A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. --Joseph Campbell
The profound influence of the Monomyth, the Hero's Journey, on narrative video games is easily demonstrated. When my students first encounter Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, they make the leap to video games with barely a nudge from me, listing all the games they've played that conform to Campbell's familiar paradigm: the call to adventure; the road of trials; achieving the goal (resulting in self-knowledge); returning home; and bestowing the boons, the gifts, of his journey on his fellow men (and women, presumably, though Campbell notoriously ignores them in most of his work).
While Campbell's star may have fallen among modern mythology scholars, I continue to find his work compelling because it never fails to capture the imagination of students encountering it for the first time. Helping students work their way through the stages of the Monomyth and witnessing the lightning bolt discoveries and inevitable connections to familiar fairy tales, games, films, and books they know can be an exhilarating experience. They suddenly discover a broader context they never knew existed, and this encounter often compels them to consider cultural or religious differences more openly and non-judgmentally.
But if you take the time to explore the hero's journey as it relates to video games, you soon realize something is missing. Although there may be much room for improvement, narrative video games do a terrific job of depicting the call to adventure, the journey, the victory, and the return. Link, Master Chief, and Snake have each in their own ways followed the mythic path. But where are the boons?
It might be said that securing peace or avoiding nuclear annihilation or piecing the Triforce back together are boons all by themselves. They make people feel happy and safe. Princesses are saved and kingdoms restored. Ultimately, these are the rewards of a hero's victory, right? Well, actually no. Not according to Campbell at least.
Campbell believes the most difficult part of the journey is the re-entry back into society. The now-enlightened hero must bring his knowledge of the world and the bitter truth of existence back to the people he has saved. And they aren't always so happy to see him. In fact, much of the resonance we derive from the hero's journey emerges from this difficult and complex exchange. As we see with characters like Ethan Edwards in John Ford's epic western The Searchers, sometimes the victorious hero returns to society, only to be rejected by it. The very things that made him fit to do the job now make him unfit to live among the people for whom he sacrificed everything. They want no part of the boons he brings them.
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?
To be sure, Hollywood has generally settled for the "hero victory, roll credits" formula, but not always. The Dark Knight can be seen as a meditation on the hero's efforts to integrate himself into a society that both embraces and rejects him. The boons he brings are scrutinized by the film in a variety of meaningful ways, and I think the film can be seen as an exploration of what Campbell calls the "master of two worlds"; a hero who paradoxically can be seen as belonging to two worlds, and to neither.
Is it possible to imagine a video game that could explore such rugged territory? I hope so, but I don't know. We seem always to find ourselves staring at the same question: would it be fun? One might argue $500+ million domestic box office for The Dark Knight suggests audiences are prepared for this kind of journey, but I think such an argument takes us back to apples and oranges.
The real question, to me, is whether or not it's possible to design a compelling game that can convey, or provide an environment to explore, these complex situations, many of which are negative and unrewarding. And even if it can be done, would anyone want to play it? If the answer is no, are we then left with a truncated and diminished version of the hero's journey?