Making life count or Why no game needs a hero

There exist a multitude of articles on the web that analyse how video games make use of the classic hero’s journey, as described by  Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There is one article by Stephen W. Williamson in Relevant Magazin, dated March 7th 2005, that I myself found particularly interesting. In this article he writes:

Some people use video games to escape life, but I think most people play them to remind them of the hero they’re meant to be.

While I understand what Mr. Williamson essentially means to say by that, I am no believer. But I have been brought up to bear in mind the consequences of my actions and am lucky enough to  live in a country where lives are generally considered to be worth something.

So I thought: wouldn’t it be great if there were video games out there that allowed me to complete my hero’s journey through compassion rather than violence and were fun to play at the same time?

Not really.

What is a hero?
There are a ton of games that let you save flag and country against clichee villains, from alien invaders to the ever-so-popular Nazis. While I recognise the initial appeal of the setting, I do not play these games. Maybe because I think it is easy being a hero when you are a soldier with a big gun. And maybe because killing people is something I view as having to be the very last resort in one’s arsenal. I did not always think that way, though. There was a time when I enjoyed hacking and slashing my way through tons of enemy soldiers and felt empowered.

In Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood master assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze truly becomes unstoppable. It is because of him I never tire of this game. He simply has the coolest lines and moves. Love him!

Assassin’s Creed was my favourite franchise and Ezio Auditore da Firenze, hero of Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood and Revelations remains one of my favourite game characters to date. Yet when the background story of protecting mankind’s freedom of choice no longer managed to outweigh the fact that the protagonists were all just killers, thieves and thugs out for revenge, riches or what they believed to be redemption, I quit. I no longer felt empowered. Maybe the latest installment, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, has changed that for the better, but, frankly, I can’t be bothered to check.

Uncharted-Drake’s Fortune or Let the carnage begin. Someone recommended this game to me and I am sure it has a great story, but after having pointlessly shot dozens of enemies arcade style I simply stopped.

Story is important, undoubtedly. But are heroes truly necessary for making a good game?

Being a hero is tough
While most video games put their protagonists in situations where it is either kill or be killed, others leave the player choices, mainly the choice not to kill and still be a hero. My very favourite of those is, of course, Deus Ex-Human Revolution. Protagonist Adam Jensen is an augmented super-soldier with an incredible arsenal of weapons and tools, including a silver tongue. Yes, I could blast my way through the game. Yet I feel most satisfied when I manage to accomplish a mission without killing anyone. Even if that sometimes means that I have to leave someone behind. I am still grateful for being given that choice.

There are other games that are not so kind. The Last of Us, for example. It is a survival horror game and the protagonists’ arsenal is limited. And while it is possible to evade notice and therefore deadly confrontations, the player will frequently encounter situations where fighting – and killing – is the only option to save one’s comrades or oneself.

I can accept that.

But I remember how very upset I was when at the very end of the game main protagonist Joel, who is certainly no saint, sees fit to kill an unarmed man, to save his ward, Ellie. The gameplay actually would allow Joel to simply knock the man down, but at this point the option simply, cruelly, is not made available. Back then I kept pushing buttons, trying to find an alternative. Yes, I had noticed the change in Joel, who is beginning to display  increasingly dislikeable traits during the last hours of the story. I simply did not want to accept that this was who he truly was. Maybe it is a female thing. The Last of Us is still a brillant game.

So, what is a hero?

To my mind, a hero is a protagonist that makes each individual player feel empowered in a good way. But does a good game necessarily need a hero the way I, personally, prefer a hero to be? No. Just as a good game does not necessarily need a happy ending. Because while video games allow us a bit of escapism, in real life we can be the heroes we want to be regardless.

What are your favourite heroes?


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