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Myth in games

We’ve all had our fun spotting recurring elements in games. So many kidnapped princesses! So many spiky-haired antiheroes! But why the constant repetitions? Are developers that lazy? Or could games, in their transition from high-score one-upmanship to narrative medium, have tapped into the basics of mythic tropes?


Above: The New Storytelling, that is

Not to be confused with its drooling bastard cousin, the cliche, the trope is the DNA of story. There’s a reason that the notion of the hero remains unchanged from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Crude Buster. The fundamentals of legend - as catalogued by scholars like Joseph Campbell and James Frazer - have remained constant for thousands of years, and they’re not going anywhere just because we add QTEs to them.

As we explore the mythological roots of ten of gaming’s most common motifs, one caveat: our aim here is to provide a starting-point. If we tried to give a comprehensive list of every time a game has done anything mythic, you’d be here all day - and sick to death of the words “God of War.”

Sorted? Let’s begin…


The Chosen Hero

Only one can save us now, and it’s probably an apathetic smartass.

The world is on a precipice: villagers report monsters in the nearby woods, or research in a top-secret underground lab is about to make a breakthrough, or President Ronnie has been kidnapped by Ninjas. Thrust into the fray is an unlikely saviour: a rough orphan boy, a gawky quantum physicist, or perhaps some Dudes who happen to be Bad, depending on what the situation demands.

Hallmarks:

 - Starts out caring not a whit for their quest, or even opposing it.
 - Ends up caring deeply, winning the day, and suffering mightily for the cause.
 - Seriously, though: what the hell is with that hair?


Above: Don’t you have, like, a job or something?

Some Examples:

Link (The Legend of Zelda), Alexandra Roivas (Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem), anyone first seen oversleeping.


Above: Why don’t you just time travel to an era where they have alarm clocks?

Where’s This Come From, Then?

The Chosen Hero is the only one who can pull the sword from the stone: the one mandated by fate to Get It Done. Forebears from myth and legend include everyone from King Arthur or Hercules, all the way to religious heavy-hitters like Jesus or the Buddha.

How Do Games Do It?

Games like Zelda and Secret of Mana – which feature literal sword-from-stone scenes – are examples of games keenly in tune with the heroic myth. But the Chosen Hero can just as easily be a character like Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu, born into the role of avenger; or even Mario, apparently the only guy in the entire Mushroom Kingdom capable of jumping on a few ornery fungi.


The Mentor

“’Ere, you don’t wanna do it like that, you wanna do it like this!”

Once it’s been determined that stuff needs fixing, the hero will turn to one who knows how to fix it. The Mentor gives the hero skill, knowledge and confidence, and maybe even help in combat. But he’s unlikely to see the final battle – due to injury, the ravages of age, or some mightily surprising reversal of allegiances.


Above: SPOILER - we have no idea

Hallmarks:

- Being stupidly powerful if the game lets them see combat.
- Speaking in ye-olde-selfe-helppe cliches.
- Most likely character to be played by a big-name voice actor.


Above: Let’s see you tell Qui-Gon Jin/Aslan/Taken to piss off

Some Examples:

Theresa (Fable 2), Zhuge Liang (Dynasty Warriors), anyone over 40 not actively sacrificing babies to the enemy.

Where’s This Come From, Then?

In Homer’s Odyssey, the original Mentor both raised the hero’s son and embodied the goddess Athena. Since then, the term has come to denote the wise figure setting heroes on the right path: Merlin, Gandalf and Kipling’s Kaa are some well-known Mentors.

How Do Games Do It?


Above: The hell you say!

While the Mentor features in plenty of games, there’s often confusion as to whether it’s the hero that needs their wisdom, or the player. Many games use the Mentor as a way to shoehorn in all the tedious info that, really, we could have easily figured out (or just found in the manual). Cleverer gaming twists on the Mentor include Viewtiful Joe’s paunchy Captain Blue and Master Chief’s virtual BFF Cortana.

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42 comments

  • Hinro - October 25, 2009 2:37 a.m.

    Hey there's nothing wrong with being a geek elilupe. Good catch on the fact that Cronus never ate Poseidon I actually didn't know that. I knew that the only reason Zeus wasn't eaten was because his mom wrapped a stone in a clothe and Cronus thought it was Zeus and ate that instead. And I knew that Zeus was sent to live in isolation on Crete until the day that he was strong enought to face Cronus but I didn't know that Poseidon was never eaten. I must do some reaserch to check how he managed to escape being eaten. P.S: and to IAmInFactTomG I am glad that I could make your day. I did know that the saying was from a game I just saw it as an opening to explain who Atlas was. You don't get too many opportunities to explain that in life.
  • IAmInFactTomG - September 22, 2009 11:34 p.m.

