Why We Game - Heroes

FBT indulges in some hero-worship.

Since he’s playing those characters, does that mean he’s worshipping himself?

Picking your favourite heroes on film or TV is easy; you just sit back and be impressed. But in games, it’s different; games let you be the hero. But while video game heroes are often committed, cool and kick-ass in the cut-scenes, once you have control they’re walking off cliffs and bouncing grenades back at themselves. And there’s the character perception - you behave one way, while the hero does something completely out of (your) character in the cutscene; Lara constantly wails in the cutscenes, while in-game I’m gleefully murdering anything that moves. The best kind of game is one that anticipates your shenanigans, and it’s a very rare game that has a strong enough lead to influence your in-game behaviour.

What follows is my list of heroes I’ve loved being. They’re in no particular order and while there’s bound to be ones I’ve forgotten, there's surprise misses – as much as I love Half-Life, Gordon's a by-the-book hero with as much personality as Doomguy. There’s characters I’ve loved playing, such as the Lone Wanderer, but those are ones I want to be, characters who's style influenced how I played.

First on the list is a mighty pirate. Guybrush Threepwood grew up on the same Pirate stories I did, and decided to try it out for himself. He’s not inept, he’s just so completely living out his fantasy he doesn’t seem to realise the danger he’s in. But then again, everyone and everything is equally daft so you never really fear for him; Secret of Monkey Island is a playful game but it’s Guy’s indomitable spirit, sense of adventure and 4th wall breaking that makes him a really great hero to be. And you can’t fault him for trying to impress Elaine. The wonder years of Lucasarts brought many a cool hero; Manny, Bernard, Indy, but none top Threepwood for relatable, loveable leads; he isn’t the hero we want, he’s the metahero we need.

Sticking with the pirate theme because it’s an easy/lazy segue, one of my all-time favourite heroes is Black Flag’s Edward Kenway. The fact that this is an Assassin’s Creed game is almost incidental. Getting thrown back to the ‘present’ has always been a padding pain in AC and none more so than in BF; I don’t care about the funny-eye IT guy or what happened to the president of Ubisoft, I want to pirate about. Both Kenway and Guybrush were seduced by the romanticised ideal of a pirate, but Kenway is driven by realisic, yobbish greed. Doesn’t sound like an inspirational hero, and he isn’t – he’s the bad guy for most of it - but what makes Kenway compelling is his commitment to being beyond the law, to live purely for himself; even the most unscrupulous characters reveal a hidden caring side but Kenway’s no loveable rogue, he’s a true villain; he genuinely doesn’t care for almost the entire game; it takes the deaths of practically everyone he knew and the destruction of his lifestyle before he accepts responsibility.

He’s desperate to make something of himself early on, but he uses that past as an excuse for his behaviour - you can see him occasionally wavering, but he always turns his back until he’s got nowhere left to turn. Just take the side-mission where he only helps assassins (he endangered) if they’ll retrieve keys to unlock something valuable – but slowly he gains a conscience; that it’s ultimately at great personal cost makes that realisation bittersweet but it is his own doing. The game itself is a master-class in open-world and realism but Kenway is a brilliantly complex, literary-grade character. They should have cut out the modern-day gibberish and called it Pirate’s Creed. It’s a testament to Kenway that when we visit his house in AC Syndicate you’re triggered into replaying Black Flag – and in ACIII you hate Haytham for not being like his dad.

I love an anti-hero, and there’s none more anti than our puckish rogue of a hero, The Boss in Saints Row 3 & 4. SR2 might have sown the seeds but from 3 onward he/she was a dangerously unhinged, truly DGAF anti-hero. They don’t learn a lesson, recognise faults or try to put things right; instead The Boss revels in just going for it, consequences be damned. Half the time they don’t even know what’s going on. Every free-roam game lets you play like a loon with varying degrees of forgiveness or punishment (from GTA’s killing-sprees excused by a Pay n’ Spray to Mafia 1’s cops ticketing you for running a light) but once into the narrative most games have your hero play it straight; or at least sensibly, yet The Boss is more unhinged during story mode than anything you get up to in free-roam, as if they’re goading you to step up. Their complete lack of morals, guilt or even a plan (“we have a plan?”/“we’re gonna kill Zinyak”/“that’s not a plan that’s a goal!”) is freeing after so many committed heroes. This one should be committed.

