The hero’s journey in life and play

by Jacqueline Moran.


The hero’s journey is a way of describing our experiences, their effects on us, what they mean to us, and how we respond. In this way, the hero’s journey is a useful tool for understanding the experience of playing digital games, including the way a game’s design affects the player, what those designed elements mean to them, and how they respond with their own choices and actions.

The hero’s journey is a way to frame the experience of wanting a goal. The entire hero’s journey is built up around that goal. It could be anything on any scale. It can be big and dramatic like saving the world from evil or it can be small and immediate like catching the 7:30am bus to work. Whatever the scope, this goal is the best possible option within those parameters. Of all the possible states, your goal is the ideal state. Every other option is in some way flawed and must be corrected, escaped, or avoided. The earth being safe is preferable to the earth being destroyed. Catching the 7:30am bus is preferable to catching the next bus at 8:00am, which would make you late for work.

This is the case in our everyday lives and it is also the case when we are playing digital games. A player will always have their own goals, whether they’re quantifiable and clearly defined (like collecting fifty coins) or vague and based on their own mood (like the exhilaration of an evenly matched battle), whether it’s something the game says is important (like defeating the final boss) or something that is important to the player themselves (like reaching the end of a level in under two minutes).

The hero’s journey describes the relationship between that goal and the hero. For every goal, the hero is affected by two forces: Encouragement and discouragement. Encouragement makes the goal more easily achieved by assisting the hero or giving them reasons to keep trying. The alarm app on your phone, your spouse making you breakfast, your punctual nature, and your desire to make a good impression on your boss all encourage you to catch the 7:30am bus and arrive early to work. Discouragement makes the goal more difficult to achieve by obstructing the hero’s progress or luring them away. The pouring rain, the bus’s irregularity, your late night finishing the last few chapters of a book, and your own apathy all make you less likely to catch the 7:30am bus.

The challenge of the hero’s journey comes from the tension of being both encouraged and discouraged, of being pulled towards your goal whilst also being pushed away. To succeed, a hero must collect all the things that could encourage them and dismiss all the things that threaten to discourage them. They must transform the situation (themselves or the world around them) as much as they can so that they are affected more by things that help than hinder. You have a much better chance of catching the 7:30am bus if you set your alarm, gratefully accept the breakfast your spouse prepared, take pride in your punctuality, and value your boss’s opinion. Many factors are out of the hero’s control. You cannot stop it from raining, force the bus to adhere to its schedule, rewrite your biology to not require sleep, or always be in love with your work. All the hero can do is exert whatever control they have and hope their choices and actions can tip the balance in their favour. You can bring an umbrella, reach the bus stop at 7:20am instead of 7:30am, drink coffee, and work for the paycheque when you’re not feeling passionate.

This is also the case when you’re playing a digital game. When you’re playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wildand you’re ascending Hyrule Castle to fight Calamity Ganon, the Lizalfos with a Tri-Boomerang is an obstacle in your path and a threat to your character’s life. It is discouraging you from your goal. However, Breath of the Wildalso provides you with encouragement. Before reaching this point, you were rewarded for completing puzzles, found treasure, upgraded your armour, and honed your combat skills on monsters of gradually increasing strength. Even when fighting the Lizalfos, you are further encouraged by the lighting that helps you see, the even ground that lets you move, the pause in the Lizalfos’s movements after each attack, and, once you defeat it, you can take its weapon and use it against the next monster you face.

The hero succeeds when they are affected more by encouragement than discouragement, when there is more pulling the hero towards their goal than pushing them away. If no more discouragement could possibly affect the hero, then the goal is permanently attained. Nothing can stop you from catching the 7:30am bus when you’ve already arrived at work. Once you’ve defeated Calamity Ganon and the credits start rolling, nothing can take that away from you. If discouragement is at all possible or if the accumulated encouragement could disappear, then the hero is at risk of losing their goal and the challenges can return. If your goal is to be the most punctual person in the office, then each morning’s commute is another challenge. You may have overcome Breath of the Wild’s challenges once and beaten Calamity Ganon, but you may need to struggle through those same challenges when you play again in ten years, after you’ve deleted your original file and forgotten how to play.

The hero has some control over what affects them and how those relationships change but many things are out of the hero’s control and the world around them may not be on their side. The hero’s journey is not always fair. There might not be sufficient encouragement to accumulate or the discouragement may be too significant to mitigate. A sudden road accident that delays the 7:30am bus is not something you can control or anticipated but it will still affect you.

Life is not always on the hero’s side but a digital game can be on the player’s side. Game developers are not impartial gods. Digital games are made by people to be played by people. Designers can monitor and manipulate the encouragement and discouragement a game provides and assess their influences on the player to ensure the goal is possible and the game is fair. However, even with every element perfectly balanced, the game will only be fair to players who agree with and choose those particular goals.

Nothing is inherently encouraging or discouraging. It seems obvious that a precooked breakfast is encouraging and a heavy downpour is discouraging, but only if your goal is to catch the 7:30am bus. The goal defines the entire hero’s journey. It gives meaning to the things we experience. Reassess those same factors in light of another goal and their effect on the hero can change completely. If you are not concerned with being late to work and you instead want to sleep in, then your alarm app is an irritation to be removed. If your goal is to maintain a low-calorie diet, then your spouse’s bacon and eggs present a test of will, however well-meaning. If you’re an avid gardener and more concerned with your veggie patch than your work ethic, then the rain is a welcome assistance.

Similarly, whether a player finds something in a game encouraging or discouraging depends on their goals. Breath of the Wildfacilitates many different goals and the goals a player prioritises impacts their relationship with every part of the game’s design. Hyrule Castle’s design is the same for every player but what each detail of the castle means depends on what the player wants. When your goal is to defeat Calamity Ganon and save Hyrule, the twisting paths and collapsed doorways are obstacles impeding your ascent to the throne room. Every dead end is a frustrating delay in your progress. Alternatively, if your goal is to collect all the Korok seeds, then every corridor, side room, and tower is another place to meticulously scour for hiding Koroks. Reaching a dead end is a sign of progress, indicating that you have completely searched the area and can move on to the next.

These two goals lead to different experiences but they are both achievable. Calamity Ganon can be defeated and every Korok can be found. The way a player prioritises and ignores the many possible goals in Breath of the Wildchanges the way they understand and react to each aspect of the game, but the game’s world is fair. However, a player may have a goal that the designers did not anticipate. If a player wants to explore the depths of East Reservoir Lake then they will encounter insurmountable discouragement because the game’s controls do not include a way to dive underwater. If this is your goal, then Breath of the Wildwill not feel fair. The hero’s journey describes the relationship between a hero and a particular goal. It is not concerned with how that goal is chosen and it does not guarantee success.

We experience the hero’s journey in our daily lives and when we’re playing digital games. It describes where we stand in relation to goals, whether those goals are achievable, already achieved, impossible to achieve, currently unacknowledged, or even rejected. For every goal, the hero’s journey makes explicit the many factors that determine and change our situation, including the choices and actions at our disposal and the things that are out of our control.


Sources referenced in this essay:

Campbell, J 1968, The hero with a thousand faces, 2nd edn, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild2017 [digital game]. Nintendo.