(Written by Martha S.)
One of the things we talked about in Episode 12 was why the particular story structure of the hero’s journey has endured for basically the entirety of time – I posited that it’s because basically, this is it, this IS stories. With few exceptions, the hero’s journey stands in for the journey we all travel through during our lives, taking benchmarks and moments we all hit and beefing them up with the fantastic, over-dramatic, or magical. We may not all journey to the underworld or cross a magical threshold, but we do all experience crossing different barriers and boundaries and emerging as changed humans. The hero’s journey gives us a story structure we can relate to almost instantaneously, while also making it fantastical and interesting enough that it feels new or exciting every time we experience it.
I want to explore a medium that we haven’t really had the chance to in our episodes, because our podcast structure makes it very difficult to fairly assign and complete homework of this nature: video games. Video games offer a unique experience in the world of pop culture because they’re not just something you experience, they require your interaction and involvement, whether it’s something as simple as a Mario sidescroller or as complex as a Bioware choose-your-own-adventure. Because of that, they can provide us with the opportunity to not only read about or witness a hero’s journey, but to experience it vicariously yourself through your protagonist.
Troy Dunniway, a video game designer who has worked for Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Insomniac Games, among others, wrote a comprehensive article entitled “Using the Hero’s Journey in Games,” where he breaks down how this story structure is beneficial to game designers laying out a game for development. Read the entire thing here, but also pay attention to this quote:
“As a game designer it allows us to utilize a known mechanism or formula within our games that people will understand and associate with easily. This allows us the ability to spend less time explaining ourselves and more time developing the story. The formula for a hero’s journey has been refined over thousands of years, so there is no reason to try and improve it. Instead you should spend your time trying to figure out how to make it new and interesting.”
The hero’s journey is a wheel that doesn’t need reinventing. It’s the actual storytelling that makes the difference.
Mass Effect 1, 2, 3 (Xbox 360, PS4, PC)
The original Mass Effect trilogy is an interesting animal because not only do each of the games demonstrate many of the hero’s journey story beats, but the trilogy as a whole becomes one massive, 90-hour hero’s journey that you complete. I think one of the reasons so many players had a problem with the end game is that perhaps, they couldn’t see how the fatalistic ending plays back into the mid-game of your Shepard’s HJ; we all made choices along the way, but in the end, the changes Shep went through after passing their event horizon meant there could only be one ending. (For what it’s worth, I enjoyed it, and still don’t think it earned the amount of ire the gaming community flung at it – although without all the ruckus, I wouldn’t have started playing them at all.)
Pokemon, pick your poison (Various generations of Nintendo hand-helds)
A good two-thirds of any given Pokemon game exists in the space between the call to action (receiving your first pocket monster) and crossing the threshold (the point at which whatever legendary beast you’re about to catch changes the world in some way). Most of the gameplay exists in between HJ story beats, and you can put hours of training and catching into the game before the plot rears its head at all – but I do love that each game pretty perfectly encapsulates the “master of two worlds” sub-stage.
Tomb Raider (Xbox 360, PS4)
Lara Croft’s evolution from archaeology student to titular tomb raider. This series pretty successfully achieves an open world format without the freedom of choice that you get from a Bioware game; you have a whole island to explore, and the game won’t stop you from doing that at your own pace, but you will trigger story events when it needs you too. Seeing and participating in Lara’s journey also retroactively gives the older Tomb Raider games more depth of flavor.
Sidebar: I think one of the (many, many) reasons that Dragon Age II doesn’t work is that it can’t decide if it wants to be an HJ or not. Ostensibly, your Hawke is becoming the hero of Kirkwall, but the reality is that the game pretty much forgets about the stages a hero is supposed to go through in any compelling way. By the time the event horizon is even introduced, I wasn’t invested and I didn’t care.
I wanted to include a fighting game here to demonstrate the myriad ways that the HJ can fit into a video game, but I’ll be honest with you: I don’t play that many fighting games and did not feel like I could properly comment on them! Please speak up in the comments: Do games like Injustice, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter adhere to an HJ structure? Or are they all panache and no depth?