Propp’s Functions for Video Games

In the book Morphology of the Folktale[1], Vladimir Propp outlines a set of commonly-occurring features of novels that he had analyzed, which he named functions.  These functions were all assigned a unique character.  These characters can be strung together to represent the overall narrative structure. Propp’s functions have been extended for modern narrative such as in video games and interactive fiction.  Below is a simplified listing of every propp function, including those in recently expanded revisions[2] targeting games, along with an example relating to video games.

A number of these functions can be combined together within their own boundaries. Villainy, for instance, can meet multiple criteria, either in succession or in parallel. This applies to a number of other functions, too.

This article may contain spoilers for the following games:

Assassin’s Creed (Altair/Ezio series)
Borderlands 2
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Gears of War 3
Half-Life 2
Halo Reach
Mass Effect (1, 2, 3)
Portal (1, 2)

0. Initial Setup

Everything that is pre-absentation goes here.


1. Absentation (β beta)

β1: A member leaves the safety of their home.  This could be as simple as going to work.  This can also be the hero.

β2: Intensified, absentation can represent death of members, such as parents.

β3: Other members, often younger, can absent themselves by visiting, or going to do some task like gather berries.

Example: In Mass Effect 3, you leave to Mars after Earth is attacked.


2. Interdiction (𝛾 gamma)

𝛾1: The hero is directly warned not to do something.  This often relates to finding the absented member, but does not have to be related.

𝛾2: When inverted, interdiction can be an order or suggestion, such as being told to bring breakfast, or take your brother with you, etc.

Example: When escaping in Portal, GLaDOS warns the player to turn back or be killed.


3. Violation of Interdiction (𝛅 delta)

The response to Interdiction.  Violation can exist as a response to Absentation without Interdiction being explicitly mentioned (such as returning late without late being explicitly defined as a rule to break, but scolded anyway).  Generally, the hero ignores the warning and violates the rule.

In some cases, the villain can enter intending to further disturb the situation.

Example: Ignoring GLaDOS’ warning and continuing to escape.


4. Reconnaissance (ε epsilon)

ε1: The villain actively tries to find out information on the hero, or something that is in some way of value to the villain or hero.  This is usually through interaction with members.

ε2: Inverted, the victim or hero can question the villain.  This could be extended to the hero attempting to find out information.

Example: How in Mass Effect 2, as you initially defeat the rogue spectre, she attempts to find a safe location to reside in.


5. Delivery (ζ zeta)

ζ1: The villain is successful in gaining information from his search.  In this case, Reconnaissance is paired with Delivery.  As with Violation, this can exist without Reconnaissance, in that somebody may accidentally leak out information, such as shouting.

ζ2: Alternatively, information gathering may accidentally invoke an answer, possibly revealing something secret.

Example: In Mass Effect 2, the rogue spectre is unsuccessful in finding somewhere safe, but instead finds and takes a hostage.


6. Trickery (η eta)

η1: The villain, often in disguise or unknown, persuades somebody to do something.

η2: The villain acts using magical means, like giving a sleeping potion to the hero.

η3: The villain uses other means of deception or coercion to the hero or otherwise.

Often these are the result of the information gathered from Delivery.

Example: Handsome Jack booby traps a train carrying the vault key with Wilhelm.


7. Complicity (θ theta)

θ1: The hero, or otherwise, agrees to the villain’s persuasions and gives them an advantage.  Interdictions are always broken, but deceitful persuasions are accepted.

θ2: The hero or otherwise reacts mechanically to the villain’s magical trickery, such as the potions taking effect.  This function can exist on its own.

Example: The apple falls into the Templar’s hands after Al’Mualim tricks them into thinking he is on their side.


8. Villainy and Lack (A)

A1: The villain abducts a person.

A2: The villain takes away a magical agent of some sort, either directly, or through influence (e.g. convincing somebody to kill or destroy a magical item).

A3: The villain pillages or spoils crops (etc.).

A4: The villain seizes daylight.

A5: The villain plunders in some way.  This could be any kind of theft of something valuable.

A6: The villain causes physical injury.  Something is done to a person, but they do not die, and this hinders themselves and possibly others.

