Power of Myth in Video Games

Awhile back, Gamasutra had an article on the Hero’s Journey that I’ve already touched on. More recently there was an article on story in games. Now, I am reading The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers to help in understanding game development and design. The introduction already had some great points about the existence of myth and ritual in modern society, and even touched on Campbell’s discussion about Luke Skywalker as the typical Hero.

I was thinking about how the Hero’s Journey and myth in general would apply in game development. I didn’t want to focus on how to write a good story for a game so much as how to make the game itself better. When reading the passage about the Hero above, I thought about my experience playing Darwinia by Introversion Software. Campbell mentions that the journey doesn’t end for the hero with access to heaven or escape from suffering. It ends when the hero changes or finds a way to serve others. In Darwinia, I thought that the game seemed to reflect this idea. When you start to play, you are there trying to fix what went wrong in the world. By the end, however, you find that your job has changed. Your role is now to help the Darwinians fight for themselves. You can’t just blast your way through the level. You need to help get the Darwinians to take control of the different areas.

And doing so is, I think, much more emotional. Their failures are your failures. You win only when they win. If the game hadn’t made the Darwinians such an important aspect of the gameplay, they probably would have been seen as annoying and in the way, like some AI sidekicks in FPS games have historically been. As it was, they played an important part of the game. They were the Others that you were supposed to serve. They learn and grow as you progress through the game. They aren’t just mindless NPC characters in a game at this point. They’ve become characters you actually care about.

I have no idea if Introversion consciously designed the gameplay around the Hero’s Journey. I may also be full of it or overanalyzing the game. Still, I think that by making use of motifs and ideas from myths, good game experiences can result. There are a number of rituals that happen in real life that people don’t relate to myths. After all, the word “myth” usually makes people think about Greek gods, so thinking of funeral or wedding services as just extensions of modern day myths is difficult. Still, that’s what made Campbell so important. He was able to relate myths to modern life. So I don’t think it would be a stretch to think that consciously working aspects of myths into game play can serve to make better game experiences for the player.

Darwinia could have just been a game where you progressed from one area to the next blasting viruses. Instead, it centered around the Darwinians and their destroyed world. Your role is not diminished. On the contrary, your role as the Hero is made all the more real to you when you know that your actions have an effect on the inhabitants of the world. You don’t just think of it as a game. You’re thinking, “They’re counting on me!”

And there are countless examples of games that evoke similar emotions when playing. Original War by Altar Interactive is a real time strategy game that concentrates on the people involved. You don’t just churn out infrantry whenever you want. If you have 10 people at your base, that is all you have to work with. There is no way to “build soldiers” the way you can build tanks. Human resources is important. When one of your people gets killed, it hurts a lot for practical reasons. That’s one less gun firing, or one less tank maneuvering, or one less mechanic to help build machines faster. But it also feels emotional. You don’t just lose Solider #42. You lose Joan, or Cpl. Frank Forsythe, or 2nd Lt. Lucy Donaldson. They won’t come back later in the game. What’s more emotional than knowing that your leadership decisions resulted in lost lives? Or saving them all?

I’d love to hear any ideas or comments from other game developers. How important a role does a specific myth play in your games? What general ideas from myths do you try to keep in mind?

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