Using the Hero's Journey in Games

By Troy Dunniway

Not every game out there needs a strong story, but many do. Not every game out there has a great story, but many should. The problem that many game designers face is that they've come from other jobs in game development -- and typically still need additional help when it comes to some areas of design. There are some good books on game design, but few of them really tell you how to start with an idea and turn it into a design. This article examines my approach to making strategy, adventure and role playing games, but many of these techniques apply to any game that relies on a strong story. I'll show you how to create an outline for your game and break it down into a linear series of events which will help you to develop both the game's story and level flow more quickly and easily. For some people, this outline may be only the roughest of starting points, but for others it may provide everything needed to create a compelling game and story.

One of the hardest jobs a game designer has is to take an initial idea or concept and turn it into a game. Trying to decide how to flush out a story and fit it to a game layout, or how to take an existing story (like a novel or screenplay) and adapt it to a game can be very challenging. Many books and screenplays use what is called a nine act story structure; basically a story with a twist or a reversal in the plot. This is in contrast to the very linear, more traditional three-act story structure (beginning, middle, end) that shorter TV shows and movies often use.

A Story's Structure

The nine act story structure isn't anything new, but many people either still haven't heard about it or don't understand it's applicability. Since it has already been fairly well explained by many other authors, I suggest you read a great synopsis article by David Siegal. The nine acts are designed as an outline for your story rather than a law or rule. In a nutshell however, the nine act structure allows the story to progress from it's beginning through the body of the story, then to a reversal and finally a climactic ending. The best reason to use a story structure is to develop good pacing in the game.

Screen shot from Blademasters -- a RPG that follows the nine act story structure.


The different acts in a story are designed to draw a person in and keep them interested. Like any good action movie or book, a game needs to hook the player immediately, keep them interested and finish with a bang. Pacing your story is what creating an outline is about.

The problem with many game designs, however, is that designers try to create a completely open ended and nonlinear game. It is extremely difficult to correctly develop a compelling nonlinear story because skipping from place to place in a story makes it very hard to pace. This article focuses on a more linear story progression where the player is expected to pass through most of the major story plot points and is not able to bypass certain events. It is for this reason that it is very difficult to adapt an existing story and equally as hard to adapt a new story written by a writer without considerable input from a game designer. I worked on a game years ago which had an incredible original script written by Orson Scott Card (who wrote the best selling Enders Game), but the script was written before most of the gameplay was finished and most of it was ultimately unusable. I find that it is very important for a game designer to write the first pass, or first few passes, of a story. Then, if needed, bring in a seasoned writer to polish it and write dialog.

Conflict and Pacing

A good story and game needs conflict (yes… there are games that don't need conflict, but this article deals with the type of games that are built on action and combat). It's not good enough to just have pure conflict if you're trying to create a very compelling game. Games that just have nonstop action are fun for a while, but often get boring. This is because of the lack of intrigue, suspense, and drama. How many action movies have you seen where the hero of the story shoots his gun every few seconds and is always on the run? People loose interest watching this kind movie. Playing a game is a bit different, but the fact is the brain becomes over stimulated after too much nonstop action. For this reason, you need to develop some kind of plan to keep players interested.

The pacing of the game should change through the various acts. The first few acts are often done within the initial cut scenes, before game play begins. In some instances, the player may get to play through some of the backstory. It may be possible to structure the initial training and learning parts of the game within the context of the first two acts, so that once the player jumps right into the third act after learning how to play. A few games may choose to start their game play during the fourth act when the story is already fully going, but with careful planning it should be possible to get the player into the story from the first act. The pace of the game will change several times through the story until it reaches its final climax at the end. The game should hit at least one low point, where the player feels the odds are stacked against him, before the climax .

Some of the best conflict comes from troubles between two characters that began many years before the beginning of a story. Batman got his start because the Joker killed his parents when he was little, but they didn't meet and have direct conflict for almost 20 years. The history of the conflict heightens it. A good central conflict should be like two trains on the same track speeding towards one another. Just the fact that they are on a collision course is enough to heighten the tension and create fear, and as the story progresses they grow closer and closer until it's inevitable that they will collide. It is simply not realistic that two people meet, instantly hate each other, pull out guns and start shooting -- there should reasons and backgrounds for conflict. This doesn't mean adding a long, involved cut scene at the beginning of the game explaining the last 20 years, but it does mean using some creativity to put in references and minor explanations throughout the game explaining the source of the conflict

If you think about the pacing of the story during the early game design phase you will probably be able to come up with other interesting ways to follow your outline with game play elements and mechanics. This can be done by introducing a new character or enemy into the story that forces the player to change his outlook, or by introducing a new weapon or ability to the player. Constantly rewarding the player with new items and abilities keeps the game interesting, but the rewards should be integrated into the story and the game play mechanics.

