On this blog I mostly write about games. I love playing games, but that is only one of my passions. Other than games, my biggest hobby is watching films. I have written some articles in the past that combine these two loves, such as analyzing Ready Player One from a game design perspective or looking at two categories of games I like to refer to as “movies” and “toys”. But, in the nearly two years that this blog has been running I have never taken the time to analyze the difference between these two mediums in terms of storytelling.
To do this, I am going to be taking a look at an ancient storytelling structure known as The Hero’s Journey. If you have ever read a book, watched a movie or heard a fairytale, you are probably already familiar with the Hero’s Journey, even if you don’t know it. The Hero’s Journey has been around for thousands of years, and this structure has been used in countless stories throughout the ages.
In this article and the next I am going to be looking at the Hero’s Journey in depth, but I’ll start off with a brief summary. Although this story structure has been around for thousands of years, the term “The Hero’s Journey”, and the 17 steps were codified by literature professor Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”.
According to this book, The Hero’s Journey has 17 steps that are broken up into 3 main parts. The first part is the Departure, in which the hero leaves the comfort of home and enters a strange new land. The second stage is Initiation, in which the hero must overcome a series of trials in the new world. Finally, the last stage is the return, in which the hero returns to their old world having undergone a change from their journey.
Many of my favorite films of all time use this structure, ranging from The Odyssey to The Lord of the Rings, and even more modern stories such as Iron Man. However, there is probably no film that provides a better example of The Hero’s Journey than Star Wars: A New Hope. George Lucas was a student of Joseph Campbell’s, and when writing the script for the original Star Wars he hit every single point on the list. Because of this, Star Wars will be the primary film used for comparison in these next three articles.
Like any storytelling medium, games are also capable of telling stories that use The Hero’s Journey structure. The thing that sets games apart from any other medium, however, is the way that they make the player feel like they are going through this journey. The Hero’s Journey story structure is one that naturally resonates with people, and one that every player experiences with pretty much every new game that they play.
How do games make players feel like they are going through The Hero’s Journey? To answer this question, in these next few articles I am going to be looking at all 17 stages of the Hero’s Journey, show how it is used in film, and then show how games take players through that experience.
Note: Some stories may not use all 17 steps, and occasionally some of the steps are combined or presented is a different order. The order I am listing them is the order they were presented in Campbell’s book, but may not hold for every story.
Stage 1 – Call to Adventure
The first step of The Hero’s Journey is designed to transport the hero from their normal, mundane life in the real world to a fantastic new world of adventure. This step usually involves an event known as the “inciting incident” that forces the hero to abandon their ordinary life and go on an extraordinary quest.
In the Star Wars example, the Call to Adventure comes when Luke finds R2D2 and C3PO in the desert and receives R2D2’s message from Princess Leia. This event spurs him on to find Obi-Wan Kenobi and kicks off the entire Star Wars saga. Without this call to action, Luke may have remained a humble moisture farmer for the rest of his life, but this life-changing event calls him to become something more.
Similarly, many games themselves contain Calls to Adventure, ranging from Navi waking Link at the beginning of Ocarina of Time to Kratos being attacked by Baldur spurring on the events of the new God of War. However, in some ways the game itself could also be considered a Call to Adventure. Simply by choosing to play a game, players are choosing to step away from their ordinary lives and enter the imaginative world of the game. The Call to Adventure is not just for the character, but for the player as well.
Stage 2 –Refusal of the Call
After receiving the Call to Adventure, sometimes the hero would prefer to stay in their ordinary lives rather than go on a journey into an unknown world. This refusal may be due to fear, satisfaction with their lives, or believing that they are not worthy of the task. The hero tries to go back to their normal routine, but find themselves unable to. Maybe they simply have trouble resisting the call, or perhaps some event occurs that changes their mind and causes them to embark upon the adventure.
In Star Wars, Luke originally refuses to go with Obi-Wan and save Princess Leia. It is only after the Storm Troopers burn down his house and kill his Aunt and Uncle that Luke decides he must join Obi-Wan and fight the empire.
