Real Adventure

I’ve been sick, so watched tv more than usual. Watching Journey to the Center of the Earth, I noticed yet again how folks seem to like adventure stories and games to come with guides. People prefer main characters to follow a trail of clues via a map or book written by someone who has passed before, or at least to follow the advice of a wise old person.

Note that in most other ways, such stories go out of their way to describe grand glorious adventures, i.e.,with a great deal at stake, in very strange and different settings, and facing great obstacles. But wouldn’t it be even more glorious and heroic to achieve such ends against such obstacles without a guide? Why go to such extremes to tell an extreme story, just to rein it in by telling only about folks who achieve via guides, instead of folks who achieve without guides?  Why isn’t the story of how someone came to know enough to guide more dramatic than the story of someone guided?

In video games the answer seems obvious: in most adventure settings, players without guides (or overwhelming resources) would have to do a lot of random searching before they could plausibly succeed. It just isn’t believable if they always stumble on the right path on their first try. But random searching adds a lot of noise into the relation between player skill and player success, and players don’t like that. Players prefer games which more clearly demonstrate their skill, over games that tell grander stories.

This same explanation also works for adventure stories more generally. We imagine being the main character in an adventure, and want to fantasize that such a situation would let us more clearly demonstrate our great character to an admiring audience. As in video games, guides help these main characters avoid a lot of random searching.

It is just less fun to fantasize about being the one of thousands who happens to find the northwest passage out of blind luck, than to imagine being a clever faithful grandson who follows lucky-grandad-the-finder’s clues on how to find that hidden passage. You can reveal more about your skill, courage, etc. in a short time as a guide-follower than as a guider.

This has a big lesson for those who like to think of their real life as a grand adventure: relative to fiction, real grand adventures tend to have fewer guides, and more randomness in success. Real adventurers must accept huge throws of the dice; even if you do most everything right, most likely some other lucky punk will get most of the praise.

If you want life paths that quickly and reliably reveal your skills, like leveling up in video games, you want artificial worlds like schools, sporting leagues, and corporate fast tracks. You might call such lives adventures, but really they are pretty much the opposite. If you insist instead on adventuring for real, achieving things of real and large consequence against great real obstacles, well then learn to see the glorious nobility of those who try well yet fail. In the words of Kipling:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
… you’ll be a Man my son!

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  • y81

    The true human condition is that we do have a guide through a dark and dangerous world, i.e., God, who has indeed left us clues as to our best course. Stories about guided adventure, where ultimate success depends on deciphering the instructions of our guide, are more popular than a story of an unguided adventure would be precisely because they are closer approximations of ultimate reality.

    • John Maxwell IV

      The opposite seems more likely: God was designed by his followers so that they could see themselves in the most epic light possible.

  • Jayson Virissimo

    In general I think you are right, but the best games provide you with enough information to keep you from getting stuck, but they don’t hit you over the head with what you are “supposed” to be doing. Instead, they only give you vague hints that allow you to discover things on your own (like the PC shooter/RPG Deus Ex).

  • I think this goes in cycles — part of the creativity rise-and-fall pattern mentioned recently. We are in a falling-creativity time, and so was the late 19th C. (compare to the Romantic era). So it’s no surprise that video game players are wimps who want nearly everything planned out for them these days.

    Back in the golden age of video games, roughly 1985 to 1994, we didn’t want the secrets spoiled the first time through. Maybe if a game was impenetrable, then we would’ve gone to Nintendo Power to see how to get further. But in general it was a true adventure, almost no games relied on mindless leveling up, and the appeal of strategy guides was minimal compared to today.

    Same with Lego blocks. In the rising-creativity time of the late ’50s through the early ’90s, we liked building whatever we could imagine with them. Now they are almost entirely planned out according to a theme — nearly pre-assembled ships, for example — rather than being a big pile of blocks with no bias regarding theme.

    • Michael

      Video games have become increasingly mainstream and are thus more targeted towards the centre of the Bell curve. It’s the same for anything that is popularised.

