Our unstoppable community contributor Nemesis tackles the touchy subject of sociopathic main characters.
By Jonathan Maloney on March 21, 2013 at 4:49 pm
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Among the many and often odd things I think about, there is one thing that creeps into my mind particularly when playing video games. There I am, living out the adventures of a heroic character who is designed to be looked at with awe and appreciation, and I find myself wondering — why? What is the motivation?
Not my own. That’s an easy one to answer — I want some explosions, bullets, swords, and general mayhem. For me, that’s fun. Because I can easily identify that what I am doing isn’t real, not in the slightest. It means nothing in the scheme of reality, and is merely escapist entertainment of the most benign kind — some might argue this, but it’s merely my personal interpretation of the matter.
No, I’m wondering about the character I’m playing. For this character, nothing could possibly be further from the truth. Success or failure, life or death, depends on their actions, with me living vicariously through them.
But why do they do it? Why does Master Chief never stop fighting? Why does Nathan Drake hilariously grab folks by the belt to hurl them to their death from cliff edges? Why does the Dovahkiin fight against Alduin, when he arguably could just get on a horse and leave while giving the collective jerks of Skyrim the finger over one shoulder? Why does Jackie Estacado flat out murder everything that has the bad fortune to get even slightly near him, or simply be on the same planet?
The inevitable and most simplistic response is that it is because they are ‘The Hero.’ But what does that even mean?
It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, and often inaccurately. But to be a hero of the ‘good guy’ variety is to be a selfless individual who puts their own life on the line to save another, directly or indirectly, broadly speaking. But can you still be a hero and kill people?
There are many variant responses to that. Does the killing of another person directly save the lives of others who are otherwise innocent? Is it done without cruelty? Then, broadly speaking again, it would still apply. But that isn’t ‘really’ the case in many, if not most, of the videogames that we play.
A perfect example is Uncharted, a game I love to bits. Nathan Drake is a neck snapping, grenade lobbing, wisecracking murder machine that for some reason we view as a roguish good guy with a funny sense of humour. He also leaves a trail of bodies behind him a mile wide, and while he often ends up saving the day, and choosing to save others as he encounters them and their problems, his primary motivation is inescapable. He’s a thief, first and foremost, and he will, and does, kill people to steal things. And it doesn’t affect him in the slightest. He makes jokes about it. In a game, this is fine. It adds much needed brevity and enjoyment. But in real life, this is vile.
One thing that never seems to affect the hero is the awful weight of their actions. Killing another person isn’t something most people can deal with easily, and a lot of people die because of the actions of game characters. It is often to save their own life, yes, but in the real world, people are heavily affected by taking the lives of others. It’s a big, big reason so many people suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the armed services. It is very, very difficult to put that level of conscious or subconscious guilt and shame aside.
Some people don’t have that problem, however. Those people are called sociopaths.
The relationship between a classic sociopath and a video game character is startling. They are not affected by taking the lives of others, and indeed, may find it amusing or titillating. Sometimes it is because they are clearly an ‘anti-hero’ like Jackie Estacado, the eviscerating demonic mob boss in The Darkness series. Or Death and War, from Darksiders. These are not nice people. They are far aligned from what most people would call ‘good’ – death and bloodshed either don’t affect them or it actually excites them, they feel no guilt for their actions, and are primarily motivated by the desires of the self.
And it is at that point that everything gets all jumbled up. A sociopath and a hero both might kill their enemies or even people just in the way. But the hero does it to save someone else and the sociopath does it because they are out only for themselves. But in videogames, we get a lot of heroes who are unaffected by death, like a sociopath, and yet fight for others, like a hero. If they really were a true sociopath, they wouldn’t be even motivated for something like that. Their actions are, in truth, altruistic, but we don’t exactly know why yet. Why they behave, feel, or act in these ways. If they can be altruistic, they can feel compassion and empathy, but if they feel those, why do they feel nothing for the dead they’ve left behind them? Why do we never hear those inner thoughts?
There is a school of thought that says all actions are intrinsically selfish – that because we feel good about something, no matter how selfless it might appear, it ultimately becomes self serving. This, however, does not work with a sociopath. The sociopath doesn’t form attachments to people, and doesn’t hold others above themselves. The material matters more than the emotional.
So it all gets kind of murky. Heroes in games exhibit heavily sociopathic traits that tend to be ones that should exclude their heroic traits, but don’t. In this case, game heroes are like comic book super heroes – caricatures, an impossibility rather than any sort of accurate depiction. A real hero feels the weight of their actions, the pain of the cost they have to pay, but knows they have to do it anyway, and regrets that they had no other choice. And in most games, you don’t ever see that. Sometimes, you get a horrible glimpse in the other direction, like Far Cry 3. Sometimes, you get an equally awful glimpse of what happens when characters do feel the weight of their actions, like in Spec Ops: The Line, which drove its characters insane with their guilt and horror.
And then, sometimes, you get surprising levels of nuance, like Halo 4.
I bet that threw you a little bit, and it did to me too. Master Chief is one of the more stoic soldier types. A true hero? At first, I thought it was difficult to say. He does things because of his training, and because he is ordered to, and because it was how he was raised – and so he could survive the brutality of the Spartan soldier creation he was forced to endure. He doesn’t think of alternatives except in terms of combat and survival. He fights a never ending war because it is all he knows, like a robot, and not because he ‘wants’ to, but because it is what he does. Less of a hero, more of an instrument, or device.
