To return you must first depart

Another book that has influenced many game writers is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (or, at least, the more readable summary The Writers Journey, by Christopher Vogler). I do not intend to review that book here, but rather respond to Michael Abbott’s recent post on The Brainy Gamer.

Many games have been built to follow Campbell’s Monomyth. In a nutshell: the Hero starts out in the Ordinary World which he knows and loves until he receives the Call to Adventure, which generally involves some threat to the status quo, (the princess has been captured, the world is being invaded, etc, etc). The Hero is initially reluctant to take on the quest but a Mentor figure helps him cross the threshold into the world of adventure (end Act 1, begin Act 2). In this new world the Hero faces trials and enemies and also makes new allies. This leads to a moment of catharsis in the Hero faces and overcomes the Ordeal and receives his reward.

It is at this point that Michael raises his question. Most games essentially end here. You beat the ultimate boss and restore order to the universe. Roll credits. But Campbell’s monomyth contains a third act in which the hero returns to the Ordinary World, only to realise that he and it have been transformed, and that the simple life he originally enjoyed, and which motivated his adventure, may no longer be possible for him. Michael justly asks, where is the Return in modern computer games:

Can game mechanics interactively convey this part of the journey? After the victory is won, what sort of engaging play experience can be designed around the hero’s return to bestow the gifts of her journey? If we agree this final leg of the quest is no less essential or defining than the call to adventure or the hero’s trials, are video games destined to provide a somewhat “dumbed down” version of this journey?

Some games, notably the first Fallout, have cut-scene epilogues which attempt to express a Return, but still these are only a minor afterword to the gameplay. Would it be possible to make a game with a meaningful and playable third act? If we did, would players bother playing it?

In response to Michael, I would like to suggest the the reason we lack meaningful epilogues is because we lack meaningful prologues. In a story, the hero has had a lifetime to develop attachment to the Ordinary World before the call to adventure, so natually returning to that world is a meaningful issue to him. In comparison, a game player generally has little or no time to interact with the ordinary world before being thrown into the adventure. There is no time for attachment to form, there is no reluctance to answer the call. In fact, it can be annoying to have to sit through “all this introductory rubbish” before getting to the “real game”.

If the departure is boring, is it any surprise that the return is also?

What if there was a prologue-game which players could actually invest themselves in and care about abandoning? Say, for example, they planted a garden. Making a garden that was productive could be a game in itself, and the player would value the garden as the creative product of their time and attention. They might also have developed their character to specialise in certain gardening skills and established relationships with NPCs. This is more than just a training phase, but a real game in itself with its own goals and rewards. The skills and relationships of the ordinary world are valuable in that world, not just in preparation for the quest. (Although in a good story, they may later be discovered to have unexpected usefulness.) This act should, in some fashion, be quite different to the act to come, to emphasise the separation of the ordinary world and the adventure.

In this way, the player could establish a relationship with the ordinary world through real interaction with it, rather than just being told “this is your home which you love”. The “elderly mentor who has sheltered you since you parents died” could be valued not because we are told to, but because he really was a helpful ally in this early stage of the game. His later departure would be felt more keenly if it actually made the game more challenging to the player.

In summary, what if we went beyond telling the player “the world is in danger, go save it” and instead gave them gameplay reasons to develop attachment to the ordinary world and worry about the external threat to it? Could we convince them to save the world, not just because that is their ‘quest’, but because there is a corner of the world that they care about and don’t want to lose?

A strong Act 1 could then make Act 3 meaningful, and also add more poignancy to Act 2. Writing an effective Return would still be challenging, but without developing this attachment a meaningful Return is strictly impossible. If all the player knows is adventure, they are never going to feel the tug-of-war between two worlds that makes Campbell’s Hero truly mythic.

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Published in: on September 4, 2008 at 2:01 am  Comments (11)  
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  1. I like the idea of a compelling Act 1 where players invest in a life before it is disrupted though I could imagine it would be a tough sell. Since gamers are used to the instant action format of games I could imagine people hunting for cheats and shortcuts to get to what they imagine to be the “real game”, namely Act 2.

