Who was the hero in the last game you played? Was he an enigmatic space marine, slaying encroaching alien forces with xenophobic zeal? Perhaps she was something of a treasure hunter, exploring ancient ruins for long-lost secrets that straddle the line between science and magic. Maybe it was an amorphous blob, trundling along colorful slopes, absorbing and integrating others into itself.
Or it was you. The player.
I don’t mean that in the sense that the player typically controls the hero of a game. That’s a given. The question, though, lies in whether the heroic arc belongs to the character on the screen or the player behind the controller.
The heroic arc concept is best illustrated by the classic “Hero’s Journey.” Also known as Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the journey involves an individual from humble beginnings undertaking a quest that brings him into contact with forces beyond his expectations. He achieves victory and returns from this adventure with abilities that allow him to aid others. It’s a pervasive literary trope, and notably the one that inspired the original Star Wars (Luke begins as a farmer and eventually becomes a Jedi).
It’s also commonly used in games. Dungeon Siege has players begin life as a farmer. In Final Fantasy X, Tidus is a blitzball player, not a skilled warrior. This isn’t to say that every game that is character-centric evokes the monomyth, such classics as Final Fantasy VII bucking the trend with Cloud’s mercenary nature and troubled past, but it does serve to explain just what a heroic arc is. It’s the journey that the hero of the tale undergoes that leaves him altered from how he began.
Typically, we experience this arc only by proxy. We watch a movie or read a book, and we achieve a vicarious thrill from it. We experience our hero’s journey secondhand. Many times, when we play a game, we aren’t inherently altered in any way. We play through and experience the plot or the gameplay, the protagonist also serving as hero.
Video games are fairly unique among storytelling media, though, because they allow the player to actually become the hero. This is most readily done in titles such as Skyrim, or MMOs—games that allow the player to create their own avatar, whom often reflects them within the game world. Even in titles that don’t involve such self-insertion, though, the true heroic arc can still belong to the player.
Ninja Gaiden is my go-to example, because it was particularly effective as such a journey for me. In the Xbox Ninja Gaiden, yes, Ryu Hayabusa has a full arc of his own. He goes from badass ninja trainee to badass ninja death machine, ripping through entire armies worth of men and fiends alike on a quest for vengeance, and to regain the Dark Dragon Blade before it can be used for the Vigoor Emperor’s evil machinations. It’s also a blisteringly hard game, demanding precision and reaction, as well as situational awareness and strategy. The combat engine is almost more like that of a fighting game, simplified and geared toward combating multiple assailants simultaneously.
Ryu is, canonically, a badass, but his capability to live up to this moniker is wholly dependent upon the player. Even the most basic of enemies pose a credible threat to a careless or unskilled individual, demanding growth in skill simply to complete the game. After that initial runthrough, there are higher difficulty levels that ramp up the challenge. It’s worth noting that Ninja Gaiden is one of a very small assortment of games I’ve played through multiple times on increasingly high difficulty levels, aiming to sharpen the skills I’d earned through my initial playthrough.
It wasn’t just me, either. The game became a staple in my fraternity house, with a friend and me guiding other brothers, some of whom hadn’t played a game of its type before, through tougher parts with advice and demonstrations of more advanced techniques they could apply. Each of them was excited not because they’d seen the culmination of Ryu’s journey, but because of their own, and just like the hero in the monomyth, I’d developed the point where I could impart a boon upon my fellow man. Another game, God Hand, made its rounds through the house for the same reasons.
Dante of Devil May Cry fame might serve as an even better example though. In cutscenes, he’s already practically invulnerable, but in practice, his health bar is depleted after just a few powerful hits. The player must learn the game if Dante is to live up to his cutscene stature.
Most times, the division between player and character engaging in a heroic arc seems to come down to a discussion of plot versus difficulty. If the game’s focus is plot, on making the player care about the virtual individuals with whom he’ll be spending six, eight, forty hours, the gameplay is typically “compromised” in a way that makes it better serve the plot. The goal isn’t to provide a stiff challenge and force the player to learn its systems and grow as a player, but to create a compelling interactive narrative.
Contrast this with a game in which, even if the plot is there, the focus is on the player’s ability. Fighting games are particularly guilty of this. Each character usually has a story mode, with the recent Mortal Kombat reboot serving as an exception here, but the plot is often barely there, or ridiculous at best. This isn’t to say that games that challenge the player can’t have compelling plotlines, but there does seem to be a distinct divide between titles that offer a rewarding challenge and those that offer a rewarding experience.
All it really goes to show is that, among those who fall under the blanket term “gamers,” there is little in the way of homogeneity. We each have our own quirks, some of which are tremendous while others are almost inconsequential, but they’re ours, and they affect what sorts of experiences we find compelling and enjoyable. Some are in it for the challenge, others for the experiences. There are those who enjoy online play as a means of socializing while others thrive on competition. That they can all be satisfied is part of the beauty of this medium.
Date: January 25, 2013