Yes, I'm serious, and no, it's not just that I'm rubbish at balancing a human hero. For the uninitiated, one of the first things you do in a Fallout game is assign points to various traits, like strength or intelligence, sowing the seeds of the wild-eyed Gibson-alike or dour Costner-ish post-apocalyptic legend you hope one day to become. I can never make my mind up about which development path I want my character to follow, and the franchise's taste for open-endedness doesn't exactly help. Take a wrong turn at the outset, and your budding petty thief might stumble into a shootout with foes she hasn't a gnat's chance in hell of ever hitting, let alone wounding.
But that's all surface stuff. The real reason I want to play a dog in Fallout 4 is that, well, people expect less of dogs, right? You don't have a moralising Liam Neeson (the third game's big celeb cameo) standing over you as you test your legs. You aren't called on to decide which of a given world's factions most deserve a rocket to the gonads, or sternly handed a bag of negative karma points when you saunter away from a person in need. Dogs have it made. They're creatures of abandon, cruising through life on a whim. And if the occasional urge to guzzle something's vomit is the price I have to pay for that pressure-free existence, well – Fallout is already a game in which you can drink from toilets. At least this way you can do that without compromising your dignity.
OK, so perhaps I'm not being completely serious. But lately I've really fallen out of love with playing the hero – by which I here mean a character who is the centre of a world's narrative, and the means of its destruction or salvation – in video games. That's thanks in part to Jake Muncy's excellent piece for VICE on The Witcher 3's leading man Geralt of Rivia, a reviled half-mutant who scrapes out a living on the fringes of society, rather than serving, like one of BioWare's protagonists, as its fulcrum.
As Muncy notes, the character's "odd mix of empowered and powerless" changes the tenor of what are functionally the same old role-playing fetch quests and monster-slaying missions. Villagers regard you with mistrust, even after you've taken care of the local Grave Hag problem. Kings and generals see you as naught but a handy instrument for work that's too sordid for a "proper" human being. Geralt's second-class citizenship ought, on paper, to be irksome and deflating, but in practice it's liberating. You aren't expected to save The Witcher's universe, even if that's what you end up doing, and the result is that you're more at leisure to attend to less momentous, more sympathetic things, people and events. A domestic squabble that spills out onto the street; a dwarf's attempts to rebuild following an arson attack; a bartender's gratitude when you talk your way through a confrontation with local toughs, rather than starting a brawl.
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For my money, developer CD Projekt RED could have gone further. Much as I enjoy whipping the head off a ghoul with a flick of my silver sword, I'd absolutely love to play the game as a simple travelling chronicler, paid to mosey through and soak up gossip without seeking to intervene. Or, if more focus is required, how about the role of a biographer? I completed The Vanishing of Ethan Carter recently, a game that sees you poking around a majestic yet eerie valley for clues about the title character's disappearance. Imagine if you had to do the same for old Geralt, with his taciturn manner, recurrent bouts of amnesia and professional interest in the haunts of trolls and werewolves.
In many ways, the industry's fixation with capital-H heroes is a mark of creative adolescence. There's nothing wrong with wanting to play as a potent, influential personality in a video game – certainly, The Witcher 3 is as close as I'll ever get to being Viggo Mortensen – but it's a little damning that so many games revolve around characters who only ever deal with the matters at hand in the broadest, most binary of ways.
Smaller roles may be no less gripping, and rather more enlightening. Look at Sunset from Tale of Tales, in which you play housekeeper to a man swept up in political revolution, or Warco, which casts you as a cameraman dogging the heels of troops on a contemporary battlefield. These are "niche", "arty" indie titles, of course; one mainstream parallel is the elderly Halo 3: ODST, which offers up its fair share of gunplay but also casts you as more of a witness than a protagonist. Where Halo's original poster boy Master Chief is your classic knight in shining armour, forever yanking our fat from the fire at the very last minute, ODST's Rookie always arrives after the last minute. He's there to reflect and take stock, rather than just to drive the plot forward. As in The Witcher 3, the game cultivates a sense of investment that's carefully tied to feelings of insignificance.
If nothing else, playing a bit part in a game is a ripe opportunity for comedy. Ever wondered how it feels to play the banter-dispensing ally in a shooter series like Uncharted or Gears of War? It'd be like walking a bellicose hamster through an obstacle course. You'd have to help the "hero" just enough in a firefight that they don't crumble for want of basic hand-eye coordination, while dishing out wisecracks and striving to draw your comrade's eye to story-relevant chunks of scenery. You'd also have to put up with a generous amount of friendly fire. On the flipside, you'd get to revenge yourself on the "protagonist" by standing in doorways, or innocently nicking off with loot and ammo. (This sounds like me thinking aloud – in fact, a few Dark Souls players have taken to modelling their antics in PvP on AI-controlled characters, purely for the lulz. This extends to wearing the same armour and mimicking gaps in computerised attack patterns.)
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There is a larger moral at stake here (sorry). The trappings of heroism aren't culturally neutral. It's common for those in positions of power to apply the "hero" label as a bulletproof shield, heading off critique of the people concerned and by extension, the political narratives they may represent. Call soldiers to account for their actions, or question the legitimacy of the conflict itself, and you're taking a pop at "our heroes" rather than merely objecting to unnecessary bloodshed. Moreover, the role of hero tends to denote a certain calibre of individual – white, male, heterosexual and hyper-aggressive. In refusing to invoke the term, developers might have an easier time pitching, or finding an audience for characters who don't conform to the Modern Warfare stereotype, with a view to collapsing the "hero" moniker's ideological baggage in the long run.
Or, you know, it could just be an excuse to play Fallout as a dog. There's a lively YouTube Let's Play tradition of assuming the role of a nobody – VICE contributor Andy Kelly is well-known for his Olaf series, for example, wherein he dons the sackcloth of a peasant eking out a pittance in the valleys of Skyrim. The popularity of such coverage suggests that video game narrative is to some degree playing catch-up to video game world design. What's the point of an environment of The Witcher 3's scale and splendour, after all, if all you're going to do is lord over it from on high? Perhaps sniffing at pools of sick isn't the most appealing angle, but I could certainly do with some time away from the spotlight.
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