The hero from the rubble narrative is one used perpetually in AAA gaming. Players see their character given weapons, deployed in missions, rewarded as a hero, and ultimately leading the way in the fight against whoever you’re fighting against. It’s the ‘specialness’ paradox that has come to form its own school of criticism within the industry – why should video game characters have the figurative world handed to them on a plate? Because otherwise nobody would want to be them.
Many criticise the fact that games lean on this notion of specialness. Dead Island places you in the role of the only immune survivor of a zombie apocalypse, Fallout sees you as a new-born leader in a world devastated by war, in Assassin’s Creed there’s only one successor in this lineage of hitmen and it’s you. Some put it down to spoon-feeding, others chalk it up to a male-centric industry promoting heroism, strength, and bravery. It’s a view that equates rewards and ‘one in a million’ characterisation with being babied.
However if these characters weren’t the prodigal heroes, the games’ appeal would be much less convincing. Players access these worlds to feel and explore the power that these characters provide us with, if even only on a virtual level. If we weren’t the priceless immune saviour in Dead Island we’d be stuck in a shelter somewhere while someone else did all the fun zombie slashing. If we weren’t the prodigal offspring in an age-old line of assassins there wouldn’t even be a game. It’s a basic requirement in video game design, and any storytelling medium, that the protagonist has to be important to the narrative. If the protagonist is important, integral even, to the narrative there has to be reason for their importance. This reason is often what is construed in this school of thought as ‘specialness’.
So specialness is essentially power. What makes a character special in terms of AAA game design is their ability to act in ways that defy conventional human ability. Nathan Drake can leap chasms and survive jumps that would break normal human knees, and take out 5 highly trained baddies while he’s at it. These games run on the escapism, bred through specialness, that their characters provide. Players have come to expect game worlds to exist outside the parameters of reality, and specialness ensures that the game doesn’t rely on the rules of this human reality. We enjoy controlling the actions of characters that we want to be able to achieve, not the actions we already do (note: this discussion is based on criticism of AAA action adventure titles, rather than games of other genres e.g. The Sims, Job Simulator in which the notion of specialness is not explored as succinctly).
With that in mind, it’s useful then to turn to the notion of rewards – often the main gripe of the ‘infantilised’ player. Yes, I agree that rewarding every player action becomes coddling. But there’s a line to be drawn here. Rewarding the effort of the player does not carry the same judgment of specialness as simply throwing assets at characters when they complete a short, simple mission. It comes back to the appeal of a video game as an exploration of a virtual world operating on a different rulebook. If there were no rewards, no sudden skill points or newfound abilities after completing a level, like in real life, play would become frustrating and cyclical. Players need, then, to be rewarded to an extent for their actions to ensure a dynamic and evolving gameplay system. Without rewards a video game wouldn’t progress. And rewards are what make the character ultimately special – they are abilities, skills, and story progressions that other characters within the game world do not have the opportunity to fulfil.
At times it can feel like the narrative of specialness is babying. Players feel that they are able to act however they want and get whatever they want, becoming tired of the protagonist-as-God’s-gift trope. However without this fundamental story and gameplay mechanic AAA action adventure games would be cyclical, frustrating, and ultimately boring. It is precisely the ‘specialness’ of these characters that runs most of the reasons most of us play video games, and that allows for creative and exciting gameplay mechanics and narrative progression.