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Thursday, 22 March 2012

Counting Grave-Stones: Reflections on Why Heroes Die

Sometimes, it takes a controversy about something barely related to inspire you. Originally, I had intended to do an entire post on the Mass Effect ending debate issue. I'm not even going to say the word 'spoilers', because at this point, given all the press, it's effectively moot. However, instead of a focus on the ending alone, let's get talking about the meaning of it.

Cue Fan Outrage: Unless You Kick Puppies (or Geth), Your Hero Dies.

In any case, the questions Bioware's writers stuck us with were inevitable but agonising. Should Shepard sacrifice himself for not only humanity, but all other species? Should you sacrifice an entire nation to save your own legendary hide? Is the Indoctrination Theory a legitimate idea or an attempt by fans to console themselves over bizarrely restricted writing? And, above all else, should we be enjoying the uncompromising finale or demanding they fix the strangely rushed and spiritually conflicted McGuffin-powered end?

There were some tears and long debates into the night while I considered the endings and their impact. More so, I marvelled at the emotional impact of the series. When people are so attached to a collection of pixels that they launch an all-out-offensive to save those pixels from untimely doom, one knows that there is no higher praise for one's writing. Bioware has been strong-armed into saying a few choice words about the whole fiasco, and those words, shock and awe, are formed in ways that suggest they will be tweaking things to make people happier. I'm undecided on my feelings about this--my inner child is happy that the hero may get a chance to ride off into the sunset, but the rest of me is debating about the ethics of the issue. There have already been some excellent writings on whether this is a precedent or just par for the course with a big company. There's no point in re-hashing more discussions about whether it violates the artistic integrity of the writers to change or add to the ending. This said, some interesting discussions about how much artistic control/integrity changes as a concept when you are involved in a large company have yet to be written...but that's a post for another time.

Now, where was I? Ah: the crux of the problem I have with the ending comes down to this. The unanswered questions are an issue, but above all, killing the hero is cheap. The 'Jesus' trope, also known as the 'sacrificial goat' archetype, stinks.


Problem, audience?

However, you can only sulk and cry for so long before you start thinking about why you're upset.

...And there I was, trying to piece together why it is that the death of a main character could upset me so much led to some hard thoughts. Back in my childhood, when the Matrix Trilogy was still being released, I recall a sense of agony surrounding the deaths of Trinity and Neo. Now I know that the reason this, and ultimately, Shepard's death and the death of all other heroes upsets us is that we relate to them and it's a 'facing your own mortality' issue. Of course, it's also not fun to realise that people you care about, fictional or real, will inevitably be dead and gone at some point. To kill off a hero not only subconsciously acts as a remind of this fact, it also forces you to go through the grieving process once you realise it has happened. Again, though it's an integral part of the life cycle, it's not cheerful and not fun--though it makes for some great art.

In addition to that, when you have a character with a legendary status or large amounts of power, the stakes are even higher than with the emotional connection. Abstract ideals and sometimes lives are at stake, often both. At this point, we go from experiencing an upsetting event, the loss of a person we care about, into loss of an ideal territory. A 'sacrificial goat', as my 10th grade English teacher referred to them, is someone or something that must be be given up, destroyed, or killed to satisfy a need or redeem a wrong. In Christian mythology, Jesus dies to compensate for humanity's sins, somehow delivering us from them by taking the burden onto himself. Prometheus, in Greek myth, is not killed, but having his liver pecked out by an eagle every day probably counts as some kind of sacrifice. You can also find more info about this and other tropes at the TV tropes site.

Heroic Sacrifice Trope

So...what's so wrong with the heroic sacrifice? Let's start with how it traps us into restrictions of Christian morality; apart from limiting plot options, it also sways the plot towards certain rules. Limiting human power and implying that power is an automatic sin is not a good idea. At best, it keeps most of us from seeking power in any way. I'll save the 'nature of society' rant for later, but in essence, the sacrifice issue keeps people from seeking elevation and information to better themselves. It also tends to suggest that only through sacrifice can errors and tragedies be amended. While giving up opportunities and losing lives in a war tend to be inevitable, it's not necessarily smart to imply that something is valueless or unattainable unless someone dies for it.

Source: Fark

He died for your sins, but he's cool with that, bro.

Then, too, heroic sacrifices lead to lesser evils such as cheap writing tricks. In the old days, if you had a hero, they would generally either be struck down in battle or join the pantheon--you know, a happy ending. Now, a hero with lots of power is generally either struck down in their prime by accident, kills themselves for the Greater Good, turns into a villain, or loses that power through a horrible accident, making them just like the rest of us. (When I say power, I should mention--this can be a magical power, superb intellect or physique, political power, economic or social power, or some combination of these.) In the comics, you have a lot of rise-and-fall plotlines, where a hero dies, is resurrected, gains more power, dies again, ad infinitum.

In games, endings tend to be dark for these heroes. And unless you sacrifice yourself, the moral compass of the story (whether a Greek chorus of villagers or the story writing) will call you on being a selfish asshole for not offing yourself on demand. Please note, too, that power will be granted only for as long as the story lets you have it, or as it is necessary to the plot. Once the conflict is solved, there is no chance to enjoy the power, use it to clean up the aftermath of the disaster, or even just learn to live with it. Oh, sure, the occasional happy ending will involve not killing the hero, but generally there is a ride into the sunset or this ending will cut off right after the climax, sparing the audience from having to watch the character die or deal with reality. If neither of these happens, the protagonist probably didn't have a significant enough level of power to count as a real saviour. And that, of course, is a problem in and of itself.

At the end of the day, much as life often requires us to give things up--time, energy, loved ones, careers--the Saviour idea makes this okay, and makes it easier to do these things as a matter of course. I'll leave all of you to chew over the other implications of that, but I will say that a lot of fans are rejecting the attempt to force at least one legendary character down this pathway. And that, at least, is a good beginning to lessening the domination of an idea that makes people think dying for a cause is necessary when a lot is at stake.

That's all the thinking I have time for today--don't forget to follow me here, on Twitter, at SciFiMagpie, and to comment and share! Soon, we'll be talking about dystopian fiction, then and now, about WordThieves, and there will even be some exclusive content teasers...and much, much more.

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