From rags to riches. From nobody to someone. From outcast to heroine. We know this from countless role-playing stories and many other game genres: Our main character starts as a nobody and then works his way up, sword slash by sword slash, shot by shot, jump by jump, straight up.
We collect enemies, life, (and equipment) armor. Level up, get ahead. The success curve: strictly monotonically increasing. The self-image: If we only try hard enough, we will be successful. A logic that, by implication, means: that if we are not successful, we did not try hard enough, were not good enough.
A logic that is often cynical in the real world. That’s what social scientists like Francis Seeck, who researches classism, and how societies are structured, think. In March of this year, Seeck said in an interview with Deutschlandfunk Kultur:
We live in a society where it is always said: If you make an effort, you can achieve anything. As a result, people often blame themselves when they live in poverty or are dependent on welfare.
It’s a narrative often used in games. Because games are interactive and involve us even more than books or films, this can leave an even more apparent mark on us. And become problematic. We asked scientists, game developers, narrative designers, and writers: What is the problem? And how could games make it better in the future?
On the hero’s journey
Closely linked to the rags-to-riches concept is the classic hero’s journey. The hero’s journey, also known as the monomyth, became known through Joseph Campbell, explains Lena Falkenhagen, novelist and game author, professor at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Hamburg, and narrative director at the award-winning Berlin studio Paintbucket Games (Beholder 3, Through the Darkest of Times ).
Falkenhagen has been the federal chairwoman of the Association of German Writers and an expert in the field since 2019: Campbell tried to find the fundamental structures of narratives. The thesis: There is a basic archetypal structure. And that all over the world, across cultures.
He boiled it down to the hero’s journey. Even fairy tale structures depict this: We start at home in everyday life, leave our familiar world, and meet people who perceive us as pros or antagonists. We meet so-called threshold guardians and mentors and try to reach our goal, and in the end, transformed by the journey, we return to our original world – these are all classic elements of the hero’s journey.
Today’s still practical elements, says Falkenhagen: That, especially Christopher Vogler’s further processing of the material, still serves as a blueprint for what a Hollywood film should look like. And for a straightforward reason: We’re looking precisely at these structures as a reader, player, or film viewer because we have encountered them for centuries.
The hero’s journey as a narrative concept is quasi a reading habit. In a way, we can’t help but look for the hero in the story. This is also why characters like Aloy in the Horizon series and Origin stories like Dragon Age work so well because we can read them directly.
This is already the first clear advantage that the concept has for games. The hero’s journey is quickly recognized as a structure by us and offers related potential for identification. And: The hero’s journey can be easily combined with what we usually understand as computer game challenges, says Jorg Friedrich.
I have obstacles to overcome, make progress, and change myself and the world. This can be represented relatively simply in terms of game mechanics. That’s a clear advantage. The hero’s journey can be easily adapted to the gameplay, Friedrich tells us in an interview. He is co-founder of and Game Director at Paintbucket Games, which won numerous awards in 2020 with their debut Through The Darkest of Times, in which players controlled a civilian resistance group during the Nazi era.
Trent Oster, the co-founder of Bioware and CEO of the Canadian studio Beamdog, also sees the hero’s journey pragmatically: The most significant advantage of the hero’s journey in games is that it gives me as a developer a clear structure that I can work well with. An important reason is the easy access of the players to the game’s development. One of the main reasons people play games is to get away from reality and have all these little successes – level up or finally beat an opponent you’ve failed before. Feeling for us this is often very intuitive because we know it too, says Oster.
As growing children and young people, we are constantly undergoing development. But then, as we get older, we often feel like we’re stagnant, not making progress, not developing anywhere. Games certainly shorten that, but we can experience predictable and reliable development in them. Then there are all the setbacks that life has to offer.
Then, the hero’s journey in games satisfies our longing for an escape from everyday life that is all too human.
As a concept, the hero’s journey offers rewarding structures. For example, the first orientation in narrative design – says Lena Falkenhagen: I tell everyone who wants to write novels or games that it is worth looking at the hero’s journey as a narrative structure. Because that’s an excellent first step in the learning process. How stories and structures are internalized, precisely because they are so straightforward doesn’t mean it has to be dull in games – thinks Falkenhagen.
Depending on how complex a narrative in the field of computer games is, I still think it’s legitimate to tell a hero’s journey story. Pull a little story over it – then it fits.
Even Wolfgang Walk, author, game designer, narrative producer, and university lecturer with positions at Blue Byte, Atari, Namco Bandai, SWR, and many others, who is very critical of the hero’s journey as a narrative concept, can gain something from it as a practical tool:
Apart from the predictability and simplicity of the story, I don’t see any good reasons to use the hero’s journey narrative. But the simplicity of the report can undoubtedly do a game good. Personally, however, I only use the hero’s journey to fix bugs in the narrative area: if something doesn’t work narratively and I don’t know why then the hero’s journey is one of the analysis tools to be able to see what’s wrong.