A7: The villain is responsible for a sudden disappearance.  This can also be situations such as a curse or otherwise causing loss of memory.

This is a two-part piece, and either or both may be present.  Villainy has the villain cause some harm, such as taking away a valuable item (which is usually then retrieved later on); it can include theft, murder, and so on.  With Lack, a sense of lack is established, whereby something is identified as lost or something becomes desirable to obtain.

A8: The villain demands or entices his victim, usually by result of a deceitful agreement.

A9: The villain expels somebody.

A10: The villain orders somebody to be thrown into the sea, or something similar.

A11: The villain casts a spell or places a curse upon someone or something.

A12: The villain uses substitution, such as replacing somebody with another.

A13: The villain orders a murder, but does not do it themselves.

A14: The villain murders someone.

A15: The villain imprisons someone.

A16: The villain threatens forced marriage, such as demanding a member (sometimes a hero’s friend or relative) to be wedded.

A17: The villain threats cannibalism.

A18: The villain torments at night, often somebody they captured.

A19: The villain explicitly declares war.

Additionally, lack can be an additional form here.  In this context, lack refers to a shortage; a desire to have something that is not currently obtained.  For instance, the hero may realize they need some magical item, especially before the villain, and make it their goal to obtain, due to the item currently being lacked.  Of course, the lack does not have to be the hero alone.

Example: In Assassin’s Creed, the need of keys to open a vault door.


9. Meditation, The Connective Incident (B)

B1: A call for help is given, usually resulting in the dispatch the hero.

B2: The hero is directly dispatched upon command or request, sometimes accompanied by threats or promises, respectively, or sometimes both.

B3: The hero is allowed to depart, such as parents giving their child permission.

B4: Misfortune is announced; when something bad has happened, somebody informs the hero, and they react accordingly.

B5: The hero is banished and transported away from home.  For whatever reason they were banished, their new surroundings kickstart the story.

B6: The hero is condemned to death but is freed and does not die.

B7: Hero griefs over a loss and it evokes counteraction.

The discovery of lack is an additional response.

Example: In Assassin’s Creed, Ezio discovers the requirement of special keys to open a vault door.


10. Beginning Counteraction (C)

The hero choses a positive action to resolve the lack, or perhaps making some form of planned progress toward defeating the villain.  It’s a defining moment, as the hero becomes committed to a cause of some kind.

Example: In Assassin’s Creed, Ezio decides he will journey to discover the lost keys to open the vault door.


11. Departure (ꜛ)

The hero actually embarks on their journey to complete the chosen action.  This could be accompanied by a farewell sendoff, or could be done sneakily during the night.  It often represents the transition from adolescence into adulthood; perhaps a cultural ritual rite of passage, such as teenagers leaving for a while.

Example: In Assassin’s Creed, Ezio sets out on travels to learn about and find the special keys to open the vault door, leaving his home behind.


12. The First Function of the Donor / Testing (D)

D1: The donor tests the hero.  This is a literal test.

D2: The donor greets and interrogates the hero; a weakened form of testing.  For instance, if the hero answers poorly, they may not receive help.

D3: A dying or deceased person requests a service.

D4: A prisoner begs for their freedom.  Sometimes the donor is imprisoned first.

D5: The hero is approached with a request for mercy by the donor, such as begging for something to be spared (possibly in return for help).

D6: The hero divides property between two disputants.  Sometimes this is asked, sometimes it is initiative.

D7: Other requests not listed, where the hero’s ability to assist becomes a test.

D8: A hostile creature attempts to destroy the hero, including enemies.

D9: A hostile creature engages in combat, often a scuffle or brawl.

D10: The hero is offered a magical agent in exchange of something.

Example: In Borderlands 2, Brick won’t help you until you prove how badass you are, and as a literal test, puts his best soldiers against you in battle.


13. The Hero’s Reaction (E)

E1: The hero withstands (or does not withstand) a test.

E2: The hero answers (or does not answer) a greeting.

E3: The hero renders (or does not render) a service to a dead person.

E4: The hero frees a captive.

E5: The hero shows mercy to the suppliant.

E6: The hero completes an apportionment and reconciles the disputants.  Alternately, the hero dispatches of the two and takes the disputed objects.

E7: The hero performs some other service.

