026: Everybody Loves a Hero

Bidding the space adventurers a good journey, our heroes explore what it is about last stands and struggles against oppressive forces that makes a great hero.

Games mentioned in this episode about heroic tropes:

  • 5:49 Final Fantasy
  • 9:24 Mass Effect
  • 11:18 Legend of Zelda
  • 16:51 Lord of the Rings
  • 17:05 Castlevania
  • 19:04 Metroid
  • 21:10 Halo
  • 22:47 Mega-Man
  • 28:04 Sonic

Introductory Guy  

Welcome to design thinking games, a gaming and User Experience podcast card-carrying UXers Tim Broadwater and Michael Scofield examine the player experience of board games, pen and paper role-playing games, live-action games and video games. Play through the backlog on your podcatcher of choice and on the web at designthinkinggames.com.

Tim Broadwater  

Very soon, it is going to be Independence Day, July 4, 2022.

Michael Schofield  

What a year to celebrate, eh? There’s something fun about it, the fireworks. The bravado is fun, and the mythology around it is fun. And I don’t know, I think it just sort of happened that, Oh, no, July 4 happens to be one of our release days. We saw that it was coming up. And you and I started throwing shit around and stumbled on what I think is a really common explorable trope in storytelling, especially video games. We started this chat going, hoorah.

Tim Broadwater  

Specifically, July 4, in the States, is Independence Day. The movie Independence Day came after the holiday. And it commemorates the Declaration of Independence. It has a lot of historical contexts, but it’s become the celebration of victory, right? Not just honoring and celebrating heroes, but the victory of heroes. And so, we’ve started talking about how people love victory and heroes. And, and so I think that’s where we started talking about, wow, there’s something here that this hero trope or the hero, or the underdog and what they have to face. And then this is not just in films and books but in games.

Michael Schofield  

We’ve just started to deconstruct some of our favorite Americana. And, we identified a pattern we see throughout games, across all genres, namely that there’s a recipe for this specific heroism where the world is on the brink of destruction. When I think of Independence Day, I think of that time when aliens attacked. Sometimes the world is literally on the brink of destruction. Everything is on the line. And, there’s a, a ragtag chosen few who will make the difference wresting this idea of freedom from some sort of oppressive force or circumstance. 

And you can name any media out there, from fiction novels to video games, to movies, where there’s sort of an unambiguous choice. The heroes aren’t always great, but you always side with the heroes because they have to save the world. The alternative is no world. And, once we identified that trope, it became pretty fun to cherry-pick all of our favorite games that fit well in there, and we ended up with a hell of a list.

Tim Broadwater  

It’s too big for one episode. And so, we were looking at it from exactly what you said, which is what is this recipe well, he said everything’s on the line, the world is on the brink of destruction and, there is a chosen one or a chosen few who can get the job done. And save the world, save mankind, save existence, save sentient life, whatever, right? And it’s always at the stakes are at the highest: freedom, genocide, extinction of life, as we know it, whatever metaphor or trope you want to tie to it.

Why do people like Lara Croft? Or why do people like Cloud from Final Fantasy? Or why do people like Link from Legend of Zelda? Or Megaman even? So we started looking at, for this to really work in games are not really work because it does work. But what the player experiences from the game side, and I guess we’re really focusing on this episode moreso of video games, not tabletop games, or other games, but from the video game perspective. 

Tim Broadwater  

I feel on the part of the player, you’ve put sunken tons of hours and effort into grinding for this epic struggle, and you’ve been attached to the story, which pulls you in, right. And there’s a right cause or a moral cause attached to it. And then with all that story, everything is on the line, and at stake, and you or the player or players you control, when you beat the game, it just is this phenomenal experience.

Michael Schofield  

This sort of trope could be applied in a really cheesy way. But of course, the list we started generating is full of examples of where it worked really well. The first component is that the game begins in the shadow of certain death, or there’s impending doom that can be avoided but is always present. Right? It’s always on the horizon. It’s always it’s always there. 

Under the guise or the under this looming threat, all the other interactions in the game feel a lot sweeter.

There’s this funny fantasy RPG trope where, oh, no, the world is literally going to end, but first, you need to help make all these deliveries. I think about all of the interactions that feel sweeter because they’re time-limited, or they’re literally gate-capped, but it’s the notion that everything happening here is under threat. And so it makes even these kinds of little potentially it could make these little quests feel better it makes the relationships you form along the way sweeter.

