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The Hero's Journey Explained Through Video Games

We find a game to represent each of the stages of Joseph Campbell's famous monomyth.

Analysis by Tristan Ettleman, .

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Many are familiar with the cliches of a particular genre or medium. Usually, a lot of criticism is aimed at the use of them. But author Joseph Campbell theorized that humans can't help but fall into the same pattern when telling stories about their heroes. Campbell introduced his monomyth, or hero's journey, theory in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The crux of the argument? Nearly all of humankind's myths, stories, and religions are based on the same universal and eternal concepts, and the heroes that drive them more or less follow the same 17 steps.

Campbell primarily applied this concept to mythology, but the monomyth has often been used in reference to contemporary stories. Most famously, George Lucas was interviewed a handful of times about Campbell's theory in relation to Star Wars. Ultimately, the 17 steps of the hero's journey can be found in a multitude of movies, TV shows, books, songs, and yes, video games.

Warning: Plot details and spoilers follow for all 17 examples of the monomyth theory.

1. The Call to Adventure - The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

The call to adventure, Campbell wrote, often comes about when "A blunder - apparently the merest chance - reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood." Link's relatively boring ranch hand existence couldn't be further from the life of a hero of time, so he most likely didn't understand what was happening when monsters invaded his village and kidnapped a few of his friends. That incident opened the door to an entirely new, fantastical world for Link; in other words, it called him to an adventure.

2. Refusal of the Call - Assassin's Creed II

Assassin's Creed II could be seen as the journey of two heroes. Ezio Auditore may have quickly and willingly heeded the call to assassin adventure after his father and brothers were executed, but his descendant Desmond Miles was a little more hesitant to face the Templar threat. In Desmond's case, "we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered," as Campbell put it. The refusal doesn't have to end the adventure before it's begun, but it can slow down its full-fledged beginning. And if there was one thing Desmond did well, it was slow things down.

3. Supernatural Aid - Metal Gear Solid

"For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass," Campbell said of the supernatural aid stage. Thankfully, not everything Campbell wrote has to be interpreted so literally. Metal Gear Solid's Otacon has a nearly supernatural intellect, but his role as a supernatural aid is more clearly represented by the information he gave the sneaking Snake through the Codec.

4. The Crossing of the First Threshold - Fallout 3

Few games on this list capture their respective monomyth moments as well as Fallout 3. Exiting Vault 101, the bastion of safety and ordinary life for the player character, is done with a flash of blinding sunlight and a physical transition into a wide, open, and unknown world. "The pairs of opposites," Campbell explained, "is a motif known throughout the world." The dark and cramped, yet relatively safe, world of Vault 101 and the irradiated, mutant-infested expanse of a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. can't get much more opposite.

5. The Belly of the Whale - Kingdom Hearts

Kingdom Hearts literally has a belly of the whale moment, but it's not necessarily the belly of the whale moment Campbell described. "The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown," he wrote. Sora, who attempted to defeat the threshold that was the Heartless boss Darkside, was genuinely swallowed up by the darkness. When he awoke, he found himself in the unknown Traverse Town, separated from his home, family, and friends. But I guess being swallowed up by Monstro of Pinocchio fame makes sense too.

6. The Road of Trials - Luigi's Mansion

"This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure," Campbell said about the road of trials stage. That's certainly true when it comes to video game adventure as well. The road of trials is the most well-represented monomyth step in video games, perhaps with the exception of the call to adventure. It can basically be boiled down to the action, but it also spurs some kind of transformation in the hero. At the outset of Luigi's Mansion, the titular plumber hero is as green as his hat. Campbell also emphasized that the hero may fail some of the trials he/she encounters. While Luigi may have ended up conquering the spirits of the mansion, he never really did it with all that much confidence or grace. Nevertheless, by the end of the game, he was a regular ghostbusting hero with a healthy dose of fear instead of a crippling insecurity.

7. The Meeting with the Goddess - Gone Home

"Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure." When Campbell wrote that sentence, it was within the context of male-driven mythology. This phase can now be interpreted more loosely, however, as the meeting with a supreme love. In that sense, no game tells a more compelling story of supreme love than Gone Home. While players control Kaitlin Greenbriar, the true hero of Gone Home is her sister Samantha Greenbriar; Kaitlin is, ultimately, just a vehicle for the storytelling. Sam's friendly relationship with Lonnie DeSoto reached a romantic head when the two shared a kiss together, marking the hero's meeting with the goddess.

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Comments 8

  • Avatar for Macuelos #1 Macuelos 3 years ago
    Tropes Are Not Bad, and these are the trope-iest of Tropes.

    Given recent things, I'm expecting (hoping for?) a video with some of that sleepy drone-voice USGamer has in spades reading us this Analysis piece.
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  • Avatar for The-Fool #2 The-Fool 3 years ago
    This is a really cool piece.

    It would have been interesting to use a video game as an other related text when I was in my Extension English class, studying the Hero's Journey.

    Uhhh... video games do be frowned upon, though. So I used Mulan. I think.
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #3 SigurdVolsung 3 years ago
    A good article, and one that I would expect to find on USGamer instead of sites like IGN or Gamespot (just as examples). Of the Monomyth itself, I've always disliked that moniker. As Campbell himself explored in his 4 book series "Faces of God", I prefer to consider it protomyth. The difference being that monomyth seems to say that all myths and stories are the same. And I would say that they have similar sources, mostly primal. Perhaps a small difference to some, but an important one to me. Anything that disregards stories that we tell as just regurgitated seem to place a cynical reading of the monomyth on them. And that's not me. I love seeing the different ways people tell a story around the same themes. Two of my favorite books are just a retelling of one of them, "The Odyssey" and "Ulysses", if you want to just look at it that way.
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #4 benjaminlu86 3 years ago
    But every game is a retelling of the monomyth.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #5 pdubb 3 years ago
    Good job. You guys have been putting out some really amazing content with your feature stories over the last week or two.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #6 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    I think there's an important distinction to be made here. The monomyth has only ever achieved wide acceptance as a post-hoc interpretation or framework. The only people who actually thought that it is somehow inherent in our capacity for story-telling are those that believe in Jungian-style archetypes. Here in Europe the psychological community doesn't really buy into that (we prefer evidence-based theories!).

    Really cool article by the way. This is why I visit USG daily!
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  • Avatar for hal9k #7 hal9k 3 years ago
    Hope this isn't oversharing, but Campbell graduated from the same high school as me, and later returned there as a teacher in 1933. Unfortunately, he was miserable teaching there and left after a year. It's a Catholic school, and the legend I always heard was that some of the faculty disapproved of his interest in comparative religion and tried to get him fired. Basically, they argued that by studying and respecting different belief systems, he became a bad Catholic and a bad influence. Their loss.
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  • Avatar for Acker #8 Acker 2 years ago
    There's waay more to this: 2100+ stage hero's journey at kalbashir.com
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