This week is our self-proclaimed Heroes Week! To commemorate heroism in gaming, I have decided to examine heroes of the past versus heroes of the present, what limitations contribute to their differences, why some heroes haven’t changed at all since their conception, and why a gaming hero doesn’t need superpowers. STRAP IN!
Let’s start out with a pretty clear cut protagonist who has had virtually no dynamic growth since his first appearance in 1981: Mario. He was saving a princess from a completely one-dimensional monster back in Donkey Kong, and he is saving a princess from an equally one-dimensional monster today. This plot is very basic with little to no character development. I am not saying the Mario series is a poor one as these rather simplistic narrative choices do help in creating a more charming, carefree experience. The protagonist goes through trials and makes sacrifices to save someone they love who has had their agency stripped — something every player without a serious personality disorder can empathize with. While this example is one of the most well known, it is also the easiest to explain: Brand Recognition. This will never change with the exception of Mario characters playing shuffleboard in some spinoff game… which, again, is strictly brand recognition. Mario is still the protagonist, but is he really a gaming hero like he used to be, or just an icon?
Along these lines, the evolution of gaming heroism has been most visible in new titles or total reboots of old titles. A good middle of the road example would be Lara Croft. For pretty much the entire series until the most recent reboot, Lara was a pretty static adventurer that always wound up involved in some evil, supernatural plot that may or may not have involved dinosaurs. Again, this is a pretty risk-free formula that won’t put people off in terms of narrative (though more dinosaurs could have arguably been implemented after the first installment). Now look at the 2013 remake — it chronicles Lara’s growth into a powerful, intelligent combatant and a strong leader of the survivors after she is thrust into a dangerous environment. The same mysterious plot elements are incorporated to at least justify the plot as part of the Tomb Raider brand, but a much heavier emphasis is put on Lara and why she is a hero; not just on the goal of her adventure. It’s about the journey, not the destination, as they say.
One of the biggest factors in this trend is the technological capability to tell a story through an interactive experience. In the past, cartridges had no capacity for engaging storytelling. Further, gaming is now being seen as a legitimate and profitable media type, so experienced writers and directors are involved in their development. With these advancements, both protagonists and antagonists can be fleshed out much more and portrayed in a relatable fashion. To recap, technology is good, gaming being lucrative is good, and brand recognition can’t have its grubby fingers all up in the process.
These days, many games allow us to roleplay a would-be gaming hero faced with several outcomes, none of which are intuitively moral. As the player gets to live through the difficult rationalization a protagonist is forced to go through, usually built up over the course of the entire adventure, s/he gets to experience the creation of a true hero. We have seen the evolution of this type of character in games like the Tomb Raider reboot, Mass Effect, Bioshock Infinite, The Last Of Us, and TellTale’s The Walking Dead. It certainly does not take a true hero to know that thugs kidnapping an innocent person is objectively bad, though we were taught to think only a true hero could do something about it. While I do agree with this partially, true heroes also can be depicted as three-dimensional protagonists who aren’t always perfect and have no special powers in regards to their peers. Yet, they’re able to lead and make the hard decisions the rest of us could not, especially when the outcome is not easily black and white.