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Into the Woods: A Practical Guide to the Hero's Journey
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Into the Woods: A Practical Guide to the Hero's Journey


June 17, 2005 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2
 

STEP #4: Show The Hero's Regular World

Once you have your premise, your hero, and your villain, you need to show the hero's regular world. This is tricky. You don't necessarily need to start the game here. It may be better to start in the midst of the action, and show the pre-threatened state in a flashback.

The point is that the player must see the hero's world that he is trying to save. Near the beginning of the game, you should show the player an example of how the hero is flawed, so that at the end of the game, he can see how the hero has been transformed.

STEP #5: Disrupt The Hero's World

Now you've got to bump the character out of his normal world and get to the good stuff.

You've got to threaten the hero, his way of life, or something he holds dear. You've got to force the hero into action, otherwise you have no story.

This is Campbell 's Call to Adventure. When the disruption shows up in the form of a person, Campbell calls the person the Herald. Campbell also says that the hero may refuse the call, but that doesn't really apply in the game world.

Your task here is basically to get your hero up a tree, and anything at all will do: a meteor strike, the sudden death of his parents that puts the family business in his hands, the bite of a nuclear spider, and so on.


The Prince finds his world disrupted when he releases the Sands of Time, thus beginning his journey.

STEP #6: Enter The Mythological Woods

Now we go into the mythological woods for the trail of trials. We do this pretty well in games, usually by taking the player from one level to another. But we usually don't pay enough attention to character growth.

Each level should show some incremental growth, or even a stumble, in the character's overall development. In every scene in a movie or book, one of the characters ends up in a different place than he started. That's how it should be in levels as well.

These mythological woods can be either a physical or a psychological place. It is the place where the hero must endure his inner and outer struggle. The outer struggle is to achieve some victory. The inner struggle is to discover himself and transform his character.

As we progress through levels, we have to see the hero changing. Giving him betters toys at the end of each level is a good idea, but it just isn't enough.

STEP #7: Confront The Evil One

And now we have to confront the Evil One.

This is sometimes described as going into "the belly of the beast," or fighting the bad guy in his "innermost lair." But what is important is that your hero confronts evil in whatever form you have chosen to present it, and defeats it.

Ideally the hero should overcome his inner struggle in order to be victorious in the outer struggle.

STEP #8: Acquire The Prize

Next is the acquisition of the prize: the Grail, the Elixir. Remember your premise? That's the prize. This is the thing that was worth fighting to acquire. This is what makes the journey worthwhile for the hero, and for the player. It's not the Grand Foozle, or the Seven Magic Stones of Farlandia. It's the realization that "Love conquers all," or "Fate rules our lives," or "Fate doesn't rule our lives." Perhaps you're trying to show that "We all have to go our own way," or "We can't go our own way - to survive we have to be a part of a team."

Whatever the idea was that kept you up all those late nights through all those months of development, that is the Hero's prize, and you have to let the hero, and the gameplayer acquire it. That's the whole point of doing a story in the first place.

STEP #9: The Hero's Return

Finally comes the return. In a way, this is optional, but in a way it's not. If the hero acquires the prize, you've done your job of delivering it to the community (i.e., the gameplayer and by extension, our world). Whether or not your hero survives to deliver it to his community depends on the kind of story you want to tell.

By the end of your story, Egri says you will have moved the character "from pole to pole."

Through the mysterious phenomenon called identification, the transformation of the hero has a profound psychological effect on the audience. The hero's struggle becomes our struggle. The hero's triumph becomes our triumph. This really is magic.

The Three Act Structure

So far in this talk, I've ignored another pillar of storytelling, which is Aristotle's Three Act Structure.

I find this structure enormously helpful in plotting out stories, and I find that it works fractally, which is to say that it's good to break down levels and scenes into three acts as well, to make sure you're keeping the interest level up throughout.

The way I think of the Three Act structure is:

  • In the First Act, you get the hero up a tree
  • In the Second Act, you throw stones at him (in other words, you make things harder for him)
  • In the Third Act, you get him down out of the tree.

