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Culture Bytes: Heroism in Video Games


It's not easy being a hero. You have to stay motivated, fight against unfathomable odds and, usually, lead the rest of your team to victory. It doesn't leave a lot of time for a lie-in. The history of fiction has a whole range of heroes from the typical Classical Hero to the Anti-Hero, from the Reluctant Hero to the Byronic Hero. But, in a medium as reliant on letting the audience live out their fantasies, do video games have this same range of hero?


First of all, I think it's important to clear something up. A protagonist and a hero are not one and the same. A protagonist is simply a main character in a story. A hero, on the other hand, has to do something... well, heroic; usually by displaying some form of courage or bravery. For instance, Holden Caulfield from J.D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye would be a protagonist, where as Harry Potter would be a hero (a Reluctant Hero with elements of Classical Heroism, for those of you who were wondering).


The most recognisable hero is probably the Classical, or Perfect, Hero, demonstrated by Hercules or Superman - protagonists who always do the right thing and of whom there is little doubt of success. As we can see by these examples, the Classical Hero is usually larger than life with some form of special ability; more likely to be seen in a work of fantasy, legend or high-stakes. It probably goes without saying, but this character type is perfect for video games, as seen in Link from The Legend of Zelda series. Link is a distinctly honourable character; brave but humble, clever and kind, but able to use force if necessary - classic traits of a Classical Hero. Link always does the right thing and is never tempted by evil, saving the day in every title. Link even has a magical sword (The Master Sword) displaying yet another typical trope of the Classical Hero. Similarly, we have Sora from Kingdom Hearts. Again, Sora is the chosen bearer of a magical weapon, this time the Keyblade. Thrown into a situation he isn't prepared for, Sora refuses to falter knowing his path is that of righteousness - saving worlds from the evil Heartless while looking for his friends Riku and Kairi. It has to be said that the Classical hero is full of tropes and, through the years, has become perhaps that little bit too familiar, but it still rings a chord, especially in a medium in which the audience is the hero. These characters aren't necessarily bland, just a way of offering the audience the chance to be something they never could be in real life: perfect.


Conversely, we have the Anti-Hero. Far from the perfection of the Classical Hero, the Anti-Hero tends to work for personal gain. they may do the right thing but for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons. Typical examples of this would be The Man With No Name from The Dollars Trilogy or Han Solo from Star Wars - both notably selfish characters who end up fighting for what's right. Working only for his own ends, protagonist of Red Dead Redemption John Marsden is a typical example of a character who does the wrong things for the right reason. Few can argue that wanting to save his family from kidnap is not only honourable, but a moral obligation; the grey area with John Marsden is the trail of corpses he leaves in his wake. That nothing is too morally abhorrent a task for Marsden is what prevents him being a hero in the traditional sense, while his quest to free his family is what keeps him in the audience's heart. Another example would be Agent 47 from the Hitman games - a man who kills only for personal (monetary) gain. It's only the fact that the people he assassinates are even more morally corrupt than him that stops him from falling into out-and-out villainy. The Anti-Hero allows the audience member to act entirely as they wish while still claiming the moral right. It's the equivalent of telling your horrible boss where to stick their job. The Anti-Hero represents rebellion, a common theme in video games, whereas the Classical Hero represents either the continuation of the status-quo or its reinstatement.


A Reluctant Hero is probably the most realistic type of hero; being thrust into a dangerous situation would give most of us some pause. We see this in Rincewind in Terry Pratchett's Discworld - a man who wants to live his quiet life and not, you know... be slaughtered by an ogre. It sounds reasonable enough, but does it make for a compelling protagonist? Well, Ethan Mars of Heavy Rain - a man out to rescue his son from a serial killer - is bland and more-than-a-little-bit-thick. There is absolutely nothing extraordinary about him and that's the most extraordinary thing. In trying to create a character as realistic as possible, someone to whom the audience can relate, the developers created a man of nothing; a very unrealistic character indeed. I'll be honest, I'm not overly fond of the Reluctant Hero, mostly because of the Ethan Mars effect. In trying to create a character like the audience, sometimes writers forget to give them any distinguishing features. This is one reason Rincewind is such a great character - he's very unique. It isn't often in fantasy that you see someone as cowardly as Rincewind - a fearful and powerful wizard in a world of danger and heroics. Reluctant Heroes can be done well, Alfred Hitchcock made enough films to prove that, but all too often they become an excuse for lazy writing. Perhaps the video game is just a medium that requires a slightly more stylised protagonist?


