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Homeward Bound: Odysseus, Frogger, and a Simple Teleology of Play

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Why did the frog cross the road? Well, for many of the same reasons that Odysseus did.

In observing some fundamental patterns in stories, myth critics, like Joseph Campbell, have observed that one common element that leads to closure in epic journeys is the story of the return home.


The classic example of the story of the return home is, of course, Homer’s The Odyssey. Having participated in the war with Troy, Homer commits an entire epic poem to the story of just getting from the conflict back to the place where Odysseus started, the island of Ithaca.  Essential to this particular story (and other stories like it) seems to be the need for a hero who has spent an awful lot of time gallivanting recklessly in wild and foreign lands to get his shit together and get back where he belongs.
  
This story appears frequently enough throughout the ages, sometimes in quite overt ways (John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” apes The Odyssey, for instance) and sometimes in more subtle and metaphoric ways (Jack Skellington realizing his proper place in Halloweentown at the close of The Nightmare Before Christmas).  The notion that the need for acting responsibly by embracing more mature roles is one of the central ideas in Shakespeare’s movement of his wildly out of control couples in the middle acts of Midsummer’s Nights Dream from the chaotic, enchanted world of the fairies represented by the wilderness to the more controlled and ordered atmosphere of their home town in the play’s final act.  These movements are often foreshortened in more contemporary stories where the denuoument of a story is often shoe horned in in the final seconds before the credits roll (John McClane in his wife’s arms in the closing moments of Die Hard).  Nevertheless, most of these moments speak to a notion of returning home and, thus, to a more responsible, less wild role as a way of resolving a wandering lifestyle.


The Odyssey opens by observing the problem of a hero abdicating his domestic responsibilities for the sake of adventure.  We first meet Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, in a rather disordered household.  Because of Odysseus’s years long absence, his island kingdom and household are in real disarray because of the lack of clarity about whether the rightful king of Ithaca should be treated as dead or alive.  A group of suitors hungry for his wife’s hand in marriage and the power that that potentially brings with it and a son who lacks the power to clean up a household that he is heir to (again, because of the uncertainty of his father’s fate—Telemachus doesn’t know whether he is merely prince or a more authoritative king) leaves a kingdom and household in chaos.


That Odysseus is having a bit of a problem acting his role as patriarch is pretty much a given because of the emblematic quality of the obstacles that trouble and elongate his voyage home. Nearly all of the monsters or other impediments that Odysseus is troubled by are feminine and seductive in nature, the kind of thing that might keep a husband and father from his proper place. Calypso, Circe, the Sirens, even the sea monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, are all female, and the Princess Nausicaa, a more helpful figure in the text, becomes problematized in her role as helper by a discussion of possible marriage between she and the wayward husband.


Odysseus adventure can only be completed by returning home to set his household right and by reclaiming his marriage bed.  Odyssesus is fine once he becomes or, more particularly, returns to what he is supposed to be.


Curiously, this same “story” exists in the motivation represented to the player of Frogger.  Unlike the old joke, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” or the video game seemingly inspired by it (Activision’s 1981 game, Freeway), Konami seemed to be unwilling to merely provide an existential and circular explanation (“To get to the other side.”) for a frog’s journey across the road.


The visuals of Frogger represent a simple enough system of signs that support the idea that Frogger is motivated to return to the place where he belongs.  Beginning in a place where a frog obviously does not belong, on the other side of a busy street, Frogger must make his way towards an environment better suited to a froggy nature, a swamp.  Frogger is even spurred on by a timer that, should it tick down, will cause him to simply explode if he doesn’t get a move on (don’t the gods hassle Odysseus near the beginning of the poem as he whiles away far too many years on Calypso’s Island, indicating that it is time to get a move on?). 


Even the more natural environment of the swamp (maybe much like the familiarity of the court for a nobleman like Odysseus, represented by the temptation to marry Nausicaa near the close of The Odyssey) offers perils that might cut Frogger’s journey home short with predators ready to take advantage of the presence of a wayward frog on their home turf.  Safety only exists for Frogger in the home represented by the lily pad at the end of the journey, right where every good frog should be.


I certainly don’t think that Frogger is by any means as thematically rich as a text like The Odyseey, but I do think that it is interesting that in attempting to motivate a player in an early video game that the pattern that many other authors have naturally gravitated to as a motivation for their characters emerges in Konami’s very simple game and that they have instinctively created a visual representation of that pattern.  It does speak to, perhaps, why narratives have become essential parts of games as they have grown more much more thematically sophisticated, since some of those familiar motivators are ones that we so instinctively gravitate to and understand.  We don’t just want to get to the other side, sometimes we just want to believe that there is a more responsible purpose for concluding our play and going home.

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