At least, that’s what I thought until Halo 4 came along, and threw that demeaning theory completely on its head. At least, for me.
I never thought Master Chief was affected by the things he has dealt with. He was a badass! The carnage didn’t touch him, this machine that was almost a man. And then, in a couple of cutscenes, that was all pulled apart.
The first showed Master Chief sitting alone, staring at his hands, looking completely… lost. Far from a powerful soldier, he looked tired. Despairing the fact that he knew what was about to come and that he could do nothing but wade into it headlong. He is just about to meet Cortana for the first time, however, and with that, everything will change. The second scene, however, was years later, when Cortana reveals her imminent death due to rampancy.
Most people didn’t read the scene like I did, but for me, it was harrowing. Have you seen it? In particular, have you seen Chief’s reaction? It’s hard to read because of the helmet, but the body language speaks in terrible volumes.
In a flat, sharp voice, he rejects the inevitable. ‘No,’ he says, then outlines an insane plane to find help for his friend. It’s impossible, but he doesn’t care about that. He keeps going on even as Cortana sorrowfully tells him he won’t win this one. But it’s not a logical response. It’s the denial of a child, hidden behind military mannerisms that have been ingrained into him by decades of discipline, conditioning and training.
It was then that I realised something that, for all that it was about a fictional character, both horrified me and instilled a touch of awe. That despite all the training, all the hardening, and the sheer professionalism of John 117, there is, still inside, a six year old little boy who was taken from his home and never allowed to grow up. Let that sink in for a moment. Remember what you were like when you were six.
To think of that child, of all that it had seen, done, and been forced to endure, and then struggled to hide from itself, and then see it about to lose the only friend he’d known, and the terrible awful weight of something as horrible as that imminent loss hanging over Chief’s head very nearly broke me.
Let’s get something straight here. Chief owes the UNSC nor humanity in general absolutely nothing. They took him from his home, unlawfully, and made him into a weapon without his permission. He was never given a choice in the matter, and he never asked to be a soldier, he was simply told to be one. And he knows this. And yet, despite that, he still tries. He still fights, for a humanity that will both not fight for him, and who turned a blind eye when he was stolen away, and even now think it might be easier if he just vanished away so their guilty secret will be erased. And Halo 4 is not even about that, not at its core.
This is the first game in the series where the big picture is honestly secondary. It is, in fact, about two friends, closer than lovers despite never having touched and with no hope of doing so, who are trying to keep the one they care most about alive through impossible odds. And in the end, knowing that they have no choice, one gives their all for the other. You can argue it is to save the world, but I believe different. In this game, the personal story, not the world picture, is what matters, and with it, the greater heroism lies. It’s not heroism based on numbers, on saving the greater or lesser amount of people. It’s about doing what’s right, about giving up your own life not to save the greater or lesser amount, but to give everything you can, including your own life, to make sure that not even one dies aside from yourself. And most of all, it is done for love.
To think of how incredibly difficult it is for Chief to feel anything is far outweighed by the horror of the realisation that he does feel something. And if he does, then the weight of his loneliness, of his incalculable grief at the price he has paid and is fully aware of is too horrible to contemplate.
And yet, he continues on, and he will continue on, until he dies. Not because he has to, but because he knows he must, and that if he does not, others will perish because of his failure. But he does it knowing there is no reward waiting for him, no respite. All he will get for his trouble is pain upon pain. And he does it anyway, not for revenge, or for gain, but because he should. For a man made machine, the depth of his humanity is staggering.
In Mass Effect, this trend continues. By the end of Mass Effect’s third iteration, Shepard is a man (or woman) dying by inches. The burden of billions of lives in the balance and the guilt of billions of lives already lost weigh on them horribly. Not even their dreams are safe from the knowledge of their failures. And they face distrust, rejection and outright mockery at almost every turn throughout the journey. But does they stop? Do they, hell. They fight on, and finally, they too must choose just how great a sacrifice they wish to make.
In the end, I think that this depth, this pain, is what makes a good game potentially a great game. Sure, it would be no fun if all our game heroes became wishy washy emo types weeping over the things we’ve made them do as we controlled them. By the same token, though, I am so very, very tired of seeing ‘the good guy’ drown the world in blood and make a wisecrack afterwards that makes them seem so very, very charming. Likewise, I’m tired of trying to figure out why an amoral psychopathic bas—tard would give up or risk their life for the sake of others without really showing ‘why’ they’d do such a thing.
Being a hero is NOT an easy thing. It has a price that must be paid, and all too often, one that simply cannot be shared to alleviate it. Having a strong moral compass and the courage to act on it is an awful burden, and many games choose to overlook it. And they shouldn’t. It is, sometimes, so much harder to do the right thing, than do the easy thing, and a character that can show that emotional struggle is something that is hard to find in games. It’s what elevates what is merely a protagonist to being a hero, and brings with it the greater emotional catharsis. It can also be what makes a good game a great one, and an enduring one – not always, but it helps. I just wish the balance could be a ‘little’ more realistic at times – so that we don’t get stereotypes, or characters in our games – but people. That would be something to see.