Blog - Jamal Whitaker -

Creating The Hero's Journey

This article explores the creation of "The Hero's Journey" score, inspired by Joseph Campbell's monomyth and showcased at GDC 2024, highlighting its innovative blend of traditional and modern musical elements to enhance video game storytelling.

The Conceptualization

I trace the genesis of The Hero’s Journey back to a pivotal moment, about five months before the launch of the XJ music workstation. As I ventured into my first experience with scoring a video game, I researched traditional norms of composing. However, I had to take a unique approach due to the absence of an accompanying game, reference art, or even placeholder audio. My inspiration was sparked from witnessing the evolution of the software, envisioning the vast spectrum of potential game soundtracks, and blending attributes of different genres into one versatile composition.

When brainstorming the project’s core theme and genre, my main concern was versatility. Charney suggested starting with building the framework of a story to aid in the musical choices and introduced me to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, also known as the Hero’s Journey. Instead of creating my own story for the composition process, I used thematic concepts, thinning the twelve stages of Campbell’s arc down to four: Call to Action, Embark, Atonement, and Victory.

The Horizon series is a prime example, showcasing a story filled with universally experienced concepts in a non-linear action-adventure game with fantastical elements. Horizon: Zero Dawn offered a fictional fantasy setting with enough cultural ambiguity to incorporate a wide range of instrumentation, from traditional Japanese taikos and West Asian ney flute to jazz horn solos, without losing any sense of musical cohesion. Zero Dawn’s science fiction elements, in particular, provided an opportunity to incorporate drum and bass elements into the music of the Combat player state, where the protagonist, a tribal woman with an aboriginal and Viking-inspired background, battles technologically advanced animal-like machines. Suddenly, breakbeats and EDM pads and synths had a plausible place in The Hero’s Journey, and I cast aside the preconceived guidelines with which I had approached.

Mark Stewart, renowned musician, and XJ music co-founder, played a pivotal role in helping me capture the intricate theory behind each potential thematic quadrant of the Hero’s Journey. Drawing from his vast expertise, he guided me through the nuances of chord choices tailored to evoke specific emotions in different scenarios. Whether illustrating the call to adventure or the trials and tribulations faced by the hero, Mark’s insights into harmonic structures and emotional resonance transformed abstract narrative concepts into vivid musical expressions. His teaching enhanced my understanding of how music can mirror and amplify the Hero’s Journey monomyth. It empowered me to use these techniques to create a compelling and emotionally engaging score.


With themes, chords, instruments, and story quadrants in my quiver, I set out on the first steps of creating the score. The first quadrant I decided to tackle was Atonement, which I found particularly alluring. In his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the Atonement phase as a moment of confrontation with the ultimate power in the hero’s life, whether that is a person, an internal force, or a significant challenge. The hero has to come to terms with this power, often leading to a revelation or transformation that empowers them to complete their journey. As I interpreted Atonement’s meaning, I instantly knew it would be the first piece to attempt and the first piece I had to perfect to feel confident about creating a video game score. I was confronting the final boss at level one.

The Exploration state for Atonement took shape around traditional Japanese taiko drums and a droning combination of heavily processed horns and pads in F minor, emphasizing a sense of doom and foreboding as the hero trudges toward the boss’ lair. For inspiration, I leaned into my first ever boss encounter in the Super Nintendo classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past when I was four. I would sneak away to play in my older brother’s save game while he was out of the house. He was in the middle of the aptly named Death Mountain, scaling up a seemingly never-ending cliffside while evading deku nut-launching octopi creatures and tumbling boulders. Those boulders would clobber me before I made any significant headway, thumping down towards Link in a steady rhythm. The taiko pattern of Exploration encapsulated this same relentless beat, mirroring the oppressive cadence of the boulders that thwarted my childhood attempts to conquer the mountain. Each strike of the taiko in the explore state resonates with that same intensity and inevitability, pushing the hero forward with an unyielding sense of purpose. If the boulders haven’t crushed you yet, you must keep going.


