The Hero’s Journey: Why We Are Called to Action and Adventure and How Breath of the Wild Captures This Perfectly

By on March 17, 2017
breath of the wild climbing

Tell me an image like this doesn’t stir something in you…

Every now and then on this site, I have been known to get a little nerdy. That’s about to happen again.

That’s because I just want to say that I think Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a truly transcendental piece of art.

I’m not alone in feeling this way of course – it’s one of the best reviewed games of all time after all – but I do think I am one of the few fitness/brain training bloggers to be making this assertion. But I say it because I think that – just like training – it speaks to a deeper part of our ‘collective unconscious’ (to tentatively quote Jung). I think that this new Zelda game is the perfect expression of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ and I feel that this is actually what motivates all self-improvement and training.

Countless iterations of The Hero’s Journey and of the monomyth are certainly what have inspired me, both in my training and in my business/general lifestyle.

Man working on notebook sitting on cliff on top of the mountains. Concepts of staying online everywhere, internet, freedom reception etc.

Let me explain…

What is the Hero’s Journey?

I’m the sort of guy who always questions things. When I enjoy a film or a book, I always ask why I enjoyed it and why people in general might be drawn to that genre.

hero with a thousand faces

This is also what Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) asked himself. And more specifically, Campbell noted that there are many common, recurring themes that occur throughout countless stories, myths and legends. He believed that almost every story was essentially a retelling of the same story.

This is also sometimes referred to as the monomyth.

The story goes a little something like this:

Ordinary World: The hero starts out in their normal life, where the often feel content yet also like an outsider. They have a yearning for adventure.

Call to Adventure: Then comes the ‘call to adventure’. Here, the hero experiences a catalyst that sets them off on a great journey.

hercules

Disney’s Hercules is a film that very closely follows many conventions of the monomyth – most likely intentionally. (It’s also clearly inspired by Rocky and the original Superman. And Megara is a fit cartoon. And the Michael Bolton soundtrack is superb. Wicked film!)

Refusal of the Call: Usually, the hero will attempt to refuse the call at first and will want to stay safe and at home.

Meeting With the Mentor: Early in the journey or just before they set off, the hero will meet a mentor – an old figure that encourages them to go ahead with their trial and prepares them for what they will meet on the way.

Crossing the First Threshold: The hero leaves their world and sets off on the journey.

Tests, Allies, Enemies: The hero will have an early introduction to this new world: they will encounter enemies, discover tools and meet allies.

Approach: The hero will often be required to alter their approach as they encounter setbacks in this new environment.

Ordeal: The hero undergoes a severe hurdle or obstacle – often a near death experience of some sort, or a crisis of faith.

Reward: Coming out the other side of this ordeal leads to some form of reward. The hero is often in some way transformed by their experience. In film, we call this the ‘McGuffin’.

This is also sometimes referred to as Death/Transformation. Very often the character is physically changed by the experience.

goku turns super saiyan for the first time

Goku undergoes a very literal transformation here…

The Road Back: The journey returns to the starting point.

Return With Elixir: The hero returns to their home as a triumphant hero – with their reward intact.

Now of course not every story today will follow this sequence precisely and the extent to which each stage can be seen in your favorite films and stories will vary. You’ll also see the monomyth described slightly differently depending on your source. It is a vague structure, not a strict one.

monomyth

Source unknown

In some cases, the ‘elixir’ is in fact a member of the opposite sex that the ‘hero’ sets out to find!

There are also some other common tropes that have been pointed out by Campbell and other archetypes. For example: very often the elixir is a woman as described, and very often they will be guarded by some kind of powerful enemy – a dragon or perhaps a parent.

It’s also common for the mentor figure to bestow some kind of powerful trinket that will aid the hero in their journey. Very often they will encounter an antagonist that is a kind of ‘opposite’ of themselves. It’s also common for the protagonist to be challenged by a ‘trickster’ type, that won’t be the main antagonist but nevertheless a neutral foil that uses cunning and trickery to held or hinder the hero.

Then there is the common theme of the hero being some kind of orphan – or of them becoming orphaned before they start their journey.

Jonathan kent death

Jungian Archetypes and the Hero’s Journey

Jung has some pretty weird ideas throughout his life but like Freud, he also had some pretty solid ones.

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One idea that bears scrutiny is the concept of a ‘collective unconscious’ – a kind of shared ‘memory’ or at least a set of shared impulses, fears and drives. Jung would later go full bananas and claim that we are all somehow psychically linked – which is not accurate… – but if you ignore that bit then it makes sense. Jung would point out how there were countless similarities throughout art, literature and even dreams that seem to defy cultural traditions and upbringing. Much like Joseph Campbell’s claim that all stories are in fact the same story.

