Games and the Imagination Part III
The Game as Quest
by Richard Dare



In the previous part of Games and the Imagination I introduced the concept of the game as imagination space, a seamless whole where the different characters, objects and processes of a game act as symbolic representations of a players inner concerns. To understand the imagination space and its relationship to the player I introduced Jungian psychology and the concept of archetypes, low level psychological patterns that shape perception and understanding, patterns that not only appear as symbols in dreams, fantasies and myths, but also in many games, either through social convention or through the imagination of the designer. One of the most important archetypal processes is the heroic quest, which not only forms the structure of countless myths and fairy tales from across the globe, but also appears in the structures, processes and plots of many video games.

From Crowther and Wood's Advent, through Zelda and Final Fantasy, to Tomb Raider, Pokemon and beyond, the heroic quest has been at the core of video games. It appears both explicitly, as in most of the RPG genre, and in a lighter, thematic sense as in Command and Conquer, or in any game that depicts an individual or a group under a common banner, a challenge and a goal. Its continuing popularity amongst developers and gamers suggests that this theme goes beyond the mere cliché.

Why is it such a common theme? The writer Steven Poole suggests that the action based nature of the heroic quest lends itself to video games which are not yet equipped to handle the nuance of other themes (Poole, 2000). This may be true, but it only tells part of the story. As a choice of theme the heroic quest goes beyond the utilitarian. For example, there is the interesting observation that a great number of beginning game designers attempt an RPG, the most common representation of the quest, as their first effort, or at least express the desire to work towards creating one in the future. For many designers the perfectly realised heroic quest represents the summit of their efforts. It seems reasonable to suppose that there is a whole class of "questing" designers, as opposed to those who might see their work chiefly in terms of logical puzzles or literary and cinematic storytelling etc.

One of main reasons why the heroic quest is such a popular theme for both gamers and developers is that it is an archetypal theme, a universal human symbol. To Jungian psychology the heroic quest is a symbolic reflection of an important part of the inner journey of psychological growth and development. According to Jungian psychology, the motif of the hero arises in dreams and fantasies whenever strong self identity and consciousness are needed (Jung, 1964). The hero is the person who can encounter the forces of the unconscious mind with its dark labyrinths and devouring dragons without being lost or devoured, without being overwhelmed by the unconscious and losing his individual identity. This archetype is especially important in the psychological development of children and young people who are faced with the task of separating psychologically from their parents and developing a strong sense of identity. But it isn't exclusive to childhood alone; it can appear in dreams and fantasies whenever strength is needed to encounter the forces of unconsciousness and return safely with its treasures.

The Structure of the Heroic Quest

According to the scholar Joseph Campbell, who studied the heroic quest from a moderately Jungian perspective in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the heroic quest is an amplification of the initiation rituals found in many cultures across the globe. These rituals generally have three stages, departure, initiation and return. In the first stage, the person undergoing the initiation either leaves or is taken from his familiar surroundings. In the second stage, the person undergoes an initiation ritual which has the effect of significantly changing his view of the world. In the third stage, the individual who has been initiated returns home, but with a new role. Some cultures, for example initiate boys into manhood by taking them away from the childhood world of their families and subjecting them to painful or strenuous rituals that have the effect of breaking the psychological tie with the old world and preparing them for their new roles as men (Campbell, 1949).

From the Jungian perspective, this cycle of departure, initiation and return reflects the inner process of encountering the unconscious mind, integrating previously unknown psychological contents, and making them a part of the conscious personality. This process mirrors the initiation ritual in that it involves a departure from one's old sense of self (childhood for example, or a set of views that no longer serve a person), a sometimes strenuous encounter with the contents of the unconscious in the form of inner turmoil, dreams, fantasies and projections, resulting in their integration into the conscious personality, which "returns" as it were, transformed, with a new sense of self (Jung, 1964).

