It’s probably no shock to anyone who knows me that I like heroes. Big damn heroes, in fact. Larger than life, and I vastly prefer the true-blue, good-as-can-be type over the grim and gritty type. Don’t get me wrong; I can enjoy reading Punisher comics, and Dirty Harry can be a fun thing to watch. But overall, I prefer heroes that have more in common with Superman and Captain America than I do with Frank Castle.
This goes doubly so for my playing characters in games, either video games or tabletop RPGs. I like to play games where I am given a moral choice – and I will almost always take the heroic, Lawful Good, Upper Left Blue option, because that’s just how I feel most comfortable. I’ve tried to play games where I am the bad guy, or just a jerk; in the original Knights of the Old Republic, for example, you didn’t have to play a good-guy, Light Side Jedi – you could go full on Force Lightning, maniacal laughter Sith. But when I tried doing that… it just felt wrong. I felt like I had done something bad by choosing that path, even though I know it’s just a fictional game and it isn’t actually me choosing to do those things. But I can’t play Grand Theft Auto games for that reason – it makes me feel really uncomfortable to commit all those crimes, even on fictional people in a fictional city. Even in the Mass Effect series, where your choices are less good and evil and more good cop, bad cop, I overwhelmingly prefer to go the good cop route.
Maybe it’s just something about the things I had ingrained in me while I was growing up; maybe latching on to characters like Sturm Brightblade, Druss the Legend, Captain America, Superman, and other fictional character cited as paragons of virtue permanently altered the way I see things to make me feel bad about doing bad things even to fictional people. I don’t know, and I don’t know that it is really possible to find out. And it isn’t to say that I don’t like other characters – my favorite movie is, after all, The Crow (the original with Brandon Lee, not any of the sequels), though even he has a pretty strong moral center. I’m perfectly capable of playing, say, a bounty hunter living on the edge in a Star Wars game – my main character in the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO is a bounty hunter, in fact, though he’s as Light Side as I can make him. That makes sense, at least to me, because the Star Wars universe has a very strange kind of moral outlook, especially along the Jedi/Sith angle, which I have talked about before.
But generally, when given a chance in a fantasy RPG, I’ll pick something pretty strongly good. My general preference is the paladin class, which is sort of a holy warrior; it’s gone through a lot of variations over the years of D&D history, including a period with a strictly enforced moral code that often led to DMs intentionally luring players into situations where any choice they made was the wrong one (known as a Kobayashi Maru test for those of you Star Trek fans reading). It also tends to lead to some players choosing, by playing a character who should be a paragon of virtue, to be instead a character who follows the letter of the law, not the spirit, and generally makes the game unenjoyable for other players. I kind of hate both of those, because I see the paladin as a holy warrior, yes, with a very strong code of morals, often put in place by his or her fictional deity. But I also see the paladin as someone who is not there to force others to adhere to his code of conduct; he is not a recruiter, but someone who chose, or was chosen, for his path. He should be an example of the best his deities followers can be, even if this might get him in trouble – though hopefully not too often with the other members of the party.
See, I know I have a strong sense of what I consider good and evil. And on some points, there are objective cases where those are inflexible, barring edge cases brought up for purposes of Devil’s advocacy – murder, rape, slavery, those are things I feel pretty safe in labeling as evil across the board. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, helping the less fortunate, loving those around you, protecting those weaker than you, are all examples of things I feel relatively safe in calling good. But in between there is a big spectrum, and things have to be evaluated objectively a lot of the time. Thievery is bad, yes, but if I steal to feed my family when I have no other options but to starve – am I doing evil? I think a lot of what we see in morality is evaluating things and actions through our own moral compasses. What is good for me is not always good for you. While I feel uncomfortable doing bad things in video games, I have no problem watching other people play the same games and do bad things. While I want to have a society that is more on the side of good, I also realize that morality isn’t always a black and white, binary idea.
So my favorite heroes are the ones who won’t turn towards doing the morally grey or the generally evil when things get tough. Arguments about the needs of the many overriding the needs of the few always make me uncomfortable – in a recent video game, I had a companion in my group who ran a small mercenary company, all of whom I’d met before and thought were decent people. There was one mission where my companion – who was an emissary from a powerful civilization who would be a great help to me in my fight against evil – had to make a choice: aid his civilization and let his friends die, or aid his friends and alienate his people. He turned to me for help making the choice, and, feeling that at the time I needed his people’s help, I told him to let his friends die. And that really bothered me afterwards. Was the help I got from his civilization worth the price he and I both paid in allowing people we cared about to die? Would Captain America, or Superman, or Sturm – or Michael from the Dresden Files, or Paksenarrion from The Deed of Paksenarrion have made the same decision?
I don’t know, because none of them are real. But I do know that those are the people I will most often look to for direction on morality and heroism, because they are the ones whose strong sense of morality – and generally being good people – I value. I’m a Christian, yes, and I also value the ideals of Jesus and what he tried to do and teach in his lifetime. And I think that, in some ways, they are all following the same path morally. I can’t imagine Jesus looking at any of those characters – especially Michael, since he is Christian himself – and thinking they are bad examples to follow. So while Frank castle can be fun to watch, he’s never going to be someone I look to for guidance in any form. Well, unless I’m looking for a good machine gun.