While this is great for plot development, it doesn't give us much help with character development or character growth. But if we superimpose The Hero's Journey on top of the Three Act Structure, we can supply that dimension of character development that is otherwise missing: Our hero, flawed, starts in one place. He goes through a series of trials (not just random trials, mind you, but trials that help him work on his problem). And he or she comes out the other end a changed man or woman, with a greater truth about the world that we would all do well to learn.

What amazes me is how much we personally identify with heroes, that that identification actually exists at all. Identification is this mysterious ability people have to live inside the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others. It's what allows people to dream the fictive dream. This identification with the hero somehow unites the gameplayer with the hero, and they somehow become one.

The other surprising thing is how endlessly satisfying these stories are to us. We don't get tired of them. In fact, we revel in their repetition. Campbell said, "The more familiar the hero is, the more often we have watched him overcome ever-increasing dangers and challenges, the more we know what to expect of him --- the more we identify with him. The hero gains immeasurably from repetition." A myth confirms and reconfirms our most deeply held cultural beliefs.

These mythic patterns endure through time.

We believe today in the individual's power to defeat injustice. So we have created the myth of the tough-guy detective. But Frey tells us he is actually based on the older myth of the lone gunman in the Old West, who took the place of the older myth of the knight errant, who in turn was based on myths of Achilles and Ulysses. "Who is this hero?" Frey asks. "He is a fighter for justice. He has a quick gun or a quick sword, a big fist, a big mouth, and a soft heart."


Ganon, the quintessential Evil One.

And here's Frey again on how much we love our myths: "Over half of the novels sold in America today come from a single publisher. They are the Romance novels put out by Harlequin Books - and all of them are a variation on a single myth: love wins out."

So here are your tasks as a designer

First, you must grow your character. You have to show that your character is one way to begin with. You have to show the struggle he goes through and the gradual changes that this struggle wreaks upon him. You have to show the confrontation with the antagonist. And you have to show the character in his final changed state.

Second, you must prove your Premise. With a weak premise, or no premise, a game leaves the player feeling the story is out of control, and that is the biggest lack I see in game stories - usually games don't have a strong premise, a strong statement about life, or the way the world is, or the way the world should be. Instead, we get cardboard characters that are an inch deep that are given one mission after another until the damn thing ends. That's not a story. It's drudgery. Find something you believe in, and convince the player that it is so.

Using The Hero's Journey To Solve Problems

They say that for a scientific theory to be useful, it must be able to predict something that can be tested and proved. In that spirit, I would say that for the Hero's Journey to be of practical use, we should also be able to use it as an analytical tool to solve problems.

So let's look at some common game story problems and see if the Hero's Journey has anything to offer by way of solutions.

Does the game have stereotypical characters?

If so, they're probably not created in the service of an interesting premise. Someone might have said: "I know: We'll have a corrupt Mayor and a brash young cop and an old veteran who shows him the ropes."

That's not good enough.

If you wanted to prove the premise, "You can't fight City Hall," you'd make the old guy cynical, possibly corrupt, and you may have him try to sabotage the young guy in order to cover his own ass. But if you wanted to prove the premise, "Evil must fall of its own weight," then the old veteran will be a mentor to the new guy, he'll give him valuable information, and may even sacrifice his own life. Same characters, different premises, and the characters are saved from the fate of the stereotype.

Does the game have a flat ending?

Does the game end with a big boss battle and then fizzle out quickly from there? If so, then take a look at your hero's prize. What is the magic elixir? What is the boon your hero has fought to acquire in the service of his community? Have you constructed the story in such a way that it is evident that the prize will be returned? The hero himself doesn't necessarily have to return, but he must be transformed, and the prize itself must survive.

Do the players not seem to be identifying with your hero?

Have you shown the world from which he was driven out? (Showing, rather than just telling, is important.) Have you given him the qualities of a hero? For example, have you given him a wound to make him sympathetic? Have you made him clever and resourceful, or someone with a special talent?

