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Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

I cannot stand The Hero's Journey

It has invaded the gaming industry like some intellectual cross of lamprey and plague. Personally, I'd like to grab Joseph Campbell and all his well-meaning Jungian metamyth discussions and flush them somewhere unspeakable. Not because of the content or the insights, of course, but because it has grown to be The Blob That Ate Creativity.

The Hero's Journey (THJ) has somehow evolved into some sort of de riguer uber-plot-structure for games. Yes, okay, you can find traces of it (intentional or not) in romantic comedy, sci fi, thrillers, everywhere. But that doesn't mean that it is necessary, and it is certainly not sufficient. People with no idea of any other story structure and who have never attempted a long work (novel, movie, full-length game) have somehow fallen victim to the idea that it is the only way that a story can be told.

For crying out loud, I reviewed a game story done by writing 'consultants' who tried to use THJ for a casual equestrian game. It's basically a light story layer that supports the catch horses - train horses - race horses gameplay. "Guys," I said, "You ever heard of the 3-act structure? Maybe that's plenty?"

Creators from Shakespeare to Hitchcock seem to have been able to produce reasonably acceptable fare without using it as a crutch. So WTF is this with the game industry that suddenly every plot has to have some sort of "Conforms to standards" official THJ stamp?

"No," I told the consultants, "jumping the gully is not the same thing as obtaining access to The Inner Cave." Sheesh. I'm surprised they didn't insist that the female protagonist be the son of a king and his royal virgin wife...

Fundamentally, I do not believe that every story with a hero must necessarily go through the phases of THJ. Lucas did it well in the original Star Wars trilogy, but he also did the more recent (and resoundingly godawful) Star Wars trilogy. THJ is not a miracle cure.

Where will THJ be when we have multiple protagonists? When we're developing interactive storylines that lead to several possible resolutions? THJ is by definition a highly stylized and rigidly structured plot, with a traditional hero, that unfolds through fixed progression points to a pre-defined ending. It's everything that is not useful to game writers; it's everything that you don't need a computer for.

As game writers we have enough limits on our plots and characters -- time, artwork, technology, budgets, animation, sound design, politics, competitors, bad designers -- that we don't need to be adding new ones ourselves.

Still, Cambell deserves our thanks. He did good work. We should all read it, we should all learn it. And we should all leave it in the toolbox for those occasaions when it is necessary, right next to the 90° screwdriver and the coping saw.



Campbell, or Cambellians???

I heard that Jung once said, "I'm glad I'm Jung ...not a 'Jungian.'"* I think the same could be said on Joseph Campbell's behalf here.

Campbell was a true believer in the creatives and innovators of our world. In fact, he claimed that the rest of the world could take or leave his work for all he cared. Dig a little deeper into Campbell past THJ and one will find that Campbell would probably express the same sentiments you have if presented with the same situation.


Manny Otto

P.S. *not sure where I read this about Jung and can't find on the web. anyway, the point is clear.

Re: Campbell, or Cambellians???

Most definitely. He was an academic interested in literature and anthropology; I imagine he would be horrified to see the extent to which his research has been turned into bland, format-driven mass media.


Can't Escape Hero's Journey

Joseph Campbell didn't write the Hero With A Thousand Faces as a prompt for writers - he merely identified existing patterns in myth and literature. Indeed, the "monomyth" he identifies is proves ubiquitous and inescapable in literature, movies, and myth. Like the basic plot structure itself (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion), it is already present in Shakespeare and Hitchcock, easily identifiable in To Kill A Mockingbird as well as the Lord of the Rings - all of which were obviously created without reference to Joseph Campbell.

What Campbell's work points out is that an imaginative, creative work naturally follows the broad outlines of the "Hero's Journey" without any conscious effort on the creator's part, in the same way as creative works follow the basic plot formula. Of course, the elements of each are often re-arranged (such as beginning a novel "in media res"), but the foundation remains. (Ironically, we don't hear many people complaining about how everyone conforms to the straitjacket of plot structure.)

Familiarity with Campbell's work can enhance a creator's understanding of her or his own thought processes, but reading Campbell is no substitute for one's own creativity. As pointed out above, his work is but one tool in the toolbox.

Joseph Campbell would in particular be appalled at how Hollywood has taken his after-the-fact analysis and observations and uses them to drive mediocre, formulaic productions.

Of course, consciously trying NOT to follow the hero's journey structure will produce just as artificial, contrived, and lifeless results as those who consciously strive to follow the hero quest in every detail ...

A thoughtful, worthwhile discussion - thanks for bringing it up.

Stephen Gerringer
Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

December 2011

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