One of the most easily recognisable heroes is the Byronic Hero - someone with a fatal flaw, but an air of romanticism about them. Like the Anti-Hero, they are often selfish but are forced to act in situations out of their control. For instance, Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean would be a Byronic Hero. He's selfish greedy and loveless, but is portrayed in such a romantic light and is charismatic enough to have redeeming features. In gaming the famous example of a Byronic Hero would be Snake from Metal Gear Solid; a cynical world-weary soldier with a penchant for cigarettes and placing his life in danger before all others. There is a sense that Snake has given up - that his life is only worth living as the last line of defence against a tide of war. He's a captivating hero, just as the Byronic Hero is designed to be - weak enough that the audience can relate to him at their worst, but strong enough that there are elements of him to aspire to. The Byronic Hero works as in their self destruction there is a sense of nobility and honour. Is it not more honourable to destroy oneself than to allow that around them to be destroyed? Similarly, we have the Tragic Hero - a hero who will never overcome their fatal flaw. For example, Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. Ned lived his life by a code of honour so strictly that even the threat of his own death would not let him stray from it; his death is both fitting and inevitable. In gaming I think the most fascinating example of the Tragic Hero may well be Wander from Shadow of the Colossus. Again, Wander's intentions are noble and he acts out of love, though he is warned by Dormin that his reward (the resurrection of his lover Mono) will come at a high price. After doggedly hunting the Colossi, Wander is possessed by Dormin and killed, before being resurrected as a baby with horns feared by his people. Mono is alive again, but Wander is most likely unaware of the fact. Wander's downfall is foreshadowed, but it is due to his fatal flaw (his blind love for Mono) that it occurs. The Byronic and Tragic Heroes are closely related and translate well to video games as the romanticism surrounding them draws the audience in. When self-destruction or tragedy befall the characters, the audience feel as though it has happened to them due to the medium's level of immersion. This leads to an intensely emotional experience


Interestingly, video games offer the chance to choose what type of hero you can play as. For instance, in the Dragon Age series you can choose whether the Grey Warden is a Tragic Hero, Classical Hero or Anti-Hero. Hawke can be played as Classical Hero, Byronic Hero or Anti-Hero. Silent Protagonists offer the same level of choice. In Persona 4, the protagonist's silence allows you to project your own ideas about their heroism into the game. (I would argue the real hero of Persona 4 is Naoto Shirogane, but that's a debate for another day.) Even in MMORPGs, though your character may say nothing at all, the level of interaction and the way you conduct yourself online allows you to choose what type of hero you are, or if you will fall entirely into villainy.


As an author I've always been fascinated by the storytelling technique of the Passive Protagonist - a story told from one character's perspective, but really about the actions of another. This is often just a way to mask lazy characterisation, but when done well can be stunning, essentially allowing a character study of the true hero. One example of this would be Shane by Jack Schaeffer. the story is told through the eyes of the child Joey whose family has been rescued by gunslinger Shane. Joey's innocence allows the audience to see Shane as an almost godlike figure much as Joey does, even though, through adult eyes, many of Shane's actions would put him on the path towards Anti-Heroism. If we look at Final Fantasy XII we see a very similar situation with Vaan. Differing from the heroics of Cloud, Squall, Zidane and even Tidus, from previous instalments, Vaan is a distinctly unheroic character. He has aspirations of heroism, but it's fair to say he never really lives up to them. However, his yearning for adventure does translate into the hero-worship of the Byronic Hero Balthier and the Classical Hero Basche. The fact the story is told primarily from Vaan's perspective intensifies this heroism for the audience. I think this decision to have a Passive Protagonist may be one of the reasons that Final Fantasy XII isn't a fan favourite. In a medium in which we are so used to taking control of the hero, it must have been jarring for some to play as Vaan, while being surrounded by significantly more heroic and fascinating characters. Personally, I loved this game and this was one of the reasons. But hey, I'm the kind of person who writes long articles applying literary theory to video games, so perhaps we should be suspicious of my motives...


In conclusion, video games offer a range of hero archetypes, though it has to be said that some work better than others. What is striking, however, is that all of these examples are straight, white men. While there are some more diverse heroes in the medium, it says something about the industry that they are not part of our instant recall. Perhaps as the medium evolves, writers and developers will not only be able to find ways of improving their Reluctant Heroes and Passive Protagonists, but also on making their protagonists and heroes more diverse in terms of social identity.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', they are also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find them on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

 
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