The Qualitative Canon Series: Trope Analysis

This blog series embarks on a grand tour of qualitative methods, both existing and emerging. It discusses new ways they can be applied in a big data-driven landscape and all the ways they can enhance quantitative analysis.

For Folk's Sake: Trope Analysis

Note: Minor spoilers ahead for Final Fantasy XVI.

The release of Final Fantasy XVI (22 June 2023) marks the latest instalment in the long-running video game franchise. Introduced in 1987 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the series’ many, many games—including spin-offs, remasters, and remakes—have sold over 180 million copies [1]. FFXIV alone—the series’ online entry—has three million active daily users across North America, Europe, and Asia [2]. So what keeps folks coming back? The reasons, of course, are myriad but we might venture one being the distinct familiarity that threads through the franchise.

Although each game is a typically standalone story, there are motifs: ruthless empires conquering the hero’s vulnerable homeland in the early game, oppressive governments, fantastical beings routinely inspired by global mythologies and religions, jeopardised minority groups, bildungsroman journeys, reluctant protagonists, overly-enthusiastic protagonists, ‘will they/won’t they’ romances, and an obsession with crystals that would normally merit an intervention from concerned relatives.

These are tropes: recurring themes, patterns, ideas, and concepts. Like any other media, video games thrive on tropes. Across first-person shooters like Overwatch and Apex Legends to role-playing games (RPGs) like Skyrim and Jedi: Survivor, you’ll find enemies-to-lovers, ‘Chosen One’ destinies, mentors succumbing to a plot-advancing demise, knights in shining armour, free will requiring choice, the unchangeable past, and linguistic determinism (which we’ll return to presently) to name more than a few.

In fact, tropes in gaming and other pop culture media are so ubiquitous that large and comprehensive wikis like TV Tropes have emerged to collect, catalogue, and curate them [3]. Why? Because tropes are data, and where there is data, there is potential insight.

Trope Analysis: What Can It Tell Us?

Where do tropes come from? ‘Folk intuitions’ is a term used by analytical philosophers to describe pre-theoretical or ‘common sense’ ideas and concepts that we—the folk—consistently and collectively perceive as intuitive. Dualism, for example—the belief that mind and body are separate, the former often enduring after the latter expires—is a common folk intuition. It is from this collective belief that the trope of the soul persisting beyond the body emerged across pop culture: from Star Wars to Dragon Age, Harry Potter to Star Trek. The 1999 animated film, The Iron Giant, contains a clear example:

The Iron Giant: I die?
Hogarth Hughes: I don't know. You're made of metal, but you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul. And souls don't die.
The Iron Giant: Soul?
Hogarth Hughes: Mom says it's something inside of all good things, and that it goes on forever and ever.

In her paper ‘Trope Analysis and Folk Intuitions’, Stephanie Rennick outlined a qualitative methodology for investigating folk intuitions and the tropes which represent them in fiction [4]. Proposing that tropes are “artefacts of the imagination”, Rennick argued that we should analyse not what people report their intuitions to be but rather what they have created and consumed, assessing patterns in what people make and engage with. Tropes, Rennick says, identify those concepts and ideas that we find intuitive—”repeatedly and en masse”—since “if an idea is unintuitive, it does not survive to become a trope.” Tropes, therefore, can provide a common context and starting point to investigate sociocultural norms and expectations.

Amidst its many tropes, Final Fantasy XVI deploys linguistic determinism: a causal relationship between language and behaviour. Powerful villains like the Holy Emperor of Sanbreque or Clive’s decidedly evil mother speak Received Pronunciation (a non-regional sociolect usually shortened to ‘RP’: think Emperor Palpatine’s accent from Star Wars or Lady Grantham from Downton Abbey). Final Fantasy XVI’s more ‘rough and ready’ characters, meanwhile, who may be coded as good or evil but are rarely atop the food chain, typically speak varieties of regional English like Lancastrian, Geordie, or Cockney. This continuum, where standard English is usually (but not exclusively) associated with power and importance, and regional English is usually (but not exclusively) associated with subordination and comic relief, is evident throughout pop culture. In the film adaptations of Harry Potter, Voldemort and Dumbledore—among the fictional universe’s most powerful wizards—speak standard varieties of English. Hagrid, conversely—the well-meaning and friendly groundskeeper of Hogwarts—speaks West Country. In Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, Frodo—our protagonist—speaks standard English whilst Samwise, his faithful companion, speaks West Country (there’s a pattern emerging here). We might ask: if Voldemort spoke with a West Country, Brummie or Geordie accent, would we find him as convincing a villain? If not, why? Because we have folk intuitions about what evil and power sound like and so villains speaking RP has become a popular trope.