I should make some effort to appreciate truly heroic characters. The most obvious hero’s-hero is Commander Shepard. Tasked with the impossible -saving the galaxy- they doggedly get it done at great personal cost. But while the mission is linear, the sass you dole out is left up to you. Shep can be committed and kind, finding the time to listen to Liara’s fretting and solving everyone’s little niggles, or a terrifying red-eyed killer that lets nothing stand in their way. Or, be something in-between. The gender and look you adopt is just set-dressing; the experience you have is all your own – you chose what affects Shep and how, and so – more than any other game – you truly are the Hero. It’s said that silent heroes let you impress yourself onto a blank canvas but while they may let you make moral choices, they don’t force you to make emotional ones – and Mass Effect knows the difference. Although the ending is frustratingly pre-ordained, Mass Effect reveals what kind of hero you are, like a physiological test; while each playthrough can be a new experience, your Shep is a deeply personal character that reveals a lot about yourself.

But, given Shep has hero stamped into their DNA, maybe they’re not what I was looking for. What I need is a bloke who becomes a hero. A regular guy. Someone unassuming.

You can’t get more nice-guy than George Stobbart. Broken Sword is an absolute classic of an adventure game and George is a huge part of that. He basically involves himself in a murder mystery to impress Nico, a French reporter and is instantly in over his head. The game’s style, story, humour and puzzles are all perfect but it’s George with his James Stewart-charm, clumsy flirting and ability to outwit goats that makes him a great hero to play – George is just a flustered guy out for an adventure and Nico’s number. Who hasn’t wanted a holiday romance with a mysterious French girl, solve a mystery and be the hero? George is the perfect guy to do it with. He’s as surprised as you are when he solves a puzzle. The sequel is just as good, with George carrying not a torch for Nico but her red nylon knickers. My kind of guy.

Anyway, back to the anti-heroes. Max Payne is perhaps the most depressing hero on this list. Max wants to die, but there’s no one good enough to take him down. A fatalistic hero who, along with a constipated look and overwrought noir voiceover, manages to destroy both a mafia family and a corporate conspiracy simply because no one can stop him. Constantly dismissed, he is the very definition of the phrase ‘never underestimate a man with nothing to lose’. He’s a lot like Riggs in Lethal Weapon, but Max doesn’t have Murtaugh and his wife’s cooking to look forward too, he’s alone. The sequel shows him trying to return to normal but jumping at the chance to get bloody – and it’s because of a woman again. Max is bullet-proof but he’s not women-proof and there’s something freeing about playing someone who might be the victim. He’s true noir. I’ll ignore the third game, but in the original Max becomes Death and that’s compelling.

Jackie Estacado may not be death, but he is The Darkness. A hitman who’s only moral anchor is his girlfriend Jenny, losing her would be bad enough but he also inherits a demonic entity that demands carnage and Jackie is more than willing to provide it, thanks to the snake-like appendages The Darkness blesses him with. In The Darkness II, much like Max, Jackie can’t walk away but whereas Max tortures himself, Jackie is tortured physically and emotionally by the Darkness, yet his love for Jenny gets him through; which horrifically, The Darkness uses against him - you’re begging him to not fall for its tricks yet when given the choice of a Darkness fantasy Jenny or the reality, you’re the one who pauses. There’s not many games that actually make you consider the ‘bad’ ending - you so want Jenny to be alive, and this might be good enough; such is Jackie’s grief that you’re feeling it too. Of course we reject the fantasy but, goddamnit, the reality is ultimately a façade too and when the game starts prodding you to let her go ... you can’t. The game has its stumbles, and its unforgivable cliff-hanger ending, but their love-story is the strongest and most distressing in gaming. Damn you The Darkness - and 2K games for not doing The Darkness III.