  • y81, if true wouldn’t the story of how God got to be God be the most dramatic of all? Why don’t people want to play the hero in that story?

    Jayson, yes, players like the fantasy that they can just “intuit” the right answers at each stage. This also lets them show their mettle.

    agnostic, yes there are cycles, but even so the overall pattern remains.

    • Luke

      Mormon fiction has people turning into Gods all the time… See the Mistborn saga or Orson Scott Card’s Treason. A more AI based one would be Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary webcomic.

      • Matt

        Or the story of Buddha, who, without any guidance figured everything out through meditation.

      • michael vassar

        Buddha had guidance, it just couldn’t take him through the last steps. That’s much more like real life than doing things without guidance is (and Dante hints at it too).

  • The use of the old guide or map may connect with the romantic notion of lost knowledge. In many cultures it is common to attribute great knowledge to some set of mysterious ancients. Sometimes this is valid: The ancient Greeks had a much better handling of math than did almost anyone in the Middle Ages. But at the same time, this leads to ridiculous notions (look at much of the attempts to preserve much of Aristotle and Ptolemy in a large extent justified because it was old). One sees this today through all sorts of beliefs today as well.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      “The ancient Greeks had a much better handling of math than did almost anyone in the Middle Ages.”

      Where could I look for evidence in favor of this proposition?

      • I don’t have any secondary sources to point to. However, I can point to specific factual issues that support the proposition. I will present three general chains of arguments.

        First, mathematics in the Middle Ages sometimes involved incorrect statements that were frequently taken for granted. For example, Nicomachus made multiple incorrect statements about perfect numbers (including thinking that Euclid’s result on Mersenne primes was byconditional, and that ever perfect number was even) that were then accepted as given by many writers in the Middle Ages.

        Second, many people in the Middle Ages considered theorems and proofs to be difficult to understand where we have no evidence of them posing any similar problem to the ancient Greeks. The most prominent of those is of course the Pons asinorum.

        Third, there’s a general lack of new results during that time period. The most prominent major new result in the Middle Ages is the solution of the cubic equation, and even that was not complete until very late, in the 1500s, arguably after the Middle Ages was already over. The work of Oresme and Fibonacci did present new works but not much that actually became widespread. The adaption of Arabic numerals also occurred in this time period, but that was again to the end of the Middle Ages (late 1400s early 1500s). One might run into issues of how one defines the Middle Ages but if one restricts it to about 400 CE to around 1500 then the general trend becomes clear.

      • It might not touch directly on your specific question but I’ve found this blog interesting in its attempt to correct a perceived slighting of the middle ages relative to the classical era and/or renaissance.

  • Sarah

    This is an extremely interesting argument – especially considering the recent evolution in video game expectations. There’s an increased demand for open world games, where there is no direction and no guide urging you on the right path. (ex: the Fable series, Morrowind and Oblivion, Fallout, Assassin’s Creed)

    However, an interesting result of this has been a matched increase in demand for options for players to be villains, or, at the very least, rather cruel and destructive anti-heroes. (Mass Effect, Fable and Fallout)

    Perhaps then, y81 does have a point in that in some way we associate having a guide with achieving the most morally good, and therefore heroic, of stories. At the same time, you’re right, we never question the guide, the old journal we found, the deathbed confessions of the mysterious old man – we never wonder how everything was figured out before we come along into the adventure.

    And, on a very personally biased note, I disagree with agnostic; video players are not wimps. Games that are linear and guiding are appealing not because we lack the creativity to make a story. They are a result of a player’s desire to accompany a character, who may be entirely different from themselves, along their journey. Would you only read books where the characters make the same exact decisions you would? But as I’ve said above, gamers are beginning to tire of it, and asking for more choice and more freedom.

