Editorial: Modern Myths, Interactive Adventures,
It has always been a pastime of mine to read stories of mythology and legend. Each culture has their own versions of these tales, from the fantastical stories of Greek’s Perseus and Odysseus, to the Arthurian Legends of Gwain and Guinevere. Many of these stories are nearly universal in their appeal, popularizing the themes and structure of much of our subsequent artistic endeavors. As result, mythology as a whole plays an integral role in storytelling today, right down to the newest mediums of entertainment.
Now, a lot of people have already discussed how mythology has played a part in a ton of modern pop culture, such as the way comic book superheroes re-appropriate Grecian heroic figures. Other works utilize mythical tropes and storylines, such as the Star Wars movies, which follow the typical the “heroes journey,” an archetype proposed by Joseph Campbell, which he called the monomyth. Others are outright references to previously established mythology, brought to the forefront thanks to new mediums. The Thor comic books can take some credit in rekindling an adoration for Norse mythology, while creating something wholly different from classic interpretations of the myths. Many have claimed that these mediums have become the modern myths of today; stories that follow the patterns of the heroes and villains of old and project the trials, tragedies, and conquests of archetypal characters.
But trading the oral tradition with a joystick takes mythology a step further, as video games have also undergone that transition into modern mythology. In the past twenty years, every character in a game has transitioned from a nameless nobody to at the very least a named, recognizable image, from Mario to Nathan Drake, from The Dragonborn to the Vault Dweller, each of these characters is now iconic in their own way, from imagery to personality that is instantly recognizable by fans.
But what makes these characters transcend is their created mythologies that surround them–the adventures you, the player, participate in. Perhaps the most well known example is from The Legend of Zelda series. As I discussed in an episode of Characters with Character, Link follows the typical mythic tropes of Campbell’s monomyth. From a young boy to an adult, he undergoes a series of trials to uncover keys and tools to rescue the world from a terrible evil, and in using these tools he overcomes physical and mental obstacles. Likening Link to the Hercules of Hyrule, he is the quintessential mythical hero, using his wits and his weapons to defeat the forces of evil.
What makes Link emblematic of this ideal is the fact that he is timeless. Link is the Archon of gaming mythology, the patriarch of defined characteristics that make him, and his adventures, instantly recognizable. Many in the gaming world complain that recent Zelda adventures follow a formulaic approach–to be fair, a major criticism of the monomyth theory–but the true genius behind Zelda‘s design as a game is that it allows the myth of Link to grow because it is a different hero each time. The pattern in the games is what is important to keeping the tale of Zelda and Link alive, so following the patterns of previous games while contributing their own additions to the mythology of Hyrule is what transcends Link to this mythical level, since he is a different character in a long, standing tradition of mythic storytelling. Link is essentially no different than the likes of Perseus or Theseus, being reinvented while still telling the same tale each time.
But Link’s adventures are just one example of the individual stories we can see. RPGs have typically been forerunners of this entire concept by following the monomyth theory in droves. Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy; take your pick and you have stories rife with mythical themes of hope, loss, love, despair, courage, honor, bravery, death and rebirth. This is also why the art of story-telling has become the integral part of an RPG game, because the method of telling it is essentially the same. It is what is added that makes these stories a worthwhile journey; the interaction between the companions in your group, the decisions you make in game to achieve your goals, the eventual confrontation between either an ultimate evil, or a personal, more grounded approach in providing an introspective narrative that would reveal a more human emotion to the genre.
This is especially seen in games with any degree of choice in them. An older example would be Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Calibur. This Nintendo 64 classic has you follow a young adult named Magnus who, through dialogue choices and conditions in battle, can go on various different paths in a complex story arc rife with tactical battles and strategic warfare. One of the subplots in the game is the relationship with your character’s father, a shamed knight who killed another noble because he was protecting your childhood friend, the future king, from an assault. Because of this, your relationship with both your friend and father is soured, leading Magnus to a point where you can either seek vengeance by killing your father mercilessly, reconcile with him, or fall into despair after watching him get murdered before your very eyes. None of these decisions, of course, are easy to make, and the paths to them can change the fabric of the story immensely, making your character chivalrous, tragic, or an even a villain in the process.
But it is moments like this that truly show us how mythological tropes can translate into the moments of a video game. The creation of the story becomes the canon of the myth, and with multiple paths to the same endpoint, the myth changes for everyone, giving it a sort of organic growth in the process. Of course, Ogre Battle is just one example, but there are many games that have transcended the art of mythology to accomplish both personal and fantastical storytelling in the same narrative. BioWare’s work on Mass Effect is a major example of this. The story of Commander Shepard follows many mythical tropes: fighting great evil that threatens the world, overcoming challenges and gathering allies for a common cause, and even being resurrected from the dead (a major theme in Juedo-Christianity). This gives Mass Effect and Commander Shepard the same treatment as Link would receive.