There are a few ways this refusal could be represented in games. If the desire to play the game is the Call to Adventure, there are many reasons why players would refuse to heed this call. For example, there are numerous games that I have been wary of playing because I know that if I begin I will spend all my time on it for weeks and not get much else done.
Another example could be refusing the call of the main quest-line. I often do this in open-world games – I may be presented with the primary quest right away, but I usually spend the early parts of the game doing various side-quests and becoming acquainted with the world before I progress any further.
Step 3 – Supernatural Aid
After the hero decides to embark upon the quest, the hero will meet a person or people that will help them along their journey. This person will provide the player with knowledge and items that they will use to complete their quest. This stage is also commonly referred to as “meeting the mentor”. Usually the mentor takes the form of a wise, elderly individual that can grant the player useful advice and guidance.
In Star Wars, this stage occurs in a somewhat different position, as he actually meets Obi-Wan before he actually refuses the call. Obi-Wan tells him about the Jedi, some lies about his father (or perhaps not, from a certain point of view), and offers him his father’s lightsaber. However, it is not until after his Aunt and Uncle were killed that Luke accepts the offer and begins his journey with Obi-Wan.
In the meta-story of video games, this stage consists of the early parts of the game in which the player is becoming familiar with the mechanics and world of the game, AKA the tutorial portion. During this time the game explicitly or implicitly provides the player with the items and knowledge that they need to undergo their journeys.
Stage 4 – Crossing the First Threshold
Once the hero has been properly prepared for the dangers ahead of her, she must take the first steps forward into a new and unknown world. To do so, the hero will break boundaries that they have never broken before, and that they may have never even realized existed. This stage is the hero’s first introduction to the world of the adventure, and helps illustrate the stark contrast between the normal, mundane life they are leaving behind with the dark and dangerous new world they are entering.
For Luke, the threshold crossing moment comes when he travels with Obi-Wan to the Mos Eisley spaceport. This spaceport is described as “a wretched hive of scum and villainy”, and is shown to be very dirty, crowded, and full of rude and dangerous individuals. This is in stark contrast to the relatively isolated and peaceful moisture desert that Luke had been inhabiting up until this point.
For games, this is the moment that it “gets real”. Specifically, the threshold moment in games can be seen as the moment when the game makes the switch from trying to teach you how to play to actually testing your skills. The tutorial is over, and now it is up to you to use your wits and abilities to make your own path forward.
Stage 5 – Belly of the Whale
In this stage the hero encounters the first real challenge or danger of their journey. This first obstacle represent the final and complete separation of the hero from her previous life, and shows her willingness to face adversity for the sake of the quest. It also represents the beginning of the change that will happen within the hero as they go through their journey.
In Star Wars, the Belly of the Whale could be represented by the Mos Eisley Cantina. It is here that Luke begins to realize just how much danger he is taking on by embarking on this quest. Here Luke meets Han Solo and Chewbacca, and hire them as pilots to help them rescue Princess Leia. During this process Luke and Obi-Wan end up dealing with aggressive aliens, Stormtroopers, and ruthless bounty hunters that are all trying to kill them or otherwise prevent them from completing their quest. However, the gang is able to overcome these obstacles and escape in the Millenium Falcon, bound for Alderaan to rescue the Princess.
In games, this is the first obstacle that truly challenges the player and makes them work to overcome it. This could be a particularly difficult puzzle, a level that jumps up in difficulty, or the first boss battle that the player struggles to defeat. Up until this point it had been relatively smooth sailing, but after this point the player knows what they are up against, and they know that the challenges ahead are only going to get worse before they get better.
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, for the second act of the Hero’s Journey – Initiation.
If you haven’t seen it already, I recently began work on a project called “The Game Designer’s Dictionary”, where I am attempting to compile a reference list of gaming and game design terms, phrases and acronyms. It is very much a work in progress, and I would appreciate any help I can get. Please let me know if you have any ideas for new words to add, better formatting, or other changes that could be improved about the page. Thanks!