Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Anti Hero in Video Games

Anyone who has seen/read or played any kind of narrative should have a good idea as to what an Anti-Hero is, a character within a story whose motivations or actions that is not easy to define. From the classic such as Hamlet or Heathcliff to the modern examples such as Wolverine or Vegeta, these characters work by their own set of rules and dare to tread the grays of morality. Video games in particular use this character type a lot with varying levels of success. But I’m not here to discuss which video game antiheroes are better than others. What I hope to share through my incessant ramblings is how important this character archetype is to video games as a method of storytelling (in its own way).
While the evolution of video games has led to a wider acceptance of games meant for an older consumer, there has been an equally strong push to create games for kids that inspire creativity and most importantly educational value. I’m all for games being educational. Hell, I’m convinced there should be games like that for adults thanks to Assassin’s Creed. But I am a bit perturbed by how the industry defines an educational experience or tool by the fact that it teaches you how to spell or helps you practice your multiplication tables.
That stuff has its place, but I feel that developers really need to look beyond that. Or in this case look back, but I’m getting ahead of myself. What I’m hoping for are games targeted to kids that broaden their perspectives a bit. Something that makes them more receptive to certain concepts when they start learning about it in school. Since Anti-Heroes are the topics for many a literary analysis and have become more common in video games, I figured this would be a good starting point to show how a game can pull off being “educational” without having to explicitly advertise it. Keep in mind that I’m drawing on my own experience as a lifelong lover of fiction and avid gamer, so feel free to disagree with me all you want or be productive and just point out the flaws in my logic. 

Also since this rant is semi-inspired by fawfulsminion&rabbidluigi’s top ten video game anti-heroes list, I’m going to be using their #1 pick, Shadow the Hedgehog, as my example. So if you haven’t seen it already, I recommend checking it out, if only to see who else made the list.

Now to get things started, I need to get into some of my personal history. Growing up, I was raised well enough to know what was generally considered to be right and wrong. Whenever I did something considered right such as being nice to someone or helping out, I was praised for it. If I ever did something wrong like telling a lie or acting like a selfish little brat, I was punished for it. Though the mere threat of punishment was more than enough to make me regret my actions. This is in hindsight how you would want your kids to grow up, so they do get that distinction between right and wrong. The media I consumed also added to that distinction. For example I would always cheer for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, the hero who was brave and good (role model material) while I would boo Darth Vader and the Emperor (clearly portrayed as villains through appearance and actions).


I guess you could say that emphasis on the distinction between good and bad lead to a bit of a black and white perception of the world, which is not uncommon for kids, at least when they are as sheltered as I was. However it was around the age of 9-10 that this black and white world of mine began to rip apart at the seams. Why? Because I was given a window into stories of characters who I couldn’t define and in short blew my mind in a metaphysical sense. Some of these stories came from, take a guess, video games or more specifically Sonic Adventure 2 Battle and the anti-hero co-star Shadow the Hedgehog.

Even before I ever picked up a controller, I loved Sonic the Hedgehog. My brother and I would play 2 player mode on Sonic 2 and obsessed over Sonic Adventure whenever we visited our cousin’s house. The games were always a ton of fun to watch as much as they were to play. I also enjoyed Sonic the
Hedgehog as a character, his cool demeanor, enthusiasm and care-free nature just popped off the screen and always cheered me up, and still does to this day.

Being such a fan, I was totally hyped for Sonic Adventure 2 when it came out in 2001. However, I was…unsure how I was going to play the game.
Not only because I didn’t have a Dreamcast at the time but also because Sonic was not the only playable character. Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic’s black and red double was advertised as a sort of evil twin if you will that you could control along with two other characters aligned with the side of evil. (Shadow’s introduction in the game)

Me, the goodie to shoes that I was, scoffed at the idea of playing an evil character. I wanted to be a hero and save the day, since that is what I had been raised to like.
However, once I had a chance to play the game and fully complete the hero’s side of the story; I was still left with the “Dark” story before beating the game. The desire to finish the game eventually won over my hesitance and I started to play the villains side of the story. Doctor Eggman, the Sonic’s series primary antagonist, played out like I thought he would. Mad scientist? Check. Wants to take over the world for no reason? Check. Cliched evil laugh? Double check. Rouge the Bat on the other hand, while not truly aligned with the villain’s goal is still selfish and manipulative, both traits that I had been taught to perceive as bad and not to be imitated (Though Rouge was still fun to watch). Then that left Shadow…
Where do I even begin? Well, the beginning of course.

