The Interesting Case of the Hero’s Journey

In mythology, there is something called the monomyth, or the “hero’s journey.” It is a set pattern of events that a story/character will progress through during the story. This journey usually entails the hero going on an adventure, triumphing in some way, and returning home a transformed in some way. A long time ago, I posed a little thought experiment about how Loghain from Dragon Age: Origins, actually progresses through the hero’s journey, despite being the main antagonist of the game.

More recently, I was talking to my friend Imtiaz over at Power Bomb Attack about Journey, an indie game developed by thatgamecompany and published by Sony for the Playstation 3. We agreed that it can provide a powerful and moving experience for gamers, and, upon some reflection, I realized that this profundity comes from the game setting the player on the hero’s path and letting the player personally experience, for him or herself, the great monomyth.

What is the Monomyth?

The study of hero’s tales and mythology has dated back to the late 1800s, but John Campbell is the one most often associated with the idea of the monomyth. Basically, what Campbell poses is that all heroes across all heroic tales follow the same progression from beginning their story in the mundane everyday, traveling through a series of fantastical journeys and obstacles, and then finally returning to their original world, transformed and wiser for their journey. This can be applied to the stories of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, to the story of the Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, and even Harry Potter*.

Image result for monomyth

Humans love stories; it’s how we learn and connect with other people, both of our time and from the people who have come before us. What the idea of the monomyth proposes is that all great stories found in the human tradition of storytelling follow a pattern that resonates with us. This is both the reason so many story follow the monomythic progression, and why stories that echo of it resound with us so strongly.

So, without further ado, let’s see how thatgamecompany’s Journey lets the player follow in the footsteps of the great hero’s journey.

1. Call to Adventure

The moment in the story when a life-altering, sometimes supernatural event, occurs. It is the catalyst for the hero to begin his/her journey.

In Journey, the game opens up with no explanation, no directions, and no call to action. It simply shows you the landscape and, towering above the sand in the distance, a giant, shining mountain. Here, the call to adventure is the thing that drives all humans forward: curiosity. What is the mountain? Where are we? What are those small monuments for?

Image result for journey game

In this case, the supernatural event is putting a person into a strange environment with no explanation and no clear expectations. For a video game, this is a subtle yet extraordinary way to pull the player in and (politely) force them to put themselves into the game. The avatar doesn’t have any reason for progressing through the game, but the player does. Thus, Journey sets the player on the hero’s journey.

2. Refusal of Call

Oftentimes, the hero/heroine does not believe that the call is important and will not heed it (like Simba from The Lion King). The hero can exist in this state, but in those cases is destined for a fall (King Minos*). The call can also be impeded by another person, like in the Harry Potter series*.

As the game progresses, it might seem like there is no point at which the avatar/character/player refuses the call to adventure. Simply by continuing on and exploring, we as players are answering that call. However, the game cleverly works the refusal into its very mechanics. When the player becomes too adventurous and deviates too far away from the path, the game pushes the player back via a gust of wind.

 

So, in addition to our natural curiosity, there is a path for us to follow. There is a purpose for our travels. And any time we try – inadvertently or purposefully – to leave the path, we are refusing the call to continue on our journey.

3. Supernatural Aid

A conveniently-placed character will offer aid to the hero along his/her journey.

One element in the game provides us – via our avatar – with aid, and they are placed conveniently throughout the game areas: the scarf pieces and the cloth creatures. By lengthening the scarf of our avatar, we are able to reach new heights in the game, overcome new obstacles, solve harder puzzles, and bypass difficult terrain more easily. Likewise, the cloth creatures can replenish our scarf’s power, as well as give us short rides over other obstacles or across distances that we could not manage under our own power.

Image result for journey game

4. Crossing the First Threshold

The hero reaches, and crosses, what Campbell calls the threshold of a “zone of magnificent power.” This is the moment the hero becomes to be immersed in the event/happening that is larger than him/herself.

This happens fairly early int he game. When the Traveler (the name of your avatar) finds the first ruined structures in the desert, and goes to explore, the first hints that there is more to the world than sand is revealed. Trapped within the metal cages is one long scarf piece, which the Traveler can free.

Image result for journey game trapped scarves

The structure the scarves are trapped within is the first hint that there is something much larger than us in the world. After all, the metal body is long and segmented, looking like the half-buried skeleton of a large creature. And it traps scarves that look a great deal like the scarf our avatar wears…

5. Belly of the Whale

Following a crossing of the threshold, the hero finds that he/she does not conquer the power of the threshold, but falls into the unknown.

