Heroes wanted. Exciting new opportunity to wrestle vast swaths of abandoned real estate from the clutches of all-consuming evil. Must appreciate architecture, fine decor and highly varnished surfaces.
Ideal candidate will have previous experience wandering through empty city blocks and smashing wooden crates.
People skills not required.
Unless those people are shooting at you.
And happen to be aliens.
And you’re able to shoot back with some vague degree of accuracy.
Oh, it’s freelance too – so no sick pay for you, buddy.
Hey, the Romans didn’t have it – and they built a goddamn empire.
It had people in it, too.
So, those meatbags thingies – where are they, exactly? A post-apocalyptic hair appointment? A funeral? Actually, that’s the most likely answer with all “everybody’s dying and stuff” situation going on.
For the longest time, though, it’s never been clear exactly why we should save the world. We know we have to save it, of course – but for whom? Everybody’s scarpered, and you’re the one left to pick up the post-apocalyptic bill.
But the question is: why do we so often spend time saving derelict buildings from the clutches of intergalactic, interdimensional evil?
On the face of things, there’s two reasons: people are polygons. Polygons you can’t shoot, polygons that don’t shoot back – polygons that, really, aren’t all that fun. And in a resource-limited environment, fun-free polygons have to go.
‘People’ are an infamously dodgy mechanic, too, with escort missions often removing agency from the player and into the hands of some AI with insatiable death wish – and a hankering for a bullet to the face.
And that’s fine. Problem is, I don’t really feel like a hero. I’m a hero, my buddy’s a hero, my buddy’s buddy’s uncle is a hero. Ergo, I don’t really feel all that special. I can pew-pew all day long and never feel like I’m much different from the average Joe.
Because when ‘average’ means the ability to dispatch infinite Evil without as much as getting off your couch, being truly special requires Norris-levels of competence.
I, an authority of absolutely nothing – a claim still dubious at best – call this the ‘Heroes’ problem, in which the protagonists spend so much time with their superfriends that they seldom save, you know, actual people.
And like the ill-fated television show, everything descends into ‘Brookside with super powers’, with not a person rescued or tree-climbing cat retrieved.
So, while you’re venturing into all-consuming darkness – with your clock on the brink of the ‘unpaid overtime’ – you might be haunted by the feeling that this is all a bit pointless.
Destiny, too, has this problem, as it drops players into an abandoned Earth environment – not unlike its predecessor. You can’t escape the nagging feeling, though, that you’ve arrived at the afterparty to find that those sausage-on-a-stick things have all gone – you can’t escape the feeling something’s missing and that the best bits have been nibbled at.
The usual fix: make the environment a means to an end in saving a very particular person. But again, even with Destiny 2, you’re paying a visit to a set of people who, even in their weakened form – or hell, their weekend form – can still lift with the best of ‘em.
Perhaps, then, it goes back to the idea that we can’t truly identify with things on such a large scale – so why bother attempting that connection? I can conceptualise the suffering of my grandma’s dog getting his nuts cut off – but not the suffering of a million people being catapulted into the abyss of an endless oblivion.
When my dog’s nuts are on the line, caring comes easy in the form of escorting a singular NPC or going point with a shit-chatting squad. In the case of Destiny in particular, ‘people’ are supplanted by ‘property’, with all that love and care for your fellow man replaced by love and care for that really, really big gun.
To the credit of myriad post-apocalyptic set dressers, though, these environments feel lived in. It’s clear post-fall Earth used to be the humble abode of people now six feet under.
But this is where ‘video gamification’ renders its ugly head: even with myriad folk to save, they’d likely just be means to an end – a way of collecting loot or wracking up points.
So, film – even TV, with its more intimate, episodic format – struggles with ‘peril perspective’: the simple inability to make you give a crap about the people you’re saving, despite that supposedly being your sick pay-less job.
BioShock’s audio recordings, as odious as they might seem now in their over-use, gave us the option to delve into the more human element of its dystopia. Those sausage on a stick things may’ve bolted, but at least the developers left you some crumbs on which to feast.
Mass Effect, though, is a platter of mass genocide delight, for lack of a better term. The Reapers wanting to play a game of ‘interplanetary ten pin-bowling’ is perhaps the largest instance of video game mass death. This was seemingly accomplished through assigning numerous species-specific representatives to your squad, transmogrifying billions into one.
You cared about them, they cared about their species and, by extension, you cared about their species, too. Nice one, BioWare.
So when dealing with death on such a colossal scale, it might be an insurmountable limitation of the human psyche – too many people to die is too many people to know. If we don’t know them, or, on such a scale, can’t know them, it becomes almost impossible to care.
And it’s for this reason we assign a specific identity to tragedy – a figurehead for the fallen. A lone youngster newly orphaned or a haunting photograph of someone in their final moments. We can’t perceive mass suffering, so we assign that suffering to a sole individual or small collective in its stead.
For our many, many limitations, maybe that’s all we can ever hope to achieve. All the more so when caring about the people we spend time with seems to be a challenge unto itself.
And you know, caring about that really, really big gun is actually quite fun. It won’t tuck me in at night – and it certainly won’t put the kettle on – but it’s as a compelling a reason any to keep on shooting, even without sick pay and flexi-time.
The Romans didn’t have either, and they built a goddamn empire. It didn’t have really, really big guns in it, though.