I grew up with a long tradition of storytelling through games. When I was a kid, we called collaborative acts of imagination simply, “Let’s pretend.” My parents, and many others whom I’ve observed, encourage this behavior of learning to tell stories through play, watching the world as it appears to the child translated into games of playing house, pioneers, astronauts, or spy vs. spy. Translating the real world into a game of imagination might mean making the boulder in my back yard into the wagon in which my sister and next-door neighbor would journey into the West. It might mean collecting “samples” of dried grass clippings and loading them onto our “spaceship,” pumping our legs on the swing-set so that we’d fly steadily home.
Many children leave behind this type of adventurous work of imagination for the world of romance and relationships to be found in Barbie dolls (or Bratz dolls, these days) or the epic battles enacted by G.I. Joes (still the top listed action figures in a Google search). Then, when they are told that playing with toys is an act, not of imagination, but of childishness, they leave these things behind. Those who are lucky enough discover they can tell the same kinds of stories sitting around a table with some dice, or using a video-game controller and console, their customizable hero appearing on screen, moving as they specify. The world of role-playing games, both the table-top and computer or console versions, is a continuation of the need for acts of imagination, for storytelling, which, according to writers from Joss Whedon to J. R. R. Tolkien, is a “basic human need” (Whedon) or even a spiritual exercise (Tolkien 79). Interactive storytelling, which comes so naturally to children, could be considered an expression of the mythic impulse — the movement of a modern human toward a more sacred or mythic understanding of the universe.
This is not to say, of course, that playing HALO is akin to a divine experience (though some truly devout gamers would surely disagree with me). An article from the International Game Developers Association certainly claims that computer games solve the problem of storytelling being a static medium:
Computer games promise the potential to move beyond this strictly linear form by offering stories that interact with the player, allowing them to participate in the decisions or actions that shape the narrative. (Source)
But while there is some argument that computer games have greater potential to immerse the player in a storytelling environment, this type of storytelling is limited by its programming. There are certainly more options in the story than offered by a movie, but given the number of visual and auditory elements provided for the player, the game might have only the same level of imaginative interactivity as a novel: in a novel the story doesn’t change, but the details of how scenes are imagined might. In an interactive computer game, the player brings a certain set of instructions — inside the boundaries of the program — for how the story is told. In a novel, though the story doesn’t change, the reader brings the setting, the smells, the colors, and the sounds of voices, creating all of the visual and audio in their heads.
Table-top role playing games, on the other hand, require little more than rule books and dice before they say, “Go. Be the hero.” From the instant you choose to interact, to take part in the story, you and your peers around the table are creating a shared reality that you gleefully inhabit for the next several hours. Many of the elements of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” pattern find their way into the tale from the start. Characters often fit Jungian archetypes, have had unusual births, or have already left home and begun their journey into a mythical realm. The themes of fantasy are all wrapped up in mythology and the language of the fantastic, and it’s easy to intentionally embrace those elements.
I’ve just begun a game that takes the mythic connection of group storytelling and mythic elements quite literally. The setting is mythic Greece, during the era just before the Trojan War. Mythic time moves differently than more linear storytelling, which makes it hard to pin down which heroes are active when, as their stories tend to intersect the chronology of other tales. The players in the tale are all children of the gods, and they have already received their first quest from the Oracle at Delphi. They have encountered pirates and nereids, have competed in contests of strength, and have poured libations on herms to ensure that their journeys will go well. Over the course of the tale we create together, they will meet many of the well-known heroes and participate in or derail some of the traditional stories. They’ve told me they’d like to take over Egypt. It could happen.
But while I’ve played in games where I’ve sought out the Holy Grail in Edwardian England and run games where people of the bloodline of the Tuatha de Danaan of Irish mythology teamed up with urban-fantasy-styled demon slayers to stop an invasion of the human world, not all games have to have a mythic element to maintain that feeling of enacting creation. The real magic (to use the term loosely) in a table-top role playing game is that the story incarnates: the tale being created takes place in the people sitting around a table, sharing the telling while they share pizza and Doritos. I won’t go so far as to say that the ritual of storytelling echoes religious rituals or coming of age ceremonies where the participants are said to become the mythic personages they represent. But in a modern world where there aren’t too many coming of age ceremonies left, where stories are often told to us by boxes that carry all of the sounds and images with them, where we so rarely have the chance to be a part of a larger story than the one we act out in our everyday lives, sometimes connecting to that mythic spirit of storytelling is as simple as sitting down with some dice, some paper, and some friends, and seeing where the story takes you.