    One way of achieving a meaningful departure within a game would be to disrupt or otherwise threaten an MMORPG world and then require a player or players to respond to the threat and perform some heroic deed in order to save what is dear. I’m imagining something like “The Sims” meets “Armageddon” or “The Core”.

    Coincidentally, I have just finished reading the very entertaining “Halting State” by Charles Stross. It’s very much a book about gaming. The plot is driven by a bank heist in a MMORPG that leads to the unravelling of other secrets. Interestingly, the book is entirely in the second person (although “you” take on the role of four different characters) and only really has an Act 2, much like a computer game. I’m sure Stross wanted reading the book to feel like playing a game but I wonder if he consciously dropped Acts 1 and 3 to help achieve that aim.

  2. So, in essence what you’re saying is that game stories are not conveying motivation correctly? The player is told what the motivation of his character is on the journey, rather than being allowed to figure it out themselves? And because the motivation of the character is shallow, the player has no motivation to complete the journey once the goal is reached, thus we don’t see the final act of the journey because we don’t care that it’s missing?

  3. Hmmm… yes, yes I like it. It would certainly take a LOT of care to execute.

    Mark Reid’s MMO idea does work, and coincidentally, has been implemented numerous times in countless MMOs; if a boss hasn’t been killed in a week, say, the boss goes on a rampage and attacks hapless towns.

    But I think implementing this in a STORY driven experience would be much more compelling.

    In order to avoid the whole “this is boring, just take me to the game” thing, the main game concepts could easily be incorporated into the storyline. The player could spend the first act getting to know the nearby towns, and maybe clearing the nearby woods of wolves or other normal baddies (giant rats, if you wish). Additionally, to use your garden example, the player could clear the garden of man-eating plants, which would then open up the garden to be used in the manner you intended. Once the local area is well known to the player, then thrust them into act 2.

    Just off the top of my head, Secret of Mana did a good job of setting up act 1. The game is still damned fun in the starting areas of the game (tho it doesn’t execute on act 3).

    When reading Michael’s post, I couldn’t help but think of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, where you have a character that has already gone through the process of becoming estranged from society after being the hero. By starting in that 3rd(or 4th) act, the book, from the get go, hits the reader with that sense of loss that is associated with the final part of Joseph Cambpell’s writings. Brilliant. Why follow Campbell’s formula when you can take the basics and change it up a bit? ;)

    ~Savid

  4. What Michael Abbott refers to is the Return with the Elixir. The hero returns, transformed and enlightened by the journey. If the player is the hero, then the only way we can do this is by telling the player s/he as main character has been forever changed or by inviting the player to remark on how playing the game has changed the player for better or for worse.

    Malcolm: I disagree of the word ‘telling’. In games, the admonition ‘show don’t tell’ is even more important than in fiction. The player should discover her ‘resurrection’ through gameplay, not merely by being told.

  5. I would like to suggest that the best example of this fulfilled in any game is in Zelda, Ocarina of Time. The intro introduces interesting characters with stories and relationships you can relate to, before sending you into the great tree, thus beginning your adventure. When you return later in the game, you have been transformed, literally and figuratively, and the childhood world is denied from you completely, to the point where you cannot be recognized. The transformation of your friend to guardian makes the point much more emotionally compelling.

    Of course, the end of the game actually allows you to be returned back to childhood and that world, which is a clever and fitting twist on the mono myth.

  6. Exactly my point. There’s no real good way of forcing the player to have a resurrection or transformation.

  7. I have to dispute “there’s no good way of forcing the player to have a resurrection or transformation”.

    Forcing? No. Encouraging? Maybe. Have we really tried yet?

    My hackles rise whenever somebody says “It’s impossible to make a game that…”. That seems like a defeatist attitude. We know so very little about what is and isn’t possible yet. We should be encouraging designers to strive for something better, not telling them it is impossible before we’ve really tried.

