A few weeks ago I began a series of articles about the Hero’s Journey, and ancient story structure that can be found in everything from historical epics to modern blockbusters. This series is designed to break down this structure, give an example of how it is used (using the original Star Wars trilogy as an example), and show how playing a game can actually bring the player through this journey. If you are new to this blog you can find the previous parts here:
This week we will go through the third and final stage of the hero’s journey – the return. At this stage the hero has already completed the objective of the quest that he originally set out on, and must return home having changed from the journey. This stage can be broken down into six sub-stages, which will be described in more detail below.
At this stage the hero has finally completed the task that she originally set out to accomplish. Her job completed, it is now time for her to return back to the mundane world that she started out in. However, the hero has changed during their journey, and have found a new level of knowledge or enlightenment. Because of this, the hero may initially refuse to return, choosing instead to stay in the new world.
For some heroes this stage represents the end of their journey. This is the case for Luke Skywalker – although he has achieved his original goals of rescuing Princess Leia and destroying the Death Star, he still refuses to go back to his ordinary mundane life. Instead, he chooses to stay and continue fighting with the rebellion to bring an end to the galactic empire.
After “finishing” a game it can often be difficult to let go and move on. However, just because you have beaten the main quest or defeated the final boss doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything else to do in the game. This stage consists of the “post-game” – which could consist of anything from completing radiant quests to unlocking hidden areas or enemies, or even an entire “New Game+” feature that allows you to play the entire game again, but different.
The journey into the new world was perilous – why should the journey back be any easier? Once the hero has decided to return back to their mundane lives they must pass once again through a dangerous path in order to return. This path could be much easier than the first trip due to their new knowledge and skills, or it could be much more difficult if the hero is being chased or hunted due to their actions.
An example of this is not really seen in A New Hope, but can be seen in Return of the Jedi. In this film Luke and his allies must once again destroy a Death Star. However, this time Luke is on the Death Star while it is being destroyed. Once the Rebels initiate the destruction Luke must flee from the Death Star before it blows up.
This sequence is a common one in games – after defeating the final boss the player may have to escape the dungeon, palace or stage that they are currently in before it collapses or while being pursued by enemies. Examples of this can be seen at the end of Ocarina of Time, when the player must escape Ganondorf’s crumbling castle after defeating him, or at the end of Sonic The Hedgehog when Sonic runs through all of the previous stages.
Just as the hero accomplished his journey with the help of his friends, mentors, and other allies that he met along the way, these same allies help the hero escape at the end of his quest. This stage may also relate to the heroes refusal to return to their previous lives – they may require an ally to come and convince them to leave the new world and return to their original lives.
Once again, Star Wars itself does not provide a great example of this, but an example can be seen at The Empire Strikes Back. After being defeated by his Father, Luke falls through an air vent and hangs onto an antenna underneath Cloud City. Luke is only able to escape and survive because he is rescued by Leia and the Millennium Falcon.
After playing a game and accomplishing nearly everything that there is to do within the game, the player may still have a hard time letting go. In this stage, the player may need somebody to help them “escape” the game. Alternatively, the player may have assistance in the escape sequence mentioned in the previous section. For example, in the Ocarina of Time example the player is assisted by Princess Zelda as they escape.
In this stage the hero begins to reconcile their previous life with the journey that they have just returned from. They must learn to use the lessons, knowledge and abilities that they have learned in their journey in their ordinary lives. In addition, they may choose to share this knowledge with the rest of the mundane world.
At the end of the original trilogy Luke goes from being an ordinary farm boy to being the last Jedi Knight, and the hero of the galaxy. He has now defeated the leader of the empire and destroyed two of their massive super-weapons, wiping out a huge number of soldiers and resources in the process. As we learn in episodes VII and VIII, Luke then chooses to share the knowledge that he has learned throughout his journey and attempt to create a new Jedi Order to help bring order and stability to the galaxy.
Although you are now done playing, this doesn’t mean that the lessons you have learned from the game no longer matter. As with life, the skills learned through gaming can be used in many contexts. In some cases the abilities you have learned in one game can be transferred to other games, reducing the learning curve with each new game you play. In other cases the ethical dilemmas you face within the game can stick with you, and benefits such as improved hand-eye coordination can be beneficial in daily life.
In this stage the hero has reached a point where they no longer have to choose between the mundane world of everyday life and the dangerous and fantastic world of adventure. Instead, the hero reaches a level of balance between these two worlds. Once this balance is achieved, the hero can pass back and forth between the two worlds at will, becoming equally comfortable in each.
Throughout Return of the Jedi Luke is being pulled in two different directions. On one side is his desire to help the rebels and defeat the Empire. On the other hand is the temptation to join the dark side and rule alongside his father. These two desires seem to pull in fundamentally different directions, but it is only by achieving balance that Luke emerges victorious. He ends up helping the rebellion yet still refuses to attack his father, which in the end leads to the death of the emperor and victory over the empire.
In this stage you have left the game and returned to your everyday life. However, this does not mean that the game is no longer a part of you, or that you never revisit it from time to time. In this stage you have mastered the game but are able to control your attachment to it. You can pick it up anytime and enjoy your experience, but have now achieved a level of balance and can put it down anytime you wish.
Once the hero has achieved mastery over both the world of adventure and their mundane lives they reach a certain level of peace. The hero is no longer tied down by fears or worries about the future, nor do they have regret over the past. The hero is now in a state of true balance and is able to live in the moment, unaffected by what happens around them.
Once Luke reaches a balance of the desires within himself he enters a state of calm reflection. Although the emperor nearly takes his life he still refuses to strike back or give in to the dark side. He gives up his hopes, fears and regrets, and doing so not only leads to the end of the empire but reconciliation with his father.
Once you have reached this stage the game has no hold over you. You have mastered the game, and can go back and forth as you please. You no longer are controlled by your anticipation, nor do you regret the time you spent in the game. You are at peace (at least until the next new release rolls around).
That is all I have for this week. Thanks for sticking around for this exploration of The Hero’s Journey – it ended up being much longer than expected, but hopefully it was a worthwhile adventure. 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 a game design article that has nothing to do with historical storytelling frameworks!