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.