

Premise:
Star-Lord steals a mysterious orb, in order to sell it. The sinister Ronan wants to steal it from him in order to gain ultimate power. Star-Lord must band together with a group of criminals in order to stop Ronan's evil plans.

Major Events / Themes:

  • Learning to work together: Unlike the Avengers, all protagonists start with opposed objectives at the start of the movie. Gamora wants to steal the orb and sell it to someone else. Rocket and Groot want to capture Star-Lord and collect his bounty. This leads to a brawly fight that gets them all imprisoned!
  • Escaping from Prison: The heroes are imprisoned, and decide to work together to escape, sell the orb and split the profits. As they escape Star-Lord tricks Gamora by only pretending to give her the orb, showing they still don't trust each other.
  • Crisis Decision: Saving Gamora
    By the end of Act 3, Gamora is ejected into space as her ship is destroyed.
    Star-Lord must choose between leaving her for dead, or risking both his life and his freedom by giving her his space-mask and calling Yondu who captures them.
  • Yondu and the orb: Star-Lord originally promised Yondu and his Ravagers the orb.
    Yondu is on the verge of killing the heroes, but finally agrees to join them in an assault on Ronan after Ronan captures the orb.
  • The Final Battle: After Ronan captures the orb he sets out to destroy the planet Xandar.
    The heroes, Yandu's Ravagers and the Xandar military jointly assault Ronan's ship to stop him.
    • Act 4 climax: After Ronan's ship crashes to Xandar he prepares to destroy the planet.
      Start-Lord and his friends outsmart him, and grab the Infinity Stone. As it threatens to destroy whoever holds it, each hero grabs the other's hand and together they withstand the powerful energy and defeat Ronan.

The plot of X-men: Days of future past

Premise: 
The future is a terrible oppressive dystopia, because in 1973 Mystique killed Oliver Trask, who was working on making anti-mutant robots called Sentinels. To stop the world from turning anti-mutant Logan must travel back in time and recruit Xavier and Magneto to help stop Mystique.

Major events / themes:

  • In 1973 Xavier is a broken man. He is depressed and addicted to a drug that suppresses his power but gives him control of his legs. A big part of the movie is Xavier's struggle to conquer his fear, pain and self-loathing and return to his former power.
  • Magneto has no such forces of inner antagonism. His problem is that he's trapped in a plastic prison underneath the pentagon. Logan recruits a fast mutant called Quicksilver to help break Magneto out!
  • Stopping Mystique! The movie does a great job of establishing the central mission of stopping Mystique right at the start, then spending the climaxes of act 2 and 3 getting very close to her assassinating Trask!
    • Act 2 Climax: The heroes stop Mystique just as she's about to shoot Trask, but Magneto decides to kill Mystique! This creates a massive fight caught on live TV, ironically resulting in the greenlighting of the Sentinel Program.
    • Act 3 Climax: President Nixon with Trask at this side unveils the giant robots on the White House Lawn. Xavier, now in control of his powers manages to stop Mystique from killing Trask by paralyzing her telepathically.
      • That is until Magneto drops a giant football stadium around the white house!!!
        Mystique manages to knock Magneto out when he threatens to kill Nixon.
      • She is then faced with the ultimate crisis decision that defines the movie:
        Should she pull the trigger on Trask to get vengeance for all the mutants he has killed or show mercy in the hopes of a brighter future? She chooses mercy and saves the future.

The plot of X2

Premise:
Col Stryker devices and evil plan to kidnap Xavier and use Cerebro to kill all mutants.
The X-men must stop him!

Major Events/Themes:

  • Nightcrawler attempts to assassinate the president! Nightcrawler teleports around a lot, gets very close to killing the president, but fails and teleports away.
  • Jean and Storm search for Nightcrawler: When they hear about it they jump into a jet and fly after him. 20 minutes later they learn that he was mind controlled, pick him up and fly back.
  • Stryker captures Xavier: When Xavier visits Magneto in prison, Stryker floods the cell with knock-out gas.
  • The government assaults X-men House: Stryker learns about the school from interrogating Magneto.
    SWAT teams enter and tries to abduct people. Logan and some kids escape. Stryker steals Cerebro.
  • Magneto escapes prison! No X-men movie would be complete without Magneto escaping prison. Mystique helps him by seducing, then injecting a guard with liquid metal.
  • The X-men run from government forces: Logan and the kids must flee from police. They do, boards the jet, which in turn must dodge missiles from pursing fighter jets.
    One of them hits! The jet is about to fall to the ground but Magneto captures it with his mind! (How did he know where it would crash in the middle of the woods? Don't ask.)
  • The X-men and Magneto assault Stryker's base! This is the climax of the movie. Stryker uses his son to mind-control Xavier into targeting all mutants with Cerebro. The X-men must break into the base in order to stop Xavier from killing them all.
    • Magneto and Mystique reaches Xavier first, and redirects his mind-controller to target all humans instead!
    • Storm and Nightcrawler also reaches Xavier and finally stops his mind control.
    • The dam bursts, threatening to drown them all! Jean decides to sacrifice herself by holding off the water. She dies.
  • Sub-plot: Logan attempts to learn about his past.
    Logan has amnesia and doesn't remember Stryker giving him his adamantium skeleton.
    As the government assaults the house Logan almost decides to go with Stryker to learn more but chooses instead to help the kids escape. After that this sub-plot doesn't move very much even though Logan meets Stryker multiple times. At one point Logan fights another adamantium-infused claw-mutant loyal to Stryker. At the end he ends up denouncing Stryker and leaving him to die in the flood.

Comparing Forming a Team from Individuals

It's interesting to contrast Guardians of the Galaxy with The Avengers, and how they deal with forming a team from individuals. GoG has a much stronger theme of combining forces to beat a superior opponent, that starts in the negative (they are opposed) but then escalates as the movie progresses (low trust but together), eventually joining in other factions that were originally also opposed to the protagonists (Ravagers, Xandar military).
Their handholding at the end becomes a powerful symbol of unity and defiance, that brings a great sense of triumph.

The Avengers tries to achieve a similar escalation by having the heroes argue a lot before they fight together. This is ultimately less effective, since the actions of the characters never really change. They fight together with dedication throughout the movie, leaving it with a much weaker narrative arch.

Comparing Story Structure

It's useful to compare X2 to DOFP (Days of Future Past) to see the difference in story structure.
Looking through the lens of Robert Mckee's Story there are a number of rules that DOFP follows and X2 ignores, resulting in two movies of radically different quality:

  • Inciting Incident:
    • The Protagonists must react to the Inciting Incident!
      • DOFP: Logan travels back in time to stop Mystique, he starts dealing with being in the past and the movie springs into action.
      • X2: Nightcrawler almost kills the president, but noone reacts until 8 minutes later.
        When they do react it's to send some people off on a jet that doesn't arrive until 20 minutes after that. This totally kills the pacing of the first half hour of this movie.
        You could argue that the Inciting Incident isn't NC killing the president, but rather Stryker capturing Xavier, which happens after 32 minutes. Pacing problem remains.
    • The Inciting Incident must create an Obligatory Scene in the minds of the audience!
      • DOFP: As Logan travels back we wonder "will he succeed?", a vision of Mystique confronting Trask springs into our head! Will she kill him? Will someone intervene? This Scene is the climax of the movie and the focus of Mystique's Crisis Decision.
      • X2: Nightcrawler almost kills the president... we'd expect... that the president retaliates against mutants maybe? With no particular scene in mind we have nothing to anticipate, and it's unclear what exactly is happening.
        OR: If we think of Stryker capturing Xavier as the Inciting Incident, what exactly he intends to do with Xavier is not clear until he tells him later at 00:48.
        • In the Climax of X2 no Scene materializes that captures what was set up.
          Magneto trying to kill all humans is a surprising twist, but Storm arrives to defuse it without much problem.
        • The most meaningful crisis decision is that of Jean, who sacrifices her life to save the others FROM WATER. Water is the force of antagonism we battle against at the climax of this movie, which leads to a central character's death. Not Stryker, not the government, water.
  • Forces of Antagonism:
    • DOFP: DOFP manages to set up an interesting plot about time travel, while simultaneously pitting the protagonists against these forces:
      • Inner Antagonism: Mystique's Crisis Decision ultimately boils down to a battle against herself and her need for vengeance. Her choice in the final moment defines her as a character. Xavier must also battle his fear, self loathing and pain to rise from his ashes.
      • Social Antagonism: What makes the struggle more potent is that Mystique, Xavier and Magneto have a prior relationship with each other. When Magneto tries to kill Mystique it is a dramatic betrayal of trust, when Xavier pleads with her it is a struggle against their history of him trying to control her actions.
      • External Antagonism: This would be the death robots trying to annihilate them all, along with prison guards, soldiers and Magneto dumping baseball stadiums around them.
    • X2: is pretty much limited to forces of External Antagonism.
      People run from one place to the other and fight. Logan's sub-plot flirts with the idea of having an internal struggle, but the largest force of antagonism he confronts is decidedly external: another claw-mutant that he kills by pumping adamantium into her.