In fact, we can interpret the idea of a collective unconscious via evolutionary psychology in which case it appears to make a lot of sense. When we hear the rain patter against a glass roof and feel safe and calm, that’s because it’s how our ancestors would have felt when they found shelter in a cave from the storm outside.

The color green makes us feel relaxed because it signals that shelter, as well as a likelihood of water, food and sustenance.

Snakes give us the willies, even though most of us come into contact with snakes very infrequently (yet we’re okay with guns and knives…).

Jung describes how this collective unconscious can give rise to ‘archetypes’. Characters that appear throughout literature and art. These are characters like the mentor or the ‘wise old man’. Sound familiar?

Other common archetypes include ‘the trickster’, ‘the ally’ and the ‘shadow’.

captain jack sparrow trickster

There is a reason that Captain Jack Sparrow’s character works best when he is the foil for the protagonist and NOT the lead character himself.

The various interpretations of these different archetypes and their role in human psychology varies between accounts, but if you take it at face value, then it’s easy to identify the archetypes of many of your favorite characters in films, TV shows and other mediums. Loki is the trickster, so is Captain Jack Sparrow. Gandalf is the wise old man. So is Mr. Miyagi.

Jung describes these archetypes as being a part of all of us, which is why they keep re-immerging in our creative works and even in our dreams.

And it should come as no surprise that Joseph Campbell was inspired by these ideas.

Where Does the Hero’s Journey Come From?

If we view all this through the lens of evolutionary psychology again, then I believe it’s easy to see why this story is so deeply ingrained in our unconscious.

(Note that I say unconscious, not subconscious – that’s because the former is a misnomer and a term that was never actually used by Freud!)

The reason we all share this story is because it is the story of ancient man – and of modern man to a lesser extent.

breath of the wild go anywhere

This is a coming of age story. All of us will at some point fly the nest, leave the relative safety of our homes because of a compulsion to do so, before setting out alone in search of ‘something’. That something might be fame and fortune or it might be love. It might be both. Either way, we eventually overcome the hurdles that it takes to get there, we in some way return transformed and having come of age or we start our own family for the story to begin anew.

No one cares what happens after that because of the ‘evolutionary shadow’. (Don’t know what that is? Don’t worry – I’ll be covering it soon!)

And before we were domesticated, this story would have been far more literal. We would have left the safety of our tribe in order to explore new lands. We would have fought snakes and other predators and undergone many trials. And eventually, we would have found pastures new, or a partner. We would have returned triumphant – as men or women – or we would have settled and started our own new tribe.

It’s the ciiiiiircle of liiiife!

Point is: evolution has selected for the traits that encourage us to set off on a life of adventure and necessity has taught us to take on challenges, to seek out new opportunities and to grow as individuals.

Silhouette of a man with hands raised in the sunset concept for religion, worship, prayer and praise

And this is why we keep retelling that story in media.

This is why we still tell stories about heroes with guns and swords and don’t tell stories about sitting in offices (when we do, those stories are highly dramatized).

The Will to Challenge and Adventure Are What Make Us Human

I actually feel that in many ways, this story describes what it is to be human. That initial drive to leave the safety of our homes and seek out adventure, to question the unknown and to take on challenges.

This is why we continue to push ourselves in the gym. It’s why we push ourselves to travel to the stars.

we choose to go to the moon

It is human nature to accept no limits and to seek out adventure – and our species has thrived as a result. Is this natural selection at play? A ‘long game’? Either way, there’s no arguing that humans have thrived as a result of their curiosity and thirst for adventure.

This is why I believe it’s important that we keep innovating and keep exploring. It’s why I advocate transhumanism and taking steps into the unknown. Because if we don’t… what’s the point?

Breath of the wild rafting

And I think this is also why a lot of us are unhealthy and unhappy.

Because if all you did was stay in your hometown working on the computer… then where is your hero’s journey? If you’ve never challenged yourself or looked fear in the eye, then have you really lived?

Your equivalent might have been leaving home to go to Univeristy. You probably did feel a little more alive then. Maybe you lived abroad for a bit. Sure, exciting.

Not quite Breath of the Wild though, is it?

And this, I feel, is why we play computer games. It’s also why I train.

Most of us don’t get to live these adventures anymore. Our forefathers discovered most of the world for us and everything is very safe. Our biggest challenge is often paying the heating bill on time.

And we’ve become much too comfortable in the warm on our sofas.

Our bodies are soft because we’re not using them the way we’re meant to. Just think: once we lived outdoors and in the rain. All the time. Today we get uncomfortable and unhappy if someone leaves a window open!

Likewise, our minds are restless because they never have to make those quick decisions or stay highly alert. These are the things we need to encourage the growth of new neurons and connections – this is what triggers flow states and the release of neurotransmitters that help us remember events and become hyper-aware of our senses.