    @elilupe: Thanks, consider me schooled.
  • solsunforge - September 21, 2009 5:24 a.m.

    Cyberninja your annoying. I will follow you to the ends of every single damn article and tell you so. Your the epitomy of a spoiled only child who happens to be slightly retarded and uneducated.
  • noobeater - September 20, 2009 8:30 p.m.

    Knows all your moves, but faster. Has all your gear, but better. Remember in Twins, how Danny DeVito was like Arnie without the good bits? You’re Danny DeVito. hahahahahhahahahahhahaha LEGENDARY WORDS
  • Conman93 - September 18, 2009 3:43 p.m.

    Lol Dark Pikachu. That should totally be a costume for pikachu in the next smash bros
  • squishysquishy - September 18, 2009 6 a.m.

    Come on GR, the entry for "Shadow" was practically begging for a Persona 4 mention, and ye prevailed not. Ah well. Fantastic article anyway. I've always been a fan of pan-cultural archetypes, and its refreshing to see I'm not the only one who can spot them the grand gaming lexicon. Cheers!
  • Samael - September 18, 2009 4:10 a.m.

    "Above: Let’s see you tell Qui-Gon Jin/Aslan/Taken to piss off" I think you mean Qui-Gon Jinn/Aslan/Taken/RA'S AL GHUL! But the message is the same. Don't fuck with Liam Nesson. Also, kcuf ajninrebyC.
  • AMayer - September 18, 2009 2:28 a.m.

    Increadibly interesting article. And speaking of Dr. Dre... Captcha - Tex detox (detox is the name of Dre's new album.)
  • NelosAngelos - September 18, 2009 1:12 a.m.

    I love mythology and finding the hidden meanings in everything. A very good read, bravo gents.
  • Hinro - September 18, 2009 1:07 a.m.

    Atlas was one of the many Titans that came along before the Greek gods. When the Gods came there was an epic battle which the Gods won. For punishment all the Titans where sent to do something for eternity. Atlas's punishment was to hold up the Earth. He has only left that position once and that was when Hercules(Herakles) needed something from him. Atlas was planning on leaving Hercules there but, amazingly, Hercules outsmarted Atlas (I said amazingly because Hercules wasn't that smart and was seen yelling at the sun for being too hot and killing his music teacher because he couldn't play the lyre and, finally killing his family for no apparent reason) and made him rehold the earth. Atlas has been trapped there ever since. That is my Classical History lesson for the day. If ever anyone has a question about Greek, Roman, Egyptian or Norse Mythology feel free to ask
  • Koouunn - September 18, 2009 12:26 a.m.

    lol who is atlas? spoiler - we have no idea
  • Doomwaffle - September 18, 2009 12:25 a.m.

    See this google search: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&hs=CjR&ei=b9OySurXPJeMtgeyoIjIDg&sa=X&oi=spell&resnum=0&ct=result&cd=1&q=hero%27s+journey+motif&spell=1 This is basically what this is.
  • Hobojedi - September 17, 2009 11:36 p.m.

    Great article. it's like English (history) class, but fun.
  • GamesRadarTylerNagata - September 17, 2009 10 p.m.

    Guys, let's all play nice in the comments. :)
  • norid - September 17, 2009 9:59 p.m.

    that pikachu was awesome
  • Terro - September 17, 2009 8:49 p.m.

    The boon... It exists in every RPG every made...
  • FalconMbuster - September 17, 2009 8:49 p.m.

    Aight, finished. I enjoyed it. Sounded a bit like TV Tropes, though. I didn't feel all that enlightened from the article, but I guess that is because I frequent said site.
  • FalconMbuster - September 17, 2009 8:42 p.m.

    Oy, shut it. Your distracting me from reading the article! Just got to page 4 :O
  • lovinmyps3 - September 19, 2009 11:22 p.m.

    I love when you guys do articles like this!!! I get to read about games and be able to say I learned something!!
  • oz997 - September 19, 2009 4:08 p.m.

    nice Lost reference

Showing 1-20 of 42 comments

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