  • y81

    Prof. Hanson: I’m no expert, but I believe that option is offered in the religious marketplace. Call Joseph Smith. His brand sells pretty well, but, to the extent it doesn’t outsell the more orthodox brands, I guess that’s because it doesn’t match most people’s intuitive apperceptions of ultimate reality. That’s also what determines the popularity of particular video game themes, fictional genres, etc.

  • Luke

    Didn’t I read that Newton stole most of his ideas from Boyle and others? In other words, he got all the glory but mainly from polishing and publicizing the ideas rather than finding them out for himself. (Then again, he did say he was standing on the shoulders of giants.) This could be likened to how a publishing company gets most of the money when they publish an original new book. Being the one who scales the model up, polishes it, and presents it to a wider audience, is more valuable (or at least more rewarded) in some respects than being the one who breaks new ground to begin with.

  • mjgeddes

    See picture and caption in Ben Goertzel’s post over at IEET:

    ‘Reality, Worst Game Ever’.

    As regards the ‘creativity’ debate, those who think ‘creativity’ doesn’t exist or is just a component of ‘intelligence’ are out of their minds. There is a clear precise definition of creativity which I stated in other thread: minimization of cognitive complexity (reduction in complexity of your own internal thought processess to find useful novel representations of goals). This cannot be identified with IQ, nor can it be identified with any variable of general intelligence at all. To LW/Sing Inst fan-boys we can only do as Robin suggests and applaud the glorious failure of their ‘Quest for Singularity’ and say ‘Nice try, thanks for playing guys’.

  • The “guided” aspect of what you’re describing is part of the reason I really like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians: in that novel, there are no real guides to the magic school Quentin Coldwater attends. I asked Grossman about that when I interviewed him:

    [Jake Seliger]: Right. That’s exactly what I was referring to because it’s unexpected, and the teachers don’t know what’s going on. And then there’s speech—I’m pretty sure it’s Dean Fogg who gives it—where he basically says, “There are things out there we don’t know, we don’t understand.”

    [Lev Grossman]: I want it to feel less safe than Hogwarts. And that was one of the ways I tried to announce that. Here’s a being which is not even evil, necessarily, in a way that is comprehensible to us. It’s almost arbitrary.

    JS: It’s chaotic or indifferent.

    LG: Which is almost more terrifying, in a kind of mustachio-twiddling villain. And I very much wanted there not to be a Gandalf-like figure, who is able to explain what happened and assume the risk for the kids. Fogg is just about as lost as they are.

    A lot of his novel is interrogating the principles of genre that you’re describing. Fogg is uncertain, the students in the school expect everything to work out for them once they learn magic. But things don’t. After they graduate, they’re not sure of what to do; a Narnia-like land of Fillory gets invoked, and (eventually) they get to go. When Quentin finally gets something like a quest in Fillory, he no longer cares: “There was a time when this had been his most passionate hope, when it would have ravished him with happiness. It was just so weird, he thought sadly. Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? Its groping hands so clumsy? He thought he’d left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills. How could it have followed him here, of all places? How far did he have to run?”

    The answer: forever. It’s a bit more like real life in that respect.

    If you get a chance, read the novel. I know you go more for nonfiction, but given your post, this one might be worth your time.

  • Have you read Rider Haggard, e.g. King Solomon’s Mines, She, Alan Quatermain? Quatermain guide’s some folks deep into Africa, but the adventure’s as much Quatermain’s as it is their because he’s never been to this place, whatever it is. They’re guided by an old map, or rumors, that SOMETHING BIG is out there. So they know what they’re after, and what direction to go. But the way between here and there is treacherous and untraveled. The critical thing, of courses, is that they DO know what’s there and roughly where it is.

    Columbus, in contrast, knew in what direction to travel, but he was mistaken about what was there and how long he’d have to travel to get there.

  • Noumenon

    I don’t think it’s people’s need for a guide, I think it’s the need for someone to do exposition to the viewer. Without exposition of how great and historical everything is, it’s just a set.