The first time in the game the Traveler is truly in danger is during the underground level. The beasts that we have only seen as husks on the ground are alive and well, patrolling the skies and searching, it seems, for the unwary Traveler (pun unfortunately intended). It doesn’t matter how long your scarf is, or how much exploring you have done above-ground, because here the Traveler can only sneak and, eventually, is forced to experience the sheer power of the mechanical watcher/war machine as they – at the least – chase the Traveler to the end of the cavern and – at the worst – attack the Traveler and rip the our scarf to pieces.

Image result for journey game underground

In this cavern the Traveler is helpless and completely at the mercy of the machines. We can only move slowly, keep to the shadows, and hope for the best. In fact, there is a trophy for completing the “level” without being seen, since that by itself can be quite a feat.

6. Road of Trials

These are a series of trial that the hero must overcome, perhaps using a magical instrument like an amulet, or other supernatural forces. Often, the hero will fail the trials before being successful.

This is one of the easiest stages to parallel in the game. Throughout Journey, we are asked to solve puzzles, which, like a hero’s Road of Trials, must be completed before we are able to progress. Additionally, because we are interacting with the game through our avatar, we are the ones who fail when we don’t utilize our knowledge or skills the best way. Sometimes, we must use our supernatural force – our magical scarf – to complete the puzzles and progress.

Image result for journey game

7. Meeting with the Goddess/Woman as Temptress

In both of these situations, the hero is asked to either sacrifice a long-held belief after meeting an important, often-female character, such as a goddess, oracle, or other woman (like Princess Leia from Star Wars), or must resist giving in to temptation, either physically or mentally, in order to grow in strength as a character.

Image result for journey game white character

It’s easy to dismiss this step in Journey, since this one is one that doesn’t always need to be present for the monomyth to be complete. However, although I’m not sure if the Travelers have genders, at certain points throughout the game we meet a figure robed in white, who gifts the player – via the Traveler – knowledge of the past. This knowledge blurs the line a bit for the player/traveler relationship. It is new information to both, and it sometimes hints at upcoming trials, like the appearance of mechanical war machines that hunt Travelers.

8. Atonement with the Father

This often represents overcoming that which has come before, or an abandonment of thinking limited by the id or ego*

This is another step that doesn’t always need to be present in a story, but it’s possible that, as a player, our realization that the Traveler is somehow connected to the beings who destroyed their world could represent overcoming pre-conceived ideas about the game, the story, or the Traveler itself.

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9. Apotheosis (The Climax)

This is the moment when greater understanding is achieved, enabling the hero to complete the final and most difficult part of their task.

The final area, the snowy mountain, is this last step before the “endgame” of Journey. There is no way for the Traveler to complete this level either alone or with a companion, and the entire area is a battle against the temperature, the elements, and the mechanical war machines.

Image result for journey snow level

However, upon the ultimate “failure,” the player/Traveler is surrounded by the figures in white, offering help in those final moments. I believe that this is very symbolic of gaining “understanding” through a spiritual experience of some sort, propelling us into…

10. The Ultimate Boon

The achievement of the quest.

We make it to the mountain! And we are duly rewarded with a beautiful area to explore, without fear of our supernatural power (flying abilities) running out or of coming to any harm. I love the imagery used here, as the devs seemed to go out of their way to make the area as aesthetically pleasing and inviting as possible.

Image result for journey final level

11. Refusal of Return and Magic Flight

Refusal of Return is when the hero does not want to leave the enlightenment and joy of the discovered world. The Magic Flight refers to an instance of having to “escape” with the ultimate boon in order to return to the ordinary world with the new knowledge*.

I combined these two because of how they are presented in-game. The refusal of return is another instance of how the player simply enjoying the game world is fulfilling a step of the hero’s journey. After the trials of the game, and the final push up the mountain, the player is given the freedom to fly and float joyfully above the clouds without any hindrance, either from war machines or from the power of the scarf running out. While the player can simply pass through the area to reach the end, I would pose that many of us took a little extra time to explore this beautiful and peaceful world.

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The magic flight doesn’t occur as per its definition, since the Traveler doesn’t need to “escape” from an antagonist with anything, but there is no denying that the player finishes the journey with knowledge and experiences that they hadn’t had before, and can re-start the game with this new knowledge.

13. Rescue from Without

Occasionally, the hero needs help from an outside source during the return journey. This could be in the form of advice, shelter, or a literal rescue, like the eagles appearing in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

This step doesn’t really occur in Journey, as there is no opposition to us finishing the game and returning “home.”

14. Crossing the Return Threshold

Not only reaching “home,” but also retaining the knowledge of the extraordinary world and knowledge discovered.

