Stories, games, and the hero’s journey

It has been said that a culture defines itself by the stories it tells. I was reminded of this last night as I started to watch The Power of Myth, the miniseries from 1988, now on streaming Netflix, in which Bill Moyers interviews Joseph Campbell.

Campbell, who wrote many influential books including “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” discusses his theories about the journey of the archetypal hero found in the mythologies of all cultures. I’m only a bit into the first episode, and already I am hooked.

And it got me thinking again about the relationship between stories and games. Many people use stories centered on a hero’s journey as a cultural and psychological touchstone, whether that hero be Hamlet, Luke Skywalker or Elizabeth Bennet.

Unlike stories, where one can only experience that journey vicariously, computer games allow the player to be the hero, directly making choices that effect the outcome. Yet in the general culture, Gordon Freeman, the Master Chief or Nathan Drake have not enjoyed the outsized recognition of, say, Huckleberry Finn or Emma Bovary or Katniss Everdeen.

One game character in particular, Lara Croft, has certainly entered the consciousness of the larger culture. Yet her outsize visibility is arguably related to the films starring Angelina Jolie, which brings us back to linear narrative.

Theoretically, a medium that allows us to walk the path of the hero’s journey for ourselves should have great power, as compared with a medium that merely asks us to watch. So why do linear narratives seem to be so much more influential than games in this regard?

Suppose we accept as a hypothesis that a culture defines itself through its versions of the hero’s journey. Why do stories of a hero’s journey seem to capture the imagination of the culture more effectively than games on the same theme?

Is this disparity simply due to the newness of the computer game as a cultural medium? And if so, should we expect this imbalance to change over time?

3 Responses to “Stories, games, and the hero’s journey”

  1. Al says:

    I think it is just the time required to get the ‘full’ experience.

    Watching a play or a movie generally doesn’t require any prior work and you can get the full experience a couple of hours later. But playing a computer game takes many hours of practise/failing/more practise etc before having a chance of completing the story.

    I can watch tomb raider in the cinema and have had the ‘full’ experience within 3 hours and little effort. 3 months after getting tomb raider 3 the game and I was still struggling in the second scene. I still never got round to finishing the game, I just got board of failing at some point and found something else to do.

    As a result, it doesn’t get the same mass audience.

    Just my thoughts. Perhaps I am just placing my laziness onto the rest of the population.

  2. admin says:

    Interesting observations!

    One could imagine a different take on the concept of “narrative game” that does not require so long either to master or to play through. But I’m not sure how feasible it is to create such a thing and make it really work as a narrative.

  3. Demian says:

    I believe that’s because most of the time in games we inhabit the Hero who is just an avatar with extra-layer of personality, kind of like the actor behind a Disneyland’s Character. Thus the journey is not the hero but the actual “journey”, the worlds and events we experience.

    In a book, a movie, or any other kind of linear storytelling however we watch the events unfold at a distance. We might be in the head of the narrator but we’re never really him/her.

    In interactive storytelling we’re not fascinated by our own self but by the experience, whereas in linear narration we’re engrossed by the tribulation of another living being, fuelled by our own projection / empathy.

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