18 September 2016

What is a Hero?

Most modern adventure games, including both roleplaying games and video games, tend to gravitate towards the concept of heroism. Players are often looking for a chance to be the hero, and use games to vicariously experience the thrill of being the hero.

But what does it mean to be a hero?

The concept of heroism has changed over the years. Beowulf, for example, was considered a hero not only because of his strength and courage, but also his honour, loyalty, generosity, and hospitality. Compare that with many of today's heroes. John Wayne is often considered a hero by many Americans, due in large part to his integrity, his unwillingness to compromise his ideals. The Frankish hero of Roland was idolised for his bravery; he refused to sound the call for reinforcements until his army was nearly defeated and there was no hope of rescue. The Babylonian hero Gilgamesh went in search of the secret of immortality, only to have it stolen by a snake whilst he slept.

Heroes are different in various cultures as well. Perhaps the most well-known African hero is Anansi, but his story is unique. Sometimes he's treated as a hero, and others as a trickster (like Coyote from Native American traditions, or Loki from the Norse mythos). One of the most interesting comparisons is the United States emphasis on success leading to heroes such as Jesse Ventura, the pro-wrestler who later became governor of Minnesota, compared to the English concept of heroism as perseverance against all odds, which is why in England, people are more likely to idolise Earnest Shackleton, who never succeeded in any of his attempts to explore Antarctica, but died just before his fourth attempt.

There's also a difference between literary heroes and living heroes. In the United States, some people adore soldiers, especially military leaders. Others idolise those who save others' lives, like the first-responders of 9/11. Still others look up to people who work hard to help others, such as teachers and charity workers. And of course, there are those who admire the rich and famous, like pop musicians and Hollywood actors.

By contrast, literary heroes are very different. In classical literature, there was a specific set of requirements for a character to be a hero. Odysseus is a perfect example of such a hero; his story meets all the criteria:
  • He goes on a long journey
  • He has assistance from his friends
  • He receives supernatural aid
  • He has a fatal flaw
This is different from modern heroes. According to the Fellowship of Reason, a modern hero is not required to perform epic feats, but merely to 'create a pool of light in a world of darkness.' He doesn't have a code of ethics, but must instead be stoic and 'hard-boiled.' He fights not so much against an enemy, but against meaninglessness; he wants to create purpose in a purposeless world.

Let's compare this to the majority of roleplaying characters. Many gamers don't bother with that much of a backstory for their characters; they're more concerned with what mighty feats they can accomplish than with who they are. Characters are expected to be larger than life, to be able to slay their enemies easily and without compassion. They are often loners, with no social or emotional ties to inhibit their adventures. Their stories tend to be that of the conquering hero: they face their enemies, slay them, and claim their reward.

The Order of the Stick, despite being based on the usual gaming tropes, is noteworthy specifically because it turns that usual story on its head. Though many of the characters of the titular group may have started out as the conquering heroes, they have grown and changed to fill a role much more akin to the modern superhero. They're out to save the day, to prevent the big bad guy from ushering in an age of ultimate darkness.

And that may serve as a perfect example of what I was thinking about this morning. Why does your story have to be the typical lone-wolf-underdog-triumphing-against-the-forces-of-evil story? Why can't you have other types of heroes? Frodo's quest is a more classical save-the-world story, with elements of Greek and Roman literary elements: he's on a long journey, aided by his friends, and receiving supernatural assistance. 

Or what about a heroic sacrifice? Beowulf's story ends with him killing the dragon at the cost of his own life. Even in modern stories, there are examples of this. The characters of Vazquez and Gorman, from the film Aliens, who die to protect the other survivors, can be classified as this type of hero.

Of course, you'll have to get players who are willing to play in this sort of game. Not everyone is willing to have their characters killed for the emotional or literary payoff of this kind of story. But if you've got players who are willing, maybe you could even go so far as the Shackleton story. The heroes have no chance of winning, and the bad guys still win in the end, but the heroes go down fighting.

These are just a couple of ideas. I'm sure that, by playing around with the concept of what it means to be a hero, you can have a group telling a truly epic story. Something to think about, at the very least! So think about it, play more games, and always remember to

Game on!

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