This process is symbolised by the heroic quest, which Campbell summarised as, "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man"(Campbell, 1949). So, heroic tales act as imagination spaces, with the hero representing the ego of the individual (or in many cases, the strength of ego required by an individual undergoing such a journey), the different places he visits and the beings he encounters representing different aspects of his unconscious mind, and the narrative itself representing the ways in which the ego deals with these unconscious contents. The boon of the returning hero is a symbol of the inner treasure that has been wrested from unconsciousness and successfully integrated into the conscious personality.

Some myths and fairy tales symbolise a single cycle, that is, they deal with only a few "inner issues". Others are comprised of many such cycles, often nested within each other, dealing with different aspects of the psyche within a single epic journey, a journey that taken as a whole represents the entire process of individuation. These cycles are not necessarily in a linear order, in most stories and games they overlap and interrelate in complex ways. Lets look at each stage of the cycle in turn and explore a few of the many motifs associated with them. As with the Jungian psychology described in part two, it is not possible in this short article to detail every permutation of the heroic quest. Readers wanting a deeper understanding are referred to the books in the bibliography; particularly Jung's Man and His Symbols, Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Marie-Louise Von Franz's The Interpretation of Fairy Tales and Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales.


Here begins the journey. The opening scene of the heroic quest and the introduction of the hero often takes place in relatively mundane, safe and unthreatening surroundings, such as the hero's native town or family home. Sometimes, this place may be idyllic, sometimes, as in many modern stories such as The Matrix, the opening situation is less pleasant. It is an undifferentiated state, where the hero's identity has yet to emerge from the unconscious collectivity of the family home or society. Sometimes it symbolises a way of life gone stale, a state of being that no longer suits an individual. In Jungian terms, the opening scene of the quest is a symbol of an initial psychological situation. This could be a safe childhood home reflecting the world of a child before he separates psychologically from his parents, or a scene of a man dissatisfied with his life as it is, living below his potential in some anonymous metropolis. As an imagination space, the totality of the initial scene, its landscapes and characters, mirror a particular inner state.

But the normality and mundanity of this scene is interrupted. A messenger arrives, in the form of a strange person, an animal or a fateful event that gives the hero-to-be a glimpse of another world. This is the hero's call to adventure. Perhaps the benevolent king falls ill and needs the cure of a magical herb; perhaps the hero catches a glimpse of a beautiful woman or a compelling stranger; an enemy may arise, threatening the home of the hero; or kidnapping him or his relatives or friends The mythical world has many ways of luring people to their destiny.

This strange messenger or event in its negative form is a symbol of the shadow; in its positive form it may symbolise the anima, animus, or perhaps an early appearance of the self. It has appeared to lure the hero away from his initial, unsatisfying situation, to show him aspects of himself or of his life that he must deal with if he is to grow.

For me, Zelda, Ocarina of Time is the game that is most successful in creating this initial situation. The village in which the adventure starts is a warm, enclosed childhood paradise, the enjoyment of which is enhanced by the ominous high walls and dark exit tunnels surrounding it, giving the player a foreknowing of the dangers to come; an awareness of both the safety of home, and the shadowy world outside. This contrast between safety and fear is precisely the experience of the call to adventure.

Sometimes the messenger is ignored, the call refused. The hero becomes trapped in his fear of change, his own misguided apprehensions. His world becomes a sterile wasteland. After glimpsing the world beyond, yet refusing it in favour of the safe, limiting village, he essentially refuses to grow. The hero becomes a victim to be saved. The story of sleeping beauty has this motif, with the young Briar Rose's refusal symbolised by her being put to sleep by a hag. This motif appears in Final Fantasy VII, when the hero Cloud falls into a paralysing despair, requiring the heroine Tifa to enter his dream world to rescue him.

The first encounter for those who have not refused the call is generally with a mentor, a kindly teacher or guide. Often depicted as a wise old man or woman, sometimes as an animal, who gives the hero advice or magical items needed on the journey. Examples include Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke's mentor in Star Wars; Professor Oak in Pokemon, and in Zelda, Ocarina of Time, a wise owl who appears at appropriate times to give direction and advice, as well as Link's fairy companion, who gives constant guidance throughout the game. These characters are early symbols of the self, the totality of the psyche, giving the hero the assurance that the strange realms about to be entered can be survived and understood.

