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Game Narratology and the Use of the Monomyth
by Laurence Nairne on 02/11/13 04:06:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


When considering game narrative, my interest lies with the role of character. Whilst the plotted events dictate the pacing and the progression of a tale, it is the characters that provide an entry point for the player. It is what links us to the world and it is the perspectives of the characters that provide the lenses through which we form our own interpretations.

Something that carries into games from film and literature is Joseph Cambell's Hero's Journey, or other wise known as the Monomyth. This format has formed the basis of storytelling for a long time in traditional platforms, but it presents a few difficulties when introduced in a game. Below we can see the factors to be included in the Hero's Journey.

When we watch a film or read a novel, points like the Refusal of Call seem logical. We understand the difficulty of the choices presented, we pretend that this is a real decision that the protagonist must make, and accept it accordingly as a necessary process. We appreciate the strength of the hero to overcome normal practices of duty in order to do the right thing. But in a game, we drive that motivation.

At this point I'd like to refer to a rather substantial, but very insightful article from Tadhg Kelly on Gamasutra. A summary would be that it argues against the notions of the existence of a player character relationship. Kelly states that a gamer plays to master skills for their own entertainment, and all feelings and emotions created within the interaction with an avatar are directed inwardly. We are presenting our sense of morality, or our resourcefulness in the context of the decision to gain self satisfaction and become something within a new environment.

Therein lies the main problem with the Monomyth in games; that we are not bound by the doubt faced by onscreen or written characters. We are in the experience to remove ourselves from our duty and procedural lives, and, as Kelly would have us believe, we are not encouraging the journey of a character, but living the journey through what he calls 'dolls'.

Visual narrative and literature containing Cambells' storytelling archetype convey the same sense of meaning; overcoming heavy odds, having the strength to break the comfort and normality of their initial situation, resisting from temptations and so on. The study of meaning in text is termed hermeneutics, which Kucklich describes in his paper Literary Theory and Digital Games (2006). He highlights the issue of where meaning is derived from with a video game. He points out that the creation of meaning might occur at the point the player interacts with the game, in a form of discourse between player and designer.

Moreover, though many of the external motivators of the 'hero' can be created via non-player characters, our perception of them will be more informed, due to spending as much or as little time with them as we wish. Even in the titles that demand we walk along a particular path, we are still free to ignore the input and simulated wisdom of those that inhabit the virtual world we interact with. Therefore, the Supernatural Aid may seem nothing more than a distraction, or even a hindrance to the character we wish to play.

Interestingly, the game that arguably has the most success with the Monomyth is ThatGameCompany's Journey. It takes the basic ideals of it, and creates an unspoken narrative in which all the player does is travels from the beginning to the end. There is even the inclusion of the Supernatural Aid, in the form of the white pilgrims both in the cutscenes, and occasionally in cooperative play. Though you can play at any speed you wish to, and can collect pieces of scarf to allow you the freedom of flight for longer, it really doesn't give the opportunity to choose anything (aside play or don't play). There is no dialogue, with communication limited to appealing and soothing melodies that serve to enable sustained flight, and the end goal is always in sight. 

The best bit about it is that I am in no way criticizing this game. I could not tell you if it's the appeal of the Hero's Journey that I am simply responding in kind, nurtured by years of consumption of such tales, or if it is the harmonious combination of audio, visual splendour, the freedom of flight and every artistic effect that leaves me in awe of it, but it does provide a strong case study for future games that wish to successfully portray traditional storytelling formats.

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Laurence Nairne
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I don't quite follow your point about a call to urge purchase. The point I was trying to discuss (albeit briefly) was where we derive our sense of meaning when we play a game.

With regards to your comment about projection vs. developer intent, distractive game features are a problem with game when presenting a narrative. This is part of the reason it is hard to project a self felt sense of devotion to playing out the arc with the emotional attachment that some developers try to inspire. Part of Journey's charm is that, for me, it achieved that goal.

It's all down to approach. Where most games fall down is that they explicitly tell you your goal. Every NPC in the game is designed to remind you of your duty/task/destiny. It is then for you to go and do it. Journey only ever suggests it. There is a mountain with a spire of light coming from it's peak. The only thing I wish weren't there were the cutscenes, as that breaks up my connection to it.

As you so put it, the hero's trial has to be more than something instructed to do. Instilling a sense of doubt about a heroic decision is much easier to portray in film or literature, where you are simply told or shown this. To encourage a player to feel that transition of perspective as part of their own choice is something infinitely more complex and potentially more powerful.

Your reflection on FF7 is a fair one, but I think my problem with it would be simply that you see that change. It focuses on the right thing (inner growth, changing perspectives, etc etc), but from my memory of it, I don't recall feeling part of that transition. The character had a personality, I was then made to accept that person and lead him on HIS transition.

With Journey, my avatar is simply a vessel through which I experience a four hour period of reflection on my own journey through life. Put simply, I learned more about myself in that time than I learnt about the characters or the world I played in. Knowledge of the history of the ruins, or who placed the shrines there wasn't necessary.

As for your point about Cambell's theory and how it relates to spirituality, I'm not sure I follow I'm afraid. All I could really add is that the wonderful tale of our very own Jesus Christ pretty much encapsulates the entire Monomyth.

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