Shadow, while Sonic’s near double, is also called the Ultimate Life Form. Created by Doctor Eggman’s grandfather and then sealed away by the military due to its potential destructive power. This, of course, prompts Eggman to break into a military base to take this living weapon for himself in his new take over
he world scheme. He releases Shadow from his prison (despite his initial shock due to Shadow’s appearance).

At first, Shadow looked and behaved how I thought he would. Totally opposite from Sonic, Shadow was cold, serious and angry, and more than willing to assist Eggman conquer the world (or so it seemed). However within less than a minute of cutscene my opinion of this character not to mention my preconception of morality, changed. In just a few seconds, the player is given a glimpse of Shadow’s past and how the military invaded the space station where he was created and his only friend, a human girl named Maria, was killed by gunshot but not before she risked her life to save his. Suddenly, Shadow’s behavior didn’t seem so unjustifiable anymore. Forcing me to consider what I would do if I had a loved one taken away from me like that. Shadow’s struggle had become relatable, I still disagreed with his methods but I wasn’t so nervous to see how his story ended. In the end, I’m happy I did. It was a tragic but uplifting ending that, in my opinion, no other Sonic game has been able to match. With Shadow realizing that Maria’s dying wish was for him to protect the Earth and its people instead of seeking vengeance for her death. As a result, he sacrifices his own life in order to save the world from destruction that he had help set in motion (Ironically, he was the true hero in the end). Not exactly the ending I was expecting from a game about a blue anthropomorphic hedgehog capable of running at supersonic speeds but it left a huge impact on me regardless. I was not alone, Shadows actions in the game resulted in a skyrocketing popularity among fans. This popularity lead Sega to revive the character in following installment Sonic Heroes. Whether or not this was a good decision is still debated by fans of the series, but to me, Shadow's influence on the narrative of Sonic Adventure 2 made the experience enlightening on top of enjoyable. That even characters that act like villains can have justifiable motives for their actions, adding to the complexity of the drama. It also helped me break down some childhood behavior such as not looking beyond a person’s appearance or label.

Now how does this LONG example, work into my topic of education? Well, it is simply this. Sonic Adventure 2 was my first experience seeing an Anti-Hero, though I didn’t know it at the time. It wasn’t until I started learning about them in school, that I found out this type of character actually had a name. Upon realizing that Shadow was in this category with other famous literary characters, I desperately wanted to share my thoughts through what I had experienced playing Sonic Adventure 2. I was never allowed to though, due to the perception that video games like Sonic the Hedgehog are not “educational”.

Even if games are not accepted to be used to help educate kids in school, I still hold out hope that games like Sonic Adventure 2 will get more attention for presenting these concepts in a form that kids can comprehend. The existence of anti-heroes in video games is a good step in the right direction but I feel a lot more can be expanded on if the industry is given incentive to do so. In my opinion, the best we can do as consumers is to talk about our experiences with others, especially with parents who have little to no knowledge of video games.

The parents will appreciate it because it will give their kids a jump start on critical thinking on top of avoiding M rated titles, while kids will enjoy the game not just through game play but also due to the fact that the main message/lesson is not being shoved in their face. We’ll have to see what the future holds for the video game industry and the educational community. I think, however, there is a potential profit for both groups to gain in creating a prominent partnership. For now though, let’s stick to getting the word out.

“A new day brings a new adventure. But for now, rest easy heroes.” –Sonic 2 Adventure Battle Credits