Pop culture goes through cycles. It’s called the zeitgeist for a reason; nothing remains the same forever. Tastes and conventions and cultural influences change on an almost regular basis. Fads come and go in fashion, children’s toys, and, somewhat surprisingly, narratives. The stories that people tell are very much informed by the world they live in because those, in some way or another, are the ones that people want to hear. They may not know it, but the things people desire feed back into the things that are given to them through art and agriculture and so much more.
The clearest example is the almost immediate success of Captain America as a brand new comic book property back in 1941. It was a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor but a year after the war started, so when the first issue landed on store shelves and showed Cap socking ol’ Adolf in the jaw, selling one million copies almost seemed inevitable. It was what the people wanted, so that’s what they got.
It’s not always so obvious, though, what sort of influences current national and world events have on the movies and books we watch and read, but they’re still there. It’s not always going to be as blatant as Rolland Emmerich making a movie called 2012 that’s about the impending 2012 phenomenon; sometimes it’ll be as subtle as the types of heroes being portrayed to us. Some of the most popular movies in the past decade have featured antiheroes because we as a country feel very antihero-ish. “Morally dubious” could sum up the entirety of the United States’ foreign policy since the start of the Iraq War, and the whole world seemed to follow suit in nuclear threats and deterrent flexing, energy and population bargaining, and so on and so forth.
Watching stories similar to our own find resolution was comforting. It inspired to believe that a happy end was possible, even if it wasn’t in the same sense as the new king and queen living happily ever after or the hero riding off into the sunset with his recently rescued damsel in distress by his side. So we embraced our glut of antiheroes in our movies and television shows.
Video games followed suit. True enough, the industry has always had its fair share of Byronic heroes, but it may have all culminated in this past year. Two of the largest and most respected developers put out two of the biggest and most well-received titles this year, and they both feature antiheroes. (They’re also both just big ol’ escort missions, but that’s a topic for another time.) Irrational Games put out BioShock Infinite with protagonist Booker DeWitt as a former Pinkerton whose hands are caked in an ivory crimson blood and lingering in puddles of gambling debt and addiction. Naughty Dog just recently released The Last of Us, a game that features a man named Joel who tells a little 14-year-old girl to let of her morals or die and seems to come from a life bent on putting that axiom to good use.
SPOILER WARNING: I won’t go into plot specifics, but there will be light spoilers for The Last of Us (I figure BioShock Infinite has been out long enough to where spoilers don’t matter) regarding Joel’s characterization and personal traits. So if you consider those to be precious enough to the story—and they kind of are—maybe return to this at a later date.
With Booker, you get everything you need to know about him from the first story impetus: “Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt.” Well, heroes don’t 1) “bring” people to ominous pronouns but rather rescue them from said clutches, and 2) they don’t have debt. Traditional heroes are upstanding, morally right, and shining examples of what it means to be a good person. Just based on a note we find on a door to a lighthouse, we already know Booker is none of those things. I mean, he does do some hero-ish things—including one of the trope-iest things you can do as a protagonist at the end—but that doesn’t make the person an actual hero, just someone who happens to do something heroic.
Joel is a bit more complicated. He starts, as far as anyone can tell, a good man. He has a house and a daughter and doesn’t appear to be making money by killing people in his basement or slinging rock on the street corner. He just does honest work in a town in South Texas. Or at least he did until the Cordyceps fungus breaks out and infects humans and ruins the world as we know it.
But 20 years later (like 20 seconds later for the player), we find that Joel has changed. He is feared by many, his name spoken only in hushed tones in safe areas. At first we question what has changed in him and if he’s even the same man we knew before, but it slowly becomes clear that he almost definitely isn’t. He’s a killer now, if it isn’t evident by the trail of blood in his wake as he moves Ellie from location to location. But he’s proficient at it and experienced. He knows Hunters—groups of murderous folk that trick and trap “tourists” for the sole purpose of killing them and taking their clothes, food, and whatever else they have—and how they think because he used to be one of them. He shows no mercy towards them and little compassion to even those he knows like Bill. Once again, not heroic.
Perhaps most of all, though, is that neither Booker nor DeWitt exhibit the single greatest quality of a traditional hero, and that is confidence. In a traditional story, the hero only suffers a crisis of conscience once just before the climax, but at no point through BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us do Booker or Joel show anything resembling an abundance of confidence. And I don’t just mean that they know they are capable of doing what they mean to do, but rather that they sure about what they’re doing. Every action and word is tinged with desperation and doubt.
Both men seemingly irrevocably missing their daughters and both men wary of taking another young female ward. Both kill by the drove and, while protecting the lives of their charges, do nothing to protect the youth of them. You can tell they want to, but they don’t. They’re unsure of their actions and their aim. Leaving aside the moral ambiguities of killing hundreds and hundreds of men and pursuing two of the most tragic stories told in recent memory, their lack of clarity of intent is what makes them most like antiheroes.
That is still reflective of our personal experiences on the world stage. No country seems particularly assured in its steps, but unlike these video games, those problems are still ongoing. The resolution is missing in real life, but the finite ends to these digital narratives are as close to a warm embrace and a pat on the head as we’ll get.
But it seems as if a shift is occurring. From the anti to the anti-anti, the zeitgeist may very well be moving beyond the Bookers and the Joels of our stories and back into the untainted good. Instead of a drunken and salacious Iron Man, we go back to the perpetually morally right Captain America. Instead of a dark and brooding Batman, we aim for the otherworldly iron constitution of Superman. The new antihero, the new symbol of counterculture narratives, is the plain vanilla hero.
Look at last year’s game of the year contenders where a story about a wandering fellow that can quite literally do no wrong in a beautiful landscape of sandy dunes and snow-capped mountaintops went head-to-head with a man, on his way to prison after being convicted of murder, must take care of a nine-year-old recently orphaned girl in a zombie apocalypse. Consider that one of the bright spots at this year’s E3 was Hohokum, a Sony indie game from Frobisher Says! that’s all about exploring its non-linear, visual beauty. Have we moved beyond the antihero and started to make the transition back into the undying adoration of the hero? Are we done with the dark and the indifferent of the Byronic? The answer, it seems, is as ambiguous as their morals.