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  • Premise: The Key to Interactive Storytelling

    - Stephen Schafer

  •  The Hunted 

    In order to demonstrate the relationship between purpose and premise, I would like to illustrate with the film, The Hunted. The film is highly relevant to interactive games because it deals with a significant ethical problem that is highly relevant to contemporary quandaries that are universal in scope. The story addresses the issue of violence and the violence depicted is well-staged and essential to the power of the statement made in the film.  It contains scenes in which killing takes place and ultimately makes a distinction between sacrifice and murder. Extensive martial arts conflicts add to the interest and excitement, but though conflicts are bloody, the blood is not gratuitous in the slasher sense.

    The film's potential for translation to orthodox game play is enormous, and its violence would target a good percentage of the young males that play games. However, this game would have deep and valuable significance beyond the orthodox genre. The reason is that the purpose and premise is clear and the story is artfully designed.


    The purpose of this film is to address an issue and an ethical quandary of mythic proportions-the nature and significance of sacrifice. At the beginning of the film, Johnny Cash, in his inimitable manner, vocalizes the theme. God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son. For Abraham, this is a quandary-the choice to obey his god and kill his son or to disobey his god. Few understand why a beneficent God would ask a loyal disciple to sacrifice his own son for no apparent reason. Such a quandary resonates with the Christian story of the Christ and the martyrdom of the innocents, the saints, the heretics, and the heroes of all degrees and in every culture.

    Why do the good suffer under the dominion of a beneficent deity? Everywhere we see such apparently needless sacrifices, and many lose faith because of this observation. So what is the significance of sacrifice?  Sacrifice is a concept of mythic dimensions, the essence of plot in the Journey of the Hero, and a paradox having to do with overcoming the illusion of limitation in the world of form. It is about life and death, creation and destruction, cycles of procreation and generation, hunting and killing. "God told Abraham to sacrifice a son," and this order is fraught with ethical implications. In short, having a purpose to contemplate the principle of sacrifice has significant value and story potential.

    A brief summary of the film is necessary: A military teacher trains assassins for the elite forces. The development of killing expertise is a high value for such assassins. For an elite military operative, the call to killing is a heroic sacrifice. In this story, the antagonist, one of the trainees, perceives the teacher as a father figure. As the assassin fulfills his covert function as killer-hero, his conscience begins to conflict with his actions and the atrocities he witnesses in the accomplishment of his missions. His essential innocence conflicts with the killing he sees and commits, and he goes over the edge. He begins to make distinctions between murder (killing for the wrong reasons) and sacrifice (killing for the right reasons). The essential difference between right and wrong has to do with motive, so when motive is "pure" (as in killing for food or killing in a battle for survival) killing is sanctified.

    On the other hand, killing without purpose or with base motives devolves into murder. In The Hunted, the assassin turns to killing hunters who have murderous intent (no respect for animals) and ends up killing FBI agents who are hunting him (threatening his survival). In the assassin's mind, the issue has become confused. At this point in the story, because he is the only person with appropriate skills, the trainer (father figure) is asked to hunt the assassin-who is like a son to him. This is a quandary (hard choice) for the trainer, but he agrees to do it. The father/son relationship becomes the protagonist/antagonist relationship in the plot, and the premise for each character is the same, but viewed from different perspectives.


    The purpose and premise are directly related. In psychological terms, each character is the shadow archetype for the other, but they have identical morality and skill, so they can be considered a psychological unity. Therefore, there are two premises that are integrated, but at the same time are mirror opposites of one another.

    • The tracker's (father's) premise is to realize why he must sacrifice his son.
    • The assassin's (son's) premise is to clarify his confusion and understand why he must be willing to kill his father in a battle for survival.

    The premise for each character could be stated as: "Killing without a sense of the sacredness of life is murder." Because of their shared values, killing with the right (sacred) motive becomes the objective of the story plot. It is a certainty that killing will ensue. The quandary requires each character to kill out of a sense of the sacredness of life. This is a premise that is serious, notoriously misconstrued, and authentic in terms of the seemingly irresolvable issues facing humanity today. The primary ethical posture they share is that life is sacred, but killing (animals) is, for some, essential to survival. So is killing in war. Therefore, killing must be practiced as sacrifice-a giving and taking that is sacred. In order to contemplate this reality (in which even torture is relevant), most people must transcend their limited views of reality.

    The premise is an ethical, spiritual issue that is the subject of many of the world's myths. For example, the crucifixion of Christ should be understood as sacrifice. In The Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu Bible), the hero Arjuna must struggle with his unwillingness to fight in a mighty battle between clans symbolizing good and evil. The Lord Krishna (Christ figure) derides Arjuna for not understanding the spiritual issues. Paraphrasing the premise of that story, Krishna teaches Arjuna that humans living in a dual reality must fight with right motive in order to eventually overcome the illusion of separation.

    Another example is the Native American story that sanctifies the buffalo and the hunt as a divine gift for the survival of their race. The assumption is that when killing is done with a sense of the sacred, delusion is overcome and sacrifice is achieved. The Native American Sun Dancer sacrifices himself at the alter of the sun. In the same way, warriors sacrifice their lives to protect the camp and if death ensues, "It is a good day to die."  So, the objective of the spiritual quest we call human life is to understand the value of death. All of these considerations redound to the premise of sacrifice.

    The ethical implications of the premise are very practical in our modern milieu where life has been devalued, violence is rampant, and atrocities prevail throughout the world. The question is whether this prevailing slaughter is in the nature of sacrifice or murder. Understanding our human predicament entails a review of our mythical/spiritual heritage. Reviewing this heritage requires some understanding of the world as spirit, and having this worldview requires some understanding of at-one-ment (the objective of the Hero on the Journey) in which state there is no death. To live, one must die. To live, one must kill. To sacrifice, one must cherish life. Killing without cherishing life is murder. To cherish life leads to rebirth. To murder leads only to death.

    Within this authentic and complex mythic framework, the violence as it is authentically portrayed in The Hunted is necessary to the purpose of the story. The premise is to contemplate the motives for violence. Without the violence, the seriousness of the premise could not be expressed or felt. If our culture faced this quandary with such honesty and seriousness, our understanding of life and death, creation and destruction, good and evil might help our people resolve the ongoing confusion about violence in the media. It could help us better understand an American foreign policy that has often seemed diametrically opposed to our ethical origins. Presently, we are more confused about violence than the assassin in the story. For example, many in our culture believe that creating and perpetuating violence upon the cities and people of Iraq should be considered heroic (sacred), but creating violence upon the city and people of the United States is considered terrorism (murder). Understanding the ethical issues of sacrifice might help us understand the quandary.


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