PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

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

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.