What do you call a female moth on a unicycle?

Campbell’s idea of the monomyth is well understood, and was summarised by Campbell as:

“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.”

Although academic consensus on Campbell’s theory seems to err in the general case on the side of ‘STFU Noob’, there are well documented cases of it being used in successful modern ventures, George Lucas’s Star Wars perhaps being chief among them.

It looks like a theory that would match well to fantasy MMOs, and yet when reviewing the seventeen stages outlined by Campbell (while attempting to ignore its stereotypical male chauvinist and populist elements which are probably more a symptom of the era in which the thinking was undertaken), we see how little of the Hero’s Journey is reflected in the journeys of the heroes we make.

In The Departure we find the first step, The Call to Adventure:

“The hero starts off in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.”

In World of Warcraft my dwarf’s first task was to kill some wolves; in LotRO last night my freshly minted Lore-master was called on to head five feet over to the left and kill some gnats. The journey stumbles on the first step because you never make the transition from the mundane to the heroic, you start out as a low-powered hero, and you gradually scale the ranks of greater heroism by killing wolves and boars and gnats with ever greater levels of hit points.

Melmoth’s Heroism Test: what’s the highest level boar that your level-capped character can go back and kill unarmoured and with a level 1 sword? Surely any hero with a sword should be able to kill a pig…

Corollary: Why are you so much less of a hero with that sword than any other? If your answer is that your level 100 sword is magical, then I would suggest that your character is not a hero, just a major power in a magical weapon proliferation race.

The nature of the theme park MMO is that heroism is simply a statistical bar to certain rides, and it’s hard to weave an epic tale when the journey being made is simply the short step from one sanitised ride to the next.

Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic are both trying to bring story back into MMOs, hopefully they have taken into consideration the concept of the journey that needs to be made; being a hero in a story is not just about killing fiery demons, it’s about overcoming one’s own demons, just as discovery in a hero epic is not just about uncovering new lands, but about the hero unearthing their own true nature.

Making the Hero’s Journey work is not a guarantee of success, however. A recent resurgence of reminiscence over Planscape: Torment after it was on offer on the recently resurrected Good Old Games, reminds us that a game can have an epic story that really attempts to get to the heart of the meaning of what it is to be a hero, and yet, as with all great things, not be accepted for its greatness until well after its time has passed.

9 thoughts on “What do you call a female moth on a unicycle?

  1. Stabs

    Screw Campbell, all this focus on a solitary hero is what keeps the genre’s shoelaces tied together.

    Find a situation where large numbers of people were heroic. World War I. Medical people fighting an epidemic. Make a massively multiplayer game where heroism is expressed by furthering your side’s cause.

    Inject a side order of tragedy and vulnerability and there you have your next gen MMOs.

    My capcha is mastication. I hope I’ve given you something to chew over.

  2. Melmoth Post author

    “all this focus on a solitary hero is what keeps the genre’s shoelaces tied together.”

    But if the shoelaces are untied the shoes will fall off, and then we’ll get MMO sock smell in all our adventures.

    “Make a massively multiplayer game where heroism is expressed by furthering your side’s cause.”

    I believe MMO players would still follow the path of least resistance to optimise their own personal gain over that of others. It’s perhaps a matter of not just encouraging heroism, but also overcoming the selfish tendencies that have been trained into the MMO playing populace over these many years.

    That’s not to say that it wouldn’t be a fine thing indeed if it could be achieved, however.

  3. darkeye

    I’m slogging through ‘Wizard’s First Rule’ by Terry Goodkind, which exactly fits that notion of hero myth, don’t know if I’ll ever get to the end and wasn’t enamoured at the outset but half-way through there’s been some interesting places and people at least.

    It funny though but for me the best games emphasise sense of discovery and adventure, not development in the protagonist or the one true hope.

    Would Lotro be better if no mention of the fellowship was made? Like how many in middle-earth at the time would know about it happening at all. It could have been more about war and the encroaching darkness, rather than clutching to that one hope, about the strife that is encountered and the decision to march to war in Gondor, not following on someone’s trail.