  8. What follows are some comments from a Narratologist. I say this, not for you think that I’ve created a fancy title for what I do, but because I know very little about gaming, and frequently make a fool of myself when speaking to game theorists.

    I do, however, know something about Narrative theory, in particular Campbell’s (and Propp’s) models. A couple of misconceptions need clearing up here, particularly the belief that ‘the return home’ is necessarily literal, or that the story is over in the Third Act.

    Sometimes the Third Act is a literal return home, but it’s never a return to inaction. So in Cinderella, for example, she does return home (shoeless), but there is the action of the Prince’s search, the repeated action of the step-sisters’ cutting of bits of their feet to fit it in the shoe, and the eventual reveal of Cinders as the ‘true bride’.

    Cinderella is a good example because it demonstrates the two most important aspects of the third act. First: the protagonist must enter into it with everything lost, especially his/her original objective. It must seem like there is nothing more to lose. So Cinders returns home feeling like she’s totally ruined her chances of marrying the Prince: she may as well hide away in the cinders. Second: it demonstrates very simply the moment of apotheosis(becoming divine). The protagonist must undertake a brave task alone, and at the cost of everything. So Cinders must face the Prince in front of her family, even though this means she’ll never be able to hide again. As a reward, she is transformed into something else: from servant to princess.

    Reading the functions this way, sometime the protagonist doesn’t have to return ‘home’ as such. In the canonical example, Luke Skywalker loses everything at the end of the Second Act: he’s lost his mentor, his anonimity, etc. He’s also lost his objective: he can no longer become ‘a jedi knight like my father’. He may have the princess, but she’s no help. In the Third Act, though, he doesn’t return to Mos Isley (? – I can never remember the place names – Let’s call it Hobbiton and be done with it…): he returns to the psychological ‘home’ of the Millenium Falcon. His apotheosis moment is obviously when he destroys the Death Star: sure, Han (and even the disembodied Obi-wan) help him, but he has to face that damn canyon alone and at the risk of everything(remember: he doesn’t know that Han and Obi-wan will help him).

    A more interesting example – one which really pushes the Third Act to the extreme – is the film Million Dollar Baby. Here, the end of the Second Act is clear: *Frankie(Eastwood)’s protegee, Maggie(Hilary Swank), has gone for the grand prize and REALLY lost everything. As a viewer, you can’t think where the film could go now, and, indeed, a normal narrative would speed through the Third Act. But this film stretches it beyond most other texts – the Third Act holds as much weight (even time) as the others. The strength that Frankie has to pull on to become divine, is much more potent than Luke’s, or indeed, Cinderella’s.

    Could this be a more useful model for the Third Act in a game? You need a moment about two-thirds in where it looks like the protagonist will never reover from his/her losses, and must rebuild him/herself on his/her own? This may take place ‘back home’, where this world is under attack; or, it may take place in a new space, but a place where the protagonist is ‘reminded’ of home (whether it be canyons, or boxing gloves…).

    *I argue that Frankie is the protagonist, because he undertakes the biggest changes. I’ve also been a bit obscure with the plot-recount here: if you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to give away the turning points…

  9. Thanks Joshua for your input. Game designers toss around narrative theory but I suspect often feel that we’re using terms more loosely that we ought.

    I argue that Frankie is the protagonist, because he undertakes the biggest changes. I’ve also been a bit obscure with the plot-recount here: if you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to give away the turning points…

    Heh, but you don’t mind giving a BIG FAT SPOILER for Cinderella, do you?

  10. Joshua makes some very interesting points which made me try to think of a game that has a devastating end to Act 2. If you consider Half-Life and Half-Life 2 as parts of the same story you could argue that Half-Life 2 begins a Third Act. Gordon has battled and overcome a huge challenge at the end of HL but then finds himself a prisoner at the beginning of HL2, stripped of all his weapons and powerless.

  11. [...] know I’ve harped on this before but playing Fallout New Vegas has brought me back to a persistent problem in RPGs: motivating the [...]


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