Some heroes are born, some are made, and some have heroism thrust upon them

There was a time when the standard sort of storyline in games/ CRPGs involved characters who started off weak and then got stronger over time. (This is the whole point of xp and progression, after all.) Players complained about the whole ‘kill ten rats’ phenomenon where you load up your shiny new game and find that your persona is a smelly goatherd who has to kill rats and clean up goat poop for several hours before they let you do the cool heroic stuff you bought the game for.

Now there is more of a rush on the idea of the player as the big damn hero where you start good and get … well … gooder. Or at least you get shinier, spikier gear. I find this gets tiring.

I still kind of like the idea of the quiet heroism of simply managing to survive in a world where the odds are balanced against you. And not only survive, but also succeed. In A Game of Thrones, for example, you see this in the fan favourite characters of Tyrion (a developmental dwarf) and Arya (a girl who wants to fight like a man). In Lord of the Rings, you see it in Frodo (“I will take the ring although I do not know the way…”)

However, in order to portray that type of character, you also have to experience the oppression and the sense that the whole world is against you. Which is something that computer gamers have not typically been up for. Nick Dinicola wrote an intriguing column in PopMatters titled, “I want to play the victim in Dragon Age 2.” And this was about the fact that in Dragon Age, all the lore talks about how oppressed the mages are. Yet if you play one, no one ever tries to oppress you. They talk about the prejudice but they never dare show any towards the player. From a point of view of games as storytelling devices I think they did the player a disservice, because there is no doubt whatsoever that players would have an emotional reaction to being oppressed, even within a game.

In many ways, sandbox MMOs do a better job here because unlike devs, other players will not hold back. This is not to say that rampant elitism, gearscore-phobia, and griefing are desirable gameplay, but they do offer the opportunity for different types of in-game heroism where the premade storyline fails.

For example, the rags to riches story of a new character who works hard and eventually masters the auction house. The knight errant high level character who nobly stops to help a stranger (Justin calls this not being selfish, I call it ‘white knight syndrome’ :) ). (Or the stranger who dares to ask the strange and powerful knight for help …) The new soldier who is jeered by his comrades but perseveres anyway.

Anyone else out there a fan of playing the underdog?

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17 thoughts on “Some heroes are born, some are made, and some have heroism thrust upon them

  1. You want the hero’s journey – some players just want to be the hero. Seems to me it’s the same deal as players who enjoy the struggle of learning how to beat raid bosses vs those who just want to read a guide on the internet, follow the steps, and collect loot. I think we’re back to intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

    For what it’s worth, in my opinion giant shoulderpads and a glowy sword doth not a hero make. A character can be powerful from day one, but that’s not the same… you’re only a hero when you’ve earned it. But that might be my old-fashioned anglo-saxon prejudices showing.

    • Kind of. But although some people do prefer stories where their characters start as heroes, no story is ever going to have much dramatic impact if the hero never faces much in the way of barriers or meaningful conflict. I’m happy with a modified version of the heroes journey where my character starts weak, and never ends up a total hero (I’m thinking a game like Vampire/ World of Darkness probably models this reasonably well, but Planescape also did a good job with it.)

      I guess I’m still thinking about storytelling really. There’s a wide gap between what players who enjoy good dramatic stories want out of a game and what your standard gamer/achiever would want (which usually involves not too many bad things happening to the character outside their control.) I remember in DAO for example, some people were really upset that your character could be defeated and imprisoned at one point. I think they’d have preferred to repeatedly die and repeat the fight until they beat it. But escaping from that prison was actually pretty good fun and a cool story.

      • I think we’ve both got the same thing in mind. A hero isn’t necessarily powerful – what a hero does is face an almost insurmountable challenge and prevail. Frodo is never powerful, but he’s a hero.

        Arguably, the closest I’ve seen to heroes were people playing DAoC who got their fellow Hibernians organised and raiding relics, even though we were the outnumbered underdog realm.

  2. I used blood magic more than once in front of the Templars. They couldn’t care less. DA2 is just another Bioware game. Nicely done, but far from good.
    Gameplay wise they are sub-standard and story-wise they are light years worse than The Witcher 2.

  3. One thing you don’t tend to see is the anti-hero either, I can’t think of many games whereby the chap you start out as is anything other than someone doing good things for good reasons. There are no Han Solos or Malcolm Reynolds’ to be found. Underdogs may be fun to play but taking someone from the opposite side of the line might also make for some interesting experiences if done correctly.

    • Doesn’t that actually describe most MMO characters? Let’s face it, it’s not about rescuing peasants for the sake of rescuing them – you’re only doing it because some guy with a question mark over his head promised to upgrade your pants if you rescued six of them. Note that once you’ve rescued your quota, peasant #7 is SOL until the next “hero” comes along…

  4. I once played a game called Escape Velocity: Nova in which one of the storylines caused me to be literally enslaved by way of a brain implant, and forced to do the bidding of the evil overlords. I couldn’t buy most items or ships and most of my missions involved making and then betraying friends.

    It was pretty cool, except that the storylines weren’t predictable, by which I mean just talking with some guy, with little indication of who he was, could trigger the main story line, locking out the others. And so much of the game was about modification of your ships that suddenly you’re stuck with the junk you have and a lot of the fun was lost.

  5. It probably doesn’t help that level-scaled enemies are now the norm in single player RPGs such that you can take every enemy on the map from day one.

    (Semi-off topic: Any decent PC or 360 RPGs out there with _relatively_ modern production values that start you out with the proverbial club and padded armor and roflstomp you if you have the audacity to move more than a few inches from the game start point without levelling up a bit? Or to put it another way — modern RPGs whose levelling mechanics are 180% from Oblivion and its logical successors. I mean, I like DA and all, but I’m feeling the itch for an old school, Dragon Warrior/FF1 type thing.)

    • @Bertie

      Fallout: New Vegas has the old-school, on rails “level 20 giant radscorpians anywhere you shouldn’t be” and it (literally) kills any sense exploration you might have. It really reminds me as to why not many game companies use that model anymore. Fallout 3 was so amazing to me because once you hit level 2, you could basically wander anywhere across the entire map. Sure, there were some caves/cities that had Yaoi/Death Claws that no level 2 could handle, but the majority of the map was wide open to explore at your leisure. I cannot imagine someone having the same fun (or having any replay value) in these games-on-rails, Cataclysm-style.

  6. While I found the ideas that you were talking about intriguing, I totally failed to come up with an appropriate conversation-continuing comment…

    …because you talking about the oppressed mages in DA2 just made my brain say, “Help, help! I’m being repressed!”

    Then I wanted to go see the violence inherent in the system, and it all went downhill from there. There were knights. They said “Ni!”.

    Attempting reboot.

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