As the Traveler lightly lands back at the beginning of the game, the player again experiences this step of the hero’s journey. We have literally arrived back where we started, but know we are a little wiser about the game world, the journey, and the joy that awaits us at the mountain.

Image result for journey beginning game

15. Master of Two World

The hero is able to transcend the two worlds, integrating the knowledge of each.

While not the most important step here, this is again one that the player experiences through the avatar. The player can now guide the avatar through the worlds again, finding the secrets more easily and completing the journey with (hopefully) less trouble than before.

Image result for journey game white robe

16. Freedom to Live

Neither anticipating the future or regretting the past, the hero lives entirely in the moment.

Another step that the player is craftily asked to experience: when we sit back to think about the game we just played, we begin to have an inkling that maybe it’s not about where we’re going, or where we’ve been, but where we are. Perhaps, all along, this has been about the journey, not the destination.

What do you think? Is it Journey‘s adherence to the monomyth – and how it lets the player personally experience the hero’s journey – that makes it such a powerful experience? Have you played Journey? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~ Athena


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34 thoughts on “The Interesting Case of the Hero’s Journey

  1. Nice write up! Journey is special because it uses the Hero’s journey in a very interactive way. As you said, it shows you the mountain, doesn’t give an ounce of explanation as to what it is, and more importantly doesn’t tell you to go there. You just see it and want to go there. Fabulous game, almost had me in tears at the end for some strange reason when you are resurrected and able to fly and see the beautiful paradise below you.

    Really like this article. We studied quite a bit of the hero’s journey in high school, using Greek mythology as examples for several talks about it and other pieces of literature. We also applied the journey to more modern pieces of art like film. I can’t for the life of me recollect all we discussed, but it was a very interesting class.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! I had a similar experience to yours when playing – I can’t quite describe the profundity of what I felt during that final paradise level.

      Greek mythology is a great place to find the monomyth, and those stories as usually used as the basis for discussions since they usually fit so nicely 🙂 Sounds like a really cool class; I always enjoyed when mythology came up in literature classes!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was actuallynjust English class, but an enriched variation that slightly differed from the regular one. It was fun because they talked about difference pieces of literature, and even served as a stepping stone for me tonget into Tolkien’ s work. Read the Hobbit, loved it, and it just happened that the fellowship of the ring came out in theatres them so did a field trip. Loved it!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I find this write up interesting. I have particular interest in the Hero’s Journey as it’s a method of training staff over a period of time. It’s use in Journey is unusual and yet still ties into it (as the vast majority of tales do). The idea of the call being a self created one is a nice way of looking at it and is probably one I’ll apply in future training sessions!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! This is a bit of an unusual example, since the steps aren’t all necessarily experienced in order or as they are usually described, but you’re right that it still fits even as it brings its own flavor.

      That’s really great that you use the monomnyth for training staff. Do you train other teachers?
      Also, I’m glad you liked the example of the call being self-created so much. I hope it’s helpful to you in the future!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, we use The Call as a representation of identifying challenges that certain pupils face, then moving of from there (threshold being determining the correct course of action, abyss presenting this to the child etc.)
        The idea of the call being one of self motivation could be useful, promoting a more proactive rather than reactive approach.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I might be inclined to argue that “Rescue from Without” is what occurs when the Traveler falters in the snow and the white robed figure appears, but you mentioned her (?) before (I don’t know why that figure comes off as feminine to me, but it does). The Monomyth doesn’t have to be straightforwatd in order to be valid, and again you’ve put some ideas in my head 😊

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have! Comedy, tragedy, rags to riches, overcoming the monster, the epic (or something like that… maybe the quest?), the voyage and return… and the one I always forget. Resurrection or something?

        There really isn’t anything new under the sun, is there 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think it’s the quest! Most stories have at least two, and I’ve seen a few that have them all! I would love to find a story that doesn’t have a single solitary one, but it would be a very odd tale, because it would be something entirely new.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, yes. That’s a really good point. I might be inclined to agree with you. I had already used the white robed figure before, but there is certainly no reason why she (they?) couldn’t be used more than once!

      I’m not sure why the figures always seemed feminine to me, as well. The figure somehow just seems like a stereotypical maternal figure. Hm.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They seemed like the wise woman/storyteller, the person who remembers and recounts the history. The Traveler seemed of either or of no gender, which I think is perfect for a game where it’s purely avatar. The more I hear about Journey, the better it becomes.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever been more enchanted by a game.

