It made sense, initially. There wasn’t the memory – or the budgets – for much narrative beyond, “You are the ultimate good guy fighting the ultimate bad guy. Now please enjoy 20 levels of platforms and jumping puzzles.” However, as the games industry evolved, chasing the graphical rainbow, its ethics remain firmly rooted in an adolescent nihilism, a depressing action movie world where only one man can stop him, and everyone else is an unthinking automaton your avatar can use and abuse as it amuses him.
Consider the average game protagonist; when he’s not a lovingly rendered stand-in for the artist’s fantasies, he’s a misunderstood superman with world-changing power. Alternately, there’s the torn teenager with daddy issues lugging around an oversized sword. While most game heroes might be 35-year-old men with muscles big enough to crush walnuts, from a philosophical standpoint, they’re black-clad teenagers flipping ostentatiously through a copy of The Fountainhead, hoping someone asks them about it. A protagonist’s good qualities usually come down to: “Can carry approximately 140 different types of high-powered machine gun without breaking a sweat.”
This hero strides a wasteland, a strange world where a teenager or a government commando is the only person with a brain or willpower, and where the entire world is against him. Parents are lovable oafs urging you to put on a sweater before you go off to fight evil, kidnapping-prone plot devices, or dead. The dead parent is the way you make an RPG deep, unless you’re going to pull a “Luke, I am your father,” before he takes on his ultimate giant lizard form for the thrilling finale. Governments either conspire against you (Deus Ex, Half-Life), are outright tools of evil manipulated by the evil bad guy (Final Fantasy IV), or they’re paralyzed, distant and/or useless, as is the case with every small town plagued by monsters that’s forced to hire a ragtag band of wandering mercenaries to clean up the spooky old cave outside town.
Hoping for help from your passel of friends and sidekicks? Of course, they’re useless, caught strafing into a wall or needing more micromanagement than a 3-year-old, and that’s assuming they aren’t planning to betray you or sell you out to the bad guys. Be it Kain’s constant betrayals in Final Fantasy IV or the Marines in Halo, sidekicks are somewhere between outright sellouts and useless cannon fodder. I felt no compunction about gunning down my fellow Marines in Halo and taking their ammo. Why should I? All their cohorts did was make remarks about my sanity. It’s not like they were going to desert, and even if they did, I’d just gun them down and take their ammo. I didn’t face the prospect of an in-game fragging, the way a crazy officer in the real world might.
Turning to religion is equally futile. When the gods aren’t non-existent – and they usually are – they’re working against you, as in God of War or even Kid Icarus. Maybe the church can provide you some solace in these dark times? Well, that’s assuming it’s not literally full of evil, as in Diablo Mark One, or figuratively conspiring to do evil to you, as in Final Fantasy Tactics. Maybe they’ll help you get back on your feet with a resurrection, but odds are, they will charge handsomely for it. Spiritual release is likely to be in the form of God ditching you for your behavior, as in the finale of Messiah, rather than anything comforting.
In the game hero’s world, ethics may exist, but only in the most dubious of ways. Perhaps there’s an alignment system cribbed from D&D, but a geek-wide embrace of black trenchcoats and Darth Vader means the Dark Side is usually fun, and sometimes the better way to go. Even if it’s a wholesale copying of the Lawful Good-Chaotic Evil system, the truest of the Lawful Good paladins are prone to careening around killing random monsters in the same manner as, and sometimes right beside, the most Chaotic of evil rogues.
Ethical character decisions are made mainly on the basis of what powers you get by picking good versus evil, rather than anything that speaks to the spirit. Can we wallow in the abyss for many years and really say it hasn’t affected us with a straight face? Yes, games allow us to vent our spleen as vilely as we might choose, but an essential part of catharsis is the renewal of the appreciation for life, which most games lack. They encourage the wallowing, but the ending’s more likely to be a setup for a sequel than anything emotionally affecting or enlightening.
Even the heroes themselves are seldom likable. Either they’re pneumatic, buffed and pumped, and brainless connoisseurs of mindless explosions or they’re regular-Joe types designed to appeal to people beyond the buff-guy-with-guns crowd. As a quick exercise, name the last five videogame protagonists you’d want to hang out with. Personally, I came up with three.
They’re usually cardboard cutouts, designed to let you project your own desires and personality onto them (though the more cynical among us may say it’s because nobody wants to pay writers), rather than having a life and personality of their own. Likable protagonists are out there, but there have been hundreds more faceless protagonists fresh out of Cookie Cutter Hero School, mowing down enemies because designers needed a stand-in for the player. Antiheroes have their place, but we barely have the well-developed good guys against whom to cast them. Noir means nothing when everything is noir. Sin City is tame and boring fare when everything is gritty tales of antiheroes struggling against a dark world.
This lament is as old as the industry itself, but the time has come for the industry to grow up. Hewing to an adolescent ethos of “me against the world” is damaging to the industry as a whole, and it restricts the possibilities inherent in the sheer power of modern gaming. Technicolor is out there, but we like the black and white of our storytelling, and besides, the man’s keeping me down. It’s why outsiders seldom take it seriously from a storytelling, artistic and philosophical perspective, for the same reason that no one takes 14-year-old “f – – the world” door-slam theatrics seriously. If we can make world-class boob jiggle physics, someone out there can write a compelling, interesting good guy who’s as interesting as the bad guys we know and love.
Millionaire playboy Shannon Drake lives a life on the run surrounded by Japanese schoolgirls and videogames. He also writes about anime and games for WarCry.