Today, cribbing from one of my esteemed colleague’s recent editorials, I’m going to talk about how mod developers can strive to create more engaging stories for their projects. Since I am the Podcast’s “literary expert” (I feel my imaginary beret grow every time I say that), I felt I could help lay down some guidelines on how to start making improvements.
Now, this isn’t going to be me pointing out the stories of mods I didn’t care for, or an easy-to-follow tutorial on how to create a narrative for your own mod, because articles like those only serve to pat myself, or good mod developers, on the back. This article also won’t be how these things are integrated into the mechanics of game design, because I don’t have much experience with that personally.
What this article will be is an explanation of how tried-and-true narrative devices have been used in games, and hopefully give you some big-picture ideas on how to do a little legwork and improve your own projects.
Recently, my biggest drive as a storyteller has been to discover, broadly speaking, the origins of all our different stories. The latest tool in this quest has been a book called The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell (which I’d recommend to you all if this wasn’t a gaming site).
Campbell was a maverick in the field of comparative mythology. Myths, according to Campbell, are stories that human beings tell themselves and each other which describe what it means to be alive. After studying the stories and myths of innumerable cultures, Campbell noticed that all of the different traditions had underlying themes and tropes. Famously, Campbell found one story popping up again and again, with different names and settings that told the same story. That was the hero’s journey, which Campbell called the monomyth.
Another earlier book by Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, gave a more detailed account of the monomyth, but the description in The Power of Myth is serviceable for a basic understanding of this structure. Simplifying things immensely, the hero’s journey can be summed up in these parts:
- The Call to Adventure: the land is in trouble, the hero has deep inner turmoil, yadda yadda. This causes the hero to seek out a solution to the problem d’jour. Sometimes involves an initial refusal.
- Beginning of the Path: the hero responds to the call and crosses the threshold into his adventure, a new and different world than he knew before.
- The Abyss: the hero goes through the lowest point of his journey, which can either manifest itself into a literal or allegorical death and rebirth.
- The Transformation: this lowest point changes the hero into a new man, which catapults him into fulfilling the cause of his journey
- Atonement: This is when the hero comes into a state of being at one (“at-one-ment”, as Campbell says) with the ultimate power in their life, usually a father figure that is sought out by the hero.
- The Return: The hero crosses the threshold back into normal life, his mission achieved and having gained mastery of both his old world and his new existence.
If you think hard enough, you can most likely think of several examples from books, TV shows, movies, and other contexts. Let’s see how this plays out in video games as we know them. And even though it’s an obscure title with a small following, Valve Software’s 2004 shooter Half-Life 2 has a very strong example of how a hero is able to achieve a state of Atonement, so I’ll use it here.
So, let’s consider this image:
We see the image of Doctors Gordon Freeman and Wallace Breen. The man on the left is a bright young scientist who is called upon by circumstances out of his control to fight against an oppressive regime to allow for the liberty which mankind claims as a birthright. The man on the right is a scientifically driven administrator who uses his knowledge to run a strict and efficient, if heartless, empire.
Two completely different characters, sure, but have you ever noticed that the two are basically the same character design?
Okay, so yadda yadda they’re both based on two different real people. But really, haven’t you noticed that? I can’t say if this was an intentional choice on Valve’s part or not, but it certainly does seem to suggest that there is somewhat of a connection between the two (whether that being literal or implied).
So, a few of you Half-Life fans are about to scream sacrilege at me, because you’ve figured out that I’m saying that it’s the megalomaniacal Wallace Breen, not the friendly and caring Eli Vance, who fulfills the role as Gordon Freeman’s father figure in the HL2 series. Hang in there with me, because it’s not the sense of the father figure that you are usually accustomed to.
Campbell described the seeking of atonement with the father as being something that needed to be sought actively (since, at birth, the child is naturally separated from the father).
This stage of “at-one-ment” was sometimes symbolic (e.g. Telemachus seeking his long-absent father Odysseus in The Odyssey) or otherwise quite literal (e.g. Oedipus killing his biological father and tripping the night fantastic with his mother in Oedipus Rex).
No matter what, the father figure is the person or force that controls the existence of the hero, and this state of at-one-ment either destroys this state or allows the hero to cope with it more freely.
So, how does Freeman seek this state of at-one-ment with Breen?
Breen, once Freeman’s superior, has ruined the land (Earth, City 17, what have you). In this case, the Hero reconciles himself with this ultimate force by trying to take down Breen’s tyrannical grip on the world which keeps Gordon (and the rest of the world) from living a normal and independent life. By destroying Breen’s power, Gordon reclaims part of that power for himself to even up the odds.
So, let’s move away from the Campbellian explanation (stories that explain the human condition) and towards the Jungian explanation (a collection of archetypes which explain the workings of the human psyche).
Carl Jung was a psychoanalyst who built off of Sigmund Freud’s work, but denied many of Freud’s precepts. Jung maintained that universal allegorical symbols (which he called “archetypes”) effected how human beings thought and acted. They spring out of cross-cultural commonalities of how human beings understand themselves and the world around them. One of the most prominent archetypes is the Shadow.
Jung’s concept of the Shadow is every part of an individual’s mind that is actively repressed and which the individual denies about his/herself. There was a pretty good episode of (formerly the Escapist’s) Extra Credits on how this has been utilized in games, using Silent Hill 2 as their example, so I won’t belabor the point too much. But the Shadow, used in several different contexts, answers several “what-ifs” about a character’s dark potential.
So, I would argue that not only is Breen Gordon’s father figure, he could also be a personification of Gordon’s “shadow” tendencies. However, this is where there are problems interjecting into a blank slate character like Gordon. So, to help support my point, I’ll describe one of the two characters for you, and let’s see if you can determine which one I am talking about:
- Has an academic background in the high sciences.
- Worked at the Black Mesa Research Facility.
- When confronted with a large hostile force, seeks out the best solution for Earth’s safety.
- Has a large military following that is ideologically conditioned to follow his orders.
- Uses rationality and problem solving to resolve situations.
- Is answerable to an alien entity, and is compelled to do their bidding at all costs.
- Has facial hair.
The only difference between Gordon and Breen is that Gordon seems to be steered into helping the human race instead of exploiting it. But, essentially, Breen and Gordon are the same. Powerful, intelligent, and enigmatic men who are constantly driven by desires beyond them. That’s what makes the fight against Breen and the Combine all the more interesting; Gordon is fighting against his own destructive potential.
Alright, let’s get down to the brass tacks here. Does every game/mod need to have a 100% defined hero’s journey? Not at all, Half-Life 2 surely doesn’t. Does every game/mod need to have daddy issues to make a relationship between characters interesting? Not necessarily, unless that’s the story you want to tell.
I just want all you developers out there to see that there is a glut of material for you to crib from, not just the last ten to twenty years of pop culture, which has become a culture of repetition and plagiarism. When characters interact, they have meaning beyond their names and faces; they represent forces in power plays that have gone on since the beginning of time.
Get to the roots of the stories and experiences we crave, and the quality of your projects will improve exponentially. When you understand all the complexities of the relationship that exists between Gordon and Breen, you can instill that amount of depth into the relationships in your characters, and not just fill out an (American) pop culture Mad Lib. The narratives we tell in our games will be taken to the next level, and we’ll be able to do things that are truly amazing.
Oh, and if you were curious, the title is a subtle reference.