Friday, June 17, 2011

Retelling Myths

So I finally got Portal 2 a few weeks ago.  Okay, I know, I'm a month behind everyone else, but considering I didn't play Portal 1 until Portal 2 was released, despite owning it for several years, I think I'm doing quite well on that curve.  It's a good game, and while many will argue Portal 1 is better, I'm of the opposite opinion, I feel that storywise, Portal 2 is much stronger and more interesting.

But this is a blog about webcomics, not games, so why do I even bring it up?  Well, this blog has become quite a bit about storytelling, in webcomics, so the topic applies here.  Anyway, as I was playing, I noticed multiple allusions to the myth of Prometheus, with one direct reference from a rather different turret.  As I kept playing though, a question started to bubble up:

Considering that there are, at best six (6) characters in ALL of Portal, who is Prometheus?

The myth of Prometheus is rather simple, he gives fire to man and is punished by a kind of bird.  You can read a more detailed version of the story here, but that's the basics.  It should be easy to pick which of six characters in Portal represents Prometheus.  And yet, it's not.

At best you can outright eliminate one character, maybe, as we're not told much about that character, and no, I'm not talking about Chell, we know a LOT about Chell.  Eliminating the other five characters, however, is really hard.  Each one could be given the title as they all, in their own way gave a form of "fire" to "man" and were "punished" by "birds."  All to relative degrees of course.

Which brings me to why I bring this up at all.  Many authors and artists try to retell myths like Prometheus and others, but often it doesn't turn out very well, or worse.  So how did Portal manage to come off so well?  I think it's because of this ambiguity about who is who and what is what in the story verses the myth.

Most will make a simple, one to one, relationship with the myth and their story.  THIS person is definitely Prometheus, THIS is definitely fire, THIS is definitely the punishment, THIS is definitely the bird.  There is nothing straight up wrong about this, of course, but it is rather lazy, and easy.  Portal doesn't take this route, instead leaving the definitions open to interpretation.  Chell could be Prometheus in one sense, but in another, it could be GLaDOS.  The portal gun could be fire in one interpretation, while Aperture as a whole could be it in another interpretation.

I've done the one to one relationship thing with myths before and I can tell you from experience, it wasn't very good.  I think I could make it work still, but it would take time and effort better spent on more original ideas.  If the myth simply must be tied into the story, there are other options than simply saying Character A is Prometheus.  One option is to simply make Character A the literal Prometheus.  This is best exemplified by Sea of Insanity and Gods and Undergrads where the mythological figures are actually running around doing things.  In fact, I'd say Gods and Undergrads does it a bit better as the myths are directly referenced as part of the backstory, bring the tale to life in a new way.  Sea of Insanity doesn't bother with this, but it still uses the characters of myth and builds new tales for them to walk around with.

But that's not the only way.  The other way is what Toilet Genie does, which actually doesn't use a traditional myth, but one made specifically for the story.  Using flash backs to tell the "myth" (I think it's supposed to be real in a sense) allows the reader to make connections to the current events in the story.  The key here is that the myth was made to match the story, not the other way around.

As for comics that just hint at a mythological source like Portal, I can't think of any.  Most of them are very blunt about it.  This doesn't mean they can't do it well, it's just that there are better ways.

Anyway, that's enough for this week.  See you next time kiddies. 

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