|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #72:
Modern Myths, Part Three: An Overview from Adventure to Anarchy
May 9, 2002 - Welcome to my third week discussing mythology and the end of the beginning of this topic. Thus far I've talked about how mythology has evolved over the centuries and the common characteristics of the form in Trial, Triumphs & Trivialities #70, Modern Myths, Part One: An Overview from Gilgamesh to Bunyan and I've discussed how mythology has survived into the modern day in some mutated forms in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #71, Modern Myths, Part Two: An Overview from Citizen Kane to Spider-Man.
This week I finally get to the meat of the matter: online games.
Mythology in Computer Games
To really address the question of mythology in online games, I'd like to take a few steps back and look at how older games have used mythology or become mythological.
The history of online games usually draws me back to Adventure (1976), the first text-based adventure game (coining the term). In that game you explored a cave, solving puzzles and collecting treasures along the way. Fairly simple, but somehow it's managed to attain legendary status. Some of that is, clearly, because it was the first, but I think some of it was also because it really felt like mythology.
Adventure was filled with totally iconic characters. There was a dragon and a pirate, elves and a giant snake. Treasures included a gold nugget, silver, jewelry, a golden egg, a ming vase, and an emerald. The cave, with its twisty passages, tight crawls, and underground volcanos was, in many ways, the Platonic ideal of an underground cave. By making itself so simplistic, Adventure left itself a blank slate that each player could attribute their own meaning too, just like the old myths.
The King's Quest series is another set of adventure-type computer games which really seemed larger than life to a whole generation of players. King's Quest II (1985) is the one that really sticks in my mind. It used not just iconic characters, but actually well-known characters from mythology, including Little Red Riding Hood, Count Dracula, and Aladdin.
It's interesting to contrast these richly iconic games with a recent contender to the online arena like Anarchy Online (2001). In this science-fiction offering you play such memorable characters as Fixers, Bureaucrats, and Meta-Physicists. You combat awful beasts including Anuns, Brontos, Buzzsaws, Nanofreaks, and Sabres. A few of these names (like the Sabres) seem to hint at iconography, but the rest are so bizarre that they, in failing to meet one of the criteria for mythology, also fail to catch the common imagination.
Considering online games from a slightly different slant it's somewhat interesting to note that most online games have steered far from real mythologies. Dark Ages of Camelot (2001) is the biggest exception, centering itself not just on one real culture and mythology, but rather three: the Irish, the British, and the Norse. Some older games did as well, most notably DikuMUD (1990) which included heavy Norse mythology as a centerpiece the game.
In considering all of the computer games that have been created in the last decades we could probably discover the whole spectrum of mythological possibilities, from numerous games that built out iconic but artificial Medieval worlds, like Bard's Tale (1985) and Heroes of Might and Magic (1995), to those that have been free of iconography, either due to blandness, like the Adventure Construction Set (1987), or due to a decision to put a game in a fairly non-mythic setting, like Ultimate Soccer Manager (1995). Some games have done excellent jobs of building on mythic stories from other mediums, like Dune (1992), while others have constructed extensive mythologies of their own, like Ultima I (1980), et al.
So what's that all mean?
Quite simply, games can choose whether to be mythological or not. However, looking back at the games that were being produced 20-30 years ago, I don't think there's much doubt that the ones that have made an impact and are the best remembered are the ones with a mythological base. Sierra Online and Infocom are, I think, the ideal examples and in our current age of online games I don't have any doubt that people will remember Dark Ages of Camelot over Anarchy Online.
Ultimately what you want to do for your game is up to you; if you want to create a game that's not mythological at all, that has no dualities, and no iconography, that's a perfectly valid design choice.
But if you want to make a game that could be something bigger, well... . that'll take a little more work.
Building Mythology into Your Game
Really, all it takes to create a truly mythological background is applying the rules of mythology that I suggested two weeks ago to your own game. So, I'm going to repeat the most applicable of those memes here, also offering some commentary and specific examples along the way.
Create a Mythic Background. Players will imitate the examples that they're given. Thus, if you want players to develop a game mythically, you need to start off by offering a mythic background. It needs to be larger than life, like a faerie tale or a dream.
Make it Iconic. You can very definitely offer a game with complex, multi-shaded backgrounds and characters. But to make it mythic you also want to offer simple, iconic shorthands which will help players grasp the background quickly, and will allow them to create their own meaning around characters, places, and events. In Castle Marrach, for example, the characters include The Winter Queen and Her Consort. Many other characters are iconic representations of their positions within the Castle: the Royal Poet, the Royal Seamstress, the Queen's Champion. For how these icons can be layered with complexity, consider Luke Skywalker, who was the Naive Countryboy, but revealed much more about himself through George Lucas' three movies.
Make The Characters Larger than Life. It's really hard in a multiplayer online game for everyone to be the hero, but at the least you can try and make each player larger than life with powers far beyond the ken of mortal men. In other words, don't start them off fighting sheep and cows.
Send the Players on Heroic Journeys. This is a topic I want to discuss more in a future column, but, in essence, the heart of a Heroic Journey is a quest, where the players leave their home behind, head off to a faraway land on a dangerous quest, then return with something that changes the (their) world.
Allow for Big Changes. In conjunction with that, clearly you need to allow changes within your world. There's nothing mythological about a static world that never changes, but when heroes deliver storms to aid blighted lands and raise castles up from beneath the earth and move planets in their orbits to save dying civilizations... when there is real change... that's mythic.
Let the Players Write the Stories. This is where it starts getting really tough, and thus this is where considerable thought and ingenuity is required. The most mythical stories are the ones that are owned not just by the StoryTellers but by the listeners too. As best we could, we've allowed this in Marrach. Players now tell the stories, and support other players in telling their own stories. Players have written fiction and poems and drawn art, and we now proudly present that on our site. In doing so, hopefully we've made the story of Marrach belong a little bit more to the players, which is itself the heart of mythology.
Let the Stories Evolve. And finally we get to the hardest rule of all. Sometimes the ideas of the players will be better than yours. You have to figure out how to throw out your own ideas in order to incorporate those of the players. Not only does this further empower the players, but also lets your story evolve in a Darwinian way... survival of the fittest. Thus, your story becomes more sleek and robust as time goes along, as it becomes the product of a hundred or a thousand minds instead of one, and thus it may achieve its own chance at immortality.
The Future of Mythology
Do I really think that Marrach can become mythology? Well, I don't think it will live through the ages. We're aware its social environment has limited appeal, and thus it can't reach a large enough audience to really spread.
However, I think we do a lot of good things within Marrach that could make it mythology. It's iconic, it's full of dualities, and we've tried not to hold the creativity too near to our hearts. If we did the same thing with a mass-market game, I think it could really flower. And thus I hope those of your considering mass-market games consider some of what I've said here. (Whether these same things are possible in a mass-market game is a whole different kettle of snow.)
This week I have one last bibliographic entry to note, another book that really made me thing about mythology. It's the novel Watership Down by Richard Adams. The book contains many stories drawn from the rabbit's mythology and one oh-my-god! moment about how mythology is created; highly recommended.
These last three articles on mythology were intended to be a beginning: to define to a set of terms, to outline a history, and to suggest uses in online games. They were intended as one article originally. I plan to next get into the specific details of how to build up mythology within your game, including discussion of episodic plots, singular plots, archetypes, and rituals. I'm probably going to take a week's break to cover other things first, but then come back here for part four.