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  • Epic Vision: Mythology and Game Design

    - Robin Koman
  •  Introduction

    I've been thinking about writing an article on mythology in game design for a few months now, and with the recent burst of renewed interest in Joseph Campbell's Hero Cycle it seems like the perfect time to share my thoughts on teaching mythology to game designers.  In a compliment to Jordie Fine's Game Career Guide article on the Gamer's Journey, and Gamasutra's podcast on using the Hero Cycle for narrative structure, this article will serve as a pedagogy paper, and as an expansion on Campbell's ideas, with a little Mythology 101 thrown in. 

    In terms of teaching theory it's my belief that while anyone can learn about mythology at any time in their life, in order to bring fresh mythological and archetypal concepts into the forefront of game design it's vital to teach the subject to students who will be going out into the industry.  It's been my pleasure to teach mythology for three years now at Full Sail Real World Education in the Game Development and Computer Animation programs.  Why Computer Animation?  We've found the archetypal characters and multicultural color symbolism make great tools for artists, and knowledge of different mythologies can help keep them from designing stale characters. That being noted, let's get back to the game designers.

    Mythology Course 

    In this Mythology course there are a few foundational ideas that we introduce to the students each month that are worthwhile to discuss here.  First there are the words "mythology" and "myth".  In modern western culture these words usually have the connotation of being a lie--some superstitious or illogical untruth that should be discarded.  Shows like "Myth Busters" are a great example of how the idea of "myth" has been hijacked.  Well, now it's time to throw the modern misconceptions of myth away. 

    Simply put, a myth is a story that is used to communicate a psycho-social truth.  So Mythology is a system of beliefs communicated through story, whether written or oral, to explain the world and to give examples of how people should live in it.  In these terms, any theological system could also be considered a mythological system, though mythology doesn't often deal with the details of ritual.

    Students should also be familiarized with the history of the study of mythology, including the theories of Carl Jung.  Jung was a psychologist, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud.  He broke away from Freud and the psychoanalysts to explore ideas about the Collective Unconscious, which basically states that all humanity shares a mental energy that expresses itself through archetypes, or universal patterns. It was this concept of archetypes which would transform the study of mythology, inspiring Joseph Campbell's text The Hero with 1,000 Faces, where he identifies the steps of the Hero Cycle, the archetypal pattern of heroic myths around the world.

    The Hero Cycle

    One key thing to remember about the hero cycle is that it wasn't created in a vacuum.  Campbell identified the three main sections of the Hero Cycle:  departure, initiation, and return, after a youth spent studying various hero myths.  In The Hero with 1,000 Faces he detailed the seventeen archetypal steps heroes take to complete the departure, initiation, and return. With the term hero, by the way, I refer to heroes of all gender identifications.  I think the term "heroine" has gone the way of "actress".  Jordie Fine does a great job discussing the hero cycle, so I won't rehash those details.  But in this seminal text Campbell also identified six character archetypes that permeate these heroic myths, let's talk about those.

    First is the Hero, the one who is called out on the adventure.  The hero usually has a loyal friend or companion that goes with them, that's the Herald.  There is also a sage, or wise person, who gives the hero advice or a talisman, that's the Mentor. The Trickster is the hilarious embodiment of change, wreaking jolly havoc all over the place. There is also a Shape-shifter, a character who transforms both physically and psychologically and causes great confusion in the hero.  Last, but not least, Campbell identified the Shadow, the force working in direct opposition to the goals of the hero.     


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