Transitioning from the ominous ambiance of the Exploration state, the Combat state of Atonement catapults the listener into a high-octane battle environment. I marked this shift by introducing a driving synth bass that replaces the foundational taiko rhythms. My goal with the bass was to achieve a dark and resonant sound while setting a relentless pace, capturing the hero’s adrenaline and determination in the face of their ultimate challenge. Over this aggressive bassline, a sped-up breakbeat reminiscent of classic drum and bass patterns accelerates the tempo, creating a sense of urgency and chaos. This combination of elements sustains the intensity built in the Exploration phase and amplifies it, mirroring the escalation from anticipation to active confrontation.

In crafting this soundscape, I drew inspiration from the kinetic energy of drum and bass, where the rapid breakbeats provide a rhythmic complexity that keeps the listener engaged and on edge. The breakbeat’s syncopation adds layers of unpredictability, much like the combat scenarios the hero must navigate. Each beat is meticulously programmed to reflect the ebb and flow of battle, with sudden drops and crescendos mimicking the hero’s dodges, strikes, and tactical maneuvers.


Finally, complementing the frenetic energy of Combat, the Dialog state of Atonement offers a contrasting moment of introspection and narrative depth. This phase emerges during quest dialogues or cutscenes, where the hero engages with key characters or contemplates pivotal revelations. The musical landscape here is influenced by a blend of trance and jazz, creating a reflective and enigmatic atmosphere perfectly suited to the unfolding story.

Central to the Dialog state is a fluttering flute melody, which brings a sense of ethereal lightness and emotional nuance to the scene. The flute’s delicate and airy timbre captures the hero’s introspective moments, doubts, and realizations.

Complementing the flute is a rhythmic foundation of Afro-inspired gourd percussion sounds. These earthy, organic textures provide a grounding contrast to the airy flute, adding a layer of complexity and cultural richness to the score. The gourd percussion’s intricate patterns mirror the conversational variation of dialog, emphasizing key points and adding a subtle yet persistent drive to the music.

At the harmonic core of the Dialog state is a wandering chord progression played on a distorted grand piano. The distortion imbues the piano with a raw, emotional edge, its notes sometimes clean and clear, other times rough and gritty. This creates a sonic metaphor for the hero’s journey through inner turmoil and external conflicts. The jazz influences are evident in the unexpected turns and modulations of the chord progression, which keep the listener engaged and reflective, much like the hero processing complex information and emotions during these dialogues.

The Dialog state, with its trance-like flute melodies, Afro-inspired percussion, and jazz-inflected piano chords, forms a rich tapestry that enhances the storytelling experience. It allows for a more profound connection between the player and the hero, inviting moments of contemplation and deeper emotional engagement. As the hero interacts with allies, faces moral dilemmas, or uncovers crucial plot details, the music underscores these interactions, highlighting their significance and adding layers of meaning to the narrative.

Synthesizers play a pivotal role in this state, weaving in and out of the breakbeat framework. I employed a variety of EDM-inspired pads and leads, their bright, piercing tones slicing through the mix, symbolizing the technological aspects of the adversaries the hero faces. I interspersed these synthetic elements with distorted, processed samples of traditional instruments, creating a sonic blend that bridges the ancient and the futuristic.

GDC and Beyond

The Atonement state in The Hero’s Journey project encapsulated the complex and transformative experiences that defined the hero’s path. By allowing myself to explore fresh musical elements and draw from rich personal inspirations, I was able to create a soundscape that resonated with the themes of confrontation, struggle, and ultimate transformation. This project was crucial not just for its creative challenges but also for its role in showcasing the XJ music workstation at GDC 2024.

Our goal at GDC was to provide a live demo that could elicit immediate feedback from composers and industry professionals. The Hero’s Journey score served as the perfect presentation of the XJ music workstation’s versatility and power, allowing us to illustrate its capability to handle intricate compositions, as well as varying game states, quickly and seamlessly. The feedback we received was invaluable, providing insights that have guided our improvements and helped us set our sights on future developments.

As I continued to explore and develop the other three states, I was excited to push the boundaries of musical storytelling further. Each quadrant offered its unique challenges and opportunities, promising a journey as rewarding and intricate as the eponymous hero’s. Stay tuned for future articles where I’ll dive into the other three game states, sharing all the insights and experiences from completing each part of this creative journey!

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library, 2008.

Guerrilla Games. Horizon Zero Dawn. Sony Interactive Entertainment, 2017.

Nintendo. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Nintendo, 1991.