essay, video games

The Hero’s Cost

I’ve been thinking about narrative structure again. Which is to say that I never really stop. I may move on to other things from time to time, but I always come back to the how, when and what-have-yous of story schematics. The bare bones of who is doing what and why. Call it the effect of having read so many books or taking several writing workshop classes back to back over the past few years, but I often think about what happens in a story and how that affects the hero.

It’s not always about a hero. Some stories have anti-heroes. Villains.  People who are against the story, sometimes in bizarre fourth wall breaking ways. I’ve seen some strange structures of plot. But there is often a hero. Sometimes it’s just a witness but often, in stories where the goal is to make someone feel empowered, the role of hero is front and center stage. That’s the case for most video games.

The player will take on the role of the hero in some grand story. The savior of the galaxy. The savor of the planet. The person who saved just three people in a shopping mall. The stories may create different stages, but the role is always that hero will save the day.

And we have been lead to believe that this is right. And good. The best and only.

I’ve been thinking about the cost that the hero must face in their journey. Because, there must be a cost. Something must be given up in order that the knight slew the dragon. It’s not always something obvious. It might be that the knight gave up a life, a wife and children, to go adventuring. The witness pressed into service who slew the evil wizard at just the right moment might have given up a quiet life.

The hidden part of the equation of the hero going into battle is that safety must be left. The town that is being attacked by the bandits must be left behind the gunslinger. The young woman must give up her innocence about the world to go be in the ‘men only’ army. The mother must give up her time to help or even save her children. There are millions of examples in everyday life where one thing is being traded for another.

Yet, I feel that this cost is lacking in many games.

I have been playing a great deal of Oblivion, New Vegas and even considering Fallout 3 again. Of those three, only the last one actually qualifies as some sort of sacrifice on the part of the character.

You awaken in a prison in Oblivion. No one in the whole world knows who you are, there is no family to go back to. There are no responsibilities to others. You can go where you want and do just about anything you want too. You can close all the oblivion gates, as I eventually did, yet you are forever only know as “The Hero of Kvatch”. Some may know your nickname from the Arena or title within a Guild. Yet, you do not have a name of even a history. There is nothing holding you down.

Once you get up from being shot in New Vegas, you are a new person. The people of Good Springs know you only as the person who got up from the grave. The rest of the Mojave comes to know you, in one way or another, as The Courier. Where is your family? Who is your family? How did you get your job in the first place? Do you have some responsibilities somewhere else in the Mojave? The world? Anywhere? Did you even exist before the game started as a character in the world?

Fallout 3 is a little different in that you grow up in The Vault, one of the many underground places for people to hide out the nuclear winter. You have a mother — who quickly dies during childbirth. You have a father. If there was any one difference between the three games, that would be it. You have some blood relatives who actually exist in the world. You have some responsibilities. If you tarry, your father might get hurt. But in order to save him, you must first leave the safety of The Vault.

Having finish playing Oblivion — if one can ever be said be to be Done with that never ending game — I began to think about the journey of my own character in the game. What had she gained? Some repudiation, yes.  A title or two from the various Guilds, sure. But did she gain a home? Some family? A reason to stick around in the world? What, to put it very bluntly, did she gain?

That where this all started. I was trying to figure out if she had actually gained anything. The argument could be made that she gained the ability to continue within the world of Nirn — The Elder Scroll name for the planet — having stopped Mehrunes Dagon from taking it over at the very end of the game. It is supposed to be one last, everything on the line, attack. But what was really on the line? From my character’s point of view, I mean.

For anything to be “on the line”, there must be something to put there. What was in the balance? The world? Is that enough? Maybe so. Yet, it is just a vast thing. What is the connection to the person of the character? Sure, losing the world would really suck, but aren’t there connections too, relationships that should matter? Where are those? What did the hero put down in order to pick up the sword and fight?