After leaving home and meeting with a mentor, the hero faces the challenge of the threshold guardian, a being who protects the gateway between the known and the unknown. Every region has its tales of the bogeymen, ogres and monsters that lurk outside the city gate, the trolls under the bridge, the wild punishment for those who dare to venture beyond conventional boundaries, both cultural and personal. This threshold represents the point of no return, the boundary between the known and the unknown, the conscious and the unconscious. Sometimes the crossing of the threshold is symbolised by a hazardous journey or by the entrance to a cave or labyrinth.


Having crossed the threshold, the hero enters a world of strange powers and difficult challenges, all reflecting the psychological concerns that lead the hero away from home. Some tales may tell of only one challenge but most contain several, repeating the cycle again and again within this realm, reflecting the different psychological contents that must be integrated and understood in order to face a greater final challenge.

Three common trials or events that take place in the realm of initiation are the confrontation with an enemy, a meeting with, or rescue of a beloved person, and the theft or retrieval of a magical or important object. The battle with an enemy may symbolise the struggle with a harmful or inappropriate attitude, such as a child's overdependance on his parents. In this case the symbolic enemy must be battled with and slain so that the individual can progress. Sometimes the encounter with an enemy may symbolise the struggle with the shadow, with unconscious contents that one does not accept but could be integrated into the conscious personality like the businessman example in part two. In this case, the enemy is confronted and battled, but is eventually redeemed.

Sometimes a beloved person is rescued. In many stories and games this person is a woman, symbolising the anima, the battle for her rescue symbolising the struggle to free her and her related qualities from the clutches of a negative attitude such as a harmful dependence on one's parents. The negative attitude can sometimes be symbolised by the beloved being in a frightening form as in beauty and the beast. One story, an Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain, a knight of the round table illustrates this beautifully. King Arthur was once challenged by a powerful giant with the riddle, "What, above all else does a woman desire?" He travelled across the land asking women this question, but he was unsure as to whether the diverse answers he received would satisfy the giant. In a forest he came across a hag who's appearance nearly caused him to faint. He plucked up courage and asked her the question. The woman made Arthur promise to give her anything she wanted in return, before giving the answer, "A woman wants more than anything else, to exercise her free will." Arthur returned to the giant, who confirmed that this was correct. After going back to the forest, Arthur thanked her and asked her what she wanted in return. "To marry a knight of the round table," was her reply, much to Arthur's dismay.

Arthur returned to Camelot to tell his knights of the adventure, and with a saddened heart, of the old hags request. Without hesitation, Sir Gawain stood up and offered himself as husband. After the wedding, Gawain and his bride retired to the marital bed, and he turned with some fear to his new wife. To his amazement, he saw not an old hag, but the most beautiful woman he had ever known. A spell had turned her into a hag, and could only be broken if the greatest knight in Britain married her of his own free will. But one more task was to be done before the spell would be completely broken. She asked Gawain to decide if she was to be ugly by day and beautiful by night or beautiful by day and ugly by night. He thought for a while before saying that the choice was hers to make. She smiled, the spell had been completely broken and she would be her beautiful self again. Gawain had truly understood the giant's riddle.

In many cases the object of the hero's struggle is a magical or important item. This item is a symbol of some important quality that has remained unconscious. Jung gave an example of a woman patient who dreamed of discovering a sword. When asked about this sword the woman replied that it reminded her of a dagger belonging to her father. Her father was a wilful man with a powerful personality, possessed of qualities that the woman felt she lacked. By discovering this sword, she was beginning to uncover these qualities in herself (Hyde, 2000).


