“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 [their] fellow man.”
This excerpt from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces describes what he calls “The Hero’s Journey,” which is arguably the most useful of the basic plots in writing to know when it comes to game writing. Nowhere is this plot structure represented better than in JRPGs, which borrow heavily from the western monomyth. Fully understanding this plot structure will allow many parts of your game to fall into place, from pacing to character development to world building. While there are something like seventeen steps in Campbell’s original text, The Hero’s Journey can be broken down into three main parts: Departure, Initiation, and Return.
Our hero’s journey begins with the Call to Adventure. In many games, this takes the form of the main character completing some kind of training/tutorial, ritual, or ceremony. Here, many game establish some world-building elements and hint at the game’s big bad. Whether your characters are living in provincial bliss or are part of a well-oiled mercenary fighting force is up to you. An important thing to note here is that the hero can initially reject the call to adventure: we see this crop up in stereotypically lazy protagonists who are just trying to live a normal life.
The next step for our hero is Supernatural Aid. While in classical literature, this can take the form of the hero receiving direct help from a prophet or one of the gods, in games, the Supernatural Aid often appears as a destructive catalyst, e.g. the natural order of our hero’s village life is turned upside-down by the invasion of an outside force, be it evil incarnate, bloodthirsty pack of marauders, or a power-hungry empire. Attached to this step is often a plea from a figure of power, often a princess or goddess (though I encourage you to mix it up!), who may offer reassurance or a guiding light. Thrust into the adventure, our hero then dives headfirst into the new world that awaits them (and us as the player).
Just as our hero starts to get into the swing of things, they’re hit with The Road of Trials, a series of tests that often come in threes and are often failed. The purpose of these tests is to initiate the character’s transformation, and failure is often a strong teacher. Perhaps our hero was of the lazy variety, one who could never take anything seriously and initially rejected their call to adventure. Nothing like a trial where they must save a party member—and fail—to hit home how much they need to stop being so lazy.
At some point, the hero will meet with the initiator of the Supernatural Aid. Should that initiator be a catalyst of evil or destruction, the hero will be tempted with an offer of union (“Join me and together we can rule the galaxy!”). In the context of a god/goddess or member of royalty, it is often trust or loyalty that must be won.
The next step is called Atonement with the Father, and for the sake of removing the Freudian undertones here, we’ll call this Toppling of the Crown. Our hero confronts what holds ultimate power over their life, whether it be a personal flaw, character detail, ultimate evil, or actual literal father (Kratos Aurion from Tales of Symphonia comes to mind). On a meta level, the entire story has been building to this as its center point. While this might not be the climax of the story, it is certainly a dramatic turning point where our hero can overcome their greatest obstacle and go on to save the day, so to speak.
They are resolved and ready to dive into the belly of the beast to acquire the Ultimate Boon. In classical literature, this is often a literal boon—the elixir of life, the holy grail, etc.—but in many games, this is often a final boss mechanic in which the hero obtains an ultimate power (think the Super Sonic/Shadow final boss fight in Sonic Adventure 2).
Admittedly, the Return is often condensed in most stories, as the finishing off of the “final boss” often allows the world to fall back into order. But this need not always be the case! The Return is easily seen in the game mechanic of having to escape the big bad’s lair as it collapses in on itself. It’s one thing to be a hero (Halo Reach), but it’s an entirely different thing to be a hero and survive (the other Halo games).
Putting it All Together
These are pretty condensed notes on The Hero’s Journey, and while many elements of literature and games can fall into this basic plot, many do not. The important thing here is to take what elements you like and try to craft a story that fits well within the game world you’ve created and the game mechanics you’ve put into place. Are you ready to make the next epic hero adventure game?