Monday, April 24, 2006


Finally over the cold... bleah. Here's some thoughts on heroes in games.

I was reading this article. Although it's based on a deeply flawed theory, Clive Thompson (the author) seems to pull the truth out of the mire.

The question it asks is: when watching a slasher film, why do people seem to side with evil, then switch over at the end to rooting for good? Carol Clover's theory argues it has to do with sexuality and blah blah blah. She is, of course, entirely wrong.

Rooting for the "final woman" - the last girl standing in a horror movie - has nothing to do with sexuality.

It has everything to do with the underdog.

We root for the underdog. You have to make the underdog really nasty to get us to dislike him or her. The more hopeless the situation, the more we empathize.

In the beginning of the movie, the killer is the underdog. One man fighting against normalcy, shaking things up. This is probably also the reason the vast majority of slasher victims are incredibly irritating. At the end of the movie, the killer is the dominant force and the girl is the underdog. This is half obvious, and half camera tricks - we slide from portraying them as "the norm" to portraying them as "the underdog".

The last survivor is often a stereotypical woman because a stereotypical woman's "starting point" in our mind is pretty low when it comes to physical danger. A giant jock against a killer, not so much tension. A little cheerleader? Lots of tension. She's much more of an underdog.

Now, sexuality does come into play, of course. It makes us like her before we know her plight. It makes us pay closer attention to her. And, yes, it may make us feel a little protective. But the vast majority of these feelings are due to her being an underdog.

Don't believe me? Let's look at some examples from the world of video games.

Yorda, from Ico, is a girl, but not in any way a sexually attractive one. She's essentially a little blip of a waif. Yet we feel very protective of her. Because she corners the market on being weak and timid.

From the same line of games, Bob (okay, I don't really know his name...) from Shadow of the Colossus is a man. Not only that, he's a powerful one. He's got an awesome horse, a killer sword, and a grip that was never matched by gravity. He can take a hundred foot long stone pillar to the head and not die.

But we're rooting for him more than we ever rooted for Duke Nukem. Why? Because he's not fighting some little thing. He's not on the streets, beating up punks. He's fighting titanic monsters that are half level, half boss. The experience is very intense, and arguably even more so for the people just watching.

In Terminator 1, we root for the girl. As expected. But in Terminator 2 and 3, we root for the kickass robot. Why? because the kickass robot is the underdog in those movies!

It's a pretty clear pattern. The more of an underdog someone is, the more you want to protect them. The more you root for them.

This is a useful thing to remember, because it is one of the few things that holds true for the vast majority of humans. You can't count on everyone thinking someone is attractive. You can't count on everyone thinking someone is funny.

But you can count on everyone thinking someone is about to get their ass kicked. It's kind of a universal constant.


DGM said...

Interesting, but back in your April 2005 entry "Action Expanded" you posted another theory that seems to contradict this one.

Using the CRPG example of choosing between a healer and a warrior to put in your party, you claimed that it was the character's THREAT level that determined how much we valued a character and how much we'd want to use it. But now it sounds like you're saying that the LACK of apparant threat would make a character mean more to a player because that's who we'd most want to see triumph.

This doesn't really square with my observations. When I'm playing a game where I can recruit more people than I can use at once (Like KOTOR I/II or Chrono Trigger/Cross) I tend to focus on a few specific characters unless I have to use others for some reason. I never bring in somebody just because they're pathetically weak and I'm dying to see them dish out some pain anyway.

So how do you integrate these two theories?

Craig Perko said...

You have an amazing memory!

The two theories run in different scopes, although I'll have to think about how they resonate. Let me see if I can give an example:

In FF7, all the characters had pretty much the same combat powers. They were functionally interchangeable. Therefore, our perception of a character's "underdoggyness" and power is limited solely to their personality, plot, and dialogue.

In FF7, Aerith gets killed. People really felt it. We empathized with her because she was cute and nice and didn't deserve to die and couldn't do anything about it. She was not only the underdog, but also primed for us to care about her. Much of the game's early plot was created specifically to get us to feel for her.

Most people liked to have Aerith on their team, even though she was not significantly statistically different from, say, Yuffie.

Now, if Tifa or Yuffie had been killed, would people have felt as much?

No. They probably would have cheered for Yuffie's death and just been confused and annoyed by Tifa's. Despite the fact that these girls are more overtly attractive than Aerith.

In this game, we chose Aerith because she was the underdog - without actually lacking the power.

Being the underdog is strictly a story thing. It has nothing to do with actual in-game power. The two perceptions are entirely unrelated... although they do interact interestingly.

In most situations, their combat power determines whether you want them in your party. But if you had to choose between saving a soldier or a little girl with this party you've built, most people would want to choose the little girl. Most people would want to choose the underdog in that situation.

The question becomes: what if you knew that the person you saved would join your party? Which would you choose then? Would you go with your instinctive urge to master the game, or with your instinctive urge to side with the underdog?

Duncan said...

I think that the answer to reconciling the two ideas is much simpler. When we observer an underdog, we instinctively root for them. When we have a choice about who we want to be, we don't want to BE the underdog.

Being the underdog is not a desirable position for anyone. It is hard, scary, and threatening. It is much better to be the buffed up jock who can handle anything. It provides a greater sense of power, and therefore security. We are all about security.

Neither would you want to have the underdog on your team. Survival situations make us choose the best visible circumstances for survival. If we knew ahead of time that having the underdog would provide the only path to success, then they would be an instant choice. But without that foreknowledge, we would rather have someone more obviously useful. It's a snap decision we are forced to make. It also explains why we resent being saddled with an underdog-style character: they are no obvious use to us.

Of course, if we are observing a situation, or acting as an outside force, we tend to side with the underdog. It is not because we relate to them so much as it has to do with reassuring ourselves. If the underdog wins, overcomes all the odds and escapes harm, then we feel hope. Hope that if we are ever in a situation like that, where we are the underdog, we might have a chance to overcome. It's not a desirable position, we'd rather be stronger, but at least there is a chance (in our minds) of survival/victory.

We relate to (and root for) the underdog because if (when) they win, we feel reassured. But we never want to be the underdog, given the choice.

Craig Perko said...

A-ha! Yes, that's exactly what I was looking for!

That's how the two are connected. :)