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Role of a True Antihero

Ben McAlpin

REBUTTAL TO: Antihero Versus Hero

One of the most misunderstood things about the term "antihero" is what part of a traditional hero stays and what part has to go. To understand this, one must first understand the role of a typical hero. A hero, sometimes called an epic hero, is a protagonist who does the right things, for the right reasons, in the right way, most of the time. An antihero is, at its core, mostly just a protagonist who does not fill these criteria. But to be a true antihero and not just wishy-washy, the protagonist has to fail to meet those criteria by a large margin, in certain ways more than others, while still being likable by the reader.

Doing things that are illegal or would be viewed as wrong by other characters in the story is not sufficient to make a character an antihero. Luke Skywalker is a hero, of course, but so is Han Solo. Being a smuggler and rogue before the movie began does not make him an antihero; by the time he becomes a main protagonist, these are no longer character traits of his. In fact, most heroes are criminals. The Returners, AVALANCHE, SeeD, and the team of FF9 were all rebelling against the government.

Nor is being wrong at a critical time good enough; that is what we call a tragic hero. Hamlet was not an antihero, he was just a failure when it counted. Seifer, had the story followed him instead of Squall, would be a jerk, and certainly far from heroic, but he would fall under the category of a tragic hero, following his heart but making a huge mistake. Failing to understand the truth about the Dragons and accidentally causing a calamity did not make Serge an antihero in Chrono Cross, even had he not fixed it. He was trying to do what he thought was the right thing.

Of course, even villains are often trying to do what they think is the right thing. Kuja honestly believed, until the end, that he could create a better world by starting from scratch. Sephiroth saw himself as the last protector of a dying race. In Suikoden 3, the player could even play as the bad guys, plotting to do their evil schemes. But these were not antiheroes, they were villains. The player, did not like them, did not become attached to their mission. The player wanted them to lose.

The player must be rooting for the protagonist for him to be an antihero. An effective antihero does the wrong things, for the wrong reasons, but in a way that is just right enough to make the reader not hate him. He is a crook, a no-good two-timing worthless miscreant, but a strangely likable one. Consider the movie Ocean's Eleven. Or any other gangster movie where the main characters are thieves. For that matter, consider the Grand Theft Auto games. Usually the antiheroes in these stories are fighting against someone who is no worse than they are. The enemy has done something that the protagonist would have done himself given the chance. It is not any sort of moral battle, but a personal one. The villain is not villainous because he bombed and killed a bus full of nuns, but because he bombed and killed the antihero's wife.

Consider the significance of this in the context of a game. Grand Theft Auto uses this dynamic quite well; its downfall is that the exciting gameplay overshadows it and no one pays any attention to the missions or story. RPGs rarely have this "problem," since they tend to move rather slowly all on their own even without any story to tie the player up. Indeed, story scenes are almost a relief at times in many RPGs. And so, in an RPG, could a good antihero dynamic be made to work well?

Take a look at the first few hours of FF7. Barret, Cloud and AVALANCHE do not get along well, and Cloud at the beginning of the game would make a great antihero if he were to just follow a slightly different path. And to be fair, though Barret claims to be fighting for the Planet, he's fighting for his wife Myrna and his friend Dyne, who were victims of ShinRa's recklessness. If they had just not left Midgar, but continued fighting the ShinRa right there to get revenge for Sector 7, it could have been an amazing antihero story. If Reeve had killed President ShinRa and Sephiroth not shown his face, and Cloud had finished off Rufus, that would have been the end of it, and it would have worked.

But FF7 opted to lead the characters out of that stage of their lives and make them realize that the world was worth fighting for, and that ShinRa's petty evil was not the main crisis. The number of plot-heavy games with successful antiheroes who have selfish goals and crude methods can most likely be counted on one hand. Saga Frontier 2's Gustave was going in the right direction, but after regaining his kingdom became more of a tragic hero. Breath of Fire 5 pulls of the antihero bit incredibly well if one pays attention to that part of the story, though much of the focus is more centered on Ryu's inner struggle than the battle between the dragons, the nobles, Trinity, and Ryu, who is willing to destroy the foundations of his rotten civilization to save one girl.

If a developer were to attempt to make a game with a well-done antihero story, would it indeed be able to pull off the things Brian Cowan suggested? A change of pace it would certainly be, as I think many people are tired of saving the world. But truly non-linear gameplay in an antihero story is even harder to pull off than in an epic tale. The key to making the antihero persona work is balance. The writer must balance the evil that the antihero does with the good, must keep a very tightly secured grip on what he does to keep him from becoming too terrible or too saintly, must control him with utmost precision to make the personality be exactly what it needs to be to keep him as an antihero. Truly non-linear gameplay would destroy this, and make the character become worthless. Unless the character is well-established before the non-linearity starts, there is no way to make him be an antihero without choosing exactly what he does when.

Brian's definition of an antihero seems to just be a lesser villain. Roaming the world as Rufus, Heidegger, Palmer, Scarlet and the Turks to fight Sephiroth does not constitute an antihero story. It makes a very interesting story, but the player would still end up rooting for AVALANCHE every time they showed up, because they're better people. If an antihero story has truly good people as secondary characters who are opposed to the antihero, it will not work. Danny Ocean can swindle as many obnoxious, overdressed rich businessmen as he likes, but if a priest shows up and tries to stop him, either the priest has to see Danny's point of view and give him help in his selfish cause, or the movie ends and everyone wonders what just happened.

The antihero is a powerful writing tool, and can be used to tell amazing stories with unique messages that could never work in an epic tale, but it's not something that can be taken lightly, or easily thrown around. Given the quality of most video game writers, it might be better for most RPGs to stick to returning the light to the four crystals and uncovering the evil villain who is truly controlling the Empire.

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