Think back over the games you have played for a moment and think of what your strongest memories from them are. You may remember the time you defeated a particularly difficult boss or when you finally pwned your friend for the first time, but most of these memories are probably of some particular scene or event. Maybe you remember when the resonance cascade started after Gordon Freeman placed the sample in the test chamber in the original Half-Life, when Aeris fell at the hands of Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII or when Andrew Ryan handed you his golf club while asking “Would you kindly…” in Bioshock. In short, you remember a part of the story.
The first video games didn’t have stories. You were a big yellow dot running around eating little white dots while evading primary colored ghosts, or you were a short, Italian plumber trying to get to the top of a tower while a giant ape threw barrels at you. There was no story (or at least just the barest trappings of one). Instead, these games were little more than exercises in hand-eye coordination.
In many ways, that is all games are today. Fundamentally, there is little difference between Master Chief shooting Covenant attackers in Halo and the unnamed ship shooting asteroids in Asteroids. Yeah, the graphics have gotten better but the basic gameplay is still evade and shoot. Hand-eye coordination. The difference is that Halo and most other modern games have stories.
Tales of heroism and adventure have been with us for a very long time. One of the first recorded stories is The Epic of Gilgamesh which was written over 4,000 years ago (and had probably been an oral tale before that). The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of the god-king Gilgamesh and of his friend and companion Enkidu, their adventures together, Enkidu’s death and Gilgamesh’s subsequent quest for immortality. This story set a pattern that has been repeated countless times since.
American mythologist Joseph Campbell studied myths, legends and stories from around the world and through history and discovered common patterns and themes running through all of them. He wrote of his findings in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the introduction to which includes this quote:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Campbell called this the “Monomyth” (a term he took from Karl Jung) or “The Hero’s Journey”. Wikipedia, in its entry for The Hero With a Thousand Faces, describes the monomyth this way:
In the monomyth, Campbell describes a number of stages or steps along this journey. The hero starts in the ordinary world and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world the hero must face tasks and trials (a road of trials) and may have to face these trials alone or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives the hero may achieve a great gift (the goal or “boon”) which often results in important self-knowledge. The hero must then decide whether to return with this boon (the return to the ordinary world) often facing challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon).
Almost every story you can think of follows this pattern, from the original Epic of Gilgamesh or The Odyssey to such modern tales as The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or even the recent Iron Man. Not all of these follow the pattern exactly and even Campbell admits that not all epic tales contain every step of the Hero’s Journey but the vast majority of all memorable tales do.
It seems that all of us are programmed, at some fundamental level, to recognize the Hero’s Journey and to respond to it. For all of recorded history, our stories have told this tale again and again. The setting, the struggle and the hero changes, but the underlying journey remains the same. The hero has a thousand faces, but only one heart.
Which brings us to modern gaming. Our games also follow this pattern. As an example, consider Half-Life 2. Gordon Freeman starts in the normal world (City 17) and receives the Call to Adventure (he meets Barney and Dr. Kleiner). He accepts the challenge (takes the HEV suit and crowbar and heads out into the city) and sets out on the Road of Trials (most of the game, actually) sometimes alone and sometimes with allies (Alex and Dog). He faces a Great Challenge (has his equipment confiscated and is then captured by Dr. Breen) but survives and receives a Great Boon (the improved Gravity Gun) which he uses to improve the world (destroying the dark energy reactor at the top of the Citadel).
This is not to say that Half-Life 2 is derivative or a rip-off of something else. Not at all. Half-Life 2 is simply following the Hero on the same Journey as every other compelling, memorable story that has been told since we first listened to a story being told around a campfire.
We have listened to, read about and watched the stories of the thousand-faced Hero for generations. But now, with gaming, one new factor has been added. We are no longer listening, reading or watching passively. Now, we are the ones leading the Heroes on their journeys.
The Hero now has a 1001st face. And that face is our own.