March 16, 2009

A Shark In The Sewer

Video game protagonists define stoicism. Every time a hero is called upon to save the world, tragedy befalls him and yet he presses on without complaint. Sometimes he won't even utter a word. At least one of his friends or family will get murdered, he's forced to make difficult moral choices, his home is burnt to the ground, all his equipment gets stolen, he gets betrayed by those he trusts the most, he's revealed to be a secret villain and for certain he will have to brutally kill hundreds of people. He does this in post-apocalyptic dystopias, poorly-lit dungeons and the various circles of hell under constant pressure, and subtly oppressive conditions like ammunition scarcity and everyone trying to shoot him.

These heroes can put up with basically anything. In the event of a personal disaster, they never seek nor are they given any opportunities to wallow in self-pity or take a moment to compose themselves. After a parent or love interest is executed before their eyes, a voice in their ear barks "Soldier, there's no time to mourn them; we need you to get on that turret!" They'll get on that turret, and pump their fist when they bring down a helicopter.

Video game heroes, like sharks, never stop swimming. If you need to pull aside a shark for a quiet, personal conversation, the shark says "sorry, dude, I'm a shark, I have to keep swimming or I'll die." This is why sharks make for shitty friends but why video game heroes are beloved by their fictional constituencies. They are dependable and resolute in any crisis.

It's common practice for one of those guys, in a single day, to chainsaw his way out of the belly of a giant worm, take a detour through a zombie shantytown, euthanise his long-lost wife, and spend hours in a sewer trawling through blood and waste, with monsters leaping up at his face and depositing their brain matter on his boots.

How surprising would it be to emerge from the sewer to an NPC colleague who exclaims "Soldier! Oh my God, I can't believe what you've gone through! That must have felt absolutely horrible, I can't even imagine what kind of pain you're in. Are you OK? Don't worry about the objective, I'll get someone else to take care of that. Let me buy you a drink, you can tell me all about it."

Experience would never teach him to expect that. The hero would probably get confused and shoot the NPC. Pausing over the corpse, he quickly runs off to blow up aliens at a water treatment plant.


Anonymous said...

This is a nice observation. There's one concern I have, though -- action movie heroes are often the same way, right? If you have only 90 minutes, you can't take time for real introspection and catharsis (besides the occasional "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!" modulo a few exclamation points).

Not every game falls into this trap, however -- in Final Fantasy 6, your party is basically all war-weary and shell-shocked after a major event a bit after the midway point of the story, and you need to go find them in the world and convince them to fight again. In fact, your character might even attempt suicide at one point. In FInal Fantasy 7, you lose control of the protagonist for some time to his internal psychological conflict.

Back in the West, Eternal Darkness had mechanics to reflect the madness that each character would develop by fighting the Lovecraftian horrors of the world. On top of that, each character was only playable for a short time, as they met grisly deaths, broke down in madness, or, rarely, escaped from their terrible situation to live out their natural lives.

Then again, the fact that I had to think pretty hard for examples shows how dominated our form is by mindless action flicks. I, for one, would really like to see some more vulnerable protagonists who aren't just foils to stoics whose fight-or-flight choice is impaired.

Andrew said...

Haha, I love that "rest a bit" angle. Few games ever take a break from the action, and certainly none say "No, no, don't go and do that, we'll cover it".

A few do take breaks - Joe mentioned some RPG's, most RPG's allow you to rest and relax in some way at some point (possibly doing quests still, but at least not gory ones). Half-Life 2 has a nice break mid-way through, although it is a bit too short.

Then again, the whole point is to have the most fun I guess, if someone said "no, you can't do that, go and rest", you just couldn't do that - you want to gun down things, or see the ending, and by dammit, that bit you've been told not to go do is likely to be the most fun (or most disasterous for the NPC's who do go) part of the game!

Tough to do in anything linear, certainly.

Duncan said...

I definitely agree with both you guys. To clarify, this isn't my take on "what's holding video games back"; as Joe says, it's an observation. I would point out though that the better action movies, even if they don't have their protagonists cry in the shower, do a decent job at demonstrating the physical toll on their heroes. Die Hard for instance.

What Joe says about Final Fantasy 6 is really interesting, it makes me wish that everything else about Final Fantasy appealed to me at all.

qrter said...

I always wondered about Gordon Freeman during Half-Life 2, doesn't he ever need a toiletbreak?

But then I thought the HEV Suit must be much more remarkable than I had ever imagined before.