  4. Tesh

    Seems to me that overcoming selfish tendencies would be a proper part of a hero’s journey. I’m not sure we’ll *ever* see that institutionalized, since it would run contrary to the nature of bettering one’s self to incentivize it.

    That’s not to say we won’t see real heroes in these games, it’s just that such isn’t likely to be all that common.

    Of course, then there’s the trouble with conflating player heroism and character heroism. We might be able to make characters be more heroic… but players, well… that’s on their shoulders.

  5. Stabs

    Yeah, what I’m thinking is a MMO without personal development. You’re just a bloke. Or a woman. With a rifle. Which is just a gun. If you get shot you’re probably dead.

    The interest would not be getting your rifle up to a better rifle but in the types of acts that people have been interested in history and myth. Heroic struggles, conquests, great betrayals perhaps.

    Shouldn’t be hard technically. After all a MMO is basically just a RTS on a big scale. Where instead of generic troll axe chucker number 17 a particular unit is a special little snowflake.

    Could be quite fun though to see all the Trolls agitating for an upgraded Lumber Mill.

  6. Melmoth Post author

    There definitely seems to be a consensus here that trying to remove the idea of the singular hero could be a Good Thing.

    Interestingly, taking Stabs’ example of ‘bloke with a gun’ quite literally, it seems to me that what is being described is actually how First-Person Shooters were in the early days, before they (d)evolved into the more FPS/RPG hybrids that they generally are today.

    There’s still that vital element missing though: a way to get players to *want* to work together. Even in FPS team matches, getting your own side to cooperate in any meaningful way was usually an exercise in futility, even though the prospect of working together would generally ensure victory against an (in all likelihood) unorganised opposition.

  7. Zoso

    @Stabs Trouble is, for (just about) every act of heroic struggle, conquest and great betrayal in history there’s a few people who got the medals and glory and/or infamy, and a whole bunch of poor bastards hefting pikes, swords or rifles trudging around in the mud, and those blokes (or women, thank you Stan) were screamed at for a few months by NCOs to make sure they followed orders unquestioningly, which gets around the problem Melmoth talks about of getting people working together but would be a pretty tough sell as a game.

    I guess big EVE fleets are probably about as close as we get, MMO-wise (maybe World War 2 Online but I don’t know too much about that one), they certainly offer the prospect of engagements on a great scale with combatants who need to be organised with command structures to be effective, but for me the prospect of truly massive galactic combat is offset somewhat by the possibility of spending an entire evening forming up, moving into position, and the system crashing from the number of participants (or getting lag so bad any action is futile, or finding the enemy buggered off or never turned up in the first place, or finding yourself in the wrong place and getting obliterated by 50 times the number of opposing ships, or…)

  8. Stabs

    I found it very interesting that Eve’s recent advertising has stressed the power of the individual to influence the galaxy. A number of Eve players have commented to the effect that it’s a less than honest representation of the game.

    Regarding involvement I’m thinking more along the lines of football crowds. 50 000 people go to a game to cheer the Reds. After the match each leaves more or less satisfied and with the feeling that they contributed (by supporting, by shouting).

    If you’re part of a group of 300 players who kill a dragon you don’t have to personally cut the dragon’s head off to feel like you did something.

    It would take very clever game design to get that football crowd feeling into a video game. I don’t think it matters what players are trained to do though. Minecraft seems to break all the rules on what players deserve out of an online game. It doesn’t even sound like people are getting epics. If the gameplay is interesting per se people will play it just to play it without questioning whether it’s “worth it”.

  9. Melmoth Post author

    There’s definitely something to the ‘shared experience’ desire, Minecraft has it in spades: I build and create and do cool things because I want to be able to share it with others and inspire them, and I find them inspiring me in return.

    I feel that it’s not just about killing the dragon with 300 others, but about finding the dragon, telling others about it, and deciding that you’re going to try to kill it. Most importantly it’s about the game encouraging players to try and rewarding them for doing so, not punishing them because they didn’t have a specific class balance of 39 other players in perfect gear following the precise step-by-step dance guide to killing this particular dragon.

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