Literature in Gaming: The Anti-Hero
Written By: Michael James
Edited By: Shania Kuo
So, you’ve heard the term before: anti-hero. I included it in the title, just in case you haven’t. It’s a term used in literature for a specific character that is becoming more popular in gaming— specifically in RPGs.
So what is it? What is an anti-hero? It obviously isn’t a hero, hence the “anti-”, but what is it exactly?
I’m glad you asked, mysterious gamer who keeps coming back to my articles. Today, on The Literature of Gaming, we’re going to go over the origin of the “anti-hero,” and what makes them so special.
Anti-hero is a term that one can guess at. With the prefix “anti,” which implies the opposite, an anti-hero is, as inferred, the opposite of a hero. Then does that make an anti-hero a villain?
Well, yes. But also no.
These characters exist as an opposite of a hero, but that doesn’t necessarily make them evil. Being an anti-hero literally makes you the protagonist of your story. According to Merriam-Webster, an anti-hero is a main character that doesn’t display the typical attributes of a hero.
And what are the typical attributes of a hero? Well…
Basically, if you can attribute the trait to Superman, it is likely a trait of a “hero.” These hero characters include Sonic from Sonic The Hedgehog, Link from The Legend of Zelda, and even Ori from Ori and the Blind Forest. These characters are all selfless, virtuous people who would throw themselves into danger for the greater good. They think of others before themselves and try to see the best of bad situations. They don’t allow disasters to keep them down, and they can endure even the worst of situations.
There might be situations that would set them back, or make them stumble, but nothing keeps them down for long. They push past their barriers and overcome any obstacles because if they don’t, who will?
Truly, heroes are the kind to rush off and save the world. They don’t think twice about bearing the burden of the world, because it is the right thing to do.
An anti-hero, on the other hand, would find such convictions annoying at best.
Because they are still the protagonist of their story, they are likely to do “heroic” things, but they would do it reluctantly, and more often than not in pursuit of a much more selfish goal. For an anti-hero, a heroic cause is usually a means to a further goal; their convictions can range anywhere between riches and powers to getting their best friend to stop breathing down their neck.
In this category we have characters such as Shadow the Hedgehog, Dark Pit from Kid Icarus, Bayonetta from Bayonetta, and Kratos from God of War.
These characters are not good people. Kratos slaughters the wicked and virtuous alike in his quest for revenge, and Shadow mows down anyone in his way with his strikingly out-of-place guns. These are not the kinds of people you would want to show to your parents.
Despite this, however, they are still protagonists.
So what sets them apart? What places the anti-hero in that impossibly small gray area between light and dark? The answer is simple: intention.
An anti-hero still desires an empathetic goal. That goal is not necessarily “good,” but it is one that the player can empathize with. When Bayonetta tributes literally all of her clothes in order to summon a hair dragon to brutally eviscerate an angel, she does it to protect both herself and her loved ones. When Shadow murders an entire space colony’s worth of people, he does it so that he can best the wicked shadow alien that is intending to destroy the world.
Anti-heroes aren’t role models, but they have good intentions. They rarely display the traits of a hero, but they get hero results. They skewer their MO—their unique, morally ambiguous way of doing things—towards, “the ends justify the means,” and they are not afraid to embody that ideal.
So while Booker Dewitt from Bioshock Infinite starts the game with the goal to rid himself of a debt, he still ends the game with the desire to free Elizabeth from her cage. Dark Pit doesn’t want to help Pit save Angelworld from Hades, but he does it anyway because it is in his best interests to do so.
An anti-hero is still the hero of their story. They just don’t embody the ideals that typical heroes do. They paint a nice gray into stories because moral ambiguity is the spice of storytelling.
And who better to portray moral ambiguity than Shadow the Hedgehog.
I mentioned him before, and I felt it was important to mention him again. Shadow the Hedgehog from Shadow the Hedgehog embodies literally everything I’ve discussed .
But let’s start with Sonic:
The blue speedster is almost everything that a person could see in a hero. He is selfless, virtuous, and would gladly risk life and limb for those he cares about. Depending on which game (or cartoon or comic) that you base an incarnation of Sonic around, he performs such heroic feats as: saving a planet, saving a galaxy, saving a universe, reversing time to save his friends and literally dying in order to set things right.
Sonic the Hedgehog is about as close as you can get in the Sonic universe, and it isn’t a surprise why the series is named after him.
And then we have Shadow:
He’s not Sonic.
In the picture above, we see Shadow mowing down scores of military personnel with a submachine gun. Did he need to? No. He has otherworldly magical chaos blasts. He just prefers the intimacy of using firearms.
So how does Shadow differ from Sonic? Well, the beauty of their relationship as hero and anti-hero is that their differences aren’t subtle; Sonic Team practically beats you over the head with the metaphors. Where Sonic is cheerful and friendly, Shadow is a gloomy and pessimistic murderer. Where Sonic’s legend began with a need to save trapped forest animals, Shadow’s legend began with opposing Sonic.
No, that’s literally the concept creation for him. In Sonic Adventures 2, he was created specifically to be the “bad” to Sonic’s “good.”
The developers’ entire creation concept emphasized opposing elements. Where Sonic was selfless, Shadow was selfish. Where Sonic was happy, Shadow was brooding. Their characters were meant to clash. So if Sonic is so obviously a hero, wouldn’t that make Shadow’s anti-hero a villainous existence?
Yes, dear reader, if it weren’t for the fact that Sonic and Shadow more often work together than against each other.
But wait, they’re opposites. What could force them to work together if they’re so diametrically opposed to one another? Well, that’s the thing. They’re not.
“But you just said that they were!” Yes, and I stand by it. Their characters emphasize opposite characteristics. As stated before, Sonic is heroic in every way that Shadow is not. Unlike the difference between Sonic and Eggman, however, the difference between Sonic and Shadow is a bit less stark.
It pains me to do this, but in order to fully clarify this we need to refer to the Dungeons and Dragons morality chart.
Going into this chart would take a whole other article, which I might write in time, but for a full synopsis, see here. In short, Sonic (a quintessential hero) fits into Lawful Neutral. He abides by the rules no matter what because it would serve the greater good. On the other hand, Eggman would be closer to Chaotic Evil. He does as he wishes without regard for what happens to people other than himself.
So where does this leave Shadow? He’s Chaotic Good. He does things according to his own pace, based on what he wants or believes in at the time, but his actions tend to align towards the morality of Good, the same as Sonic’s.
Don’t get me wrong. Sonic and Shadow are still very much antagonistic towards one another, but their goals often align. In Sonic Heroes, the two worked together to defeat Mecha Sonic. Later, in the to-be travesty of Sonic: 2006, the two would use the Chaos Emeralds to defeat Solaris. Even in Shadow the Hedgehog, Shadow works together with Sonic just as often as he directly opposes him.
Of course, this isn’t to say that all anti-heroes are alike. Characters in stories are dynamic, often switching beliefs and moralities. Anti-heroes are no different. One could fall just about anywhere on that chart, with the core exception of the two extremes that denote a “hero” or “villain.” It is entirely likely for an anti-hero to join the ranks of the series’ villains or “Big Bad,” but no matter where they fall on the spectrum, anti-heroes are still heroes.
Anti-heroes are complex. They are heroes, in a sense, and exhibit heroic qualities, but they are also selfish. This selfishness will often bring out the worst in them, forcing them to commit atrocities such as murder or theft, but their core ideals often push them towards making a selfless decision. Much like Shadow the Hedgehog, anti-heroes are not necessarily “good guys,” but they’re not against them either. At times they might oppose both a hero and a villain, but they will usually make the right decision in the end.
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