What's an anti-hero? There's a question, and a deeper one than it first seems.
All fiction (even videogames) needs conflict, and in order for there to be conflict, you need to have two entities vying against each other. In games this usually boils down to "man vs. man," one of the most common conflict archetypes. One of those men is good, the other bad. You're the good one. You must stop the bad one. Go.
This way of looking at the world makes sense, is easy to follow and yet is completely not how the world works. Which is why, in recent years, we've seen a bump in what we call "anti-heroes," heroes who are good, but also bad, blurring the lines between black hats and white hats. From dark fantasy epics like Dragon Age to noir-ish detective yarns like Heavy Rain, the Anti-hero is dominating the videogame landscape. But why, in the world of fictional "escapist" entertainment, do we need to blur the line between good and bad? If one is not a hero, then one is a villain, yes? Well, it would seem, no.
Life is complicated, and, just like how any good lie should have a kernel of truth, it would appear that the fictions we favor as entertainment, likewise, work best when they have a kernel of reality to them. Fantasy tales in which the knight's armor is always shiny and white, the maiden's virtue is pure and the villain is inarguably evil have their place, but in this post-modern age, they ring somehow false. Audiences are demanding fiction that taps into what Jung would call our "shadow selves." Fiction that allows us to escape reality, but in a more realistic way. Fiction that reminds us we're living in a complex world, with complex problems and even more complex solutions.
After all, if we're being honest with ourselves, what are we as Westerners but anti-heroes? Just as the rise of television allowed images of the Vietnam-era battlefield to be broadcast to the world, un-cut, in all their horror, so too has access to the world-wide information network allowed the atrocities (purposeful or accidental) of man to be seen. In the golden age of Western democracy, the so-called "Greatest Generation," the world was much more black and white, or so it seemed. We were the good guys, they were the bad guys, and so long as the horrors of war were happening "over there," we were allowed to believe in this fiction.
The anti-hero doesn't delude himself. He knows his heart can be as black as his quarry's. He knows the world exists as shades of grey, and he, the "hero," is hero in name only. He knows he is only able to get the job done by occasionally straddling the line between hero and villain - and we love him for it. The anti-hero is likable in a "don't get too close to me" kind of way, but his gruff exterior paired with his inability to compromise tags him as the kind of guy you want on your side, but not in your house. Guarding the walls, but not inside of them. We want our heroes to be able to order the Code Red. We need them to because we can't, even though we know it has to be done from time to time.
The anti-hero is the hero you root for, but who doesn't root for you. He's not in it for you. He doesn't like you and doesn't want to be liked by you. Yet he will do the right thing, because it needs to be done. In a time when our institutions are failing us, when our humanistic ideals are dissipating like mist in the wind, when citizen soldiers of no nationality kill women and children in the name of holy war, when the dominance of Western democracy rests on the knife edge, we need anti-heroes. We need a hard-boiled detective who'll break all the rules to serve the law. We need a knight who'll wear black armor to get closer to the enemy. We need a Robin Hood who'll steal from the rich to buy guns for the poor. We need an anti-hero, whether we want one or not.
In this week's issue of The Escapist, Issue 239, "Anti/Hero," we delve into the greyer shades of black and white to look at some of gaming's best examples of blurring the line between good and bad and in the process - we hope - explore a bit of our own shadow selves. Enjoy.