E8: The hero saves themselves from an attempt on their life, often using counter tactics to those attempting to kill.

E9: The hero vanquishes (or does not vanquish) their adversary.

E10: The hero agrees to an exchange, but uses the item against the barterer.

Example: In Borderlands 2, defeating Brick’s soldiers results in the test being passed.


14. Provision or Receipt of a Magical Agent / Acquisition (F)

F1: The agent is directly transferred to the hero.

F2: The agent is pointed out to the hero, progressing toward obtaining it.

F3: The agent is prepared before receiving.

F4: The agent is sold and purchased, as in the hero buys the agent.

F5: The agent falls into the hands of the agent by chance (such as being found).

F6: The agent suddenly appears (such as magically appearing).

F7: The agent is eaten or drunk.  It is not directly transference, but is instead used.

F8: The agent is seized, as in the hero steals or seizes an agent from somebody.

F9: The hero is given agents as an offering from various other characters.

The hero receives an item of value, usually by the tester as a reward.  It could be in the physical form of a weapon, some form of knowledge, or anything else of value to the hero.  It is a justifying process to see the hero tested, overcome, and receive reward for their tribulations.

Example: In Borderlands 2, Brick promises his aid to the player after passing the test.


15. Spatial Transference Between Two Kingdoms / Guidance (G)

G1: The hero flies to their next location (flying carpet, dragon, etc.).

G2: The hero travels on ground or on water.

G3: The hero is led to their destination.

G4: The hero has the route shown to them.

G5: The hero makes use of environmental traveling, such as stairs, ropes, etc.

G6: The hero follows bloody (or otherwise obvious) tracks.

Example: In Mass Effect 2, after acquiring the Reaper IFF device, the team make their way to the Omega 4 relay to continue the story.


16. Struggle (H)

In this function, the villain can also be a violent donor.  This is often a blow-by-blow scene with details covered.

H1: They fight in an open field/area.

H2: They engage in a form of competition.

H3: They play a game, like cards.

Example: In Mass Effect 3, after traveling through the Omega 4 relay, battle with the Collectors commences.


17. Branding (J)

J1: A brand is applied to the body, such as a scar.

J2: The hero receives a physical item, such as a ring.

Example: In Gears of War, after Dom’s sacrifice during battle, the team’s morale is significantly dropped, although their goal was met.


18. Victory (I)

I1: The villain is beaten in open combat.

I2: The villain is defeated in a contest.

I3: The villain loses the game (such as cards).

I4: The villain loses on being weighed (see: contest, slightly).

I5: The villain is killed without a preliminary fight, either by another or at advantage.

I6: The villain is banished (but not killed).

Example: Matriarch Benezia in Mass Effect is defeated in direct combat along with her soldiers after a menacing battle.  She cannot be spared.


19. Resolution of Lack or Misfortune (K)

In this case, the resolution can be a found object, lack resolved, or misfortune fixed.

K1: The object of search is seized by the use or force or cleverness.  Sometimes, the same tactic as the villain is used.

K2: The object of search is obtained by several people at once through teamwork.

K3: The object of search is obtained with help of enticements, such as luring and persuasion.

K4: The object of search is obtained directly as a result of the preceding actions.

K5: The object of search is obtained as a result of using a magical agent.

K6: The magical agent is used to overcome misfortune or lack (such as a magical duck laying eggs saving a farm).

K7: The object of search is caught.

K8: The spell on a person or thing is broken.

K9: A slain person is somehow revived.  This can also be the hero, post-battle, almost or actually dead.

K10: A captive is freed.

Example: In Mass Effect, after killing Matriarch Benezia, you gain access to the position of a Mass Relay and an option of gaining alliance with the Rachnai.


20. Return (ꜜ)

The hero returns to safety, sometimes with something of value, and as a result, may be pursued on their way.  It is the matching stage of Departure.

Example: In Assassin’s Creed, Altair returns back to Masyaf after every major assassination in the story.


21. Pursuit (Pr)

Pr1: The pursuer flies after the hero.

Pr2: The pursuer demands the guilty person to be in their possession.

Pr3: They pursue the hero transforming into various forms.

Pr4: Pursuers attempt to trick the hero by disguising themselves as object of value.