    Video games, I think, usually don’t have guides, because they can do exposition other ways. Grand Theft Auto can establish the gang leaders by switching the point of view a lot in cutscenes. Lara Croft has people in her headset explaining the myths of Arthurian England now. The Prince of Persia has a princess who accompanies you but doesn’t guide, because you find your own way through the story and the exposition is done by framing the game as the prince’s own narrative of it after the fact. Morrowind and Dragon Quest have text dialogue, no guide. Final Fantasy X kind of has a guide, as you’re caught up in a pilgrimage across Spira.

    Now the Terminator movies, kind of have a guide, because movies tend to do their exposition through actors.

  • Shane

    Another aspect of this idea, as instantiated in fiction, is the The Guide who gives one the feeling that there’s more to the world than what seems immediately apparent, and the proof is that The Guide has already experienced some of it.

    This pattern has been very powerful in my own life and literary appreciation, but it’s subtle — who The Guide is, what he knows, what are the conditions of his conveying the information, are all critical issues. Where one turns the knobs determines the effect.

    For instance, one particular aspect that seems especially important is the sense that what The Guide can convey is inexhaustible, but incomplete. Think Doctor Who, where The Doctor is constantly dropping references to things the viewer never understands, but in so doing creates a hazy edifice within which the adventures the viewer _does_ come to understand can be situated. Without the edifice, the suggestion of structure, the unfolding adventure would be much less compelling.

    Or, to take a neuroscience metaphor, The Guide is early visual cortex, once the building blocks of visual structure (gabor patches) have been ascertained. The viewer doesn’t want to be bothered with the low level statistical discovery; he wants The Guide to take care of that so that he may move get on with the business of interpreting more interesting structures.

  • sk

    I wonder if it’s because people understand that nothing can possibly be done by a single person. An individual may be extraordinarily smart or brave etc., but to accomplish almost any task, there must be infrastructure, cached knowledge or some such that he/she must have leveraged. Some direct, some indirect. Thus, folks want to see those people given credit for this accomplishment. An extreme example/interpretation might be that Columbus would not have discovered America if someone didn’t build the ship he traveled on (and I’m sure the knowledge to design the ship in a certain way – to withstand long journeys etc., was an accomplishment in it’s own right or part of some other accomplishment).
    Giving this credit directly to an ancestor as in this movie could be considered a simple metaphor to this point.

  • John

    One issue that leads me to doubt your hypothesis that guides are necessary to eliminate doubt that our heroes are simply lucky is that we are so willing to suspend disbelief about luck in so many other parts of our entertainment. Take any action movie–while the hero is always incredibly smart, capable, and wise, there’s obviously luck involved (think of any scene in which bullets are flying everywhere around our hero but miraculously missing). If we wouldn’t be willing to watch a heroic explorer finding the correct path on the first or second try (because we know that in the real world they’d make dozens of mistakes first), why are we willing to credulously watch our heroes dodging bullets without wondering how they too manage to beat the odds?

  • Robert

    Robin, I love your blog!

    I belieive that most “folk” prefer the guides, but that many don’t. In the Meyer-Briggs personality types, on the EN*P types are considered explorers and discoverers and together represent about 10% of the population. I know that some people (myself included) don’t want any hints or guidance when vacationing abroad — They prefer exploring randomly and being surprised.

    The most popular MMR games (like World of Warcraft) provide maps and quests, but also allow you to just wander and discover at random.

    It seems to me that there would have been an evolutionary advantage if some (not all) tribe members preferred to just pick a random direction away from the village or camp to explore — More and better food and shelter might be found at relatively low risk to the whole tribe.

  • Paul C

    real grand adventures tend to have fewer guides

    Only if you don’t bother to ask anybody for advice, i.e. if you’re too arrogant to imagine you might need a guide. Disaster usually ensues.

  • Matt

    Of course, “sandbox” style videogames with more open worlds are becoming increasingly popular, as the technology has become more able to support large virtual worlds, even though they include a lot of random searching. Technology and cost seem to be a confounding factor here – worlds on the rails are in many ways cheaper and easier to make and are tempting you know your audience will see everything that you do (people don’t want to pay for things they won’t receive and there’s no point developing more than your audience demands).

