There was a poignant article on Kotaku this week about a suicidal teenage boy, who found the inspiration he needed to turn his life around through none other than the rebooted Lara Croft. What inspired him the most, he explained, was not just her heroism, but her ability to act in the face of fear.
When I [saw] her commit her first kill, I watched as she started crying. I had never seen that in a Tomb Raider before. I was shocked. But she picked herself up quickly, I loved that she had so much bravery especially when she was scared the most.
I praised that aspect of the game in my review last week, but it later occurred to me that her portrayal as a frightened, flawed human being does not exist in a vacuum. When I think of the other protagonists we’ve seen in recent years, it seems that we’re in the middle of a cultural shift. Slowly but surely, we’re expanding our definition of what it means to be a hero.
The very mention of the word conjures up a stock image — a fearless leader, noble and unwavering. A lawful good paladin on a white horse. But that’s not the kind of hero we see these days. Lara Croft trembles and gasps as she fights to survive. Katniss Everdeen is depressed and unstable all through Mockingjay. Batman spends a significant chunk of The Dark Knight Rises in a prison cell with his back broken. We’re not just willing to see our heroes as fragile beings. We want to. We’re no longer content with simply cheering on our heroes from the sidelines, or believing in a superpowered protector who will look after us. We want to believe that we — squishy and breakable as we are — can be heroes, too. Fictional these stories may be, but if there’s anything we’ve learned from thousands of years of storytelling, it’s that we’re hardwired to latch onto this stuff. I’m with the aforementioned teenager on this one. When I see characters who can do amazing things while still in the grip of fear, my own troubles feel more manageable.
While fear is by no means the only emotion that can make me empathize with a character, it is one of the easiest ones to relate to. Every living creature knows fear. There is perhaps no feeling more universal. But the trouble sometimes is that heroes are too focused on fears that we don’t share. I get why an alien invasion or a mystical apocalypse would be scary, but those aren’t things I have to worry about. Exploring real fears, on the other hand, gives us a leg up. Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead demonstrates that to great effect. While the obvious threat is the endless supply of zombies, the fears explored are mundane ones — hunger, sickness, strangers, loss. Showing characters that worry about the same things the player would — or perhaps already has — makes jumping into fantasy worlds even easier. We don’t have to go to the trouble of imagining someone unlike us in a place that doesn’t exist. We just have to imagine ourselves there.
I can’t think of a more effective medium for delivering that kind of story than video games (I know, I’m biased). Reading stories about heroes or watching them on screen can be an undeniably moving experience, and for some, myself included, it can be enough to inspire actual courage. But there’s something different about having your hands on the controls. Yes, the feeling of player agency is an illusion lovingly crafted by designers and writers, but it’s a damn good illusion all the same. When a game’s done right, it creates this weird duality in the player — you’re both watching the story from afar, and actively starring in it. After a recent conversation about Tomb Raider, I noticed that I had been haphazardly switching between describing events in the game as things that happened to Lara and things that happened to me (I do this a lot, come to think of it).
That deep sense of immersion gives the impact of a fearful hero some extra punch. I understand why so many games, especially in decades past, have been shy about this. One of the most appealing aspects of gaming is the experience of feeling powerful. Adding shivering, shaking fear into the equation seems counter-intuitive. But on the contrary, it can draw us in even more. I won’t deny that playing an over-the-top hero can be an awful lot of fun, but for a story to really grab me by the heartstrings, it’s got to appeal to my humanity. The typical heroic message of “don’t be scared” can bolster my resolve for a little while, but “be scared and do stuff anyway” is far more resonant. If I can experience what living by that ideal feels like — even through entirely imaginary circumstances — that goes beyond good storytelling. It becomes a source of inspiration I can take with me out into the real world.
Interestingly, though, I think that female characters have a bit of an advantage in this regard. Fear and vulnerability have long been culturally coded as female traits, while strength and courage exist on the male end of the spectrum. Now, we all know that’s completely disingenuous (in both directions), but that thinking exists nonetheless. The worst part about it is that we tend to think of those traits as mutually exclusive, which is why it’s common to see Strong Female Characters portrayed as emotionless or with traditionally masculine characteristics. You can be the hero, or you can be the damsel. There’s rarely a middle ground. But the new Lara Croft got a mix of everything, which probably wouldn’t have happened with a male protagonist, certainly not in an action game. And it worked. It worked exceptionally well. As that story on Kotaku shows, it resulted in the kind of character that can inspire some serious introspection. We’ve got a long way to go before we see a male hero portrayed with the same sort of emotional transparency, but I do think we’ll get there eventually. I sincerely hope we do. Not just because it could make for a great story, but because I know it’s something a lot of guys are hungry for. There are few things any of us need to hear more than that our fears do not prevent us from being great.
None of this is to say that all games should deliver that kind of experience, or that all heroes should be portrayed this way. I like my unflappable heroes, too, and sometimes all I want is to blow stuff up, without any weighty context. But for those games that are striving for good narrative engagement, I think this path is a promising one. For many of us, seeing a bit of ourselves in our heroes — especially the parts we consider to be weaknesses — is what makes us rally to their side.