Imagine a story where the hero (let's call him a him for simplicity's sake) starts off in the ordinary world - an everyday life that seems boring and uninteresting to him. Shortly after the audience are introduced to this world, the hero is presented with a call to adventure. A challenge requiring him to leave normality behind, and venture into the unknown. Most likely, the hero will be reluctant or afraid, and may even refuse the call to adventure. Luckily, there is a mentor character to guide him along, offer advice, show him the door without walking through it. Sound familiar? No, I'm not reciting the plot of The Matrix. Or Star Wars. Or any other Hollywood film that comes to mind. What I'm referring to is the mythic structure known as the Hero's Journey.
An age-old set of principles and patterns drawn from classical mythology and exhibited in just about every human story. A series of storytelling concepts made famous through Joseph Campbell's book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. More recently, these ideas have received mainstream attention with Christopher Vogler's practical guide for storytellers, entitled The Writer's Journey.
Vogler's book quickly earned status as required reading for screenwriters and has been acknowledged by many influential filmmakers and writers as an industry bible. As I researched and wrote this article, I underwent my own Hero's Journey. A quest to understand the merits of such a refined narrative model within the context of the games industry. The final step of the journey is to return with the Elixir. Sometimes this is a physical item - a holy grail or healing potion, but usually the Elixir is a metaphorical reward. Some small sense of enlightenment that can be brought back from the hero's journey. Once the central crisis and ordeal is over, the hero is reborn as a much wiser character.
The hero has learned something.
By the end of this article, you may even have experienced your own personal journey. At the very least, I hope that you have contemplated the role of character-driven narrative in the evolving medium of videogames. Maybe you will return with your own Elixir, whether you agree with the Hero's Journey or not. All I'm asking is that you think...
We are at a defining moment in the history of the games industry. The industry needs out-of-the-box thinkers and theorists to come up with new ways of crafting interactive experiences... Just as much as we need programmers and artists. We need our Will Wrights, and we need our John Carmacks. Without constantly striving to expand and stretch the boundaries of game design, the industry is at risk of reaching a plateau.
Games needn't be restricted to narrow definitions tailored to fit those already out there. Genres such as RPG and RTS carry conventions. Whilst genre conventions certainly serve a purpose, what makes a game unique is when it transcends the traditional formulae and breaks away from the mould. The most memorable games are often those that define new genres and experiences.
Interactivity and choice are key factors which differentiate games from films and novels. By exploring the relevance of the Hero's Journey in the world of games, I wish to better my own understanding of where the games medium has come from... and where it is heading. Just how exactly have games subverted the traditional principles of storytelling? I cannot claim to have a single definitive answer. I can only look at several key examples of narrative in games, exploring how they have succeeded in tweaking the Hero's Journey to fit the medium. Most notably, I will be analysing the ways in which The Secret of Monkey Island utilises the Hero's Journey as a basic narrative framework.