For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. In a Hawaiian shirt, in the 80’s, in Miami Vice. GTA VC was as close to Scarface as we were going to get – even the Scarface game was a GTA VC knock off. It’s aged, but there’s been few truly unapologetic characters like Tony Montana/Henry Hill mash-up Tommy Vercetti - and even fewer games that really caught the ups and downs of a career criminal without any moralising or glamorising. You imagine Tommy won’t stay as Vice City’s Kingpin for long.

If GTA VC was The Sopranos, then GTA SA was The Wire (and not Boyz in the Hood). Abandoned by polite society, the lives of the Grove Street Families revolve around their own street society, held together by CJ who was the flipside to Tommy; unwillingly pulled into the gang life he tried to escape, he wrestles with what family, friends and ‘the streets’ are about. The ending where he sets things right, comforts Big Smoke - and accepts why he did what he did, despite everything - elevates CJ into hero territory, far beyond the traitor and thug he’s branded as throughout.

Coming completely out of nowhere is the lead in a game that annoyed me so much I couldn’t even finish it - Silas Greaves of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. Moseying into a saloon, he regales the patrons with increasingly suspect tales of his bounty-hunter past, of running with Billy the Kid and shooting Butch and Sundance. What makes Silas memorable is him being the very definition of unreliable narrator; that might give you pause in a book, spotting inconsistencies, but you’re always a safe observer while reading; here we’re playing his tall tales so you can’t trust anything – routes, opportunities, weapons, the bad-guys, even the entire plot changes as he alters his tale to satisfy his audience; or throw them off his scent. You know he’s up to something but the idiotic quick-draw mechanic drove me to Rage Quit so I’ll never know what the old coot was cooking. But, I was transfixed by his stories as I watched gaming conventions and clichés get parodied and played with. I might be over-stating the game’s intentions, but Greaves was the only character who was playing me.

Far Cry 3’s Jason is an odd one. He starts as one of those annoying American brats you’d want to see shot, but once we get captured, our older brother killed and younger brother sold into slavery, Jase has to suck it up and go native, throwing in with a local tribe and learning to connect with nature if he has any chance of surviving the island’s crazy locals, pirates, slave-traders, CIA and those goddamn crocs. Jase is one of the few RPG-style characters that actually grows into the role rather than just levels-up, and the game at least attempts to explore what endless, faceless killing would do to a regular guy.

FC3 does have some seriously sketchy elements – the depiction of the tribe is straight out of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and a rape story is apparently resolved by promising the victim we won't say anything to the girls. But there’s something about Jase’s journey. It tries to shine a light on gaming’s more contentious elements, most starkly explored in the scene where you’re forced to torture your own little brother; this is entertainment? FC3 isn’t successful at answering that, especially with the confused and insulting multiple-choice ending but Jason is one of the few characters that lets you kill then makes you realise you liked it.

Most ‘best hero’ lists feature Duke Nukem, and with good reason. Duke is amusingly ego-driven, arrogant and heroic, a celebration and parody of those heroes we grew up with in the 80s. He was funny to a schoolkid but now, as his ‘comeback’ proves, he’s best left in the past. If you want a brilliant observation of 80s machoism, then Rex Colt is your cyber-man.

Far Cry Blood Dragon is one of the best games of recent times. Which is saying something given it’s a jokey digital-only budget release. There are few games that get gamers like this does. It’s not just a parody of the 80s, flipping between ripping and celebrating the period, what makes it exceptional is the way it does the same thing to gaming; I can’t take tutorials seriously anymore. Rex’s questioning of why he’s doing side-missions, annoyance at collectables, confusion about the logic behind main missions and indifference at story events makes Rex all of us – we’ve all muttered ‘what?’ at some point during a cut-scene. The game may be a pitch-perfect parody of the Cobra and Commando era of Cinema, but Rex is taking the piss out of me. I am a Mark IV Cyber Commando.