Falkenhagen sees even more potential here: Bottom down, it’s about characters going on a journey and coming back different than when they started. I don’t see that as a problem at first. On the contrary – I even expect that from a story.
Earlier literary figures such as Till Eulenspiegel or Don Quixote or computer game characters such as Lara Croft from the old first parts were more static. It changes. Falkenhagen thinks that’s a good thing: I think the development of a character’s inner life and the focus on the inner journey she’s going through are positive. And I find it positive when computer games pick up on that.
Max Payne in the series of the same name, the characters in games like Heavy Rain or Detroit: Become Human, or Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2 – these are all dynamic characters that undergo development – a hero’s journey in a positive sense. So there are both an excellent narrative and pragmatic gameplay reasons for the classic hero’s journey in games.
The Myth of Progress
But do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? Because: The hero’s journey is not without alternatives. And it should certainly not be the end of the line. It becomes problematic when game developers regard the hero’s journey as sacred and inviolable, says Trent Oster of Beamdog. The hero’s journey is a makeshift framework, not the limit of how we can tell stories in games or how the gameplay should work, says Oster.
Scientists like Associate Prof. Dr. Hartmut Konitz from the University of Sodertorn and President of the Association for Research in Digital Interactive Narratives (ARDIN) see the myth of the hero’s journey as very critical. In the 2018 paper The Myth of ›Universal‹ Narrative Models, the universal claim of the hero’s journey is dismantled – the empirical data refute Campbell’s thesis that there are versatile narrative structures.
So why does the hero’s journey still have such an impact today? Konitz explains: The problem is that Campbell was an advisor to George Lucas on Star Wars. Although the concept is not tenable, his idea of the hero’s journey had a considerable impact. It spilled over into the video game industry: The games industry has taken over from Hollywood and is clinging to it almost desperately. […] Large parts of the industry firmly believe in a concept that severely limits the creative possibilities.
For Konitz, this is also one of the reasons why narration in computer games is not much further: Instead of working on new narrative forms of expression, the problematic corset of the monomyth is imposed, and anyone who expresses doubts about it runs the risk of losing their customers.
Wolfgang Walk knows why the narrative is still so compelling today. It goes hand in hand with the tale of rags to riches, which goes back much further: It probably stems from the liberation of the bourgeoisie from the knout of the nobility: If you work hard enough, you can become wealthy and thus free. That was necessary for the past: in the 19th century, I had to be a landowner to be able to vote. Only when you were a millionaire where you free. It is originally a story of freedom. But that is different today.
The dishwasher myth lacks this twist. He didn’t need it before either – it was clear to everyone that it was actually about freedom. What was perverted was the change in the socio-economic conditions in which the myth is told. Today it is all about the money.
Why is that a problem when myth is so ubiquitous in games? Games, like all media, are the great storytellers of our time, shaping a reality that would be vastly different without them, Walk says. In games, he sees two elements of the myth of Success as particularly problematic:
On the one hand, there is the question of the central resource. In this narrative, as in our economy, it is money. Every other help can be traced back to this money resource – everything can be paid for. In the real world, it is becoming increasingly clear that the central resource money cannot achieve sustainability in dealing with our livelihoods. Therefore, the narrative of personal economic Success is a profoundly selfish one and directed against the common good.
And one is repeated in games where accumulating resources and leveling up is equated with success and personal progress. And, according to Walk, it is sold as desirable. The myth gets in the way because The economic hyper-success of the individual comes at the expense of the failure of many and thus ultimately runs counter to the myth that everyone can do it.
The second problem that Walk sees is what we as players can do within the game rules to be successful: Success is self-justifying. The how doesn’t matter. As long as the narrative labels my character good, it doesn’t matter how many opponents I kill with, which means. We see that too in too many games.
More precisely, if the dishwasher becomes a millionaire, he will be quickly forgiven for some of the crimes he has committed. Success grants absolution. The narrative of the hero’s journey in the direction of the dishwasher from the millionaire in games thus continues problematic social dynamics. The story is so successful because the level of happiness through personal achievement tends to contradict people’s life experiences, says Walk.
Most people work their asses off for 45 years and get through the month. It had to be repeated often enough to believe this dishwashing lie still.
In his opinion, media and games have a large part to play.
The myth of the individual’s freedom is increasingly opposed to closed societies. In many games, we can be anything – in life, socio-economic layers are becoming increasingly impervious. On the one hand, this has the advantage that games offer us an escape from our real lives, as Trent Oster believes. On the other hand, it has the disadvantage that it perpetuates a myth that, in reality, only seems cynical to many people.
No matter how hard we try or how hard we work, fairytale stories like those of Aloy and Co. are not only rare, and they are impossible in many societies. The fact that games still tell these stories isn’t that bad at first. It becomes problematic when certain freedom is propagated as the ultimate and personal Success is tied to it. Still, the prevailing social structure does not allow it or only with incredible difficulty. This only depicts a minimal part of reality. And that is the main problem Jorg Friedrich sees:
The hero’s journey is within us, of course. And especially for young people, it may have a different meaning than for older people. But she also leaves out many things that exist in reality. And then, due to the dominance of the hero’s journey in our stories, Hollywood films, and games, they suddenly no longer appear.
