Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Refusal of the Call: the game

One of the stages of Jospeh Campbell's Hero's Journey is the "refusal of the call": the initial unwillingess of the hero to venture out of the village and into the unknown. You only need to think of Luke Skywalker; he's received the call (Obi-Wan says to him "Come with me to Alderaan."), but he refuses it ("Uncle Owen needs me."). Of course in that and most hero's journeys, the refusal is only temporary.

But as I think about how to encode the hero's journey into a game, that's a tough one. The whole point of a game is to get to experience adventure. What player would thumb the "no" button, when Obi-Wan says "come with me?" Even in table-top roleplaying, where there's more chance for real acting and character development, this sort of reluctance is very difficult. Because, deep down, the player -- not the character -- really, really wants to go.

I've been trying to imagine in what context a refusal would be even imaginable. And I can think of two factors. One, there needs to be a real sense of risk on the player's part. If I'm playing most platform games, even if I die trying something stupid, I just start over at the beginning of the level. (And of course Infocom games had "undo."). No risk. But if it's my character in a persistent shared world, one that I've built up over perhaps years of game play, and I could really lose him forever, well, I might be a little more cautious. And two, the refusal can really only happen embedded in a social context, for two reasons. "I can't let Uncle Owen down" is a response that says existing social relationships are more important than an exterior request (and by Campbellian definition, the Hero's Journey must be a departure from the ordinary). And two, if there are other players around, then someone else could shoulder the burden. In Homer Simpson's immortal slogan for garbage commissioner, "Can't someone else do it?" In a multiplayer persistent world, there are plenty of somebody elses around to risk their neck. Why me?

This is just a case study, though, as I walk through the Quest and think about how it could translate into computer software, games or otherwise. Interesting to see the extent to which sociality is embedded in the meaning, or expression, of the journey.