Action movies can definitely survive with primarily external struggles, and little character growth.
The Avengers is largely an external struggle but still has spectacular fight scenes and emotional charge. 
X2 also has many cool mutant-power moments.

What really impressed me with Days of Future Past however is how it combines an extreme external struggle with powerful character growth.

Story Content - What do the movies have in common?

Looking at the plot outlines above there are a few themes that emerge:

  • Sacrificing your life for the greater good: Iron Man grabs the Nuke. Star-Lord removes his breathing mask to save Gamora. Jean exits the jet to hold off the flood of water. Mystique disguises herself as Nixon and confronts Magneto. The surest sign of being a hero is the willingness to risk your life to save others.
  • Escaping from Prison: There's something awesome about dangerous people escaping from captors of lesser ability. Magneto getting metal and becoming unstoppable. Quicksilver running circles around guards. The Guardians using their extreme combat prowess and mechanical powers to fight their way out. Loki walking out with an air of control and superiority, he planned it all along.
  • An Epic Final Battle: The skies of Xandar fills with laser blasts and explosions, New York becomes the battleground of an alien invasion, The dam bursts from the fierce combat inside the Secret Base, on the white house lawn Magneto drops a football stadium and death robots open fire.
  • Appealing to Compassion / The Greater Good: As Mystique levels her gun at Trask, Xavier pleads with her to think of the consequences. As Logan stands face to face with Stryker, Rogue tells him the kids won't survive without him. Fury throws the blood stained playing cards of Agent Colson on the table and tells the Avengers that the world needs heroes. Star-Lord tells the others that even though they face overwhelming odds and will likely die, it's time to give a shit.
  • Captured! Being taken prisoner is a common theme. Xavier is overwhelmed by knockout gas. Loki is knocked out and captured. Star-Lord and Gamora are tractor beamed into the the Ravager ship.
  • Teaming up with the enemy: In both X-men movies they team up with Magneto (the fools!). In the final battle of GoG the Ravagers join forces with the Guardians. Whenever this happens there is a price to pay.
  • Learning to work together: A theme in both Avengers and GoG, but not in the X-men movies where roles are already established.

Verb Analysis

A fun way to get a feeling for what happens moment-to-moment in a movie is to look at the verbs used to describe what people do. Like this:

Summing up the verb count we get this (full spreadsheet here):

Looking across the movies we can see:

  • DOFP has the most complicated plot, leading to a lot of explaining
  • In Guardians people threaten each other and argue a lot.
  • Across the board, people escape a lot, more often than they capture someone.
  • Surprising no one, shooting, fighting, killing and exploding feature heavily.
  • While Shooting comes up a lot, DOFP spends an equal amount of time Pointing Guns at people.
  • The Avengers has no time for that spending a full 20 minutes longer than the other movies immersed in combat.

There's a ton of interesting data here. Feel free to have a look at the spreadsheets and comment about anything interesting you find! :)

Exposition

Exposition can be roughly described as: information about characters, setting and biography we need to understand the context of the action and follow events.

A challenge of storytelling is how to surface exposition without boring the audience.
Ideally we want to Show, don't tell:

  • Show facts about characters through their actions
  • Have characters bring up facts in service of achieving their desires
  • Turn the Scene! This is a general rule, but even for scenes with exposition a story value should ideally change. Someone changes their mind, changes their emotional state or changes something in the world.

Dead time happens when all characters do is tell each other (and thereby the audience) about something without anything changing for anyone.

