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.