“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.
Wait, What About Plots?
There comes a time for every indie game dev where they reach the point where they have to string together some sort of a story. From infinite runners to rogue-likes to shoot ‘em ups, the writing in your game will place all the art, music, and game mechanics into context for the player and further their enjoyment. But maybe you can’t find a writer, or you want to do the writing yourself, or maybe you have to do the writing yourself. Whatever the case may be, if you’re at a loss of where to start, you can always turn to The Seven Basic Plots:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
Before we get started, it’s important to keep in mind that any good, layered story will incorporate elements from many of these basic plots, but choosing a main plot should go far in getting the writing flowing for your game.
Overcoming the Monster
This is the classic good vs. evil. The protagonist (the main character) sets out to defeat an antagonistic force that threatens the protagonist or their homeland. This is a tried and true basic plot for many JRPGs, from Chrono Trigger to Golden Sun, and there’s a reason they use it: It works.
The basic setup for this plot is to establish a main character or group of characters you can label as the “goodies” and pit them against a villain or group/organization you can label as the “baddies.” While a straight up good vs. evil dynamic can work, you can add extra complexity by creating two sides that have the same goal but utilize different methods. For example, the goodies could be trying to save the world by uniting the people to combat a demonic intruder, while the baddies could be trying to save the world by bending the knee to the demon and currying favor.
Rags to Riches
This basic plot crops up a lot in movies and literature, notably in Disney’s Aladdin and Capcom’s SNES platformer by the same title. In a Rags to Riches plot, the protagonist starts poor, gains wealth/power/love, loses it all, then gains it back in the end after they’ve grown as a character. If you’ve envisioned your game starring a mercenary who’s just looking to get paid, this is an excellent basic plot to go with, as their quest for riches could eventually lead to them growing as a character and changing what they define as wealth. Arguably, Star Fox operates with some Rags to Riches elements, as the mercenary group Star Fox operates as, well, mercenaries, and while they are indeed saving the solar system, they’re doing so because they’re looking to make money.
The Quest is a familiar plot to anyone who’s played an adventure game like Zelda or a JRPG. In The Quest, a protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an object or reach a destination, facing obstacles and temptations along the way. Elements of The Quest can also be found in games like The Banner Saga, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and Homeworld. The important distinction between The Quest and Overcoming the Monster is what while characters in a Quest plot may fight evil and/or monsters, it is the journey that is emphasized. This leaves ample room to focus the writing on characters and makes an excellent setting for survival games.
Voyage and Return
This basic plot shares a lot in common with The Quest, but the important distinction is that in the Voyage and Return plot, the emphasis here is on returning. In terms of video games, elements from this basic plot can be seen in mechanics that incorporate a “main base of operations,” with missions sending the characters out and returning. Voyage and Return is also a useful plot for strange lands or war, where the protagonist is focused on trying to make it home.
While this might seem straightforward, the Comedy basic plot differs from the concept of humor or jokes. Sure, a Comedy will have jokes and humor in it—in fact it’s hard to pull off a successful Comedy plot without them—but what sets this plot apart is that as the story progresses, things descend deeper and deeper into chaos, with the plot becoming increasingly and almost unbelievably more crazy, and finally finishing off with a happy ending. This basic plot is a tricky one to pull off in a game but finds its home in dating sims like Huniepop, where in this particular case you go from dating normal girls to dating a fairy to dating various goddesses. Games with strong, solid mechanics can benefit from going a little crazy with their stories!
In the Tragedy, the main character exhibits one major character flaw or makes one giant mistake, which ultimately ruins them in the end. The goal of the Tragedy is for the player/audience to take pity on the main character. Comedy and Tragedy are very closely intertwined, as a game like Catherine could have gone either way: the main character exhibits a major flaw and ultimately had a choice to make in the end, as per Tragedy; but ultimately, the game focuses on the main character’s descent into an increasingly crazy situation with a happy ending (if you play your cards right!).
Rebirth can be quite a powerful element in a story and works incredibly well as backstory or a catalyst for the game’s event. In Rebirth, an event forces the main character to change their ways and become a better person. Elements of the rebirth can be used as a way to jumpstart the action in your game. Many JRPGs use the destruction of a main character’s village/family as a way to force a change in the main character that propels them on the path to Overcoming the Monster. I’d say even a game like Transistor has elements of Rebirth, with the main character Red experiences an incredibly emotional event at the start that forces her to change from an opera singer into a hero.
Plot a la Carte
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking one of these basic plots and using it for your game. From classic literature to popular media, many creatives choose to be pure and simple in their storytelling. However, I will say that it can be incredibly fun to play with mixing and matching elements. For example, a Rags to Riches plot can take on whole new dimensions if you throw in some elements of Tragedy or Overcoming the Monster. In fact, you might find the story naturally evolving as you progress through the playthrough. The most important rule of writing after all is, “If it’s stupid and it works, it’s not stupid.”
H/T to Dorian Karahalios for writing about this topic originally!