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Games and Myth

October 24th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

Sometimes you read a post and it simmers in your brain for a bit. Corvus over at Man Bytes Blog does that to me on a semi-regular basis. As hi-falutin as some of my talk gets, he’s all into storytelling, ludology and all that other game design stuff in a much more serious and reflective way than I am. Read his blog thoroughly and you’ll see that, like me most of the time, he’s often just throwing stuff into the public space trying to come to grips with what he really thinks.

That’s why I read him.

His recent posts on myth and games (here and here) got me thinking about what the hell he was talking about. He’s obviously not interested in games that tell stories about familiar myths (like the King’s Quest games) or that include mythic ornamentation (like Age of Mythology). He’s interested in games that can tell transformative stories, even if they merely ape the conventions of the hero’s journey. He cites Max Payne as an example of part of what he is getting at, though he concedes that its story is linear and confined, which he seems to think is not mythic.

As a strategy gamer, I feel myth all around me. Gather round children and hear the tale of my epic rivalry with Carthage in Civilization II and how a fortified border led to an arms race and the inevitable war. Or of how an aged general was called out retirement to fight one last battle against a dangerous Carthaginian, won the battle and then died on the next turn in Rome: Total War.

Because most strategy games are entirely devoid of plot, we assign meaning to things that are inherently meaningless. I know people who developed a serious hate for Genghis Khan and the Mongols in Civ 2 even though they were no more cunning or ruthless than any of the other possible opponents. X-Com persuaded you that the soldiers fighting for you were people as they developed skills and specialties.

I guess that part of the reason that RTS story-based campaigns are mostly unsatisfying is that they lack that player-created narrative. And the beauty of a RTS in MP is that each player has their own narrative.

The other night, I engaged a very skilled opponent in a skirmish match of Age of Empires III. This was our third game – the first two had ended in very quick and brutal slaughters. This one, in his opinion, seemed like a real back and forth match. We fought over a trading post for a very long time, taking turns using it to produce Comanche warriors to aid the fight.

I knew differently.

What he was seeing as a hard fought contest between near equals, I knew was not. Not just because he is very, very good, but because I knew that I had aged up too quickly. I had no reserves to back up any real surge and no cavalry to compete with his. (I always neglect cavalry for some reason…) I had no real breathing space and any push by my troops stretched my resources to the limit.

But how glorious that battle was. It was a hard fought contest in the sense that many soldiers died and it lasted much longer than either of the previous matches. I’m sure he was thrilled that the contest was as “close” as it was even though I knew I was a paper tiger.

Both of us saw the same game but from different sides. Even though I lost, my opponent had crafted this narrative of a war where I “almost had him.” My narrative was of the plucky underdog hanging on until the inevitable swarm of hussars arrived.

That, my friends, is myth making.


One Comment so far ↓

  • Corvus

    And that, is exactly the sort of story telling power games can have. Thanks for providing a perfect example of a player-provided story.

    To clarify, I thought Max Payne did a great job of utilizing icons from ancient myths and portraying them in a suitably mythic and modern fashion.

    The linearity of the storytelling keeps the narrative from being as powerful as it could be.

    Hm, I feel another post coming on…