Life, The Universe And Gaming: Playing Hero Is Boring
I’ve always loved playing the good guy in games. For as long as I can remember, it made me feel good to do good deeds in games, and I revelled in the glamour of it. I was the messianic harbinger of peace and prosperity and I ate it up like a rack of honey-glazed ribs. “Mmmmm, worship.” But times change and as The Joker proudly proclaimed to Spider-Man at the end of The Walking Dead, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” The truth is, I’m a little tired… not necessarily of being the good guy, because I am perpetually and irrevocably the paragon of games I play (with some exceptions) but rather, I am tired of being celebrated for it.
Let me ask you: When was the last time a game made you feel like a right bastard for doing what you thought was right?
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The obvious answer is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but since I’ve been barred from making further references to that game for the duration of 2015, let’s instead talk about the game that motivated me to write up on this topic. Let’s talk about Halo 5: Guardians.
When I was told that I would be reviewing Halo 5: Guardians, being the only member of the team at the time with an Xbox One, I naturally proceeded to enter a state of sheer and total panic, going dark for upwards of a week until I was finally found curled up in the foetal position, excrement erupting from both holes, crying and humming the Halo theme song. It was not my proudest moment. Nonetheless, I decided now would be as good a time as ever to start up the Halo: Master Chief Collection (which I received for review last year but could not successfully install due to download issues) and play through the entire series, so as to be perfectly caught up in time for the unavoidable review of Halo 5:
Gaydians. What followed was a reminder of just how bad the Halo series is, just how clueless and dumb the story was, and just how worshipped Master Chief was, for all that he did (nothing).
In a strange way I was reminded of Gordon Freeman from Half-Life 2, only in Half-Life 2 you actually had no idea what the heck you were doing and yet everyone else treated you like the second coming of Combine Jesus. In Halo, your exploits were explicitly celebrated, and it became patently (and painfully) obvious whenever the game was trying to make you feel good for having done something. Killed an entire civilisation of aliens? Here’s a freaking medal of honour, man! Well done, high fives all round! Throughout the Halo MCC experience I felt as if everything I did would be met with cheers, confetti, and beautiful women waiting with baited breath and open mouths. It was, to put it quite simply, exhausting to play.
And that’s not to say I explicitly hated the validation and fame of being the good guy. One of my all-time favourite series is Mass Effect, a game where a single human forms a team of aliens and stops an entire galactic invasion (with help). I, like every other person with a conscience, cried like a Tumblr addict who only just realised nobody cares about their bullshit, at the end of Mass Effect 3. I felt things, man. Like, real things. In my regions. And I adored how the game chose to remember Shepard’s exploits. But I also remembered the hardships Shepard endured in getting to that point; starting off with nobody believing that the reapers existed, then having to quite literally come back from the dead only to be shafted again (seriously, why couldn’t Shepard catch a damn break?) before finally being put on trial for saving a solar system, having to escape humanity’s home planet, and then finally returning home later only to meet with internet rage like nothing the world had ever seen before. The end.
In Halo I didn’t get any of that. Master Chief’s biggest problem was running out of ammo, and the game took great pains to show a man who was almost entirely in control, if not for his somewhat-troubling dependence on his AI, Cortana. Now you could argue that the old Halo games were old, and we have better games these days (plus let’s be honest with each other, Arbiter was the real hero of the series). That would be true, except this trend continued into Halo 5, albeit in a slightly different way. Suddenly Master Chief was the villain of a sort, and Locke was trying to catch up to and then return Master Chief to the UNSC. But they were pound-for-pound identical characters, playing out in an indeterminable fashion with squads of four, where if it wasn’t for the HUD and voice changes, I would have had a hard time figuring out who was who. On both occasions, the game went the extra mile to make players feel not just in charge, but lauded for their efforts. Oh sure you would likely question why Master Chief was being an uncharacteristically gullible fool in cutscenes but when the game put you in his feet, his squad only egged him on and made him (you) feel like a champ. Ditto for Locke.
Playing Halo 5:
Gourdians made me wonder whether it was a Halo thing to pander to a player’s need to feel as if they matter, or whether it was a deeper trend within gaming as a whole. I’ve certainly felt this way in other games, even games like Overlord where I wasn’t even necessarily the good guy made me feel not just like a badass (because honestly, a badass is even more of a badass when they’re doing what they’re doing amidst some form of difficulty) but famous, as if the poets were singing my name in pubs halfway across the galaxy (there are no pubs after that point in the galaxy).
I think there is great value in a game that doesn’t treat you as if you are the most important person in the world.
It’s unrealistic, and honestly just a little old-fashioned. That’s how games used to be but we live in a world where escapism need not be about playing god; you can just be an average person and experience the same amount of personal investment as you would if you were King Leonidas himself. Would it not be a million times more interesting if, like all the RPGs of old and new since Fallout 4 is on its way, you started off with humble beginnings but kept things humble throughout the game? This is the thing that made the Call of Duty games popular in the first place, and it’s also the thing that made Spec-Ops: The Line the cult classic that it was. Sometimes you are not the hero. Sometimes you are neither celebrated nor lauded for your acts of bravery and button-mashing.
Sometimes you are just yourself, and you have to make peace with that.
Now you might argue that with all of the IRL goings-on, videogames allow the kind of escapism and power fantasy settings that let people be happy about their lives, but I would counter with this: Would you rather be an Avenger, or part of the X-Men? Which has the more interesting cast, for you? I know for me it’s the X-Men, despite them being misunderstood and outwardly hated, for doing the exact same things the Avengers get celebrated for doing.
I would propose that it’s actually more important to not be treated like the perpetual saviour to mankind, because again it’s unrealistic and a little tiresome. Instead, let’s have more stories like The Walking Dead or the Tomb Raider reboot, more personal stories where you’re just a character doing a thing, or if we really must have big action set-pieces and a rollercoaster ride of fun along the lines of Halo 5:
Goudaians, let’s at least have it the Mass Effect way, where you face real difficulties and must be forced to question yourself, and your morals, before you can finally save the day. Or do The Witcher 3’s thing of presenting the kinds of choices that are so frustratingly impossible to moralise that you end up going with your heart and learning lessons about yourself in the process.
Shit, I promised I wouldn’t bring it up again. I’d better run before the EGMR Police find me. Tell me how you feel about games that make you feel overly important in the comments, I’ll come read ’em when I dodge the heat.