It’s HERO Week!
Hooray for Hero Week, where we delve deep and discover the true awesomeness that is a video game hero (or heroine). “But, dear blogger,” you say, “your delightfully witty and well-written blog only updates twice a week!” To that, I say: you’re right! But I had an idea for two posts that were related, so why not make a week out of it? Pure blogging gold, right there. And that idea, of course, is to write about those fabulous doers of good, those just and fearless warriors, those people who horrifically skew the “Number of Princesses Rescued per Capita” rating of Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom.
But, the skeptics shout, heroes aren’t unique to video games! They’re in movies! They’re in books! They’re in 800-year-old Norse epic poems! They’re in Greek tragedies that are even older than that! They’re in boxes with foxes, Sam-I-Am! Video games possess only a tiny, tiny sliver of all the heroes that have ever existed. What makes them special? Plenty of stuff, actually. The idea of a video game hero is actually quite a bit different than the idea of any other hero in any other genre. The first thing is that the hero’s alignment is mainly determined by his or her actions. There are plenty of games (coughcoughZELDA) where your character never talks, not even once. Therefore, we can’t have the clever punning of Bilbo Baggins or the flowery iambic pentameter of Romeo (is he even a hero? He seems kind of pansy-ish to me). You don’t ever hear the unbroken stream of profanity that comes out of Mario’s mouth when he hears “Your princess is in another castle.” You don’t hear Samus scream bloody murder when giant evil crap pops out of nowhere for no apparent reason except to make her life miserable. So, your morality is based mostly on your fearless heroic badassery. Even in games where the main characters possess a vocabulary (like the Final Fantasy series), your actions make you a hero or an anti-hero. You do good because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and there’s not gonna be any “straying from the path of justice” nonsense, like in the real world or novels or philosophically inspired Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Welcome to the world of video games!
The next thing is your mortality. The idea of a video game hero dying is pretty far-fetched. Sure, now and then you hit a Game Over, with its uncharacteristically depressing music, but in the actual grand scheme of things, Game Over means “Dude, you have to beat this boss before you get through any more plot stuff.” It doesn’t mean that your character actually DIES. Why do you think Mario has more than one life? But here’s the thing: video game heroes ultimately survive their ordeals. It would have been a heckuva way to start a franchise if Link had died at the end of the first Zelda game, or if Mario had decided to drown his troubles in lava after rescuing the perpetually elusive princess. Of course there are games that defy this particular part of it all, aka Final Fantasy X (seriously? What the heck? You were a dream?). Most of the time, though, you vanquish the final boss, you go get said weapon/object/person of power/love/whatever, and traipse gaily off into the sunset, ready for a sequel! Video game heroes are the epitome of optimism! (Say that one five times fast).
The above image illustrates the stupendous longevity of Nintendo’s most famous protagonists (is Kirby a protagonist? That’s like saying the marshmallows in my hot cocoa are forces against evil. Actually, that might be true). However, it also brings me to my next point! Video game heroes GROW. I don’t mean swallowing magic mushrooms and becoming physically larger, but I’m talking about PERSONAL growth. Most games of a progressive type (like, I dunno, NOT Grand Theft Auto?) do one (or more) of three things. The first is, these games provide you with new abilities (Zelda, Metroid, Megaman). Link must have an enormous closet full of the crap he’s collected on his various adventures. I’d love to see them go after THAT one on “Storage Wars.” The second thing that these games do is that they allow your character(s) to grow in terms of personality and self-awareness (later Zelda games, Final Fantasy, Mass Effect). In Final Fantasy VIII, you go from being a lame teenager to… a lame teenager with superpowers. Hooray. Or in Final Fantasy X, you go from being a future-soccer superstar into a hack-and-slash fruitcake. Actually, the fruitcake part is pretty much constant for the entire game. The final thing that these games provide in terms of growth is to simply put your character through an increasingly complicated set of tasks (Mario, Donkey Kong Country, Kirby). The last one is a bit of a stretch as far as “growth” is concerned, but it really is. Your hero, through you, has become familiar and adept at succeeding against a lot of challenges, and the levels that you had trouble with early on in the game seem like child’s play, now that you’ve gotten past them.
It still seems like a stretch, I know. Gimme a break, if I hadn’t included that part, Mario would have been the lamest hero ever. “Dude, all you do is collect coins, stomp on people, eat random mushrooms and rescue that FRICKIN’ princess. Get a real job, become a plumber or something.” But he jumps on HARDER enemies and gets coins that are TOUGHER to reach… and… yeah, the mushrooms pretty much stay the same.
Thankfully, that dubiously dubious last point I made about “growth” is a perfect segue into my last point. No, I’m not talking about that thing Weird Al rides around on in “White and Nerdy.” The last thing that makes video game heroes so much different than the heroes of literature and film is our ability to connect with them. When I see Sylvester Stallone kill some Nazi Viet Cong terrorist in Rambo, I don’t feel like I’ve vicariously smooshed his head between my airbrushed calves. When Beowulf slays the dragon, I (thankfully) don’t die like a chump afterwards. They do what they do, regardless of my input, and they end up however they end up, making me an interested observer, at best. But in video games, you participate! The success of Link’s quest depends on YOU. Whether or not Commander Shepard is a jerk is up to YOU. The connectivity of yourself to your chosen hero is pretty frickin’ awesome, and that’s what makes it so much more awesome than most other mediums of storytelling.
So, what do you think? Who’s your favorite video game hero? Is there someone out there who totally doesn’t fit this bill? Do you just think I’m being ridiculous and that Mario is actually an allegorical representation of the super-ego portion of your psychosexual subconscious? Please, I’m sitting at the edge of my ergonomically lumbar-supporting office throne of blog, eagerly awaiting your reply. And I bet you’re wondering what Friday’s topic will have to do with heroes.
Okay, you’re probably not wondering that. But, thankfully, (and it’s not always the case), I’m not wondering that either. Hooray!
P.S. I realize the plural of “medium” is “media,” but whatever. Who’s counting?