The problem with always saving the world is that it necessitates that the world be always broken.
The problem with the world being always broken is that it surrenders the idea of it ever being better.
Our games cast us again and again as saviors, and sequel after sequel the world is under threat again, which certainly calls our savior capabilities into question. This is not a new observation. The ubiquity of massive, world-ending threats driving the plots of video games has been well noted. However, I think it’s worth mentioning that this isn’t just lazy, that this isn’t just tedious: It limits us in other ways. Subtle ways.
This is a complicated thing to say.
Games keep bringing us worlds teetering on the brink of destruction, worlds hungry for heroes and ready for us to save. This approach shuts out the possibility of a world with many people working together to make a worthwhile place to live. This shuts out the possibility of the systemic problems that drove the world to the edge being solved by cooperation. This shuts out the possibility of a terrible situation being solved by any solution other than an equally terrible caricature.
Video game heroes are improbable constructs. The powered armor, the thigh-thick biceps, the rocket boobs, the eye-gouging hair spikes – these heroes aren’t characters so much as icons, meant to be admired at a distance. In games, they are the final and only solution, for reasons seldom explained. Heroism is a panacea, applicable to all problems. Lost a cat? Tell a hero, they’ll find her for you. Mafia causing problems? I’m sure a hero is up to the job. The seven fiery claws of Agnonomoth are crawling up over the mountain and the sun weeps tears of fire that obliterate villages? Call a hero. Too shy to tell a girl that you think she’s cute? I’m sure that a hero is available to pass notes.
There’s usually just one, but he always seems to find his way to wherever he is needed.
We play as the hammer to which all problems are nails. We play as the square peg that presumes a universe of square holes. We play the Deus Ex Machina. We resolve all possible problems merely by existing and by occupying the character of this completely awesome dude who is also kind of a tool.
And then the game is over.
And then the world fades back in, and it is itself on fire.
There are warlords. There are corporations hungry for flesh and alien to ethics. There are fissures in the foundations of our lives, our societies, our environments. There are non-fictions that lie uncomfortably close to the fictions of our games. But something is missing. There are no Heroes. There are just humans. People. Trying to exist, however they can.
In our games we would be NPCs. In our films we would be extras. We won’t be saved unless we save ourselves. And yet, for the sake of gameplay, for the sake of a hackneyed story, we tell ourselves over and over that mere people cannot make a difference when it comes to really important things.
Is it really a mistake that we’ve been told this over and over? And, if so, who made it first?