At first glance, the man saddens you. In his late 40s, stuck in a professional rut, and seemingly rudderless in life – perhaps even drowning – you cannot help but feel a twinge of pity. Over the course of the next 62 hours, he takes back control of his life in a way that is as thrilling as it is horrifying.
Breaking Bad was arguably the peak of antihero TV. There had been variations, yes; maybe the man was a mobster or a philandering ad man. But one thing was clear: pop-culture was obsessed with stories of flawed people. Audiences wanted to see people who resembled real human beings – warts and all – over an idea of what they could be.
Antiheroes – some stick to calling them villains – have been behind the rise of TV as a medium of mature storytelling, bringing the reign of feel-good dramas and overly-cheerful sitcoms to an end. And as TV audiences set their eyes on a different flavour of entertainment (let’s face it, a lot of people would avoid bleak drama in the middle of a pandemic), the post-COVID world might just be the perfect time to introduce these flawed, all-too-human characters to video games.
When I talk about antiheroes, I do not mean playing as Deadpool in the video game or Batman in the Arkham series. While the Arkham games take Batman quite seriously, the goodwill in his heart is almost always in focus. The emphasis is more on sheer willpower and overcoming obstacles against all odds; Batman isn’t really going to be selfish and inflict pain as much as he battles supervillains.
Popular antiheroes in video games
While this isn’t an obsession yet, there have definitely been games featuring protagonists with moral quandaries. Check out some of the best known ones below:
Michael De Santa
47 has completed many hits in his game series, and has straggled the line of moral ambiguity all the way.
This is relatively uncharted territory for games, but the success of Red Dead Redemption II proves that players are able to embrace content that puts them in the shoes of a morally ambiguous character. I am sure there are some excellent PlayStation exclusives that I have not played yet, featuring narratives that change the way antihero stories are told in games. These titles have paved the road for future ones, that will put even greater focus on narrative, symbolism, and cinematic direction. Interestingly, Remedy Entertainment attempted to fuse games and TV with 2016’s Quantum Break in a quite literal way: by inserting episodes of a tie-in TV show between the game’s acts. Though the episodic segments didn’t garner the praise the rest of the game did, it was certainly a step forward towards games taking inspiration from TV.
Attracting Diverse Audiences
David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, had this to say of video games in an interview: “Games have a function. It’s a physical function. The character has to go from here to there, has to shoot that, has to drive this, has to knock that down, has to jump up here. … That’s how a game works. So cooking dinner, going to Lamaze class, there’s no way to figure that into a game at this point. Maybe somebody else can do it and maybe somebody will.”
That was back in 2006. Even to this day, there are many sceptics who cannot imagine that video games are capable of narrative maturity – telling bold, no-holds-barred stories aimed at adults. With the explosion of ideas and technological advancements over the last decade, we are surely heading towards an era where day-to-day drama can be incorporated – and appreciated – in video games. This would entice a lot of mature players to dip their toes into gaming and realize the potential of the medium, fuelling a new wave of titles.
At this point, you might be wondering – why? Do video games even need antiheroes? Yes, they do. It is important to understand that we are not supposed to glorify these characters. Instead, they are an exploration of the human condition, of the things that make us angry, miserable, happy, distressed and ultimately human. It is about posing existential questions – “Is that all there is?” – and making the audience ponder the fleeting nature of life. TV had its renaissance period two decades ago. Now it is time for the next step in the evolution of games.
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