“Are videogames a storytelling medium?” That is the question that kicked off this site. I’d been invited to speak at a small digital media event called “Television is Dead,” here in Sydney. I fought the urge to run screaming, and instead gave some thought to what I’d like to talk about. I started thinking about how games fit into Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero’s Journey narrative structure, and what I came up with was something like this:
As humans, we have a very long history of storytelling. In fact, some have suggested that it our defining feature as a species. Science writers Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen believe that humans should be classified not as homo sapiens, but as pan narrans – the storytelling ape.
In the days of hunter–gatherer societies, the primary storytellers were shamans. Their role was to protect and guide the tribe by communing with the spirits, and one of the ways they did that was to take a whole lot of hallucinogenic substances and go into trances. In the trance state, the shamans believed that they ascended to heaven, via the underworld, and spoke to the gods (or spirits). They would then return to the world of the living, and impart to their people the wisdom that they had received, in the form of stories.
Over the centuries, stories have evolved to cover all kinds of ideas and subject matter, across all human cultures, but what is interesting is what has stayed relatively consistent. In 1949, Joseph Campbell published “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, which is an attempt to draw together those features of stories that have remained consistent across the world and the centuries. The result is this idea of the “Monomyth”, or “Hero’s Journey”.