Have you taken your hero "from pole to pole?" Have you demonstrated his character growth in the course of the story? Have you shown how he is different at the end than he was at the beginning? If not, go back and build that progression into your game.

Does working your way through the levels become tedious?

If that's a problem, I would ask, "Is your villain strong enough?"

A really good villain will be creating obstacles for your hero at every turn. And he'll be making them harder as the hero gets closer. If the player is falling into a rut, then perhaps your villain isn't being active enough.

Have you looked at your levels fractally?

Each level should be a mini-story. It should start with the hero is one state or condition, disrupt him in some fashion so he is once again tossed into turmoil, and it should end with him having achieved something meaningful, and perhaps having changed in some small way.

The Hero's Journey isn't a box of tools you can use to fix every story problem. But it's somewhat similar to a circuit tester. You can clamp the leads around a problem spot in your story and check to see if there's enough mythical current flowing. And if you don't have enough juice, it can help point out the source of the problem.

The Game Designer's Journey

Someone once told me, "All writers are revolutionaries." And I believe this. If we were satisfied with the way things are, we wouldn't be driven to create stories and go through the pain that writing involves.

As game makers, we have to pick the myths that we think people should believe in and embody them in our games. Or if we think there are myths that are harmful, that people shouldn't live by (which is more often the case), then our games should destroy those myths, and then give players new myths to live by.

As a game writer, the myths you create have the power to change lives.

So I want to end by saying that as a designer, you have to take this Hero's Journey yourself.

You have to leave our common world, fight your way through the terrors of your own mythological woods, acquire your hero's prize, and bring it back to the rest of us.

Each of us has a slice of truth, a way we see the world that no one else does. Storytelling is how we let the world know about that slice of truth. It's important for us to do so, and we can't just put a notice in the newspaper. ("Item: Truth found.")

We have to make our case, persuade our audience by showing a person for whom something has become true. Only then will we reach the player's heart and convince him that he, too, can arrive at this truth.

The tough part is, you must venture into the woods over and over again, and it's dark and scary in there.

The reason it's dark and scary is that you're the one who built those woods, and you built them specifically as a warning to yourself not to go in there .

But you have to.

What you confront in there is your own fears and inadequacies. It is some comfort - but not much - to know that this is the same for everyone. Here's an author writing in his diary. "It's just a run of the mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do. . . . I've always had these travails. . . I never get used to them." -- John Steinbeck while working on The Grapes of Wrath

These woods are dangerous.

It's T.S. Eliot's Wasteland.

It's the land of despair.

Dante had to go into the Inferno before he could get to Paradise . Ulysses had to travel to Hades before got to go home. After Christ died, he descended into hell before he went into heaven. And before you can acquire something really worthwhile to give to the rest of us, you're going to have to go through your own personal hell. These heroes all died or faced psychological death, and you will have to do the same.

This is not for the faint-hearted. Writers and artists are particularly susceptible to depression. A lot of us don't come back once we've gone into the woods. The number of writers who have committed suicide out of despair for their lives is uncounted.

We are assailed by doubts that our work is good enough. We look at the work that others have done and know in our hearts that we will never be that good. We feel guilty about accolades we receive that we know we didn't earn; and we get angry when our good work actually goes unnoticed.

But on the other hand, we can be sustained by faith that the knowledge and the journey are worthwhile, and that our efforts will be of value.

And that brings us to my own personal myth: Do the work, and everything will be OK. Do the work, make it as good as you can, and eventually you will be rewarded. You can always hope for the best, but not unless you first, do the work.

So as the desk sergeant used to say in Hill Street Blues: "Let's be careful out there." But if you do decide to make the journey, and if you do come back with a prize that enlightens the rest of us, then you will make a great game, and you will be a hero.

Sources and Further Reading

The Art of Dramatic Writing. Lajos Egri

The Cry for Myth. Rollo May

How the Mind Works. Steven Pinker

The Key. James Frey

Killing Monsters. Gerard Jones

The Moral Animal. Robert Wright

The Uses of Enchantment. Bruno Bettelheim

• The Writer's Journey. Christopher Vogler

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