In 2007, Sony released a video game for the PlayStation 3 called Folklore. At the time, I was working as a folklorist at City Lore in Manhattan, and I remember feeling… concerned. Folklorists, in general, spend a lot of time arguing for the validity of their chosen field of study. In the course of acquiring a Master’s Degree in Folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland, I observed in many of my more experienced colleagues a certain resentfulness, an aggravation that the field of folklore was not respected as distinct from other, more established fields. At times it seemed that as much energy was spent convincing the rest of the academic world that we were a valid discipline as was spent doing actual academic work. It was hard not to get caught up in it; my uncle once referred to folklore as a “branch of anthropology,” which, at the time, ruffled my feathers. So when a Google search for the word “folklore” returns “The official Folklore site” as the top hit, a site where a video game is referred to as Folklore™, I thought the folklore community might be interested. They were not, especially, it turned out – for many folklorists, video games are not a thing to be concerned with. But to me they are. I thought it was interesting, and I still think it is interesting, and that is where you come in.
In this blog I want to explore what it means for video games to be mining these territories. Not just video games, but television, movies, books, comics, the Internet. Popular culture. I love all those things, and I love folklore, and what I want to do here on (in?) this blog is combine my love for them both. I guess what I am saying is I want to have a mental ménage à trois with folklore and popular culture and I want you to watch.
Today there seems to be a massive influx of folklore (primarily folk literature (which is myth, legend, and folktale (or fairy tale))) in video games, films, books, and so on. This both fascinates and worries me. The main purpose of this blog will be to take a critical look at the presence and use of folklore in all forms of media and discuss what it means for folklorists specifically and human beings generally. By taking the (sometimes very) old and mixing it with the (sometimes very) new, people are creating (sometimes very) interesting things.
Here, today, I’d like to briefly explore what it means for video games to be named after specific genres of folklore, or in the case of Folklore, named after the discipline itself. What it means for everybody in general, and for folklorists in particular. From Wikipedia:
The game is a real time action adventure game with role-playing elements. The game stars a young blonde girl named Ellen, and a journalist named Keats, both playable characters. Together they must fight the monsters known as the “Folk”, inhabitants of the Netherworld, and weaken and capture their souls.
In this game, the “folk” are monsters living in a parallel plane of existence. In the academic discipline of folklore, the “folk” are us; as folklorist Joseph Jacobs said in 1893, we are the folk. Interesting then that the focus in this game is to “weaken and capture their souls,” as one could argue that the very act of fieldwork that a folklorist must engage in could be seen as the act of capturing the souls of one’s informants, whether on film (in a superstitious manner) or on tape (in a more poetic manner).
(Side-note: the original Japanese title translates literally to “FolksSoul: Lost Legend,” a name that references “legend,” which is a specific type of folklore.)
The thing I worry about, as a folklorist, is that for some people, their only experience with the word “folklore” is going to be through this game. They will not know what folklore really is. (Folklore is, incidentally, this.) In a climate where folklore departments are closing every year and funding is increasingly restricted, this seems to me like a potential for discipline disaster. If folklorists lose control of their definitions to other media, what do they have?
In 2008, Gamecock Media Group published Legendary for the PS3, XBox 360, and PC. It was, unfortunately, a terrible game. (Involving the discovery of Pandora’s Box and the fighting of creatures including minotaurs and griffons, the game really ought to have been titled Mythical.)
There are already several games dealing directly with myth, most visibly the excellent God of War series for the Playstations 2 and 3. God of War revolves around Kratos, a very angry Spartan warrior who single-handedly murders the entire Greek pantheon along with nearly every creature and hero from Greek mythology. The story plays fast and loose with myth, using it not as a strict guide but for inspiration. The game Too Human uses Norse mythology merely as a basis for its story:
As part of a planned game trilogy, the story is a science-fictional futuristic retelling of Norse Mythology that portrays the Æsir (Norse Gods) as cybernetic-enhanced humans, tasked with protecting mankind from the onslaught of Loki’s army of machines. The player takes the role of the Norse God Baldur, who is less cybernetic than the other Gods, thus being “too human”.
There is also the Fable series, with Fable III due to be released later this year. A fable is a short type of folk literature, meant to convey a moral lesson using animals or other non-human characters. (A parable does the same thing, but with humans.) The Fable games are traditional third-person action-RPGs, with a focus on moral choice, so there is an tenuous connection there.
This is only scratching the surface. There are so many things out there today drawing on stories and tales that have been around for centuries. Is this harmful to the discipline of folklore, or is it simply the natural evolution of the field? I argue that it is the natural evolution. This is what stories do. Changeability is part of the definition of folklore and folk literature. Stories are malleable, alterable, unfixed. They change based on the teller and on the audience. Myth and legend and folktale, the oldest forms of storytelling we have, appearing in video games, the newest form of entertainment we have, is natural, fascinating, and right. Those are my thoughts. What are yours?
One final note: According to some, today is the Pied Piper of Hamelin Day. I invite you to follow me and the magical tune that is my blog into the mountain of folklore and popular culture, where I guess we will either start a new town some miles away or all die of exposure. Nobody is really sure what happened. That’s why it’s a legend.