Some of the best conveyed exposition I noticed:

  • X2: Pyro stares with envy at the family pictures in Ice Man's house for 3 seconds.
  • Guardians: Rocket looks through his visor and mocks civilians. This is a hilarious introduction to the character, successfully conveying that he's a jerk.
  • Guardians: Slave girl grabs the Infinity Stone, showing that whoever does so might die and blow the building up!
  • Guardians: Rocket gets drunk and threatens to shoot everyone in a bar. As they talk him down Rocket reveals that he was experimented on, and feels hurt about all the rodent-insults people throw at him, despite his outer tough guy demeanor.
  • DOFP: Xavier and Magneto speak on the jet. Xavier blames Magneto for taking Mystique and abandoning him. Magneto's emotions escalate, and he shouts the names of his fallen mutant comrades, starting to crumple the metal plane around them. "YOU abandoned us all!" he shouts at Xavier. The scene escalates powerfully, ending with Xavier's feelings changing from resentment to shame. This scene is great, because it gives us insight into Magneto's motivations while starting to awaken a desire in Xavier to take his powers back.

Some of the worst conveyed exposition:

  • The Avengers: Iron Man tells Agent Colson he doesn't work well with others.
    None of Iron Man's actions reinforce this notion. This is a wasted opportunity to change him from actually not working well with others to becoming a team player.
  • The Avengers: Natasha sits with Hawk-Eye after the battle of the Helicarrier. She explains that the reason she's fighting is to redeem herself and balance out all the blood on her hands. Apart from explaining her motivations nothing happens in this scene. The information we learn does not come into play later in the story.
  • The Avengers: Iron Man and Captain America bicker a lot about following orders etc. What they're conveying is "look we have different attitudes and don't like each other", but neither of them change their emotional state or opinion about anything, making a lot of these scenes really tedious.

Whoops, all the bad examples were from Avengers. Sorry Avengers! You're a good movie overall! :)

Character Revealing Decisions

If pointless exposition is the bane of good storytelling, Character Revealing Decisions is essential:
As the forces of antagonism escalate, our characters face dilemmas of increased risk and difficulty, forcing them to make difficult decisions that reveal their true character.

Looking across the movies I captured all decisions that revealed Character:

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 10.16.50 AM.png

Note: some of the entries above are closer to dramatized exposition (i.e. there is no urgent choice involved).

Marked in yellow are decisions involving self sacrifice. It's interesting to see how this is a common theme that emerges at the end of the movie, when the stakes are raised and everything is put on the line.

Guardians of the Galaxy especially is a self-sacrificing orgy towards the end, showing the powerful transformation of a group of selfish individuals into a brave team of heroes.

The Avengers has Stark revealing his selfless character early in the movie, making for a good contrast between Characterization and Character, but a weaker overall arch towards his final sacrifice.

X2 is notable for Jean's sacrifice having no buildup in the story, nor a very strong connection to the theme of the central conflict. It feels like a random event in a movie that's not about the randomness or cruelty of life.

Days of Future Past stands out for having the ultimate Crisis Decision not revolve around sacrificing your life. Rather Mystique must choose between certain vengeance and the uncertain hope of a better world. In a sense she battles not for her life, but for her soul.

Closing Thoughts

As I embark on trying to craft a story about Super Heroes, I will consider the following:

  • What are the opportunities for Inner/Social Antagonism?
    The Plot of DOFP is made so much richer by the conflict reaching beyond the purely External.
  • How do I drive the story coherently from the Inciting Incident to a powerful climax that resonates with meaning?
    DOFP and Guardians stand out as great examples of this while X2 paints a cautionary tale about disjointedness.
  • What changes in the characters over the span of the story?
    Seeing that not much changes in the Avengers was surprising, and worth thinking about. It was already a spectacular movie, imagine if it had an added layer of meaning!
  • Who Escapes From Prison??
    This is perhaps the most surprising finding. It seems a lot of super hero movies have someone escaping from prison. I can see why! Breaking out of prison is a great way to show the power of your characters. It's a powerful symbol of Power Unleashed!
  • What must the heroes sacrifice?
    Risking their life in the final battle? This seems to be a defining trait of action heroes but as DOFP shows, it's not the only option for a Crisis Decision.
  • How do I adapt these story elements to work in the narrative of a game?
    That my friend is a completely different blog post. :)
    If you're curious about the development of Superhuman Tactics, follow me on twitter!