New England Gamer
The Sweet Escape
I grew up wishing I could be a superhero. It was a standard enough desire, I'm
sure. After all, when you're just a child and most every detail of your life is
controlled by someone else, the idea of being powerful, being outside the rules has
to be incredibly attractive.
I'm not a little kid anymore, but a part of me would still like to be a superhero. A
part of this stems from superheroes just being cool. I can't get enough of them!
On the other hand is the reality that even without someone dictating my bedtime,
my dinner foods, and what movies and games I can watch and play, my life is still
fairly out of my hands. Maybe tomorrow I'll get side-swiped by a car. Maybe I'll
lose my health insurance (again). Maybe the economy will plummet a few more
tiers and I'll wind up unemployed again. All those childhood frustrations have
been replaced by the adult realization of what real helplessness can be. And I'm
hardly the worst off person in the world.
And yet even with the world being a fairly random, often cruel place with no
compunctions against squashing the little man, many want desperately to believe
that one person can make a difference. Even as I write this, countless would-be
politicians are running on platforms that basically boil down to "I will make a
difference." Perhaps some of them really think they will. There is certainly no
shortage of people willing to vote on the promise of change, whether it will come
It's not hard to figure out where this ideal of the individual comes from. Our pop
culture is dominated by the idea that a single person, armed with the skill and the
will to use it, can change the world. It's of course never that simple, but the
complexity of it hasn't stopped video games from adopting it as arguably their
driving principle. Throughout most of their history they have been solo
experiences, naturally built on surmounting challenges of increasing difficulty.
Games have grown a lot since their inception. Where once victory meant simply
making it to the next level, winning can now mean anything from stopping a
terrorist plot to saving the universe from certain doom. Whatever the danger or
goal, there is one commonality. You are at the center of everything that happens.
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Take Dragon Age: Origins for example. The game is built around your typical
fantasy story. A great evil has fallen upon the land and an army must be raised to
stop it. Pragmatically, this amounts to a cross country trip where you visit
potential allies and try to gain their support. Of course, they can't help you unless
you solve some problem for them first. Never mind that the world is danger, right?
The elves, waylaid by werewolves, need you to help cure their infected warriors
before they succumb. The local chapter of the Hogwarts requires your assistance
in pushing back an invasion of demons. The dwarves need to pick a new king.
And of course, you're the only one that can help. In a world full of warriors and
adventurers, you are seemingly the one that's competent. Even after you've
gathered your army, the final battle hinges entirely on you. You are told in no
uncertain terms that unless you and you alone are able to kill the big boss baddie,
everything will have been for naught. The game does give a reason for this, but it
doesn't change the fact that it's intentionally designed to make you feel important
Dragon Age isn't alone in doing this. Mass Effect, a product of the same
developer, is built around an almost identical structure albeit with a sci-fi themed
paint job. You jet around the galaxy righting wrongs, punishing evil doers and
altering the course of events as you see fit. Sucker Punch's inFamous takes place
in a city trapped in the grips of disaster, plague, and crime. Your character, Cole,
wakes from a coma newly armed with super powers that you can use to restore
order, or drive the city further into despair. Fallout 3, and by extension, Fallout:
New Vegas was built almost entirely around other people coming to you with their
problems and asking for your help. You are the catalyst of everything that happens
or doesn't happen in these games.
In the real world, most of us will never have that much influence or control. That
can be a hard pill to swallow, when you look at some the people who do have
power. Deep down we all long to matter, albeit in different ways. Some people
want to be a straightforward action hero. Some want to be a sports star, and yes,
some want to be superheroes. In the real world you may just be a Clark Kent, but
with the right game there's no reason you can't be Superman. Video games are by
design the ultimate form of wish fulfillment.
It's no mystery to me why some people become addicted to games. The human
experience is defined by limitations while videos games comparatively offer
unparalleled choice. You can be the hero or the villain. You can be the silent
loner, tackling danger with tightlipped stoicism or the suave bachelor (or
bachelorette) cockily taking on the world with a wink and a smile. Whatever you
choose, you can be sure that the world at the end of the game will be different than
it was when you started and that whatever takes place couldn't have happened
without you. Most of us will never be anything other than ordinary, and that's
fine. Being ordinary has its perks. Even so, every now and then it's still nice to
take on something larger than life, to step into a bigger set of shoes, even if the
laces aren't real and never will be.
Read more by Stewart Shearer