Pr5: Pursuers attempt to devour the hero.

Pr6: Pursuer attempts to kill the hero.

Pr7: Pursuer attempts to uncover the location of the hero, such as destroying the entrance.

Example: In Assassin’s Creed, before Altair can return to Masyaf after an assassination, he is often chased by those guarding the target.


22. Rescue (Rs)

Rs1: Hero is carried away through the air.

Rs2: Hero flees, placing obstacles in the path of their pursuer.

Rs3: Hero, while in flight, disguises into unrecognizable forms.

Rs4: Hero hides during flight.

Rs5: Hero is hidden by blacksmiths (or taken in by others).

Rs6: Hero saves themselves by means of rapid transformation into other objects.

Rs7: Hero avoids temptation of shapeshifting enemies.

Rs8: Hero avoids being devoured.

Rs9: Hero is saved from an attempt on their life.

Rs10: Hero jumps to another tree and/or other location.

Example: At the end of All Ghillied Up in Call of Duty 4, the hero is rescued by friendly reinforcements, terminating the battle.


23. Unrecognized Arrival (O)

The hero returns back to safety without recognization of their heroic actions.  This may perhaps be due to required secrecy, as a threat may still exist.  The arrival could be an anticlimax, and the safety of the area may not be guaranteed as threats may still linger, both adding tension.

Example: In Mass Effect 2, after discovering the Collectors are behind human colony abductions, the hero returns home and does not divulge the information beyond their local group as the threat still exists.


24. Claim (L)

The false hero may attempt to undermine the hero by making false claims stating that they are in fact responsible for the success, perhaps stating that the true hero had died along the way.  The false hero may arrive early and spread misinformation, or arrive late, and accuse the hero.  Sometimes the false hero is explicit from the beginning, and other times may be disguised as a friend, turning at the last moment.

Example: General Shepard attempts to take the glory for winning the war when in reality he twisted it to his own demands, in Modern Warfare 2.


25. Difficult Task (M)

The hero may be asked to complete another task to further demonstrate their worth.  This could perhaps be to differentiate them from the false hero, and could include combat between the two.  This also extends the storyline.

Example: At the end of Mass Effect 2, when the collector base is about to be destroyed, they discover a human reaper, and are tasked with either saving it or destroying it.


26. Solution (N)

The proposed task is resolved and therefore the hero and false hero are differentiated, as one succeed and the other fails.  This provides closure on the hero’s worth.

Example: The decision the end of Mass Effect 2 on whether to keep or destroy the human reaper.  Keeping it appeases the false hero while destroying it weakens them.


27. Recognition (Q)

The hero is recognized and branded by others (usually by the final task, if used).

Example: The crew and Alliance at the end of Mass Effect 2 (and during Mass Effect 3) note how the player is a hero for destroying the human reaper and making the false hero lose an asset.


28. Exposure (Ex)

The false hero or villain is exposed to be as such.  It is often revealed around the time the hero is recognized, as when one status is claimed, the other is deduced.  This creates great contrast between the characters, too.

Example: At the end of Mass Effect 2, the Illusive Man is found to be evil, although he has been a friend throughout most of the game, providing the player chooses the negative choice.


29. Transfiguration (T)

Essentially, this is a recognition of achievement, whether it be something vague like having wounds tended to, or being upgraded in some way.

T1: A new appearance is directly altered by the means of the magical action of a helper.

T2: The hero builds a marvelous palace or similar structure.

T3: The hero puts on new garments.

Example: As Altair steps through the ranks in Assassin’s Creed, he is rewarded with new garments and tools to complete his job.


30. Punishment (U)

The villain or false hero, if still around, now exposed, is punished.  This can vary in severity.  Punishment can also be villain suicide, even accidental.

Example: In Portal 2, when Wheatly becomes the villain, the previous villain, GlaDOS, is put inside a potato.


31. Wedding (W)

This is essentially a gift of thanks, or a positive result of the hero’s efforts.  Traditionally, it’s marriage of some kind, but now it can be accolade of heroism, or even the drive to adventure again.

W1: A bride and kingdom are awarded in some way.

W2: Sometimes the hero simply marries.

W3: Sometimes only ascension happens with no marriage.