    Your analysis just helped me figure out something that was always in the back of my head when I played it. This game reminded me of something and I couldn’t put my finger on it, and thanks to you now I know: The Smith of Wootton Mayor. Specifically, what you wrote from the Refusal to return onward made everything fall into place.

    On the one hand, it’s kind of funny how I never saw either the tale or the game as a retelling of the Monomyth (something rather embarrassing considering that one of them is written by Tolkien and the other’s name is Journey). On the other hand, I think it has to do with the fact that both are works where you can get lost in the experience of the Hero’s Journey without being aware of it.

    By the way, have you played ABZÛ? I haven’t yet, but I really want to see what Jenova Chen created this time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sometimes I think the best stories are the ones that enable their readers to get lost and have a much more visceral experience rather than simply an intellectual one. Experiencing the profundity of the hero’s journey, rather than (being a nerd and) analyzing the journey like I did (haha), is, for me, so much more interesting and enjoyable.

      I haven’t played Abzu yet. It’s on my list of games to play, and since I’m trying to intersperse my RPG playing with shorter games, it should be coming up soon! I’m fascinated by the concept, as well.

      Like

      1. But we wouldn’t have such interesting posts if you didn’t nerd out! I think there is room for both things, right?

        That said, getting lost in a work of art or game is very enjoyable, especially so when you get older and you have fewer opportunities to nurture your sense of wonder. That is one of the reasons I am very happy with the current trend of exploration-heavy games with unusual narratives (and I am thankful platforms like itch.io and kickstarter exist to grant creators the freedom to do so).

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I am intrigued by this post and like your approach. This fall I hope to incorporate video games into the writing courses I will teach. One of my assignments, a discourse analysis, requires students to analyze the ways we talk about video games in various communities. If you don’t mind, I might refer my students to your post as an example. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be very flattered for you to use my post as an example! Thank you 🙂 I’m glad the information was presented in a way that makes sense. I really do love looking at the stories behind the stories in games, so to speak, and I’m so glad you’re incorporating video games into a writing course. They are definitely becoming a great storytelling medium!

      Is your course specific to video games, or is it a writing course in which you’re incorporating games?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t received my teaching assignments for the fall semester yet, but I typically teach first and second year college writing courses. As long as course outcomes are met, my school allows for a certain flexibility when it comes to course and assignment design.

        A few years ago, I taught a writing class that had a video game theme, and the course itself was designed as a game. It was experimental and had some flaws but ultimately showed me the potential for video games in the classroom. It was both fun and a learning experience.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting post! I really enjoyed this analysis. I love the hero’s journey and use it a lot when I’m studying my own writing and trying to organize things. But I never would have thought to apply it to Journey, which is one of my favorite games!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’m so glad you liked it 🙂 I really enjoy the hero’s journey, as well – I guess that’s why it’s stuck around so long (haha). Yeah, this is a pretty subtle tale that it’s used in, especially since the Traveler really is simply an avatar for the player, so the *player* is going through the monomyth for him/herself, which is not something we expect to do. I was playing Journey not too long ago and I got blown back into the playing area, and it just sort of struck me that no matter what, I couldn’t *not* go toward the mountain. I’m not sure why that seemed so profound at the time, but it snowballed from there!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love playing with the monomyth, seeing how it applies to various stories. The elements are just so universal, it’s interesting to see the different takes on this story that really seems to reach to the common heart. They’re very broad, too, which is why you can apply this to so many stories and still have so much variation in them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s cool to see how these overarching themes can fit so well with different stories. I think one of the reasons the idea of the monomyth has survived so long is because it does resound with audiences so easily and can fit so many stories, like you said. I think we like the idea of a “little guy” overcoming so much and becoming a hero; it could be an allegory for so much in our regular “mundane” lives as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What an awesome article about Journey! You make a very good case for the game’s story following the monomyth. What makes the silent, vague game so wonderful is that it is so open to interpretation. I certainly wasn’t thinking of the hero’s journey, word for word, though I had elements of it in mind when playing it. I had always taken this game as a representation of one lifetime from birth to old age, knowing full-well that there were so many ways to look at it. I guess in a way, we are all heroes on a journey, but I truly love your take on the Traveler’s tale.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I know when I first played it, that was the way I looked at it, too: as an allegory for our lives. When the Traveler fell and was surrounded by the white robed figures, I definitely interpreted that as some profound experience, either death (to paradise to reincarnation), or as simply a symbol that, at the end of the day, there is no trial or journey we make (or can make) completely by ourselves. It was honestly only recently that the whole idea of the hero’s journey came to mind while playing.

      I’d agree that we are all heroes on our own journeys, though. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why the idea of the monomyth has survived for so long.

      Liked by 1 person

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