Being a Hero is Hell


By Kyle Derkson

If heroes actually exist, being one must be hell.

The Master Chief, taken as a child for the sole purpose of creating a super soldier,  Spartan 117 was bred for the function of threat neutralization.

We first meet our Halo franchise protagonist on the Pillar of Autumn, a ship on its way to explore a strange ring like object in space with an atmosphere capable of sustaining life. The Master Chief is cryogenically frozen, awaiting his chance to put his years of training into action once again.

When we near the end of this saga, Master Chief is once again cryogenically frozen, as Cortana explains, when humanity needs him again, she will wake him up.

We love our heroes, our saviours. We see them as just, fighting for the virtues they hold against all odds to make the world better. However, we fail to flip the coin to see the other side, our heroes are messier than we imagine.

One trick pony

Past epochs introduced us to the epics of Troy and Beowulf, depicting their protagonists in this same mold. Achilles, perhaps the greatest warrior in all of Greece, whose only weakness was his ankle and Beowulf, out of all the Scandanavian bad asses sitting around in their mead halls singing about past victories, Beowulf is the only one capable of neutralizing the threat of Grendel.

These are heroes who are created from the beginning for one purpose, killing. When they are not serving this purpose, they are either not in the narrative or are aimless.

Time to do that thing you do.

In the up and coming film “The Man With The Iron Fists,” Russell Crowe’s character has a line in the trailer referring to his violent acts as pleasure, and his promiscuous behaviour with various women as business. We don’t like to identify ourselves with our jobs, but our hobbies and pleasures. Like Crowe’s character, violence is part of our heroes’ identities.

Dehumanized villains, heroes

In the cases of Master Chief and Beowulf, the villains are not human, but are humanoid. They represent a form of irrational anarchy, something that is rarely seen in real world. Villains to this same extent on such a large scale, but is a threat that is generally uncontroversial.

But enemies are not to be reasoned with, leaving two options for the protagonists, fight or die. Of course, this sort of villain never lasts very long. After the death of Grendel, Beowulf and his Scandinavian comrades face the threat of Grendel’s mother, now seeking revenge for the death of her son.

We begin to sympathize with the Arbiter and the rest of the Elites of the Covenant, realizing that the issues at hand are not as clear cut as we had initially assumed. We can stop here and conclude that we are dehumanizing our enemies and the war is simply unjustified, but that neglects to acknowledge the intricacies at play within our ideologies that allow for such intimate forms of violence such as a physical war.

At times we also see a side of our enemies that is very human. The Illusive Man struggles when Shepard tries to persuade him with his Paragon abilities. At this moment, we see uncertainty and struggle in an enemy, not pure inhuman irrationality. We see this side of the enemies we create, yet negotiations fail, and in order to bring about utilitarian or deontological ethical conclusions we are required to fight and kill.

A hero without opposition

In most first-person shooters, the campaign mode is very linear: there is a threat, the protagonist addresses and defeats, and then the game is over.

At the level heroes exist, they are given very little choice. Typically a war has already begun or there is really no stopping a strong opposing force, leaving them with no option but to fight back regardless of the humanity seen in the enemy.

Yet what is a hero without opposition? Narratives rarely address what is happening in the life of a hero when there is no opposition, but instead depict them like the Master Chief, MIA or cryogenically frozen when not required.

All hero, all the time.

When we do see this mundane side of a hero in a film or game, their lives suck. John McClane can yippee-ki-yay all he wants, but it doesn’t really help his relationship with his wife. Essentially, heroes don’t exist except for the repression of what we perceive to be evil, even if, as I’ve said, we see the human side of our enemies.

There is never a winner in a war, not even our war heroes come out unscathed but by the time our heroes are needed, there is no other option on the table. I don’t think games ever romanticize war or violence, I think they romanticize our heroes.

Part man, part machine

In a sense heroes are part of a machine, incomplete and useless without the other side of the equation, an enemy or oppressor to conquer.  The easiest form of violence to portray is physical violence; at least, it is the one we feel most guilty about engaging in.

There are times when video game violence is horrific, unnecessary and without cause, yet there are times when we see our enemies as human, we see our heroes as requiring oppression to fully function, and we can come to understand that even “winning” a war sucks.

I think this is probably why people hated the original ending to Mass Effect 3, it’s realistic, we can’t control everything and wars have a high price.  Without the quest to defeat the Reapers, Shepard serves no function in his current human form, thus leaving him with the most logical option of death after completing his task.

Because what is a hero if there’s no one to save?



Cohen, Jeffrey. Medieval Identity Machines. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Zizek, Slavoj. Violence. New York: Picador, 2008.


2 Responses

  1. ThirteenthLetter

    December 6, 2012 3:07 pm

    “I think this is probably why people hated the original ending to Mass Effect 3, it’s realistic, we can’t control everything and wars have a high price…”

    Yeah, no. People hated the original ending to Mass Effect 3 because it was incoherent, nonsensical, full of plot holes, and ran against virtually every major theme previously brought forth in the trilogy.

    • Kyle Derkson

      December 6, 2012 5:10 pm

      Yes, there are plot holes and inconsistencies. All games have these, this isn’t the point. The primary reason I’ve heard that people hate the ending is that it isn’t what they want, there’s no choice, which I’m assuming is one of the themes your referring to. No one has the capacity to go out and choose everything that happens in their lives, some things are dictated to us, just as they were dictated to us at the end of Mass Effect, it’s realistic. The mass relays are destroyed, Shepard is dead, and it seems as though every race has to start from scratch even though you’ve won. Yea, it’s pretty shitty. But it’s a game whose premise is taking down the biggest threat to the galaxy ever, yet we expect to win and have a happy ending. We may like this more, but it’s not what the game did, and it’s not relevant to what I’m trying to say. We like to partake in war games when the endings are nice and clean, or just rough enough that we sympathize with the hero a little, but we know that overall the world has been saved. The whole point of this article was that even winning a war sucks, and being a hero sucks more. Mass Effect 3 demonstrates this precisely for the reason that generally everyone is unsatisfied with the ending. It’s a war; it’s not supposed to have a satisfying ending.

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