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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I Need A Hero's Journey--Games and Joseph Campbell

Check out this article. For those of you that, like me, are a bit shaky when it comes to this type of tech article, allow me to translate briefly.

Essentially, what they're talking about here is the ability to create videogames that constantly generate totally unique landscapes each time you want to start a new adventure. In this type of game, you would always be exploring new locations, because the code itself would create new locations. Essentially, all "procedural generation" means is that instead of telling your code "Hey, a wall goes here" you tell the code, "Hey, here's a set of rules that tell you whether or not you want to put a wall here."

A set of rules and categories that can be used to generate multiple different experiences... hm... now where have I heard that before?

AAAAAAAIIIIIIIIiiiioh hello there, Mr Campbell.

This is Joseph Campbell, the very person whose ideas were on the tip of my tongue just now. Campbell wasn't the first person to codify or use the term "Archetype," but he's the thinker most relevant to our current discussion. What is an archetype, you ask?

Well, an archetype is really rather similar to the rules that go into procedural generation. It is essentially a set of rules that determines the underlying structure of a character or story. In Campbell's ideas, a whole selection of archetypes put together generate what he termed the Hero's Journey, or Monomyth. The core of this concept is that all the great myths and stories have the same underlying characteristics, even if individual elements are edited and changed--just as in the game landscapes described above, basic qualities like the presence of forests and deserts and mountains, and regions of cold in the North and heat in the South, are changed and rearranged in order to create unique maps.

So let's break this down a bit more into some of the component parts, and how they show up in more familiar works of fiction. These are, of course, the extremely condensed, cribbed versions of the archetypes, and are probably four or five generations removed from Campbell's actual scheme, but it should give you a general sense of how this all works.

THE CALL (It Knows Where You Live!)

This is, as the name suggests, the summoning of the hero character, and the start of the adventure. This is R2D2 showing Luke the hologram of Leia. It's Gandalf showing up at Frodo's door, looking like a complete basket case, going, "Is it secret?! Is it safe!?" (He was only ever that crazy in the movie...)


The Hero, due to the universal law that Good Is Dumb, will totally blow The Call off. This will result in events that eventually force him or her back into the quest. This is Luke trying to avoid getting involved, and coming back from Ben Kenobi's hut to find that the Storm Troopers have killed his family. In a modified form, it's Frodo realizing that unless he accepts the role of ring bearer, the meeting called by Elrond will deteriorate into strife and violence.


This isn't a stage; it's a character. The Mentor teaches and instructs the hero, and sets the hero on his or her path. Usually this mentor will die, generally as a symbolic passing on of the quest to the Hero. This is Gandalf in the Mines of Moria, and both Obi-Wan and Yoda passing on and vanishing into the Force. It's also, arguably, Dumbledore at the end of the sixth Harry Potter book.1


This, as far as I can tell, isn't an explicit element of Campbell's myth arc, and it doesn't actually appear in many older myth epics, but it seems to be a mainstay of modern Hero's Journey stories--whether it be Sauron, Emperor Palpatine, or Voldemort.


Here we're really running off the tracks, but this is a sort of miniboss character that, I suspect, falls generally under what Campbell called the Road of Trials--a set of tasks that the hero must fulfill before reaching the goal. Shelob and Saruman, Darth Vader, and any number of minor Death Eaters like Malfoy or Snape all fit this model--they are lesser obsticals for the hero to overcome.


And this is where things get a bit crazy. The idea is that the Hero is initiated into the world of the heroic quest, and marked as a part of this world. Again, I'm sort of rolling a bunch of ideas into one category for the sake of simplicity and time, but one of the elements of this initiation is often some sort of spiritual death, attaining of cosmic knowledge, and rebirth. Frodo passing through Shelob's Layer can be seen as this sort of descent, or Luke's fall from grace at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.


This is an interesting one. The hero attains the goal of the quest and returns home... but this isn't often so easy. In Lord of the Rings, the heroes are forever altered by their experiences and have trouble reintegrating into normal life. The Elves, along with Gandalf, Sam, and Frodo, all journey off into paradise. Eowyn and Faramir, scarred by their experiences, eventually manage to find comfort in each other but still are dislocated from their former lives. One of the major complaints about the end of the Harry Potter series is that there is no difficulty of return for the heroes--they simply live out happy lives and have children named after their dead friends.2

This is the bare bones explanation of the Hero's Journey concept, and, as I said, it's hardly accurate to Campbell's exact theories. But, it should give you a bit of a primer for how these ideas work.

Now, this might seem like just one of my tangential explanations of one thing by introducing another thing, but there's a deeper application here. In essence, I think that the tools--the archetypes--that can be used to set up a story in other media can be used as parameters in a generated game. Rather than just abstract story elements strung together, the Hero's Journey would give players a set of goals and a point where the quest becomes complete, while not railroading them down a particular path.

