I’m several months behind on my Edge magazine reading, and I just came across a really interesting letter by Adam Dutton in page 25 of issue 302 (February 2017):
With 2016 having taken so many of my heroes (David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, and of course, Paul Daniels) and the real world seemingly going to hell in a handcart, I’m looking for heroism in my games. Yet 2016 hasn’t really given me anything to get excited about. Look at the games that came out this year: To borrow an immortal line from The Stranglers, whatever happened to all the heroes?
The push for agency, empowering the player to define their avatar’s personality through their playstyle, is of course a noble goal. But the consequence is a loss of character overall. Unless Sony gives the Uncharted IP to another studio, we have seen the last of Nathan Drake. Uncharted 4 felt like more than a goodbye to a lovable frontman, or even to a beloved series. Drake and Uncharted are a dying breed: Character-driven, story-first action romps that drip with likable personality.
Much as I have enjoyed this year’s Dishonored 2 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, neither are defined by the personalities of their central characters. They are skill trees in physical form: They have names and faces, yes, but ultimately their personalities are dictated by who the player wants them to be. Neither Watch Dogs 2 nor Mafia III featured protagonists that will grace billboards and game boxes for years to come; they were specific creations for a single story. Both stories were worth telling, and both games I enjoyed. But hardly heroic.
Are videogames too grown up now to indulge the simple fantasy of feats of heroic derring-do? To put it another way: Where is the next Nathan Drake going to come from? I think that, these days, we need him and his kind more than ever before.
I quickly think back to some of the videogames and shows that I’ve really, really enjoyed for the past decade or so (Max Payne 2 / Alan Wake, Uncharted 2, Kill La Kill, NieR:Automata, and now Samurai Jack again), and they all share the same characteristics that Mr Dutton described: They’re stories about likable, relatable characters who are forced to perform acts of heroism. They embark on a journey to achieve their goals, to make sacrifices, but ultimately become stronger through their courage. They find a way to continue fighting against all odds.
It’s a simple, appealing fantasy that everyone enjoys. I even blogged about my personal hero awhile back. I’m sure we all have our own heroes and heroines, fictitious or not, that we admire and worship.
And there’s nothing wrong with injecting a little fantasy into our reality. Sometimes dreams and escapism can teach us far better lessons than the real world.