Playing the anti-hero: why it feels so good to be bad

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When I was finishing up our article about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I picked up on an interesting trend among games released in recent years. The prominence of immoral, law-breaking anti-hero characters has increased in popular media – video games included.

In movies, Deadpool has been one of Fox Entertainment’s most successful releases despite the character’s obvious flaws. TV shows are littered with anti-heroes such as Don Draper from Mad Men and Walter White from Breaking Bad. And Kazuma Kiryu from the Yakuza series has been Sega’s most notorious anti-hero, successfully driving the game’s success for over 12 years.

So, what exactly is the allure of these characters? Why do players tend to prefer games with an anti-hero? Let’s discuss this intriguing topic.

Warning: There are some spoilers throughout the article.

Anti-Hero vs Villain

First, let’s draw the line between these two gaming and writing tropes. An anti-hero is defined as a central character who lacks conventional heroic attributes. These are things such as optimism, honesty, confidence, and virtue. Aiden Pearce from Watch Dogs is an example of an anti-hero.

A villain, on the other hand, is a central character whose evil actions or motives are essential to the plot. The main quality that differentiates between an anti-hero and a villain is that a villain must be evil. Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII was a perfect example of a hero turning to an anti-hero and then a villain.

The best moment in my gaming life, in HD from Advent Children

Knowing this distinction is important as both anti-heroes and villain-protagonists lack conventional heroic attributes. All villain-protagonists are anti-heroes, but not all anti-heroes are necessarily villain-protagonists.

Now we can move to the main topic at hand: Why do players tend to identify more with the anti-hero?

Let’s look at a few possible explanations, shall we?

The Messiah Exhaustion

This is a term I coined while writing this article. In my last article about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I touched a little bit on this concept. As everyone knows, the comparison then was between The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Dragon Age: Inquisition.

“The Messiah Exhaustion” refers to the loss of interest in playing as yet another savior and chosen one in a game that has you revered as the heroic central character. The role of the Inquisitor in Dragon Age, for instance, is rather one-dimensional, with your actions always being predictable. You will be the one finding a village’s lost lamb, you will be the one who distributes blankets to help refugees, and so on. Heroic deeds like these aren’t bad — helping people and being the savior can make for some truly special gaming moments. But after playing multiple RPGs with this theme, being the hero can quickly lose its initial appeal.

In fact, this was part of why Mass Effect: Andromeda was poorly received. Technical issues aside, the Pathfinder is yet another recycled hero trope that offers nothing new to the RPG genre. Furthermore, the decision to remove the Paragon and Renegade options (i.e., the morality feature from the original trilogy) from this installment was the final nail in the coffin as far as the game’s role-playing depth is concerned. While Mass Effect’s Commander Shephard arguably possessed every quality that a standard hero does, his/her renegade options managed to add an extra layer to his/her personality, a layer that is sadly missing and sorely needed in Andromeda.

Complex Characters

Let’s be honest here: it’s safe to say that anti-heroes are the characters that make for the most deep and intricate storytelling. With their flaws and lack of conventional and typical heroic attributes, they make perfect protagonists for RPG stories.

For an anti-hero to capture an audience’s heart (Persona 5 reference, anyone?), a writer needs to make sure that the character’s flaws and strengths are balanced well. This in turn creates a multi-dimensional character with many layers of personality. All in all, a well-written and well-developed anti-hero can make any narrative significantly more interesting.

Aiden Pearce from Watch Dogs, for example, was the absolute embodiment of an anti-hero. Throughout the game, we were given a glimpse into what Aiden had to go through after the death of his nephew. Blaming himself for the tragedy, Aiden became paranoid and obsessed with security, surveillance, and control. These dangerous imperfections led him to start monitoring his own family members without their consent.

It’s easy to want to chastise Aiden as he appears to be a man on the brink of insanity. His character, however, was written well as an anti-hero, as we were exposed to his struggle early in the game, and the writers took care to also show us his strengths, such that, in the end, players couldn’t help but sympathize with him and forgive him his mistakes.

