Over the past few years, there has been a debate regarding whether video games can be considered art forms or not. Both sides have their points of view, with some good genuine thoughts behind them. The late great Roger Ebert was actually of the opinion that video games will not be able to be considered as art for a long time, since it is still in the infancy stages of development. This was one of the issues that I most disagreed with Ebert on. However, I will not be addressing that particular concern right now. Maybe I’ll leave that for a Renegade Rant in the future.
Today, I’m more interested in talking about how video games can make the player feel like heroes, or maybe even villains. That’s one of the reasons that I personally consider them to be forms of art, whether it’s now or in the future. I’ll use a personal example to illustrate this point.
If Red Dead Redemption isn’t my single favorite video game, then it’s certainly in the top three. I adore everything about it. The story is wonderful, its characters are developed, and its wild frontier world is fully realized. If you’re a gamer who loves open-world game-play, then you can’t really go wrong with Red Dead Redemption. I recommend it.
In the game, you play as John Marston, an ex-outlaw who is blackmailed into hunting down the members of his old gang for the government. The story establishes that John is capable of being both a bad man and a good man, and they leave the decision of who he is in your hands, and the open world allows a lot of great potential. You are certainly capable of robbing a store and slaughtering entire towns to become the most wanted man in the west, but you can also decide to help the citizens by retrieving lost property, apprehending kidnappers and thieves, and stopping random acts of violence across the massive landscape. The game has an honor system, and you can end up with different sets of bonuses and benefits for whichever side you choose.
When I first purchased RDR, I intended on choosing to be a wholly good character in my first playthrough, maybe a neutral one in my second, and a villainous one in my third. I wanted to see if it made the game more challenging that way. However, much to my own surprise, I found out that I simply couldn’t be the bad guy in this world. And there was one series of side missions that showed me this. I’ve posted a link of the basic details below.
The American Appetites Side Mission
If for some reason the link isn’t working for you, here’s the breakdown. In one of the first locations that you visit, a ramshackle one-street town called Armadillo, you can find a woman in the sheriff’s office who is worried about her husband, who has been missing after making his way into the hills north of the town. John offers to look for him, he doesn’t sound too hopeful. That’s because this woman isn’t the first citizen to have a family member disappear in the same hills. John has tried searching for two lost people before, but all he’s found is a puddle of blood, some stray articles of clothing, and a few gory body parts left behind. This implies that the missing townspeople have been eaten by something, or someone, out in the hills.
Despite his misgivings, John does ride out to the hills, and this time he actually does find someone. There’s a man who has had his leg broken by a man from the city, and the assailant is running away. Marston doesn’t sense anything wrong about the injured man, and decides to bring back the attacker. However, once he’s out of earshot, the injured man lets out a small laugh that has shades of a sadistic glee.
The fleeing city man is easy enough to capture. All John has to do is lasso him up and hogtie him to bring him back to the injured man. (Although the player in the video takes a long time to do so.) One thing that’s noticeable is that the city man is utterly terrified of the man he just attacked, and he begs you not to bring him back to the injured man.
Now when I was playing this game the first time, I knew exactly what was going on. The injured city man that John had offered to help was a cannibal preying on anyone who came into the hills on their own, and the fleeing city man was just his latest victim, who was actually able to fight back and hurt the cannibal before running for his life. At this point, when I hogtied the city man, I started feeling sick to my stomach. Cannibalism is one of the things that will actually make me feel squeamish, and this little episode was making me feel very bad indeed. I started to feel worried that if I did deliver this victim back to this predator, I’d be serving him up on a silver platter. This upset me so much that I actually started talking to the game. “No! Don’t you dare do this! Don’t you dare make me do this!”
When you do deliver the city man back to the cannibal, he becomes terrified. He says that the injured man tried to eat him. The injured man just moves in and says, “Fella’s got to eat now. Fella’s got to eat.” He bends down and starts to give that evil laugh again as he reaches out towards his helpless victim. The cut-scene ends with Marston walking away from the pair, but the hogtied man begs you to save him from the freak who is about to eat him.
Thankfully, that’s not the ending. The game cuts back and gives you the option to either save the man, or let the cannibal eat him. I didn’t need a second chance. I made my character whirl around and pull out a gun. The cannibal noticed this and made his way towards me, but it was too late. I emptied my chamber on him, shooting him in the head, heart, guts, and groin. He fell back to the ground dead, and I quickly cut the city man’s bonds and let him run back home to his family.
The Game of Mirrors
There’s a phenomenon that I find in video games that I can’t find anywhere else. I’ve taken to calling it the Game of Mirrors. Basically, there are some kind of games can reveal who you are without you really knowing about it. By presenting a difficult situation, you can be pushed to your very limits and find out what you can and can’t do. I’d say that modern video games don’t do this 99.9999% of the time, but when they do, it’s very special.
That little side mission in Red Dead Redemption was one of the greatest moments I’ve ever experienced in gaming. First it built sympathy for the families of the missing people, with the poor woman in the sheriff’s office by establishing that her husband was a good man, and that she and her family would be lost without him, especially since she was pregnant again. Then when I ventured out into the wilderness to find the man, I had to experience the horrible idea that I could end up causing this man’s death by serving him up to the cannibal on a silver platter. I also was given the glorious catharsis and satisfaction to actually prevent such a grisly fate and kill a true monster. Although that serial killer may have only been a digital one, composed of so many pixels and programs to form a crude picture, it felt great to end him. For a moment, I got just the very slightest taste of what it would be like to be a hero.
This little incident made me realize just how much I focus on being the good guy when I’m playing games. When I play Grand Theft Auto, I refuse to hurt bystanders or police unless its in self-defense. Even when my characters are horrible people, I always operate with a code of honor. Hearkening back to last week’s topic, that tells me just how important it is to me to be the good guy. Certainly there are some times that I’ll bend the rules and do some bad things, but I always want to be the good guy.
Movies can’t do this. Television can’t do it. Nor can novels or any other kind of storytelling. Only video games actually put you in the driver’s seat and put you through an emotional journey with your own choices. That’s why I play them, and that sense of satisfaction that I get when I do the right thing is why I always want to be the hero.
I’m Jesse Blume and this is Most Heroic.
Next week on Most Heroic, we’ll address one of the finest comic book series to come out in years, with Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez’ Locke & Key.