Heroes generally fall into two categories: Marvel and DC. Just kidding, this isn’t that kind of article. I’m more talking about how heroes are usually portrayed as either a destined savior or just an everyman that happens to succeed (in the face of insurmountable odds and multiple real and/or pseudo deaths, but we’ll address that later). You’re probably more familiar with the two concepts than you realize; in just about any game that involves you defeating some world-conquering villain, you’ve played as one of these two archetypes. And given how many video games you’ve played in your lifetime, you’re probably a god damn scholar on the topic.
A pre-destined hero is one that—if prophecy or history or power from on high is to be believed—will succeed no matter what. So long as he makes an attempt and isn’t a total dum-dum, the hero will defeat the villain and save the universe or whatever. He may or may not survive the ordeal, but that’s not really part of the “success” qualifications anyways. He just needs to save his constituents as The One. Everything in his life has led to this moment, whether he knows it or not.
This is usually found in fantasy stories where a noble warrior with some hidden lineage must take the throne to fulfill his destiny or something along those lines. It can also happen in sci-fi, but since fantasy stuff is much more open to the occult, that’s usually where all this destiny stuff happens. Take for example The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. You play as a Dragonborn, an individual born of mortal flesh but with a dragon’s soul. By extension, he or she is able to speak with dragons and learn their language, which then enables them to use dragon powers. You, in particular, play as the prophesied one from Alduin’s Wall, a large sculpted mural depicting you defeating the World Eater (which is as bad as it sounds).
An everyman hero is something more about an ordinary person that finds himself in extraordinary circumstances as opposed to the extraordinary-on-extraordinary of destiny. This doesn’t necessarily exclude anything involving the supernatural; it’s just that the protagonist has to be just as likely to fail as he is to succeed since he’s not meant to succeed. He’s just some dude trying his best, and that’s the key.
Imagine someone along the lines of Nathan Drake. He was just some relic-robbing charmer with a sordid past, but he’s found himself in some exceptionally extraordinary situations. Hell, he fought zombie Spaniards and giant blue furry ape things, but he’s still no different from you or me. I mean, all right, he has seemingly infinite finger strength and an amazingly high bullet tolerance, but he’s still just some guy. He’s was never destined to be a treasure hunter or fight vaguely European villains. That’s just how his hand played out.
The important thing is that you can relate to that. Taken as an analogy or some less wisdom-imparting parable, we’ve all found ourselves in similar predicaments. We are by definition just regular people. As far as I know, no prophecies exist detailing someone reading a thousand words on video game heroes or anything, but we’ve definitely all felt pushed out of our element at times, pushed into doing thing we didn’t think we’d ever have to do or would need to do. It highlights the serendipity—the happenstance—of life because things just happen and we can’t control it. It’s relatable in that way and as it turns out, we like to relate to things.
Destiny is a bit…stranger in that way. We’d all like to think we’re destined for greater things, that those odd, random encounters were mile markers along your path, showing your progress to your future. It was all meant to be! That is a feeling that we can all relate to, wanting to believe you were meant for something greater.
But then somewhere along the line, perhaps at a certain age or a lifetime milestone, you realize that particular notion is a bit selfish. Perhaps you are destined for something, but that something just might be being the stepping stone for someone else who is on the way to making it big. That little nugget dawns on you—dwells and festers within you—and you begin to opt for the belief that there is no preordained life for anyone, that everything is up in the air up until the moment it happens.
That disenchantment is where destined heroes, the ones that can’t fail because everything in the universe is in cahoots with them to succeed, fall apart. We as players and human beings understand the feeling of wanting that to be true but nowhere do we tangibly appreciate anything of the sort coming to fruition. Worse yet, we eventually come to refuse (and possibly resent) that idea, leading us to refuse and resent the hero that we play.
If you look at Desmond Miles of the Assassin’s Creed series, you can find that entire arc played out. Desmond starts out as the present day ancestor to Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad of the High Middle Ages. Altaïr is a cold, calculating man with little in the way of character that helps us sympathize with him. We fall more in line with Desmond, a guy who just happens to have a valuable bloodline. A stroke of bad luck and he’s kidnapped for, well, something (it’s all very vague in the first game).
Once things begin to get a bit supernatural, though, we see that Desmond is destined for greater things. He is the man that can single-handedly save the world from a lingering cataclysmic event from the First Civilization. Ezio Auditore da Firenze, however, is for all intents and purposes a pawn. He is played but not necessarily destined for anything in particular beyond being a utility. Ezio then becomes the more relatable character and over the course of three games, we begin to drift further and further away from the preordained heroics of Desmond and towards the largely immaterial Italian nobleman. It was a combination of the fact that the role of Ezio is much more easily understood by us and that he’s a much more likable dude that Desmond. I mean, come on. He’s one charming rogue.
Assassin’s Creed III kind of cements the notion that we have been evicted from the Feels of Desmond and side with the history-pokers as most people find Connor still more appealing than Desmond, and Connor is kind of a dick. I understand he had a rough childhood and was betrayed a solid number of times, but can’t he at least just once thank Achilles? Or anyone who helps him for that matter. Altaïr was reserved by nature but it seemed like Connor was off-putting by choice. And despite this, we still side with the self-serious Native American over the destiny-ridden Desmond. Why? Because we find the preordained even less appealing than the dickish (mostly; Connor did have a fair amount of redeeming qualities).
Then again, it’s not always so cut-and-dry as this, nor is this emblematic of every story in video games (or books or movies). The one-man army shtick, for instance, falls somewhere in between these two archetypes, and favor falls all over the spectrum of relatable characters for that and the destined and the everyman. I’m just saying that the inherent storytelling qualities of the latter two fallout with relatability on the “just a dude” side of things, and since we like to feel like we’re understood and that we can understand things greater than our vocation, it’s a great boon towards likability as well. Hmm, maybe the Marvel and DC crack was more apropos than I thought.