If you haven’t noticed lately, the definitive good guy is seemingly being slowly shifted out of the gaming pop culture as we know it. Gone are the days of Link, Mario and the heroes we knew were definitely good, the white knights that would always do the right thing, even if it meant something terrible in store for them simply for a belief. They’ve been replaced with the anti-hero, the character that does what they have to do, because they know they have to do it. They don’t do it for the sake of being good. They do it for peace, revenge or by sheer moral ambiguity, they do what they wish.
Sometimes heroes fight for peace
From a narrative perspective, maybe video game characters are just too good to be considered evil or just too bad to be considered saints. John Milton said in his tale Paradise Lost, “Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven” so are we to infer that being good is equitable to servitude? Take Captain Price from Call of Duty 4, an SAS operative and life-long soldier. His character is ingratiated with the knowledge that sometimes bad things have to happen and overall he possesses the qualities we would expect from any hero. He is brave, succinct in word and deed, and able to go above and beyond the call of duty (excuse the pun). But when he has to rough up a prisoner or ultimately execute them in what some would call cold blood, he isn’t exactly hesitant about it. Perhaps in his years of military service, he has come into the understanding that his enemies wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to him. Therefore, it can be argued that Price, as with many characters influenced by military backgrounds, isn’t out to rule the darkest pits of Hell nor is he a white knight by any stretch of the imagination
Solid Snake is another prime example of this mentality. Being genetically derived from Big Boss the ‘Greatest Soldier to have ever Lived’ Solid Snake prescribes to the same military beliefs and traditions such as honor and courage. However, there is a small difference. When the Metal Gear, a walking tank capable of launching nuclear strikes from anywhere on the planet, is introduced into the equation Snake has a change of heart. In a world where every soldier is apart of a greater Paramilitary Corporation, Solid Snake stands alone to stop the Metal Gears to ultimately safeguard the world from nuclear annihilation. Through every shred of espionage and tactical combat, Snake believes and excels in hand to hand fighting as well as small arms, but differs on the use of nuclear armaments. So while not completely evil, as Liquid Snake is, but not completely good in the sense of playing all sides to achieve a goal, Snake stands as yet another anti-hero.
Sometimes heroes fight for vengeance.
Why then do players accept a role where their objectives are not clearly defined as good or evil and are to play, in a sense almost forced, to make difficult moral choices for their characters? Because moral ambiguity and ultimately the anti-heroes are best left undefined until players come along to define them. The main character in Bioshock, for instance, was faced with the choice of harvesting little girls to become more powerful or helping them. The possibility seems trivial at first as helping the Little Sisters could mean being underpowered later in the game, but this is what set Bioshock apart from other titles, the ability to decide what to do with that character.
Some heroes such as Kratos, of God of War, may not have a choice. Bargaining with Ares to spare his life, he becomes a slave to evil, so to speak, and in his rage not only decimates his village, but kills his wife and child as well. Thus, Kratos begins a quest to slay Ares as vengeance consumes him as the way to atone for his sins. Maybe under different circumstances, Kratos would have returned home after being all slaughtered out. However, since he continued his conquest, his fate was sealed before the player even presses the start button.
Touching on Infamous and Prototype, both open world titles that have stood comparably well side to side offer the same prospects, despite the narrative of either title, both characters have the choice of ultimately using their powers for good or evil and that is truly the basis of the anti-hero. Very much like Batman was portrayed in the Dark Knight, it has become trendy for developers to create a hero that isn’t quite good, isn’t quite evil, but all around badass and I think that is what gamers want. They don’t want to be enslaved to saving the princess, rescuing orphans and getting the kitty out of the tree. They want the chance to kidnap that princess, punch those orphans in the face and cut the tree down while laughing with glee about the cat. I’m not saying gamers are inherently good or evil, but the same could be said of these anti-heroes. In order for gamers to feel like Alex Mercer, who really just wants to know what exactly has been done to him and what he is becoming, they have to feel disoriented and given a clean slate for their choices to have some impact. If you give players a sandbox that already has sand castles built in them, they can then choose to work around them, build more castles or lay waste to the entire neighborhood. This exists in parallel with Cole McGrath’s world of Infamous, where the player is faced with multiple choices and avenues to go about being good or evil as they see fit.
Sometimes it’s just about destroying everything in sight.
So are the characters really the anti-heroes or have we as gamers simply grown tired of being the savior that everyone looks to for rescue when the world comes crashing down? As previously stated, soldiers get called upon to face the grim realities of war. However, sticking to the pillars of courage and honor are ultimately what separate them from their actions and principles. Even the noblest soldiers, such as Captain Price, can be called upon to do the worst of deeds. Likewise, Vengeance is another factor that drives the anti-hero forward, to atone for a horrible deed that can never be forgiven as Kratos has done and will continue to do right into God of War III. Conversely, some characters such as the main character of Bioshock and Alex Mercer of Prototype merely want to know what has happened to them, why they are there and how will they survive. But truly, it comes down to choice for us as players. If we choose to make that character commit an evil act or stand by while evil occurs that is our choice as much as if we decide to level a city block. So, who then is the real anti-hero, us or them?
‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ – Edmund Burke