Culture Bytes: Humanity in Video Games

What is it that makes us human? There are many ideas from many different schools of thought; from morality to intelligence, creativity to language. It's certainly a difficult thing to define, but there are, without a doubt, many traits that make us unmistakably human. Humanity has been explored in many different works of fiction, from the much maligned Bicentennial Man to Ex Machina in film, matched by works of literature such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelly and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. In these works, created beings, robots or otherwise, develop humanity, experiencing emotions we commonly associate with the human species. In Never Let Me Go and Bicentennial Man these are love and empathy whereas in Frankenstein  these are vengeance and anger. These are stories of burgeoning humanity, of learning what it is to be human and trying to come to terms with the wondrous joys of it while balancing the moral responsibilities. But do video games explore humanity and, if so, do they do so in the same way?

Although easy to view only as a Fantasy Action Adventure game, Shadow of the Colossus explores humanity in an interesting way. The game follows Wander on a quest to slay sixteen colossi in order to bring his love back from the dead. Wander's motive is unmistakably human. Caring enough about another to risk one's own life could be argued to be the very best of humanity. The story is told sparsely, with very little dialogue, strangely adding to the epic quest Wander has embarked upon. We see his humanity in the gameplay; the determination and pain on the face of his avatar, the way he picks himself up after being knocked down by the colossi, his commanding calls for his horse Agro. For that most human emotion, love, Wander will journey miles across arid wasteland as his quest slowly destroys him, growing visibly more pallid and sickly as the story progresses. It is both fitting and ironic that this quest robs Wander of his humanity in the end. In his love for Mono, Wander forsakes all others, slaying the majestic colossi for ultimately selfish reasons. He is then betrayed by the god Dormin who turns Wander into a mindless shadow before reverting him to a baby with the addition of horns his people have taken to be a curse. Wander's extreme humanity is his downfall and ultimately the reason he had it taken from him. Had he compassion for more than just Mono, it is possible he would have been spared his curse, though that opens up the argument of whether he could be said to possess humanity without such fierce grief. It's a strange oxymoron, but Wander's humanity is his strength, curse and his greatest loss.

The loss of humanity is a prevalent theme in video games. We see this in the character of Raiden in the Metal Gear Solid series. Raiden makes his first appearance in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty as a rookie soldier, full of compassion and struggling with the cruel conditions he finds himself in. He's an excellent contrast to the other protagonist Solid Snake who's battle-hardened and stoic, facing the terrors of war without so much as a flinch. But the conditions take their toll on Raiden and we see him return in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots as a very different character, physically and mentally. Robbed of much of his human body through injury and the need to be an ever more efficient soldier, Raiden is augmented to be half-cyborg, his blood replaced by synthetics and muscles supports by an exoskeleton. Limbs are replaced by robotic replacements, but Raiden has lost a host more than this. His life of war has left him cold and emotionless, fighting only because he has little left to do. It seems he has lost his ability to love. This change is striking, leading to the question is Raiden now more robot than human? Has his augmented body started to affect his mind? At what point can life affect us so much that we lose our humanity? More moving still is that Raiden is now colder than the veteran Snake, the older man's age causing him to become more compassionate. Though, there is a hint of Raiden's redemption at the end. When the fighting is over, Raiden embraces his love, Rose, and his son, suggesting his loss of humanity was mostly situational. That said, Raiden's coldness is juxtaposed by some of his actions. He saves Snake a multitude of times in this title, putting his own life at risk. This belies his words of uncaring - he clearly values his friendship with Snake. It is possible Raiden has lost his ability to love himself with what he has done on the battlefield - his air of detachment a necessity to do what he must.

Zombie fiction has a constant threat of the loss of humanity. One bite from the undead will cause not only death, but will also lead to the transformation into one of their own - mindless with bloodlust. Tell Tale's The Walking Dead Game takes this one step further, following cues from the comic based on which it's based. The group of survivors are pitted against other groups whose positions are every bit as dire as their own. They can treat them with compassion, perhaps risking themselves in the process, or act with hostility. The world they are living in takes its tole, perhaps most notably in the character Kenny. Kenny loses his family as the game goes on, growing attached to new arrivals in his life only to lose them as well. As the second game progresses, Kenny becomes more erratic, violent and loveless, even pushing away those he had developed close relationships with. The player is left with a tough decision at the end of the second game, essentially coming down to whether or not they think Kenny can be redeemed. In trying to survive the zombie outbreak, Kenny has lost what makes him recognisably human. Loss after loss has torn him apart, leaving his only coping mechanisms as distance and selfishness. In fact, we see Kenny in a similar situation to Wander. In the second game, Kenny takes a baby into his care, though his fear of losing the baby causes him to grow more ruthless, throwing hostility the way of any potential threat. It is, once again, Kenny's own humanity that leads him to lose it; forsaking all others for the life of the baby. It's perhaps a familiar theme in zombie fiction - the human race eventually worn down to no better than the creatures they are trying to survive.

Even video games that do not explore humanity as a theme are, in many ways, still about humanity. The heroes in Final Fantasy act out of their emotions and views of right and wrong. Humanity. The characters in Heavy Rain investigate the case because they want to save lives. Humanity. The characters in Dragon Age battle the darkspawn to save the human race. Humanity. Every character motivation in every story comes down to humanity - ruled by emotion and feeling as our species is. In truth, video games are art and the role of art is to chronicle the human experience which is the experience of humanity - how we gain it, how we protect it, what it does to and for us, and how in extreme circumstances we can even lose it. There are human characters in video games created by human beings, thusly there is humanity webbed throughout the medium.

In conclusion, video games are packed full of humanity, just as all fiction and all art. Video games show us just how important our humanity is and how easy it is to lose. They are at once a celebration and a warning; a love story and a horror. In chronicling the human experience and the nature of our species, they can afford to be nothing less.

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

Alt:Mag © Kaizo Minds Collective 2023 | Layout designed by Rumah Dijual and Lewis Cox.