After the struggle of initiation the hero returns triumphantly to his home, transformed by his experiences. Often, the hero is crowned king or given an important position. His victory may have revitalised the world, having vanquished the forces that threatened it. Just as the opening scene of the quest symbolises an initial psychological situation, the end scene represents the new healed or transformed inner situation; the new order in the hero's land symbolising the new order in the psyche.

Individuation and the Hidden Process

Although the heroic quest appears most explicitly in RPG and action games, the process that it symbolises, the individuation process, seems to exist at a low level in many other games. In my previous article, The Yin and Yang of Games: Code and Content, I described a "hidden" process found in many games:

"A game can be described at its most fundamental level as a total system; a system of changing variables, the limits and functions of which are set by the designer who can by the nature of logic, predict every outcome of every change in any variable. [Note: By variable, I do not mean the constructional elements of a programming language i.e. DWORD's, CHAR's etc., but the discrete, changing elements of a game as they are perceived by the player; the game's objects, options and playing pieces] Here, the designer has the total perspective of a god. At this perspective, there is no conflict, no excitement, just a system running perfectly. (Well, maybe with a few little bugs..)

"To create the conflict and relative unpredictability of a game we need to step inside it and take up a perspective that limits our view of the total system. This perspective is the player, or more fundamentally, the set of variables over which the user has knowledge and control. The variables over which the user has no knowledge or control are the opposition, the enemy. Often, the set of variables that comprise the player must be maintained in a certain way to retain coherence of the player perspective.

"At its most basic, the game is the process by which the player manipulates the variables at his or her disposal to create a state of completion, or of stasis in the system, by either taking control of all the opposing variables, or by eliminating them. At this point, if no further opposition is forthcoming, the player has total knowledge of the system. Now equal with the designer there is no further reason to play"(Dare, 2001).

Interestingly, this process of gradually coming to knowledge of game elements1 is very similar to the individuation process, of gradually integrating unconscious contents into the conscious mind. In other words, the individuation process is, or can be represented in a game at a very low level; in abstract, systematic terms as well as in terms of plot or imagery. One could even say that representing this process is what games do best, and that rather than being simply a platform for storytelling or simulation, games are primarily platforms for psychological and imaginative expression.


The heroic quest is used almost instinctively and often unreflectively, by many developers. But by understanding its psychological interpretation and how it relates so closely to the underlying form of most video games, developers can not only make more creatively varied games, they can also create more meaningful experiences for their players.

In part four of Games and the Imagination, Integrating the Imagination, I will explore some of the ways that the Jungian perspective given here can be used in the creation of games. Amongst other things, I will explore the way that we can use the ideas of this series to widen the language of genre to a great degree, and offer a new perspective on that thorny issue of violence in games.


1: The "hidden process" is a concept still in development; it is not yet clear how much of this process is in a game, and how much is in the mind of the player. I think that there may well be a "family" of such processes, depending on the type of game, with the process described here with its symmetry and wholeness, representing an ideal. I also think that the way a player experiences and envisions this process may have similarities with the way a person comprehends and enjoys music.

Bibliography and Suggestions for Further Reading

Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949; 1993, Fontana)

Dare, Richard, The Yin and Yang of Games: Code and Content (2001,

Hyde, Maggie, McGuinness, Michael, Introducing Jung (1999, Icon)

Jung, Carl Gustav, Von Franz, Marie-Louise, Henderson, J.L., Jacobi, Jolande, Jaffe, Anelia

Man and His Symbols (1964; 1978 Picador)

Poole, Steven, Trigger Happy, The Inner Life of Video Games (2000, Fourth Estate)

Stevens, Anthony, On Jung (1999, Penguin)

Storr, Anthony (editor), The Essential Jung (1998, Fontana)

Von Franz, Marie-Louise, The Interpretation of Fairy Tales (1996, Shambhala)

-Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales (1974, Spring)

About The Author

Richard Dare develops games for Smartphone and PocketPC. He would be very interested in hearing from anyone who would like to discuss his ideas or take them further. He can be contacted at:

© 2004 Richard Dare

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Date this article was posted to 10/25/2004
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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