About XIII and about twenty

In another life, I did some structural analysis of stories. For the sake of practicality, some were as simple as Grimms’ Fairy Tales (various publications insist that they’re “Grimm’s Fairy Tales”, but, dammit, there were two of them). For the sake of seeing how scalable my analysis was, I also applied the same ideas to [the screenplay of] The Usual Suspects, which appeared to me at the time to be as complex and multi-layered a narrative as I could think of — and, incidentally, a favourite film.

Something I discovered which took me entirely aback, was that my deconstruction of both into ‘scenes’ — a term which I didn’t really attempt to nail down then and won’t now, beyond saying that it was a know-it-when-you-see-it chunking of the plot into significant segments — resulted in more or less the same number. I’d collapsed the simple fairy tales and the neo-noir complexity of The Usual Suspects into about twenty scenes each. I never did follow this obervation to any sort of conclusion. Perhaps the about-twenty-ness of the stories was in fact something particular to me — a sort of threshold of story complexity beyond which I wasn’t prepared to go, so I was squishing anything I looked at into twenty or so pieces. I didn’t buy that at the time, though, and I still don’t. I think I’d expected the fairy tales to be structurally simpler than twenty, and certainly had expected The Usual Suspects to be stucturally more involved than twenty. If the twenty-ness in the stories was in me, rather than in them, it would have to be buried awfully deep and instinctual, like the well-defined size of any one person’s short term memory, typically held to be seven items or so.

So I’m playing XIII, and it’s fine. The cel-shading presentation is a gimmick that disappears from the player’s awareness pretty quickly, but the levels are very thoughtfully designed, the disposable henchmen are quite a bit more intelligent than in most games, and the difficulty is pitched high enough to confer feelings of both reality of the world and genuine achievement in working through it.

And I’m doing what it’s hard not to do when in a game of this sort, which is to estimate, based on the trajectory of the plot so far, how much is left. And I can’t help thinking about ‘about twenty’, and using that as a rough guide, because I realise that it’s a number which keeps cropping up in games of this sort too — linear, strongly-plotted games with discrete scenes/levels. Because the scene/level chunking is determined by the game designers, to the extent that such scenes/levels typically have chapter-like names, it’s not something that I’m imposing, so it would argue for some generality of the ‘about twenty-ness’ of stories. The first three Tomb Raider games (at which they reached a peak of popularity) have, respectively, 15, 18 and 19 scenes/levels, as if approaching 20 asymptotically. Half-Life has 17 scenes/levels. The Ratchet and Clank games have 19, 19 and 21 scenes/levels.

This occurs way beyond games, too, back in structural narratology. Joseph Campbell’s account of the culturally-independent ‘monomyth‘, famously the template for Star Wars, has 17 segments. Vladimir Propp‘s morphological analysis of a whole corpus of Russian folk tales has 31 linearly-occurring narrative units, but they represent a super-set, from which actual stories take only some proportion, which often is about twenty. Conversely, Umberto Eco’s structural template of ‘moves’ in the James Bond novels (in The Role of the Reader) has only nine elements, but this typically becomes expanded in the novels themselves, with some moves repeated and re-ordered; his analysis of Diamonds are Forever consists of 17 moves.

I don’t know what to make of this, but I think it’s real, and I don’t think it’s just me.

Oh, and incidentally, XIII is the code-name of the game’s protagonist, who seems to have been involved in the assassination of the US president, which itself is part of a nefarious plan by white supremacists to take over the world. He’s the thirteenth of the coordinating group of bad-guys — or maybe he turns out not to be? — of whom there are twenty. Except, as we find out, perhaps one or two of the twenty aren’t bad guys after all, leaving only: ‘about twenty’.

[Update: XIII turns out to be trickier than most games to divide into scenes. Some single-location levels are quite self-contained and short, whereas other single-location levels are much longer and broken up into sub-levels, and some levels bleed very smoothly together. The sub-level breaks aren’t narrative based; they’re an expedient to allow game-saving. For what it’s worth, my breakdown of the game into narrative scenes results in a count of seventeen.]


  • Hmm… Do you think it has to do with a normal human’s attention span? Can deal with 19 scenes, can deal with 20 scenes, 21 are alright… But 25 – ooh, boring.

    I was going to say something clever about soap operas, but they have episodes, don’t they?.. *departs to think about it*

  • Vic:

    Do you think it has to do with a normal human’s attention span?

    If there’s anything in it, I don’t think it’s attention so much as complexity. Attention implies time, and I don’t think this is a time thing: I’ll stick my neck out and guess that the four-hour Lawrence of Arabia might also fit naturally into about twenty segments; its length comes from pacing, rather than greater plot-complexity. I think it’s an information-processing attribute. Much fewer than 20 and it’s not complex enough to make a good story; much more than 20 and there’s too much to deal with.

    Can deal with 19 scenes, can deal with 20 scenes, 21 are alright… But 25 – ooh, boring. I was going to say something clever about soap operas, but they have episodes, don’t they?.. *departs to think about it*

    Soaps are an entirely different beast, because they’re all middle, with no beginnings and endings. I think it’s why I don’t like them: I have a structure kink, and without edges you can’t have structure.

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