Conversely, the subversion of tropes is equally interesting. It seems reasonable to assess that, as a sociocultural phenomenon, folk intuitions are subject to the same generational pressures as all beliefs and so can change over time. This is evident in the widespread contemporary renegotiation of the ‘damsel in distress’ trope. Where once it was universal—from an enchained Andromeda waiting for Perseus to Princess Peach being rescued for the nth time by Mario—it would now strike many of us as counterintuitive that female characters exist only to be a plot device for the male hero’s journey. This gradual change can be seen in the emergence and popularity of protagonists like the alien-jettisoning Ripley from Alien (1979), the dystopian revolutionary Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games (2008), and the spear-wielding, world-saving Aloy from Horizon: Zero Dawn (2017).

These creative choices—whether dialectal variation in Harry Potter or ‘chosen one’ Aloy defeating a genocidal AI in a post-apocalyptic future—don’t exist in a vacuum: they come from the writers’, translators’, actors’, editors’ and directors’ folk intuitions. Trope analysis looks for the patterns between intuitions and tropes, and encourages the observer to examine and ask questions about that active relationship.

The Applications of Trope Analysis

From audience analysis to sociolinguistics, trope analysis can play an important role in hypothesis generation. It can inform question composition—e.g. is there an observable link between dialect and behaviour in video game representation?—and therefore the quantitative methods we deploy to collect and distil relevant data. Moreover, trope analysis can support engagement with quantitative data, encouraging researchers and analysts to contextualise emergent patterns in relevant social and cultural landscapes.

Examples of these applications can be found in the recently published study, ‘Gender bias in video game dialogue’ [5]. Based on analysis of a corpus comprising 50 RPG video games published between 1986 and 2020, and containing six million words of dialogue from 13,587 characters, researchers found that:

  • 35% of words were spoken by female characters.
  • 29% of characters were female.
  • 94% of games had more male dialogue than female dialogue.

The study uncovered evidence of embedded gendered tropes. Female characters were more likely to display gratitude and apologise, both of which are salient linguistic markers of politeness. The researchers’ observation that across Europe, North America, and Asia, video games are played by over half the population, with a rough 50/50 split between male and female gamers, indicates there may be friction between the tropes being historically deployed in video games and the contemporary folk intuitions of consumers who may expect fairer representation.

Importantly, trope analysis doesn’t intrinsically evaluate the rightness or wrongness of existing folk intuitions and tropes: rather, it provides exploitable data about patterns between them. Researchers in this study noted that the observable data was in all probability a “proxy measure for underlying biases” about gendered roles and stereotypes. Moving forward, its results could be used to inform future game development that better reflects a broader, more diverse audience of players.

The Future of Trope Analysis

With the advent of the internet and more ways than ever to publish creative content—from online self-publishing to crowd-funded indie development—the range of creators and creations has massively increased. As Rennick observed, this presents the best opportunity yet to collate an incredible diversity of data about folk intuitions and the tropes by which they manifest.

The development and maturing of trope analysis can only enhance the already broad qualitative canon, and harmonises well with existing approaches like ethnography. Moreover, the focus of trope analysis on identifying and extracting patterns, and tracing the sociocultural provenance of data, makes it ideal for natural language processing experimentation. If we can assess data—especially text data—for the complex lexis and phraseology that comprise tropes across large narrative spaces, we can begin to map concepts and intuitions, and their changing dimensions over time and across all sorts of demographic spheres. The value of such data would be limited only by the imagination.