The Hero's Journey Explained Through Video Games

The Hero's Journey Explained Through Video Games

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

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8. Woman as the Temptress - The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

"The crux of the curious difficulty lies in the fact that our conscious views of what life ought to be seldom correspond to what life really is." In that regard, this phase can be seen as the hero's mind-altering temptation to abandon his/her quest, which doesn't necessarily have to be a woman. In Oblivion, it takes the form of the addictive drug skooma. While it may seem like fun to do virtual drugs, it quickly becomes clear there are negative side effects to attempting to escape virtual responsibility. The drain on intelligence and agility just might be enough to drag the player character from the path of saving Tamriel.

9. Atonement with the Father - BioShock

If the meeting with the goddess represents the hero's encounter with a supreme love, the atonement with the father is his/her encounter with a supreme authority. "The father is the initiating priest through whom the young being passes on into the larger world," Campbell said. Andrew Ryan is that father to BioShock's playable character Jack. Biologically. Through Ryan's actions (but not necessarily his will), Jack was taken from Rapture and proceeded to live out a life in the normal world. But Ryan revealed that he'd known about Jack all along, and even asked Jack to murder him with the hypnotic trigger phrase "Would you kindly?" Andrew Ryan, quite fittingly, ultimately had the power over his son.

10. Apotheosis - Demon's Souls

Not every step in the hero's journey has to happen in the original order, and that's evident with Demon's Souls. The stage can be defined by "its annihilation of the distinction between life and release-from-life," and Demon's Souls certainly begins with annihilation. The game pretty much opens with the player character dying and entering the otherworldly Nexus. The player character somewhat transcended traditional flesh-and-blood, and his/her body gave way to something new.

11. The Ultimate Boon - Donkey Kong Country

The ultimate boon is the object of every hero's quest, which Campbell describes as the "realization of the ineluctable void." For Donkey Kong, though, it's just a whole bunch of bananas.

12. Refusal of the Return - Red Dead Redemption

Jack Marston just couldn't get over the death of his father, John Marston. "The norm of the monomyth requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess back into the kingdom of humanity," Campbell wrote. For Jack, that labor was the work that went into killing his father's killers. He refused to cross a threshold into a world without pain and anger, which ended up prolonging a quest that was fueled by those feelings.

13. The Magic Flight - Metroid

"The last stage of the mythological round becomes a lively, often comical, pursuit," Campbell wrote of the process of escaping with the ultimate boon. Samus Aran's satisfaction upon putting an end to the villainous Mother Brain was certainly a boon, but she had to escape a self-destruct sequence before being able to truly enjoy the fruits of her labor.

14. Rescue from Without - Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves

"The world may have to come and get" the hero in the rescue from without phase. If there was a character that would need to be dragged out of the fantastical world they occupy during their adventures, it's Sly Cooper. The raccoon is a master thief who devoted his entire life to the trade of his family, but it would take the assistance of his goddess/supreme love Carmelita Fox to bring him back into the fold of respectable, law-abiding society. It is important to note, however, that being rescued from without doesn't guarantee that calls to adventure won't be heard later.

15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold - Dragon Age: Origins

The epilogue of Dragon Age: Origins varies depending on the actions of the player, but the narrative device it represents is constant. Quite simply, it provides resolution for all the loose ends of the game. The crossing of the return threshold is the blending of the two worlds that the hero is now a part of, and illustrates the impact the hero's actions have had on them. Unfortunately, "the boon brought from the transcendent deep becomes quickly rationalized into non-entity." Whether the player's decisions made many happy or unhappy, the end result is the same: the importance of the hero's deeds fade into unimportance yet again. The crossing of the return threshold is basically the start of yet another cycle or hero's journey.

16. Master of Two Worlds - Pokemon Gold/Silver/Crystal

On a more positive note, the hero can return to the ordinary world that he/she left so long ago and reach a zen-like peace brought about by balancing old and new knowledge. "Many are the figures...who represent this ultimate state of anonymous presence," Campbell wrote, and cited Jesus and Buddha as notable examples. On a slightly less sacred level, the Generation II Pokemon games saw the return of Red, the player character of Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow, as the Pokemon League Champion and ultimate rival. Red started in a small town of Kanto, and became, arguably, the region's biggest celebrity. And through it all, he retained his inner calm and never uttered a word.

17. Freedom to Live - The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

And so, as is the case with cycles, we end up where we began: with Zelda. The Legend of Zelda is a truly fitting series to use in conversations about the monomyth. The series acts as a cyclical mythology all its own; each installment can effectively act as a retelling of the same basic arc of a hero's journey. In any event, Majora's Mask concludes with a restoration of peace in the land of Termina and in the possessed Skull Kid. Link once again emerged victorious. But the importance of the final phase in the hero's journey is that it also begins the process over again. In being free to live, Link returned to the ordinary life he once knew. As an archetypal hero, that ordinary life involves once again embarking on a quest. He is called back to adventure by the absence of his fairy friend Navi, and the cycle begins again.

Campbell's monomyth may have been formed on the premises of the world's mythologies, but it's clear that the concept extends to every form of storytelling available to humans. The universal feelings of triumph, failure, confusion, and clarity can be found in everyday life. That's probably why those feelings find their way into our video games. If an argument about the artistic and storytelling merit of video games needs to be ended, one just needs to look at the hero's journey and think about how Citizen Kane and Super Mario Bros. aren't all that different.

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