I prefer adding more intrigue and story elements into the middle of the game. By the end of the game most people just want to finish it, and at the beginning people can get tired of too much story or background. Even in an action game you can add a healthy mix of mystery, plot reversals, and intrigue to keep the player interested. Most movies have at least one plot reversal in a two hour running time, so don't be afraid to throw in a couple of them in a 20+ hour game. One of the best examples of how to integrate a story into an action game is Half-Life. If that's not reason enough to do it, then nothing is. Half-Life is a perfect example of how a deep story added to an action game can create a thrilling experience.

Choosing the nine-act story structure in your game is only the beginning of the design process. The story structure has everything to do with pacing, but nothing to do with theme. The true challenge comes in figuring out how to create a theme for your story and apply it to your story's structure. The oldest theme in literature and many ancient stories revolve around what is called the hero's journey, and it can help you write a great game design.


The Hero's Journey

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of a classic hero's journey is a story like Jason and the Argonauts, Homer's Odyssey, or the story of Perseus. The most famous modern hero's journey is Star Wars. I recently just saw Mel Gibson in The Patriot and marveled at how well it followed the classic journey. A hero's journey doesn't have to be about saving the world; it can take a lot of different forms. In a game, however, most stories will take the form of a more classic or traditional hero's journey since those are the kind that offer the most conflict, action and suspense. In the most basic sense, a hero's journey is a trip that a central character goes on in order to resolve a problem.

One of the best reasons to utilize the classic hero's journey into your game is its simplicity. Everyone grows up listening to, reading about or watching stories about heroes. As a game designer it allows us to utilize a known mechanism or formula within our games that people will understand and associate with easily. This allows us the ability to spend less time explaining ourselves and more time developing the story. The formula for a hero's journey has been refined over thousands of years, so there is no reason to try and improve it. Instead you should spend your time trying to figure out how to make it new and interesting. Most people will probably not even consciously know they are involved in a hero's journey until the end, and if they do, they probably won't care.

Screen shot from Blademasters, a game that uses the Hero's journey


There are several kinds of hero's that can be used in a game. I won't go into elaborate details about them here because books are written on the subject, but knowing about the different kinds of hero archetypes can help you decide early on what kind of a hero fits your story and what kind of actions they will be taking. There is your classic heroic hero, willing and unwilling heroes, group orientated and loner heroes, anti-heroes, tragic heroes, and trickster heroes. Some heroes may combine several of the archetypes into one complex personality. Other heroes may only wear the illusion of another kind of hero for a while until something happens to reveal their true self.

Sometimes the main character in a game is actually a group of people. Usually you want one character in the group to be the leader, but it is possible to switch the role of hero from one person to the next in the game. Several members of the group may fall into a hero's archetype as well. In a movie like Beverly Hills Cop, Axel Foley is a static hero archetype who doesn't change much throughout the story, whereas the other main character Rosewood is arguably the real hero of the movie since his personal journey is much more complete. In this way several main characters can coexist during a game without conflicting the story too much.

The Benefits of the Journey

Since many games involve playing as a specific character (typically in first or third person viewpoint) during the game, it makes a lot of sense to play as the central character of the story. Usually the point of view of the story is also written from the player's character's point of view, so a hero's journey works well. The character in the game would also be very boring if they weren't somewhat heroic in their deeds and efforts. The hero and player may be reluctant in accepting their mission, but events should always force them into a no turning back scenario early in the game so that no matter how they feel about the story they know that they must move forward.

Since using a classical hero's journey allows you to work with established story structures and character archetypes when starting your story, you should be able to flush out your initial story much faster. I find that I typically have to write a minimum of four or five completely different stories before I land on one that most of the team likes. Because a designer rarely has the time to rewrite their story as many times as they need to in order to get it right, it is important to be able to iterate the story as quickly as possible. Starting with an initial outline or formula will help you to design your game's initial story much more quickly.

Variations

There are some slightly different variations on the journey, presented in books by Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler or others, but I'll try to put it into a summary form. Both Vogler's and Campbell's books go into incredible depth about the subject. Vogler has a great short summary and tends to put a more modern and practical approach onto the hero's journey, whereas Campbell adopts a more classical approach. It is interesting to compare and contrast their differences, but I would recommend reading Vogler's book, largely because it is a summary and modern analysis of Campbell's work (which is in turn a summary and modernization of ancient mythology and stories). I have used Vogler's outline as the basis for my work, because of its simplicity and practicality.

