I Don't Wanna Be A Hero

Are games a power fantasy? Escapism? They allow us to almost, but not quite, become icons of the ideals we believe in. We stomp goombas on our way to save the princess, we save the world from nuclear destruction in the nick of time and we vanquish the great evil that stalks the land. But that’s a narrow-minded definition. On the other hand, when have we played as someone who was on the other side of that veil? Through history, many have found themselves on the wrong side, from the Inquisition to the Nazis, believing that their goals were the enviable ones. Goals that were worth killing and dying for. But first, let us examine what a hero really is, and why heroism is so appealing.

The definitions of the word hero are many, from “illustrious warrior” and a “mythological and legendary figure…with great strength and agility.” However, the closest useable definition in our modern world has to be “one who shows great courage,” one of the greatest virtues anyone can possess. This is most often demonstrated by for instance rescue workers, who in the face of danger put their own life at risk to save the lives of others. But in the world of games, the player can sit safely behind the screen, saving the lives of innocents without risking his own skin. In other words, heroism loses its meaning in video games, but not its appeal. Who doesn’t want to be hailed a hero by the cheering crowds?

The word has its origins in Greek, referring originally to a demigod, and only later has the role of the hero been defined as the courageous one. Although the Greek (and Roman) heroes often had some quite cruel ways, methods that today would not be considered noble or heroic, such as when Achilles drags Hector’s body behind his chariot, as vengeance for not being given the woman he believed he was entitled to. In addition, he also only joins the battle of Troy because he doesn’t want his men to win all the glory for themselves. As should be evident, the characteristics of the hero have changed through time, all tied closely to the social structure and ideals that ruled at the time.

He does look kinda like a jerk too

Taking a look at the hero role in fiction, the American screenwriter Christopher Vogler outlined the twelve stages of a hero’s journey (although he based his model on Joseph Campbell’s term “monomyth“, which we’ve talked about previously). The twelve stages can be transferred to a multitude of stories, be it legends or contemporary novels. Beginning with the hero being torn out of the ordinary world to undertake a great task, through the great “ordeal,” and ending with the hero’s return to the ordinary world, bearing a great treasure to the benefit of his fellows, the heroic arc is recognizable in many stories. Phil Leigh from Inside Digital Media carries this over to the world of video games, by claiming that when gamers undertake the hero’s role in, say, Dragon Age or Call of Duty, they not only vanquish the great evil, but undergo a psychological journey that leads to “valuable psychological truths.” In essence, undertaking the hero’s role is an intensification of life.

Ultimately, the role of the hero, however appealing it is, has been done to death. More importantly, stories which branch from this paradigm are rare in the medium, which is a damn shame as it could use some deviations from the norm. These are games that show the other side of “good,” and the endings aren’t always happy.

Even the cover art seems oddly ominous

About one year ago 2K Czech released their aptly named sequel Mafia II. Although Mafia II may not have delivered the sprawling open world some expected from it, it certainly delivered a different and nuanced protagonist. Vito Scaletta, rising from petty criminal and war veteran to the inner circle of a mafia family, doesn’t want to do the right thing or win glory. He just wants…well what does he want, other than the infinite allure of money? All of his actions stem solely from self-interest in some form or another. And isn’t that the case for most people? Even if an act may be described as self-less, like risking your life in saving someone you love, aren’t the motivations ultimately selfish? We save the person because we are in a giving relationship with the person, not because of some hidden source of goodness inside all of us.

For example, Vito routinely and unquestionably follows orders from the different mafia bosses he serves during the course of the game, even if he knows their brutal methods to be wrong. He massacres countless unlucky suckers who happened to annoy Vito’s superiors. This culminates with the ending where Vito is told to dispatch his current boss, Carlo Falcone, as he’s gotten a tip from his old friend and mentor, Leo Galante, a member of another mafia family, that Vito is walking into an ambush. With the help of another old friend, Joe Barbaro, Vito manages to take down Carlo and destroy the Falcone family. However, all is not well yet. As Leo and Vito drive from the site of the deed, the car Joe has been placed in drives off in a different direction, and Leo hints that he will be disposed of. Vito is obviously distraught, but makes no attempt to the save his friend. And then the game ends. But why doesn’t he do anything? Because he ain’t no hero, he’s human. After all, what would happen to him if he were to take over command of the car, and drive it to his friend’s rescue? He would almost certainly be killed. And throughout the game, Vito has had plenty of opportunities to leave the criminal life behind and start anew. No one’s forcing him to stay in this environment. The reason for why he stays is that the family grants him safety, community and wealth. More so than if he were to work as some underpaid laborer at the docks. Vito is no evil man, but those benefits make him ignore and endure the brutality. And as seen in the first Mafia, crime may pay off, but you never abandon or betray your “family.”