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And then I feel more alive again…

 

This all echoes the sentiments of the Paleo and the MovNat crowd. But our modern conveniences cause way more damage than just malnutrition and weight gain. They rob us of challenge, adventure and danger. They rob us of what it is to be human.

And we’ve become too used to it.

Breath of the Wild: What Life Should be Like

Computer games allow us to experience these things in a virtual setting. They give us that sense of danger that is missing from our lives, let us explore new lands and challenge us to think of innovative solutions.

Why do you enjoy computer games? Simple: because your brain is designed to thrive on new experiences and on challenges that allow us to slowly improve. We know that flow states are triggered by challenges that tough enough to be hard but not so tough as to be impossible. We know the brain floods with dopamine when it discovers a novel environment.

breath of the wild go anywhere

When you visualize dodging a sword and then you pull off the move perfectly, reward hormones gush through your motor cortex to make sure you can do that move again. This is growth and it’s what the brain is all about.

And the brain particularly loves movement. It loves learning to climb better, to fight better or to move through space better. Why do we like it when something spins through the air in a game using realistic physics? Because the brain thinks its learning to better anticipate movement. It thinks it is updating its own internal physics engine so that you can in future take out your prey by throwing a spear or a stone.

When you see a tree, your brain begs to climb it. Or mine does anyway…

But when you climb said tree – in public – people look at you like you are mad. They even tell you to get down, like you’re hurting someone! Why? Why has it become social unacceptable to do the things we are naturally programmed to do?

Why is it only acceptable to do these things in computer games?

Breath of the Wild speaks to us on a primal level well because it so closely mimics that classic coming of age story – the ingrained heroes journey. In this game, you are literally trying to survive off the land as you did before, while encountering classic archetypes. Even the character ‘Link’ has been designed to be nothing more than an avatar for the player (many speculate that this is why the name was chosen – he is a link to the game). The creators speak to the ‘universal’ feelings that the series evokes when it comes to discover and overcoming difficult puzzles.

work sitting

Working like this sure beats working in an office…

But Breath of the Wild goes even further by using aesthetics that echo our own origin stories. It’s literally a game about surviving in the wild and using our wits and resourcefulness in order to survive. The metaphor is much more on the nose. When a storm comes down and you’re underneath palm trees on an island, it speaks to the same feelings that our ancestors felt.

More to the point, when I was low on weapons mid battle yesterday and I realized I could use an explosive material to lay a trap for my enemies – I was forced to use my environment, my wits and my reactions and coordination all to defeat my foes. I felt such a sense of satisfaction when I pulled it off and when I saw that it worked – which once again is something that is hardwired into my neurology.

There’s no such thing as a lack of resources, only a lack of resourcefulness…

It’s the same feeling I get when I’m surrounded by Bokoblins and I realize that if I focus on taking one out and steal their club first, I’ll have a better chance of defeating the rest. A tiny decision made in a split second – strategy on the fly. These imaginary combat scenarios test our ability to make quick decisions under pressure – an important type of training that is lacking in our daily lives. This trains skills that could someday save our lives. It makes us faster, smarter more deadly. No surprise then that studies confirm that computer games improve our decision making skills (study) – making us faster but no less accurate.

This is one reason that I believe computer games offer some of the very best natural brain training in the world: it’s a lack of new challenges that causes so many of us to experience age related decline. Studies show that we are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s and similar conditions if we keep learning and keep experiencing new places. The brain loves learning but what it loves even more than learning from books is learning from action.

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My work allows me to keep exploring. This isn’t quite as adventure-filled as working by a waterfall, but it’s not bad!

This is also why I believe we enjoy watching action movies so much and even watching people dance. The brain is rewarding us for learning to better control our bodies.

This is what training should be. This is what life should be like. It should be about testing ourselves, overcoming challenges and making life-or-death decisions in a split second.

So why do we sit indoors playing video games instead of getting outside and hunting prey with our bare hands while climbing trees? Why don’t we live like Zelda? The answer comes down to our modern biology. We’ve become too soft – the cold hurts our skin and makes us ill and we quickly become tired. But our spirit still begs for adventure and challenge and new experiences.

breath of the wild archery

This is why I work out, it’s why I love playing action games and it’s why I love expanding my mind by learning to program and creating apps that hopefully might help people to work in new ways. One day, I’d love it if we could combine all these things. Maybe one day I’ll play computer games in Virtual Reality and it will be a workout.

It’s why I love working unshackled. So, get yourself training in intense, challenging and fun ways. Play Breath of the Wild. And try inventing something new, or visiting somewhere exciting.

It’s still not Breath of the Wild, but I do think that we can all live with a little more adventure and challenge. And I think it is what we need, in order to thrive as individuals and as a race.

 

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.