    Of course, having a unique experience and making fairly informed choices with predictable outcomes (which seems to be excluded from the random search/follow a guide duality) have value to add and are probably what people are really looking for in these open worlds, not random searching. It still seems like games could be more open than they are, and it seems like a constraint stopping this might be on avoiding random searches.

  • People want to be successful, but they don’t want to have to work for that success – that means we might fail. At the same time, we don’t want to feel like success is unearned. So our fantasies and escapes of success include a guide to explain that yes, we’re unique and enormously important people, destined for great things.

    A guide offers us what we really want – rewards for the intrinsic specialness we believe we have.

  • Buck Farmer

    I submit the Odyssey as both the model adventure and as being mostly Guideless (and remarkably arbitrary).

    Another example: Gulliver’s Travels

  • Khoth

    One reason for having guides is to have scope for character growth when the guide is taken away near the end – in the cases I can think of off the top of my head, the guide doesn’t accompany the hero all the way.

  • TGGP,

    (replying here because software won’t let an additional level of indentation in replying. Grrr…)

    Yes, there’s no question that there was a lot more going on the Middle Ages than many people give credit for. There’s this standard narrative especially about physics where there’s nothing happening between Aristotle and Galileo. This ignores a lot of people like Oresme and Benedetti who had a lot of very good ideas that were then more or less tweaked by people like Galileo and Newton who made the existing ideas more precise. Similar remarks apply about many other areas. Even the level of math going although often abysmal wasn’t nearly as bad as it is often portrayed.

  • Another explanation is that the best stories often depict charachters with knowledge and experience that the player/viewer lack. The main lead in a movie could have been an adventurer whose dedicated their life to researching the lost treasure of X but that doesn’t tell the audience what’s going on.

    In video games the problem is much worse since without holodeck style sophistication even possessing the skills in real life isn’t enough to tell you how to work the video game. For instance you might know how to survive the elements in an artic environment but if the tricks you try to use aren’t the same ones the designers thought up it won’t work.

    What I find frustrating in video games isn’t so much having a realistic element of randomness but trying one strategy after another that would work in the real work (ohh maybe I can talk to this guy and ask if he saw such and such) only to be fucked over by the game’s limitations (crap the dialog tree doesn’t seem to include that question ..that’s frustrating).

  • Celticdragon

    Alcibiades was definitely one of the “lucky punks” who never failed to claim somebody else’s success.

  • Kipling was all wet on that last bit. Piling up all your winnings and losing them on one last bet doesn’t make you a man. It makes you a casino customer — a broke-ass one.

  • Bill

    Robin, Many of the greatest storytellers of our time (like George Lucas) have been strongly influenced by scholar Joseph Campbell‘s concept of the “monomyth” — which typically includes a mysterious guide as a key element of the story (like Obi Wan). Campbell’s framework appears to have been so successful — and so well-rooted in human nature — that it appears to be hard for Hollywood screenwriters to find work if they don’t adhere to the monomyth framework. That still begs the question of why people aren’t even more intrigued by heroes who accomplish great things without guides. I suspect the role of the guide in story telling is a convenience: a quick way to have someone incidental set up the main story arc so the fun can begin.

  • tb30

    Is it even possible to not have a guide at some level? I think of Meno’s paradox about knowledge with Socrates. It definitely is a stretch to fit this conversation and it is particularly about knowledge, not adventure. But, in the end, we either know what we are looking for so we can identify it when we find it, or we will never know if we have found something we are looking for. In other words, if their is not a guide at some level (i.e. prior knowledge, God, a veteran or wise one who has been that way before, etc.) why would there be anything to push us into a particular adventure. People don’t just naturally want to risk their lives, but they are willing to if they think there is something worth while on the other side. In other words, there has to be something or someone who lets them know there is value in that particular pursuit. Wouldn’t that someone or something be called a guide?

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