Tim Broadwater  

There is this humanizing piece that you’re talking about where, whatever the looming threat is, the evil presence will taint the land. Gannon from Legend of Zelda, yeah. But it is the human or humans, or if it’s an animal, or if it’s an alien species or whatever, but the humanizing effect of working together, collaboration, helping someone, so they will help you building alliances, that’s the building allies and building strengths and tools to, everyone has to pull together, right? To fight this oppression. And sometimes, the hero or the group of heroes facilitates that with small quests, as you call it. 

Michael Schofield  

The cadre you alluded to before where is an important component. This existential threat is that it’s big enough to force unlikely alliances. For the first time that the hobbits and dwarves and elves find themselves, on the same side, or, or, or something that, or, the states band together, or, the societies come together, the species come together, but But you’re right, there’s this, this coming together, this unifying aspect of, of maintaining, or, surviving a way of life or a way of being that is really, it’s the embryo in which all the story happens, everyone’s coming together, because, oh, no, this thing on the horizon is really that bad.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, in Zelda, it’s literally the humans and Zelda, or aliens, right. And they combine, and they work across the aisle, or collaboratively with the Zora, the watermark for people, the Gorons, the mountain people and the DEQ, who are the plant or health people, right. And so it takes them not only working together but helping each other or even assisting link with. This item will help you on your quest because we know that Ganon is this evil force that will eventually destroy the forests and the mountains in the seas. And so we will help you, ally with you, and back you because the risk is that great, right? Total Annihilation or total destruction of the world.

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, yeah, it’s really interesting. Well, because there’s some aspect of existential threat. We acknowledged the existential threat that unifies forces. This is true, and in a zombie flick, however, I think there has to be, however remote, an element of hope that the existential threat can be overcome.

Tim Broadwater  

Exactly. That is completely abandoned, and zombie films, when you’re watching Walking Dead or zombie films, it’s survival. It’s not hope. It’s let’s just try to survive as long as possible. Exactly. That’s always the construct of zombie films or just this automated horror or this virus, it’s just, you’re just trying to we’re not banding together to save mankind. It’s we’re just trying to survive as long as possible. And to me, that is not a hero.

Sal, Ron, from Lord of the Rings for your fantasy reference, power control, subjugation, slavery, all of these, it’s just core evil, I think of, Dracula, and Castlevania right to where it’s he is spreading evil across the land. He will turn everyone into his vampiric minions or their food. I mean, that is it. And only the bell lots the famous vampire hunting family you can and can enter him.

Michael Schofield  

I think you raise a great point, so it’s not only that the existential threat has to be winnable. You have to overcome it because the existential threat is deliberate. There’s nothing deliberate about the zombie horde. It’s a virus that spreads, and you’re screwed, right? But the but Dracula is a deliberate evil. What you said about the Belmonts, though, is that was something that I think works in interestingly, a way that this trope can be made a little bit unique in that it’s not really time-limited. So. So something the Belmonts, you can resist vampiric evil over generations, but I think it’s resisting an existential, a deliberate, intelligent, existential threat. That is a key component if it’s not intelligent. Or if it’s not deliberate if, for whatever reason, you’re fighting capitalism, it’s not the same thing. Right. It’s an existential threat, but there’s no, deliberate subjugation there.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, so I think there’s definitely a part to defining what evil is. But then, from the hero side, I think there’s always this underdog aspect, right? You’re just one elf and boy, or you’re just one little hobbit, or you’re just in the case of Metroid to take this genre and apply it to sci-fi Santa Saran. You’re just one female bounty hunter. Yeah, how are you going to save the galaxy? From this alien race Sigourney Weaver-style by killing the metroids, which literally thrive? Their existence is sustained by draining the lifeforce out of every sentient living being so that they cannot be allowed to stand, but how can one person do it? And there always seems to be, how does the Master Chief get empowered? How does Megaman get empowered? How does Samus or link or Lara Croft, I know we even talked about even from a warfare construct, how do Solid Snake and Metal Gear get empowered to be able to save the world from nuclear threat, right? And you have to not only have this crazy backstory and be an underdog, but then you have to, along the way, work with people to get items level up and become the Savior that sentient life or humanity or the galaxy needs.

Michael Schofield  

The underdog role is spot on because how did the Colonials overcome the British Empire? To that end, you throw Master Chief, and I often think of Samus and Master Chief, Doom guy, all in the same thing because they are effectively faceless heroes, right? Master Chief one is interesting, though.

Tim Broadwater  

I don’t know much, to be honest, about Master Chief. My understanding is that they’ve used some alien tech, but he’s genetically engineered, or he’s a super-soldier like how Captain America is a super-soldier.

Michael Schofield  

Somehow, Master Chief is not the underdog. Master Chief is the best of everything. Right? And so there’s something there that’s missing.