Vogler's Outline
Campbell's Outline
The Ordinary World The Call to Adventure
The Call to Adventure Threshold Guardians
The Reluctant Hero Wise and Helpful old man & the Magic talisman
The Wise Old Man Refusal of the Call
Into the Special Fantasy World Passing the First Threshold
Tests, Allies, & Enemies Hero Partners
The Inmost Cave - Second Threshold Mystical Insight
The Supreme Ordeal The Labyrinth & the Princess
Seizing the Sword - Reward Losing the Guide
The Road Back Hero Deeds & Dragon Slayers
Resurrection The Dark road of the Trials
Return - Ending The Hunt
  Into the Belly of the Beast
  The Mystical Marriage
  The Sacred Grove
  Sacrifice & Betrayal
  The Hero's Return
  Resurrection
  Monster Combat
  The Resurgence of Evil
  The Enchanted Forest & Helpful Animals
  Descent into the Underworld
  Atonement with the Father
  Unmasking
  Final Victory

 


How Do I Design With It?

Creating an outline that combines a nine act story structure, the hero's journey and a game level layout is the first step in figuring out what you need to do. Each step of the hero's journey can fit into the nine-act story structure, but there is a lot of room for interpretation. Once you have a rough idea of how the different stages of the hero's journey fit into the nine act story structure you can then begin to figure out how your levels fit into this structure. I have used this same structure to develop everyting from a small 10 level game to a fairly large 50 level game, but I find it works the best with a 15-25 level game. Listing One provides a sample structure. This is a generic breakdown I use to help me begin laying out levels and story ideas. It is possible that your story isn't really a true hero's journey, but you may be surprised to find out that it is in many ways. The goal of this breakdown is to draw out a rough guide to follow as I write. While I usually write out a few paragraphs of general ideas before starting with this outline it is good to spend some time filling in the blanks before you start writing the first draft, especially if you only have a very vague story in mind.

Screen shot from Blademasters

The most important thing is to figure out how many levels you have, and which ones already need to have a particular story line within them. The fewer levels you have, the more elements you must try to squeeze into a level. It is possible to move levels into different acts or parts of the hero's journey in order to lengthen or shorten different areas. It is also possible to cut out a chunk of levels to shorten the game -- or to add levels to lengthen the game. The general concept of what constitutes a level can be fairly vague and misleading, so make sure early on that you have a clear understanding of how large your levels will be and what will be included in each level. Some games have levels that last five minutes while some last five hours. A RPG may be one large seamless world without any true levels. If you have a large, open ended or seamless transitioning game, you'll generally still be breaking it down into regions, areas, or tasks which can still be represented just like a level. In the case of a game with really large levels, a single level may encompass many different acts of the story or different stages of the journey. Regardless, it must be fairly clear to the player which part of the story they are in, what they are trying to accomplish and why.

Game Length

One of the most important things I use in terms of structure in the early stages is an estimation of the game's length. You may be lucky enought to be able to make a game of any length, but it's important to know the scale of your game early on -- and if that scale is in line with your budget.

This chart help determine the desired amounts of game play. I use it to add up (bottom to top) to the total gameplay time desired. Your game may have other things in it to take into consideration, so think about everything the player will be doing in the course of the game.

Time
Event
Example
  Total Time of Game play 25 hours
  Length of Non-Interactive elements in the game (cut scenes) 1 hour
  Number of Levels 25
  Length of Level (times # levels) 1 hour
  Amount of time spent fighting in level 20 minutes
  Amoung of time spent exploring in level 10 minutes
  Amount of time spent problem solving in level 10 minutes
  Amount of time spent traveling in level 10 miuntes
  Amount of time waiting for something to happen (hopefully this is zero).  
  Amount of time spend "doing other stuff" in level 10 minutes
 
Additional Things to Calculate
 
  Number of Main Characters 5
  Number of Secondary Characters 75
  Number of enemies in typical level 75


Usually, you must also take into account things like replay ability. You may want a person to finish a game in 25 hours the first time they play it, or maybe in just ten but with additional multiplayer aspects and a unique second pass adding up to 25 hours. Many role-playing games can easily take 50-75 hours to complete. Breaking down the time it takes to do each task in the game will go a long way in telling you how large a level must be, how much interaction should be included and how many events must take place.

This chart will also help you start thinking about how often enemy characters will be faced in the game. Typically a major villian will involve a long climactic fight or experience while a secondary enemy rates only a short fight. Most of the time the player will face many of the secondary characters over and over in the game. Getting an idea early on about how many characters you want in a level it will help you determine the length of your game. Also, as you get farther into your story, this chart also becomes a great place to begin laying out the location of key cut scenes and events in the game.

