Tuesday, December 28, 2010

48. decade of the anti-hero

kratos in god of war III (godofwar.com)
so 2010's drawing to a close, and of course most sites are publishing their obligatory "best of" lists.  so i thought we'd do something a little more year-end themed here.  well in this case, decade-end themed.  i know a bunch of you will probably either publicly or privately flame me for what the definition of the end of a decade is, which was actually the end of 2009.  but hey, if gameFAQs can do their "game of the decade" stuff at the end of 2010, then damn it, i can do something too.

we saw a lot of change in the last 10 years of gaming, first and foremost in technology.  in 2000 we were busting 900's in tony hawk's pro skater on the first playstation and reveling in the graphical delights of soul calibur on the dreamcast.  then came a wave of technology - a couple of years after this saw the death of the dreamcast and birth of the ps2, xbox, and gamecube, and ultimately the ps3, xbox 360, and wii.  but in the grand scheme of things, this wasn't really a big deal.  it's a damn decade.  it's expected that new technology is going to be released in a time frame that large.  it's what that technology brought and enabled that shows what has really changed since 2000.

and that change was full immersion into complex, interactive, graphically advanced worlds that required multiple saves and hours upon hours of gameplay.  it allowed the creation of games where players actually felt a connection or some kind of indentity to the characters they were playing, which is a far cry from what was available before in the 80's and 90's.  there wasn't really any backstory to characters or worlds back then, and with games that were easily finished the same day you brought it home from the store, why should there be?  those characters were disposable.  now there were of course exceptions.  i don't lump games like final fantasy or dragon warrior into this group, even though their character design was actually pretty generic.  they were literally still "save the princess" games.

now as i may or may not have asserted before, video games can act as interactive art, in the sense that it can imitate real life and vice versa.  it should come to be expected, as it's the next logical progression from books, movies, and television.  with this new tech the most direct analogy of this concept are war-themed shooters like US army produced america's army and the recent call of duty, in which the protagonists are up against modern day terrorism instead of some vaguely formed antagonistic threat.

dante in devil may cry 4 (devilmaycry.com)
but more than that, what this really has led to is cultivation of the anti-hero as the main character in modern gaming while the concept was being cultivated in society.  the term is thrown around a lot, so what exactly is an anti-hero?  not a villain, as its name suggests, but a hero that lacks some qualities of a traditional hero archetype, like a noble purpose in life, strong morals, courage, a sense of duty, etc.  in a nutshell, think guy gardener versus hal jordan.  jack harkness versus doctor who.  heroes that are willing to cross a line.  that aren't willing to become part of a system.  the same flawed humans as you and me.  so heroes became less and less like superman and establishment - a big blue boy scout representing the ideal, and more like iron man - human with problems, like reality.

anti-heroes have been around since the dawn of time and make up a lot of the television and movies we watch - we all love watching dr. greg house and his skewed sense of morality, clint eastwood's man with no name, and of course guts from the anime series berserk.  but this decade has seen that concept force a wedge into video games.  what kind of game heroes did we have to grow up with before 2000?  mario, megaman, samus aran, link, crono, etc.  these are all characters that carried a sense of nobility in what they do - they the right thing because it's the right thing to do, be it out of a sense of duty or loyalty.  the goals in a lot of these games was equally noble - rescuing the princess, a friend, or simply defending the world from destruction at the hands of evil.  all very "lawful good" for those who think of this in terms of D&D alignment.  sure crono had magus hanging around in an anti-hero role but he was still a side character in chrono trigger, not your main.  but it doesn't quite work that way anymore.  now that we have these complex characters in fully developed worlds that players will spend a significant amount of time with, players are more often looking for flaws in their heroes.  they want to watch and/or play as characters who they can see some of themselves in - someone a little bit more human.  someone a bit more anti-establishment.  someone struggling with themselves.  it's that relatable imperfection that leads to the player being able to identify with something in the character.  and this partially led to how the anti-hero played in gaming.

how did that affect the games of the 2000's?  my last gaming decade includes max payne, devil may cry's dante, god of war's kratos, alta├»r from assassin's creed, and arthas menethil from warcraft III just to name a few for a super-condensed list.  there are dozens more that fit the bill.  these characters aren't driven by some moral code.  in this list they're mostly driven by revenge, and are willing to blur the lines of morality to achieve that end goal.  and that blur not only adds fun but sometimes flexibility in gameplay and interesting story progression.  shadow of the colossus and its main character wander were lauded for this kind of moral ambiguity, where it's ultimately revealed that wander's good intentions to save someone he loved had some very dark side effects.  so there it is, the first 10 years of the 2000's very well could have been the decade of the anti-heroes.  but if this is cyclic, as all things are, in a few years we can expect gaming to re-introduce a throng of classical heroes sometime in the future.  but until then, enjoy the rough-around-the edges heroes and heroines of today's games, because of what that says about us.

that the greatest anti-hero of this decade is on the other side of the controller.

3 comments:

  1. This is even shown in Disney's latest game, Epic Mickey. You can either have him rebuild a lost world using paint, or flat out destroy it using paint thinner. It has seen a lot of criticism because, if you wanted to, you could make the iconic mouse basically act like a real dick.

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  2. good point mike, i didn't mention epic mickey because i haven't played it yet - and did not know that last part! explains why it seems to have appeal to such a wider audience than i had expected. and i now want to play it.

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  3. Bought Epic Mickey for $15 by capitalizing on a Wal-Mart deal. You're more than welcome to borrow it.

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