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Editorial: Reign Of The Antiheroes

A few days ago, I wrote a blog highlighting the television shows I enjoy watching. As I dissected my fascination with Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and a handful of other dramas, I realized most of my television viewing is about horrible people who do horrible things; the antiheroes of primetime.

I was a little alarmed by my discovery, and decided to hold off on publishing the blog until I explored the television landscape more. That examination evolved into an all-encompassing look at all of the entertainment I digest and crave. As I discovered, much of it centers on the antihero.

I’m not alone in my appreciation of entertainment starring corrupt politicians, bank robbers, spray paint-huffing sickos, and gods who want to de-limb other gods.

Grand Theft Auto V, a game that focuses on three different murderous antiheroes, raked in $1 billion in sales in just three days. Breaking Bad won this year’s Emmy for “Outstanding Drama” for its bleak tale of an ordinary man who turns into a meth-cooking monster. Even the children’s film Despicable Me 2, which pulled in over $850 million in the worldwide box office, places a prototypical villain in the spotlight, creating humor based off of his nefarious actions.

The breed of antihero I’m the most captivated by is a surprisingly common mold: dark in concept, but relatable on an every day level.

The scribes behind Dexter Morgan know his show wouldn’t be engaging if he were just a cold-blooded serial killer. They go well out of their way to humanize him. He has a wife, children, a loving sister, coworkers that seem like great people. Outside of the “Dark Passenger” in his mind, he’s painted as an ordinary antisocial. For me, the most tension this show delivers is the fear of the people close to him finding out who he really is.

Another carrot that writers dangle in front of their respective audiences is the belief that many of these characters may see the error of their ways and redeem themselves in some capacity. Part of me watches Breaking Bad wanting Walter White to become the kingpin of crime. The other part of me wants him to get out of the business and return to a normal life with his family. From the moment that show turned ugly, I hoped for a happy ending for Walt and all involved. That dynamic kept me on the edge of my seat.



Grand Theft Auto V’s protagonist Michael De Santa explains the emotional conflict antiheroes face in a conversation with his therapist. “I want to be a good dad, love my family, and live the dream. But at the same time, I really want the other stuff too." It’s a nice thought, but in Michael’s story, the criminal element dominates the human one. He’s abusive to his family, and their thoughts of him throughout the game echo mine. The persona he projects is more that of criminal than a father, and I think he’s a less interesting character because of it. His fantastical criminal repertoire is the only aspect of his character that I like.

Michael’s cohort, Trevor Phillips, steals the spotlight. He’s abrasive, profane, Joker-esque in how he handles his business, and always seems seconds away from ending a conversation with a bullet in someone’s head.

He’s the main player in the contentious torture scene, not balking at the chance to inflict pain on someone else. I felt uncomfortable controlling Trevor’s hands in this moment, but didn’t question his involvement in it. Up to this point, his entire story focuses on hurting others for his own sick gain. Torture fits his persona. If you haven’t played through Grand Theft Auto V yet, you may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph for the sake of spoilers. After Trevor extracts the needed information from the suspect, the FIB washes their hands of the deed, suggesting Trevor dispose of his body however he see fit. What does Trevor do? He lets him go. This little act of kindness, which is still handled in an unsettling and maniacal way, gives Trevor a different pulse than most leads. He becomes even more of a wild card than he already is. Not knowing exactly what you’re going to get from a character is great drama, and reason to stay invested in his or her arc.

Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead knocked this concept out of the park with protagonist Lee Everett. When players first meet Lee, he’s chained up in the back of a police car. He clearly did something wrong, but thanks to the untimely arrival of the zombie apocalypse, we don’t find out what it is. The question of “is he dangerous?” hangs over him like a storm cloud.

This narrative hook can grow in intensity if the player ties his or her beliefs to Lee’s actions. The Walking Dead, like many video games, gives the player a degree of ownership over the protagonist through the choices that are made for him. Mass Effect's Commander Shepard is another great example of a character whose morality is sculpted by the player. My Shepard often did the right thing, but occasionally got blood on her hands for what I believed to be the greater good of the universe.

Not too long ago, Batman was viewed as a poster boy for antiheroes. Frank Miller’s depiction of this character in The Dark Knight Returns changed Batman’s image, giving him a much darker edge than we've seen before. This vision of the caped crusader is still used today, but when you hold up up to the new crop of antiheroes that have emerged in all forms of entertainment, he almost looks as virtuous and squeaky clean as Superman.

Entertainment providers are using shock factor to lead us into the worlds of antiheroes. I don't go into many of these stories expecting to be greeted by a goodhearted character. The allure is to follow a disturbed, controversial, and/or outlandish character through a life I know I will never lead. All of the humanizing elements usually come well after the first introduction.

Companies are taking more chances, and that's a big reason why entertainment is better today than it has ever been. That’s not to discredit the leaps we’ve seen in each respective entertainment field. Across the board, writing and technology are much improved – opening the door for experiences we couldn’t even fathom a decade ago. The antihero isn’t a new archetype, but we are seeing a much broader range from it, and that's mostly due to the audience being hungry for it.

Depending on the content you absorb, the antihero may not even be on your radar. I enjoy plenty of entertainment that places the hero or good people in the spotlight. For the time being, they aren't in the mainstream spotlight. The world's current obsession is with the bad boys of entertainment.

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