Let me conjure up some help to explain this bit.

It is at this point that you notice, with growing trepadation, that there is a third beer glass sitting upon the table between us, as though awaiting another visitor. With a horrible rumble, the entire fireplace heaves back in its moorings to reveal a vast bank of sparking transistors, from which issues forth a spirit of fire and energy. It reaches out, takes the glass, swirls it, and grimmaces at the poor quality. There is a smell of brimstone and crushed dreams.

This is Ian McDevitt, a friend of mine in training to become a game developer. Perhaps he can shed some light on this subject.

The first and most obvious question, I suppose, is would it even be possible to generate the characters of a Hero's Journey tale?

 Absolutely. I've seen examples of character generators that give you nuanced backstories, character motivations, detailed physical descriptions, personality quirks... basically, everything you could possibly ask for in describing a person. If you have an archetype to build off of, like, say the Chosen One, then it's that much easier. You've got a finite list of character motivations, like not wanting to let everyone down, pride in being Chosen (by whatever mechanism it happens to have been), or fear of their world being engulfed in darkness (or whatever evil they've been Chosen to fight). Of course, this is just an example; I imagine the player would fill the role of the Chosen One, typically.

Would it be possible to create those sorts of characters without the gameplay becoming repetitive and predictable, though?

 That would depend on the limits of the archetypes. If the archetype demands that the Plucky Sidekick, for instance, be an idiot and basically useless, then in every game it generates that has a Plucky Sidekick, you're going to get a basically useless idiot.
And from what I gather, useless idiot sidekicks are rather overabundant in games these days.

 Hahaha, basically, though usually it's not the programmers' intent; it's just really difficult to teach NPCs to fight (or do whatever it is the player's doing) nearly as well as a human can. Though on the other side of the same coin, it's perfectly possible to make an NPC too good at it...

Which could be a problem if you end up with a generated Big Bad that is too tough to kill. But looking at these archetypes might be a good way of picking out where whole character types tend to be problematic, letting developers preempt some of these problems.

 Absolutely. I'm of the opinion that basically any information about how something works will help you design a computer system to replicate it. As any programmer will know, the hardest part of solving a problem is formally defining it. That's really the main difficulty in procedural generation and artificial intelligences.

Speaking of artificial intelligences... would these generated characters be able to exist as characters? For example, could they carry on an actual conversation with the player?

  If we teach a computer that, "If you see a grouping of letters together, there's some likelihood that the next letter will be __," then the computer will learn to create strings of characters that are ordered thusly. You can extend it to groups of words, and groups of sentences, to make full paragraphs of coherent speech. On top of all that, you can program in grammatical rules that humans follow (well, most of follow them!), so that it has a sort of censorship; it won't output anything until it has checked and made sure that it makes grammatical sense! Then it's just a matter of plugging actual subject matter into the right location and tweaking speech based on a given character's personality quirks. It sounds more difficult than it is!

  No, wait, that's backwards, it's actually more difficult than it sounds!

So, this is something that will need time and effort, but ultimately isn't impossible.

 Absolutely not impossible. Just... difficult.

Well, we know we can do it, with effort... but why should we? Where's the value in this sort of generated content? After all, the article I linked to describes how much less detailed the graphics become, and how much simpler the stories would have to be. What's the advantage here?

  For the most part, novelty. And I don't mean, "Oh, hey, this is a kitschy little system, let's build it as a senior project for the hell of it," I mean more along the lines of actually having something new and novel every time you boot it up. As for making things that are lower-quality, that may be the case in terms of actual graphical crispness, but I don't agree that the stories would have to be simpler. A computer can generate anything you teach it to, so it's just a matter of teaching it how our stories work, and it will make stories that are very close to the mark.

So, essentially this system would be valuable because each time you played it, it would be different.

  Essentially, yeah. But the great thing about a system like this is that because of the way computers randomize things, there's always what's called a seed. If you give players a way to check what seed was used to generate their world, and a way for players to pick which seed to use for that generation, players will begin sharing their worlds with one another. Minecraft has a system like that, and it has spawned, at the very least, .

So the most interesting quests--the most interesting stories--would be traded around, replayed, and explored over and over. Really, not different at all from how the best myths get passed down through centuries and across cultures.

The spectre, pleased with this conclusion, chugs the rest of its cheep beer and descends back into the bank of transistors from whence it came, leaving a smell of ozone and charred trollflesh in the air.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, about wraps things up for the evening. Ultimately, both these ideas--procedural generation and the Hero's Journey Archetype--are tools used to generate story experiences that people can enjoy and relate to. From simple rules can come enduring complexity, so profound that it remains with us even today, after all these centuries.

As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations. And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.


2"There is literally no way to move forward from this point!"

1 comment:

  1. I like how I read this the night after watching A Very Potter Sequel...


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