Changes are needed here. Because, according to Friedrich: That’s the biggest problem for me: not the hero’s journey itself, but that there is so little else. There are, of course, alternatives. Friedrich says: It is not easy to break through these well-known structures. But there are enough good reasons for this: you want to do something different and wish to depict other areas of reality.
One possibility is to take up the structure of the hero’s journey – but then to break through or undermine it at specific points. Such as in the shooter Spec Ops: The Line from 2012. According to Friedrich, the player is first fooled into thinking that he is in a classic shooter with the usual black and white setting via the setting and optics – and then literally the carpet from underfoot and confronted with drastic decisions. They keep the player thinking about what he’s doing.
What matters is that the game allows for the feelings that players want and expect to a certain extent but also incorporates surprises and twists. Trent Oster from Beamdog also sees a lot of potential here: There are many ways you can add a twist to player expectations and the hero’s journey. Also, for more classic role-playing formats.
Heroes? Yes! But please different
Another possibility is to read the hero’s journey in a completely different way and implement it in games. Friedrich explains that the main problem is that progress in games is often externalized. But what I would like to see is that a person changes.
Games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice with the eponymous heroine, whose adventure is also a metaphor for her inner journey, or Minute of Islands by the German studio Fizbin, which deals with unspoken family dynamics how they shape people, already show this.
But: In many games, Success often means that the player gets the next more enormous sword. Or when we look at construction simulations, Friedrich adds, ‘I’m building something’ always means ‘I’m building bigger and bigger, more and more.’ But the hero’s journey is actually about the changes that people go through, he says.
That’s also a misinterpretation that the hero’s journey always means that I have to overcome external circumstances. It can also mean coming to terms with myself. Like Senua in Hellblade. Or outlaw Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Den Rockstar-Titel nennt auch Wolfgang Walk als gutes Ausnahmebeispiel: Red Dead Redemption 2 und auch andere Rockstar-Games drehen sich nur oberflächlich um Geld und Erfolg, während sie eigentlich Geschichten tragischen Scheiterns erzählen. Das Gleiche gilt für einige Witcher-Episoden. Gelegentlich ist es egal, wie sehr ich Geralt gebufft habe: Nichts kann die Katastrophe verhindern. All meine Skills und alles Geld konnen niemandem mehr helfen. Das ist schonungslos ehrlich und oft näher am Leben, als Klimbim-Storys vom märchenhaften Aufstieg durch harte Arbeit.
Walk mentions other titles: Especially in the indie area, there are numerous, even commercially successful, games that you could call: This War of Mine, Papers, Please, or Life is Strange. Or In Between or The Void – which I was involved in. So there are already games that tell different stories – or tell the story of the hero’s journey differently. The problem is often only their visibility, according to Walk.
What would the average Joe do?
Jorg Friedrich suggests: I try to avoid the problem by approaching the games from the point of view of the material. So I always ask myself first: what would happen in real life? What would a natural person do? How do people act, and what drives them? How to avoid the hero’s journey trap? And how can I translate that into a game so that it’s still interesting?’
Wolfgang Walk takes a similar view: As a designer, I should ask myself what would be a success for my character within the setting I’m telling. More precisely: Instead of submitting to the cheap lie that Success is only actual Success, even if it happens in the eyes of others, I have to ask myself: what would really, and deep down in my soul, be a success for my heroic character? And then I have to give the character agency and motivation in that regard.
The fallacy that many games fall into is a bombast problem, says Jorg Friedrich: Sid Meier once said that a good game consists of exciting decisions. But that was misunderstood. People looked at games like Civilization and Co. and thought that findings were only interesting if they changed the world. That would have led to a complex logic in game design: I’ve heard that from many narrative designers: I have to save the world at least otherwise, my game would be dull, says Friedrich.
According to Lena Falkenhagen, the hero’s journey becomes a superhero journey: As we know it from the Marvel films. One inflated figure who, undermining all democratic structures, wants the good and saves the world because she is better than the rest of humanity. On the one hand, this is dangerous because anti-democratic images are reinforced there. On the other hand, it is but one thing above all: boring as hell.
This leads to a novelization of the world. The world is getting bigger and bigger now. But that’s dull, says Friedrich. The real question we should be asking ourselves is, What’s an exciting decision? And that doesn’t mean choosing between saving the world and letting it end.
But that can be how I deal with a person – tiny things, whether I’m polite or rude. Whether I’m lying or telling the truth. According to Friedrich, these are exciting decisions that can be excellently implemented in computer games. Only: We don’t dare enough yet. But this is the future. You can also tell good heroic journeys with interesting decisions that don’t repeat these problematic patterns if you can do that.