And in the world of film, protagonists do not always have to be likeable or sympathetic to be effective and nuanced. Take Wikus from District 9, for instance, who frankly is a bit of an arse in the first third of the film. Like most of the other humans, he shows little regard for the “prawns” that he has been assigned with relocating to a different location than the Johannesburg slum they occupy. He cheats them, depicts them as being horribly primitive and even kills their unauthorized young ones. Their babies! After beginning his transformation into a prawn in the second third of the film, he doesn’t have a sudden epiphany and thinks that all prawns are oh so great and should be saved from the injustice that has been committed against them. No, understandably enough he thinks about saving his own skin first and getting back to his wife. Selfish motives drive him, not altruistic ones. However, through his experiences at MNU’s labs, where the scientists were performing various experiments on the prawns, he seems to gain a greater understanding for their suffering, such as when he is faced with being forced to fire upon an unarmed prawn during a lab test with one of their fancy weapons. Instead of going through the hero’s journey as per Campbell/Vogler, Wikus, in a sense, goes through as a villain (or jerk) – victim – sympathizer journey, and maybe even achieves the role of hero, although his motives are still somewhat ambiguous. Did he really sympathize with the prawns and wish to help them, or were they just tools for his own cure?

In essence, instead of playing heroes, I want to play humans. And humans are flawed. We don’t always take the rational decision, or the good decision, as it is easy and very human to follow your desires, instincts and need for self-preservation. Those are some reasons people join extremist organizations across the political spectrum, or rabidly and fervently force some religious beliefs onto others. These people are far more interesting and deep protagonists, in that they don’t possess the mentioned idealistic trait selflessness.

So how should a truly villainous character, or just a guy caught on the wrong side, be constructed? Firstly it should be noted that the portrayal need not be a sympathetic one. Just because the protagonist is on same side as the Orcs or even the Nazis doesn’t mean that the game’s creators, or even the game’s protagonist, have the same ideals. Instead, it is a way to show an organization or a group of people, however deluded they have been, from the inside. Young Fritz gets drafted into the German Army in the beginning of the war and during the course of the game observes many atrocities committed by his own side. He would be faced with a choice. Would he abandon the relative safety of the army and desert, running from the barbarism but risking execution, or stay behind hoping that the war would end soon and he could return home? And if Fritz was a high-ranking officer instead, ordered to oversee the execution of POWs, would he do it and remain in the good favor of his superiors, or would he defy the orders? Self-preservation vs. noble goals. While most sane people would choose the latter if presented with this choice in a game, I presume most people would choose the first if they were faced with this type of situation in reality. I think such a game would be banned instantly.

Secondly, the character would need to be relatable, although I generally have only scorn for that term. Unlike the parodic characters of Dungeon Keeper and Overlord, the character would have a human aura. A human existence. Give him or her a family or a friend to protect. Something that is of greater importance to them than an unknown mass of people. And then let the player fill that character with his own motivations and ethics, but what is most important, and by far the most difficult part, is to create a significant bond between the player’s character and the supporting characters. Otherwise, there will be no remarkable effect, other than from the player’s own egoism, when the player is faced with these decisions.

This has just been a very brief look at how protagonists can evolve from the hero template that many stories follow, and evolve into something more nuanced. Being just a vast amount of calculations, the video game medium will never be able to emulate the same conflicts (that would be truly frightening too), but it is by far the ideal way of dealing with such topics, as the interactivity breeds forethought. Their lives were taken on your command. Can you live with having made such a decision?