W4: If a new act of villainy interrupts, the first move ends with betrothal, or promise.

W5: If a married hero loses their partner, the marriage is resumed.

W6: The hero sometimes receives money or other forms of compensation.

Example: Any ending where some kind of continuation is shown, really.


The following six are modifications.

32. Confrontation

The party faces with henchmen or the villain.

Example: In Mass Effect, facing against Matriarch Benezia and her henchmen.


33. Outsider Help

Party moves on with the help of a non-party character.

Example: In Call of Duty 4, working side-by-side with friendly Russian forces not on the player’s core team.


34. Rescue

Rescuing or helping somebody in captivity.

Example: In Call of Duty 4, rescuing Griggs after he is captured.


35. Struggle

Party encounters an obstacle to overcome by the hand of the villain.

Example: Any form of blockage provided by the villain.


36. Transfiguration

Villain changes after defeat gaining more power.

Example: In Mass Effect 2’s Lair of the Shadow Broker, defeating the rogue spectre makes her stronger, and has to be fought multiple times until defeated.


37. Travel

Party traversal throughout the world.

Example: Any party traversal throughout the world.


The rest are new additions.

38. Addition

A new member joins the party.

Example: In Mass Effect 2, you go on a recruiting spree.


39. Bargain

Party tries to make a deal with the villain.

Example: In Mass Effect 2 and 3, Shepherd attempts to make good with the Illusive Man using Paragon powers, but ultimately fails (or succeeds and sees him kill himself).


40. Capture

A member or the whole party gets captured.

Example: In Mass Effect 2, most of the team is captured by the Collectors.


41. Comeback

 A defeated enemy comes back.

Example: In Assassin’s Creed Revelations, Cesare Borgia comes back multiple times after being partially defeated in combat.


42. Disband

 Party members leave the party.

Example: At various points in Half-Life 2, Alyx often joins and leaves the player’s side throughout the game.


43. Escape

Party escapes the villain’s grasp.

Example: In Mass Effect 2, the player’s team just manage to escape an apparently derelict Collector ship after it unexpectedly activates and turns into an ambush.


44. False Victory

Defeating the villain hinders the party in some way.

I think their example (same as mine) doesn’t match “defeating a villain”, so I’m interpreting this to mean attempting to achieve a goal and having that result in a negative outcome, but having some other positive takeaway.  This is a false victory, as while the goal was partially successful, the original goal was failed (and therefore may hinder the party).

Example: In Mass Effect 2, when trying to collect Okeer, the base is ambushed.  The party is successful is stopping the ambush, but Okeer dies.


45. Gain

Events that help the party along their way.

Example: Anything that is positive toward the party.


46. Gathering

Unification of separated party members.

Example: In Call of Duty 4, Griggs is accidentally separated from the party, and after a rescue mission, is reunited.


47. Heroic Act

Heroism of party members without personal gain.

Example: In Mass Effect 2, a lot of the player’s side missions are helping NPCs without any major narrative reward other than pride.


48. Loss

Events that hinder the party along their way.

Example: Anything that is negative toward the party.


49. Persuasion

Party tries to get help from non-party characters.

Example: In Mass Effect, Shepherd tries to convince the Council to help against their common enemy.


50. Planning

Party finds a way to exploit the villain’s weakness.

Example: In Mass Effect 2, when getting to Garrus, the player is presented with the option of sabotaging a destructive robot and ship to lower the enemy’s chances.


51. Reveal

Explanation of key plot points to the player.

Example: In Mass Effect 2, when headhunting Mordin, it is explained that he is working on a cure for a locally rampant plague which sets the scene for the area and missions following.


52. Sacrifice

The event of saving the party or others with self-sacrifice of a character.

Example: In Halo Reach, Jorge remains onboard a ship that explodes, saving the player and their party, hoping he stopped a major invasion.

References

[1] V. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale: Second Edition. University of Texas Press, 2010.
[2] B. Bostan and O. Turan, “Deconstructing Game Stories with Propp’s Morphology,” presented at the Eurasia Graphics 2017: International Conference on Computer Graphics, Animation, and Gaming Technologies, Bahcesehir University, İstanbul, TURKEY, 2017, vol. 17, p. 18.