Wednesday 6 October 2010

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.

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