No More Heros Please

Carina Erdmann

This is an inquiry and reframing of the hero trope through game design and theatre. Both disciplines are deeply invested in relentlessly retelling the transformative journey of the hero moving through the three main steps of Separation, Initiation, and Return. The spiritual journey of the individual that is overcoming the inner and external struggles that society poses is as old as the disciplines themselves. And although the hero has been proclaimed dead many times, the trope seems invincible. We question what the hero can still do for us today and what in turn the narration through his singular perspective does to us. Living in a globalized world of today facing geopolitical and natural catastrophes that are deeply interlinked within a complex web of relations, what is the singular role model returning from a self-discovery trip still able to teach us?  Should we still ‘Hold Out for a Hero’ like Bonnie Tyler famously exclaims in her song from 1984 longing for a man fresh from the fight, racing on the thunder and rising with the heat?

Or should we maybe join in with Tina Turner when she sings just one year later:

Out of the ruins

Out from the wreckage

Can't make the same mistake this time

We are the children

The last generation (the last generation)

We are the ones they left behind

And I wonder when we

Are ever gonna change, change

Living under the fear

'Til nothing else remains

We don't need another hero

The songs of the two women express precisely the split we want to explore. Which desires do we project into figures ‘larger than life’ to borrow Tyler's words once more? Whom do they serve? Can the long-dead heroes be resurrected and recast in a contemporary framing that allows for more diverse identities to assume their roles? Does the spotlighting of the hero offer the necessary attention to marginalized groups? Or is it in fact the hero archetype itself that is holding us captive in narratives that praise the individual and disavow the community? Contemporary politics give vivid proof that if we call out for a strongman to hand over our own civic responsibilities, he will gladly appear. He will demand sacrifice for the greater good and will produce more heroes that can fight and possibly die for the nationalist fantasies he recalls or deliver pizza for the minimum wage to keep the extractive machine of capitalism well oiled and nourished. ‘To make America great again’ and to ‘Always delivering an amazing experience’ as the slogan of the company ‘Delivery Hero’ promises to its clients and demands from its workers.

As the hero can be used to motivate individuals to sacrifice themselves in return for honorary mention it is no big surprise that it is abused to exploit those that lack recognition in society otherwise. This also explains why the health and ‘essential workers’ were praised as heroes for a short time after the outbreak of the pandemic for being out there and exposing themselves on the front lines. Still, the loud pledges to turn their one-time hero pay into a long-term raise was silently revoked in some case giving the explanation that care workers should be doing their job out of ‘care for people rather than ‘need for money. Real heroes are apparently not paid.

And indeed there are billions of gamers each year who pour countless hours of their free time into playing the hero on screen. For free as well. In video games such as: ‘Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero’ from 1989 one of the main incentives set in play is to rise above others. Overcoming ever bigger bosses the player can gain a sensation of personal growth and heroic strength. Suitingly they are often reincarnations and mash-ups of figures from mythology or the lone survivor roaming through a post-apocalyptic aftermath, the mythology of our time. The hero's journey sketched out by Joseph Campell is a perfect mold for those stories. Even as open-world or multiple-choice narrative they follow the same trodden path from the perspective of a single individual who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed.

With the alternative title, ‘Monomyth’ Campbell wants to sign towards the universality of this template. It is indeed produced through a structural analysis within the field of comparative literature and its potency in mapping a path of individual transformation becomes evident when tracing a similar structure in the Jungian process of individuation, the stages of the shamanic Initiation as well as the schizophrenic renewal of the self, that are deeply spiritual and psychological processes. One connecting element of ancient and contemporary mythologies is their pedagogical purpose and transformative potential. Drawing from psychoanalysis we are particularly interested in how these techniques draw relations from the personal to a collective subconscious.

Structural analysis of narration is becoming especially relevant in increasingly coded environments where algorithms are trained to produce new narratives based on unified principles but also for human scriptwriters and storytellers these formulas doubtlessly function as valuable support in reproducing new tales after an old recipe. Precisely because the formulas have been proven to work, it is important to not fall into its mindless perpetuation for the sake of comfort. In a (re)turn to narrative conventions and archetypes lays of course also the possibility to question and subvert them - updating the stories and applying them to today's contexts is only one part of that endeavor. The other would be be to observe and experiment with the underlying motives implicit in the structure itself. This would also imply a shift in perspective from the individual to the collective. In LARP and multiplayer games, there are no single heroes because every player requires a fulfilled game trajectory. A search for non-heroical narrations are thus also an exploration of nonlinear and collective forms of storytelling and can take inspiration from narrative structures that are built around multiple characters eg. in the Scandinavian or Indian narrative traditions or more relational forms such as in West-African narratives. It would entail a collective research of the different narrative models and characters in different (sub)cultural traditions, variations and common ground within different local mythologies and facilitating an ensemble of characters that celebrates difference. It would be an international collaboration that works against the universalist approach of imperialist logic of globalization as well as the resurrection of nationalist traditions and ideals.