Using the Hero's Journey

Begin using the outline of the hero's journey by filling in the known blanks, my example is available in Listing One. Start with how little or how much you know and then use the guidelines for a hero's journey to fill in the blanks. The outline will often tell you what should go into your blank spots, it also is another good initial guide to get you thinking about different characters and how they fit into the story. I find it useful to add additional lines that say "Introduce Good Character #1" or "Fight Bad Character #2", when you know that you need to have an additional character, and then you can later decide which character fits into that spot. A great place to introduce characters is during the beginning of the fourth act (link #3) when the main character often finds some new ally to help him.

The initial story concept doesn't have to be precise or perfect, but it gives you something on which to build. Sometimes using this outline as a brainstorming tool is very helpful. You may know that the hero has to start somewhere and get to somewhere else, so now you have the beginning and the end (hey, it's a start!). As you think about the different stages of the journey and how they relate to the different acts of the story, you'll begin to realize that certain things can only happen in certain places. This makes it much easier to start filling in the blanks because you know that there are points in the story where conflict must exist, and that the conflict is generated for a reason. Your job is just to figure out how to make it fun and interesting.

Keep in mind that much of this is not meant to be taken literally, but metaphorically. There are many kinds of heroes and many kinds of ways to explain how to use this outline, but with a little imagination and some hard thinking you should be able to come up with a very interesting and compelling story.

As you fill in story details by act or by the hero's journey, the levels must also begin to fit into this rough shell. In this way you know that levels five (link#2) and six fall into the third act as part of the hero's journey "Into the Special Fantasy World". These levels are typically about the player entering into the new world, perhaps by trying to sneak into a castle or by flying their spaceship safely into the enemy's universe undetected.

Having the story take place in a single location throughout the game can be very boring. Take a look at any good James Bond movie, and you'll notice that he almost always travels to several locations, usually three, throughout the movie. If the game travels to a really wide variety of locations then you'll find that it becomes hard to come up with reasons why the player is constantly on the move. A few types of games, like a space combat or exploration games, might use this to their advantage, but it has to be done carefully. Having three different locations in the game will add enough variety to the game to keep it interesting, but not so much as to make it more difficult to produce. The point of having a new location in the game is to add interest and variety for the player. When you're laying out your game structure, think about having it progress to several different locations, this will also help you think of some new ideas on some levels because you are either having to transition to a new area or are exploring one.

It's really hard to write a story or design a game without taking into effect all the other potential problems, restrictions, needs and requirements that your game will have. If you spend tons of time writing a great story that takes places on twenty different planets, over the course of a hundred years, and meets hundreds of characters without taking into consideration all of your limitations, then you will have to spend a lot of time reworking your story or figuring out how to limit it in some way. If you've read the entire Dune series of books, and you were given the task of making a game based on this license (Westwood did a great job with Dune II but the story is very minimal), you would know how difficult it would be to make a game encompassing that entire universe. It's better to start off with a simple story and refine it slowly over time. Start with events that relate to the levels, and then progressively refine the rest of the events in the story. There is room to polish the story and the dialog later, so the most important thing in the beginning is to make your story fit the game play and vice versa.

I find it critical to design into the game a few extra levels that can be cut if time becomes a problem. If you have 20-25 levels in a game, it is not important to have critical story elements in each level. So if you design 15-20% of your levels as non-plot specific, it will save you a great amount of headache down the road when your producer comes to you and says that you have to cut five levels from the game because it is taking too long to make. As a writer and a designer, this can be a horrible experience because every level is usually somehow important. Inevitably, games tend to be overly ambitious and get scaled back. The best way to do this is by using sub-plots. A sub-plot should be a short diversion for the character to go on for awhile, that may have little to no ramifications for the whole story, but allows the character to explore the world some more or accomplish some additional tasks to fill some time.

There is no set way to create a new game and story, but hopefully this technique can help you apply what mankind has learned in other mediums over a long periods of time to your game designs and make a more successful game. Just make sure that your journey to create the game is a heroic one.


Additional References
I would highly recommend reading these three books and articles, and any additional books and material by these authors.

"Hero with a thousand faces" Joseph Campbell - http://www.jcf.org/27wm.htm

The Writers Journey Christopher Vogler - http://writerscomputer.com/cgi-bin/SoftCart.exe/store/info/writers_journey.htm?E+writers

Conflict Action and Suspense William Noble, ISBN: 0898799074

"Nine Act Story Structure" by David Siegel - http://www.dsiegel.com/film/Film_home.html

Mythic Structure in Role-Playing Games J. Patrick McDonald - http://www.interink.com/~jpm/myth.html


Other Articles on story structure and the hero's journey:
http://www.dailyobjectivist.com/Spir/mythology.asp
http://www.swin.edu.au/lib/melinda/mine/herojour.htm
http://tech-head.com/story3.htm

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