When I was growing up, my favorite stories were mythologies. I didn't care where they came from, or whose culture they belonged to. I wanted to know, to understand, to explore why a certain person was remembered, why certain cities mattered above others, why one story element could be found in hundreds of other stories.
Mythology plays an extremely important part in video games. It's not necessarily a game's internal mythology that piques a player's interest; it's the influence of real world myth and legend on the game's narrative and characters. Some of the most influential games are based around mythology and epic tales of struggle against and between gods and men.
There is an idea called the monomyth. It's the idea that there is a basic pattern that is repeated in narratives around the world, stories such as the world destroying flood, the half-god / half-human hero who must seek out gods and other supernatural beings to save his world, a young hero is influenced by an old sorcerer to seek out his great destiny. The Great Flood is familiar to most people; Gilgamesh is a staple story; King Arthur is a story that most kids learned and never forgot because they wanted to be Arthur.
Video games owe a great deal to the monomyth and mythology in general. Think of the some of the most notable video game narratives. Final Fantasy almost always involves the a hero influenced by others to seek out a great evil, facing great peril and the opportunity to rise above one's initial station at every turn. The God of War series sees the gods of Greek mythology come to life, showing us a heroic, well-intentioned goddess, and a despotic tyrant of a ruling god, while a half-mad, homicidal Spartan seeks to destroy everything they stand for. Shin Megami Tensei involves a noble youth, spurred on by an influential sorcerer (Igor) to embrace his destiny with the help of supernatural allies to defeat a great evil and seize his destiny.
These series all play with notions of myth and the importance of great heroes. Mythology and the fantasy experience of a video game go hand in hand. While thousands of years ago old men told stories around campfires about great heroes, far away lands, monstrous creatures, beautiful women, and the wrath and favor of gods, now we gamers experience those same things through a screen and a controller. We experience a story, a myth that we might not otherwise experience.
As gamers, we get to be Odysseus, Gilgamesh, and Beowulf. We can be Nike, goddess of victory, Kali, the destroyer, or even the warrior queen Boudicca, and threaten the might of a great civilization. We can be these mythical characters because they are legend; they never fade, they never die.
There has been discussion, some of it loud, much of it vicious and filled with venom, regarding a particular legend's ending. There is a feeling of despair, loss, grief, and misery that a story did not receive a true conclusion. I feel that this is wrong. It's another example of myth, of epic literature. Epics don't always have happy endings; they don't always work out the way that people want them to. If they changed, then the story wouldn't mean the same thing.
There is something far more important at stake in a mythical tale than the simple question of whom the hero kisses in the end. The greatest of epic tales present this simple concept: there is one person who must decide what role she or he will play in the greater journey to come. That role is sometimes hero, and it is sometimes martyr; sometimes it is redeemer, and sometimes it is destroyer. Sometimes, the hero of a story is a monster, but redemption can be found. Sometimes, the hero is a kind soul, but the most evil of choices must be made in order to maintain balance.
It's not ideal. It's not happy. A myth is sometimes cynical, bleak, and it leaves the listener feeling helpless. This does not mean that the story did not teach sometimes. Mythology twists and turns in a thousand different ways, across thousands of years, stories jump back and forth, they warp and shift, changing with the influence of the story teller, the government, the culture, the artistic environment.
Video games let us be the stars of our own epic tales. RPGs are all about the lone hero on a potentially doomed quest; they are completely focused on a primary character, and the friends, allies, and enemies she or he might make along the way. That is the very nature of the epic tale. It is a story about a single entity. The epic tale is a story that consumes that entity, the villains who taunt and tempt that entity, and the allies and friends who accompany the entity upon his or her journey. It is the monomyth, and it's spread across dozens of games.
Video games have established their own variations on mythology. In our games, we are the epic heroes. We get to be the hero that we used to pretend we were as kids. Do you remember playing with friends as a child, declaring yourself the hero of the story that you would pretend and make up on the fly? You raised your fist, proclaimed yourself the hero, and named one of your friends the villain. You played out your own story, and you built your own legend from it.
The same is true of game narrative. We embrace narratives that are familiar, as familiar as the mythologies we learned as children, from the classical to the religious, and we understand it as we understand our own hearts and minds. We recognize archetypical heroes and villains, and when stories twist our perceptions, we attempt to compensate by seeking out a mythical character that might suit the role. We look for a link to familiarity; in finding it, we recognize the myth as our present game's reality. When we can link a game character to myth, we see structure, balance, and order. We see the monomyth, the familiar, the all-encompassing story that everyone knows.
The familiarity of myth serves us well as gamers. We seek it out, we learn from it. We play our games as best we can, seeing familiar concepts, characters, and stories unfold before our eyes. We embrace myth as easily as we embrace a game's internal structure. When a game shares its own mythology, we see familiar elements of our own experiences.
When we bring our own experiences - be it educational, professional, personal, or spiritual - to a video game, we gain more from the story than we might have previously thought. When we bring our own experiences, we gain more. We see beyond a simple controller and a visual interface. We see what the story truly is, what it means, and where it will go. We appreciate it more, because the elements are familiar, the hero is known to us, and the story is never forgotten or completely told, until it is never told again.
A myth lives on long past its game over screen.
Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays. You can follow Alexandra on Twitter @Al3xandra_G.