Tim Broadwater  

He’s a specialist, like Solid Snake is that for Metal Gear. He is literally the best.

Michael Schofield  

I guess that’s true. Right? So, maybe it’s the idea of overwhelming force, overwhelming odds, or one of the big narrative elements of master chief that I always liked is the brief tangent on Spartans and then the Halo franchise, but they are engineered there. They’re basically stolen as children genetically engineered, rigorously trained fatally, only a certain percentage even survived the training, data data, augmented with extremely expensive top-of-the-line armor, and, then oftentimes, given, accompanied by artificial intelligence.

Tim Broadwater  

I wonder if that’s the Sci-Fi swear because what you just described, Samus Aran is the best bounty hunter in the universe, right? Yeah. And then, for Mass Effect, the Shephard is on a special track to become a secret agent of the galaxy or whatever.

Michael Schofield  

I can’t remember the name of it.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, Megaman. Also, from the Sci-Fi perspective, the world is being taken over by giant evil robots from this evil person. And so we’re making a robot savior who, when he destroys robots, can absorb their power and use it for himself. 

Michael Schofield  

The threat scales with the hero, right? So even if you have a master chief who survives many encounters that you probably shouldn’t have, it’s still against the overwhelming threat to the entire civilized galaxy. And it’s still a by virtue, it’s still, it’s still an underdog story.

There’s something that’s more underdog about Shepherd than Master Chief, or even more and more underdog about Mega Man. Right, that I think, I think if we were to model the impact, there’s probably something in that formula about distance, power gulf between the threat and the hero, the further they are apart. 

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, I think there’s definitely, an underdog. There’s definitely the only hero, but the person who is also so skilled at what they do, they’re the only person who can pull it off. Right. And then I think there’s also this Captain Planet or Avatar The Last Airbender. We have to change people’s minds and hearts. We have to convince different tribes to work together. To understand that this is, we have to fight together against this epic evil. All of them are heroes, all different flavors and genres, maybe in different backstories or specialties or underdogs, or maybe they’re empowered because only the chosen one can pull the Master Sword right from, and that is the one that high rule, the goddess of high roll thinks will save solid defeat Ganon and only lake can do that. And so I think one of the other things we started talking about were different types of heroes, right? Which was the unsung hero versus the chosen one. Versus a bland, a band of plucky adventurers thrown together to try to pull it off.

Michael Schofield  

Or a band of Inglorious Bastards? Who aren’t lucky at all, right? So

Tim Broadwater  

yeah, we’re the failed hero or the antihero? Batman, dude, Batman is dark AF, right? He is Spawn or the Punisher. And sometimes, the only way you can get the job done is just to be as brutal as the evil force now. Those are not world-changing things, but there’s definitely something to be said about an antihero.

Michael Schofield  

How important is it in this trope that you can identify with the hero? Because there are spectrums of ability to identify with, maybe it’s easier to identify. Let’s take a Batman because he has no powers?

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, someone who would be branded as evil was a vigilante or someone unsafe, a vampire-werewolf but or something, but we’re a demon or, but does well with our power. So I think people just the thing that we landed upon and the reason why we wanted to talk about this episode, really, it was people love heroes, and I don’t care what type of gamer you are, what type of fandom you support. The hero is something that any player can get behind, right? No matter what form, maybe it’s a brutal antihero, or maybe it’s the fantasy elf who’s the chosen one, or maybe it’s the Sci-Fi space hunter, but it’s people who love a hero. People love to love a hero and also from the player experience side when you’re playing the hero when you’re playing a cloud from Final Fantasy, or you’re playing even a comedy swerve, which would be a Super Mario Brothers or a Sonic or something or Ratchet and Clank something that’s just ridiculous. People love overcoming that evil force or brink of destruction where everything is on the line, and they love that reward, I think, from when they succeed.

Michael Schofield  

Yes, they do. If you want to be a hero in someone’s life, consider subscribing to our Patreon at patreon.com/designthinkinggames, where you can help needy card-carrying UXers continue to produce this show every day a card-carrying UXer goes hungry.

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Tim Broadwater  

And if you’re listening to this and the day it releases, it’s July 4, And you are a United States citizen. Try and enjoy it with friends and family. Have a happy and safe July 4 Independence Day.

Introductory Guy  

Thank you for listening to the Design Thinking Games podcast. You only have so much time, and it means a lot you shared it with us to connect with your hosts, Michael or Tim, visit Design Thinking games on TikTok, Twitch, and Twitter. DMs are open. You can also check out designthinkinggames.com, where you can request topics, ask questions or see what else is happening. Until next time, game on.

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