What is a hero? Should they be limited or limitless? Must a hero use any weakness as a device to then prove their otherwise infinite strength, or can a vulnerability be what makes them a hero?
It is not often we happen upon genuine vulnerability in games. Just this weekend, upon revisiting the world of Skyrim, rescuing everything in sight without batting an eye and feeling invincible, it wasn’t tough to notice that, aside from some glancing moments, we’re not often meant to feel anything but invincible in most games. It’s what makes video games such a wonderful escape, right? Step into the shoes of the Dragonborn, the one human (or mer) meant to save the world from the terrors of Alduin among a host of other problems waiting to be solved and situations in which we’re one of the few, if not the only, benefactor. Luckily, video games are not only fostering an escape, but also confrontations. We’re evidently not all Dragonborn in real life, so we should also start taking pride in what makes us valuable as human beings, in our wholly flawed nature, rather than only live out power fantasies (though I’m open to some of us being Dragonborn, by all means).
[Warning: Spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 1 and Depression Quest follow.]
It was most obvious in what became 2012′s Game of the Year for so many of us. An inevitable yet moving scene is set with Lee Everett staring death in the face, bitten by a zombie, and trapped in a store with Clementine. As Lee and Clementine confronted mortality together, it was clear that these two weren’t afraid to be less than “heroes.” Along with Clem, you set off into this world, handed your hero in Lee, then watch him succumb to the world he was meant to defeat like every other video game hero. It was as real and honest a moment in video games as I think I had ever felt to that point. Death wasn’t a plot point for Lee Everett, it was inevitable, just like for any of us. While I watched Lee slip away, I couldn’t help but feel responsible for Clem. Even in a moment where you may have chosen for Lee to make the noble choice and set Clem on the bravest path possible, it was still painfully obvious that they were both scared: Lee afraid for Clem and Clem for herself without Lee. Clem had to not only witness her birth parents shuffling among the undead, but now had to part with the one person who had been keeping her safe.
Few words in video games are more powerful than “Clementine will remember this.” It would have been all too easy to take over her body like any other power-driven video game and set out on her journey, happy ending in sight. Instead, we couldn’t help but find strength in the fatal weakness we share with Lee and Clem. There was a sense of pride in Clem’s ability to stay strong as she had to let go of her last living hero. She wasn’t fighting a dragon, she wasn’t saving a prince, she was simply fighting the feelings about death that haunt us all. That’s still pretty damn strong.
Without a doubt, the most powerful instance of vulnerability in a video game for me personally has been when I played the brilliantly crafted browser-based game Depression Quest. I’ve made it no secret on Twitter that I’ve struggled with anxiety; I’ve seen it interfere with my personal relationships more than the people involved ever deserved, and I’ve seen it spark some of the most ridiculously obsessive thoughts I’d ever care to share. Depression Quest felt like an accurate and honest exploration of decisions and thought processes for someone suffering from mental illness. It captured the helplessness of everyday life, when you wish so desperately to make the right decision but simply can’t. You know the course of action that a healthy person would take, but you know just the same that you’ll never take it. The entire game is an exercise in vulnerability for its creators and players.
One pane of text truly blew me away, though. As you start to recover from some of these symptoms by seeking help, from friends and professionals alike, you find yourself looking to open up. In my playthrough, I chose to open up to Alex, my girlfriend in the game. It seemed only reasonable she would understand. Little did I know that your character’s conversation with Alex would practically mirror what’s been possibly my most fragile moment with another human being. It was honest, but helpless. It wasn’t an appeal for help, but companionship. You both understand that this isn’t some choice, and we can all come up powerless against our own environment, our own brain chemistry even. As you pour out what causes some of these actions that aren’t quite “you” and every other explanation that accompanies living with mental illness, you finally end your side of the conversation with “I think it’s something I just have to live with.” It was nothing short of moving to read Alex’s next words: “Then I’ll live with it with you.”
There may never be a sentence in any form of media with more impact to me than that one in that moment. Not because the main character was relatable in some tangential way, but because I felt like I was the character. At one point in my life, I was the person plagued by the ill side-effects of mental illness who turned to someone he loved- not for an answer, or a solution, but understanding. They deserved the explanation. I felt as though I wronged them by acting outside of my greater interests, or fear they wouldn’t understand. After all that inner turmoil, when I finally unloaded that baggage, it was to the most kind, understanding, and thoughtful response I could have imagined. In the moment I suspected I would feel most weak, I felt cared for in my vulnerability, just as the main character finally cracked open at that moment in the game.
Your character’s choice of words after Alex’s simple and loving response was ”I don’t know how you could possibly love me.” For most of the game it was clear, as it can be for some suffering mental illness, that your character often simply didn’t believe he was loved, or even lovable. But when he ponders aloud how she could love him, he quietly makes a huge admission: he knows he is loved. For so many of us that shoulder the burden of mental illness, however fleeting the symptoms can be, it can be all too easy to believe you’re a flawed creature and unworthy of belonging and love. While the common choice would be to hide the truth and assume it’s unacceptable, in that moment of vulnerability, when he could have most easily been wounded, he was bravely taking a step most of us hadn’t considered taking even with our most closely cherished loved ones for fear of rejection.
So when I think of a video game hero now, I don’t think of the strapping young lad or lass with the larger-than-average sword and a destiny to fulfill or village/universe/member of royalty to rescue. I think of the character facing the toughest human issues we encounter every day: the mortal character facing death with ill-concealed fear, the character with mental illness facing a loved one’s potential judgment, or even the character who is simply forced to ask for help when met with their own inferiority.
That’s a hero we understand from the inside, not from a trope-riddled exterior. We may never be able to use the Thu’um (maybe my life’s greatest regret) or save the universe from imminent destruction, but if we all took the time to accept vulnerability as strength, maybe we could discover a bit more heroism in our own daily life. Sure, saving Skyrim from Alduin isn’t exactly easy. It’s no simple task confronting something that’s been bothering you, helping others to confront what afflicts them, or putting yourself out there so someone can give you a nudge and help you when you’re in need either. Our finest heroes aren’t invincible. They don’t respawn. Sometimes, they can’t bear to get out of bed in the morning. If we accept, or better yet embrace, our vulnerability and confront that which we cannot defeat alone or maybe at all, then we just might be heroes too.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” - Brené Brown