That Human Element

Nobody is perfect, that is the cold hard truth. Anti-heroes embody this statement perfectly with their flaws and weaknesses. In the previous example with Aiden Pearce, the players sympathized with him perhaps because some of them could see themselves going down the same path if they had experienced the same tragedy. And I’m sure many unhappy spouses have at times considered escaping their dry marriage and seeking a bit of adventure like Michael de Santa did in Grand Theft Auto V.

Let’s compare these characters to someone like Jim Raynor from the Starcraft series. Throughout the series, Raynor has been known to fight for what is right. He possesses typical hero qualities such as courage, honesty, and confidence. Raynor embodies the concept of fighting for the greater good and being willing to lay it all on the line to protect others. Indeed, he goes so far as to kill his former love interest, Kerrigan, as it’s what must be done for the good of all.

Jim Raynor can easily be idolized as the perfect hero, sure, but he definitely is not easy to relate to. No believable character is that perfect.

Freedom from Ethical and Moral Boundaries

Sigmund Freud introduced a very interesting structural model of the human psyche in the form of the Id, Ego and Super-ego. The id is your primal instinct looking for immediate gratification regardless of any potential consequences, the super-ego is your critical need to be just and moral, while the ego is the mediator that balances between the two. The original Xenogears game approached this subject by having the main character, Fei, have a split personality, with his other self being called Id.

Deep down, everyone is a rebel.

As we grow older, we might begin to forget that. We are surrounded by rules in our daily life and we’re expected to follow them as part of a functioning society. We go to work from 9 to 5, follow traffic regulations on our way, make sure we earn enough to pay the bills, and, ultimately, try to simply be decent human beings to each other.

As an escape, video games allow players to behave differently than they would in the real life. And having an anti-hero as a main character helps with this. Anti-hero protagonists tend to have their own brand of justice. Because of this, they often feel it necessary to bend or even break the status quo of the world — and they do so. It’s no surprise, then, that many of us who live our entire lives in line with the status quo take joy in playing the rebel.

It’s unjust to talk about the rebel inside without talking about Persona 5. Even early in the game, players know that they are in trouble with the law as they see the main character in an interrogation room being grilled by officials. ATLUS build the entire game around this concept of having freedom from societal conventions as an anti-hero. As a member of the Phantom Thieves, your journey in Persona 5 is full of moments where you’re deciding what your definition of justice is.

Another exciting JRPG that perfectly illustrates what makes an anti-hero great is Tales of Berseria. In this latest installment of Namco’s Tales series, players take control of Velvet Crowe. Velvet’s entire journey in the game is motivated by vengeance, the most basic plot-line for any anti-hero.

To achieve her goal, however, Velvet has to destroy an entire village while throwing another into chaos by killing its guardian. This is the first Tales entry where players are playing as the “monsters” of the game (so much so that NPCs actually refer to Velvet as the “Lord of Calamity,” a title given to the boss of the prequel, Tales of Zesteria). And not surprisingly, it’s one of the highest rated Tales games ever released. Players sympathized more with Velvet than previous characters (at least once her reason for seeking revenge was revealed).

There’s a lot more that can be said about this issue, but let’s not let this post drag on too long. After all, this is an article about video games, not my Master’s thesis. If you are interested in reading more about this subject, however, please feel free to contact us. I’d be happy to suggest other things for you to check out.

With all their flaws and weaknesses, we know that the anti-heroes are here to stay. They bring a refreshing change to game narratives, and when handled correctly, they add an extra layer of complexity to games. Furthermore, the anti-heroes are relatable as their imperfections make them much more human, and they allow players to break free of conventional ethics that must be followed in real life.

It’s the reason why Fable was an excellent release, and why Knights of the Old Republic is still one of Bioware’s great masterpieces. It’s one of the many reasons why I prefer The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt over Dragon Age: Inquisition.

So don’t worry. The next time you wonder why you feel so good after crashing your car into the police station in Grand Theft Auto V, you’ll know that’s just your inner rebel coming out. Your own Persona, if you may.

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Early adopter, critical gamer, passionate writer, perpetual student, and a cat enthusiast.

Currently exploring Ancient Egypt as Senu.

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