Blood was part of the Doom era but it wasn’t a clone. Much like Blood Dragon it’s packed with references but rather than a loving parody, Blood distilled every anti-hero Kurt Russel ever played into Caleb, a dangerously unhinged character who’s only a hero because he’s killing folks worse than him. Caleb bloodily dismantles the cabal he was once a part of before facing off with the dark god himself - classic Doom plotting, but Caleb’s dark humour, movie quotes and attitude mark him out as much more interesting that Duke or Lo-Wang’s mugging - but it’s that ending, when he’s victorious and has nothing left to fight for; he coldly murders someone who’d assumed he was there to save them. Nope, Caleb is just as evil and bad as the bodies surrounding him. It’s one of the few games where the hero in the cut-scenes and my behaviour matched. Actually, Caleb was far, far worse.

I think though, while Caleb almost clinches it, my all-time favourite is the indominable Cate Archer. In No One Lives Forever her biggest foe isn’t H.A.R.M, the super-villain group she battles, it’s the causal sexism and misogyny she faces on both sides, being judged as a woman not a spy. Although the sixties setting allows her some funky catsuits and mini-skirts, Cate isn’t dressed like a video vixen and she isn’t one of those only-thing-that’s-missing-is-a-penis badass like most female action characters; she’s constantly put down, blamed, accused and dismissed – by her colleagues and the villians - yet Cate keeps on going, pushing through discrimination (even those she saves express surprise that a woman is saving them) as she single-handedly takes down a super-villain group and does it with such style and grace, it’s hard to not fall a little bit in love with her. But that would be inappropriate and undermine my point about her being an equal hero to all the others. The game itself is a solid shooter, and a brilliant tease of sixties TV shows, but with added Cate, it’s an all-time classic game. Since I first played Cate some fifteen years ago every she’s the yardstick I judge leads against because she’s brilliant as a character. If only we could have more heroes like Cate.

It’s interesting that Cate is the only female on my list. Is that unconscious bias on my part or a lack of strong female characters? In Mass Effect and Saints Row, I pick female leads, largely because of Cate, but interchangeable is not a female character. Lara is the obvious choice and she usually makes those kinds of lists; she was striking 22 years ago but although I want to believe it was her guile that made Lara an icon, we know it was her vest. She was Jessica Rabbit; not bad, just pixelated that way. If she’s been truly inspirational we’d have seen more heroes like her, rather than more big boobs - true Cate-like female leads are as rare as when Lara debuted. When we do have female leads, their gender becomes the storyline; male characters don’t have their masculinity questioned or threatened and they rarely emotionally break; yet in the Tomb Raider reboot Lara can’t be heroic until she’s survived a rape attempt.

Why can’t she just be heroic? In male leads, the heroism is pre-loaded and while they go through tribulations they don’t suffer the abuse Lara does. Equal females tend to be support acts like Ash or Alyx. Lilith would have made this list if she’d have any characterisation; she’s one of the best leads to play in Borderlands, but she has no character until the sequels – when she becomes an NCP. It’s easy to blame the publishers for being sexist but it’s equally us gamers – in Mass Effect, over 80% of gamers play as Male Shep and only a third of gamers chose Kassandra over her brother in AC Odyssey. Developers might design for the male gaze, but Publishers aren't sexist, they're money-minded. If we played as females, they’d demand more female-led games from developers. It's saddening to think my fave character is a true one of a kind.

Looking at my list it seems I’m a fan of the vagabond. Those sorts of characters who possess a freedom I don’t have – the kind who press the button after reading the sign saying ‘don’t press the button’. But those characters are a dying breed. Heroes are now the well-adjusted types who would offer to help tidy up after a boss fight, not actually rip off the boss’ head and shit down its neck. Thanks to Duke’s horrific return it’s unlikely we’ll see an upswing in jackalope characters who save the world just for the party afterwards, yet even when we play a committed, studious character we always muck about – there’s no true gamer alive who’s not yelled ‘Fus-Ro-Dah!’ in a crowded town. We can save the world and mess about, it’s just a shame the developers think to be epic you have to be serious.

Here’s to the heroes who are up for a bit of adventure - and do some sly messing about along the way. When it comes down to it, those aren’t my heroes, I am those heroes.