Tragic heroes have been a staple of storytelling for centuries. Countless figures have worn the mantle throughout human history such as Oedipus, Hamlet, William Wallace of Braveheart, and the more recent Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. But literature and film are not the only prominent story telling media in the modern age: the past few decades have seen gaming rise up to join them, itself possessing countless stories of heroism, bravery, love, loss, and further exploring the human condition. And where tragic heroes are concerned, video games are in no short supply. Be warned: this post will contain spoilers for several different games.
But for those wondering, what exactly is a tragic hero? First defined by Aristotle in his Poetics (yes, I did look that bit up :P), a tragic hero is one who displays great virtue, but also possesses some kind of flaw, be it vanity, overconfidence, being virtuous to a fault, you name it. By the end of their tale, our protagonist becomes prey to the consequences of said character defect and doesn’t experience victory the same way that a regular hero would. Or more formally, we could say they experience a reversal of fortune.
I’m sure many gamers can identify a favored tragic hero immediately. My mind goes quickly to the SNES gem of yesteryear Chrono Trigger and its silent lead, Crono. The stalwart Crono and his team invade the Undersea Palace of Queen Zeal in an attempt to stop her from awakening the apocalyptic entity Lavos. Their efforts are too late, however, and the heroes are forced to confront this monster head on. It quickly becomes clear that they don’t stand a chance of defeating Lavos: a being with primordial strength gained by nurturing the planet for millions of years to eventually feed back into its own power. With the fate of his friends on the line, Crono nobly sacrifices his own life with no hesitation so that his comrades can live to fight another day.
It was a turn of events I never saw coming when I first played through the game. Tears poured from my 12-year-old face at the time as I witnessed this hero I’d spent numerous hours with crumble into dust before the might of an unstoppable foe. This was the first instance in a game that I’d ever experienced the loss of a character, much less the lead protagonist of the entire adventure! I was shattered. And so I sat quietly with Marle, Lucca, Frog, Robo, and Ayla at the End of Time as they mourned their fallen friend and leader. Fortunately, as anyone who played the game knows, there is a quest line where the remaining team can further travel back through time and save Crono from his dark fate. Yet it doesn’t diminish his sacrifice in the slightest.
But this example is a classic one. By the numbers. Crono himself is a straightforward, silent protagonist who is fully committed to the greater good as he walks the path of a tragic hero. But as our society and morals have changed over time to suit individualism and personal idealisms, so have our stories also evolved to fit these sentiments. Many tragic heroes of the modern era would be much more appropriately named as “tragic anti-heroes”: people who seek to live life their own way, sometimes by less than noble means, and who often meet their destiny at the hands of a just cause rather than a malevolent threat. Sometimes it even becomes a mix of one corrupt entity overcoming another: a plight that is much more akin to our modern-day political landscape.
Some perfect examples of this modern approach to tragic heroes would be the rough and tumble protagonists of the Red Dead Redemption games: John Marston and Arthur Morgan. John’s inaugural foray into the American West saw him returning to a violent life on behalf of the United States government in an effort to protect his family, only to be betrayed and murdered by these same men at the story’s conclusion (although he does manage to save his family). Arthur Morgan’s tale brings us to a place before all of those events, showing us the kind of life that John Marston led in his past under the leadership of Dutch van der Linde’s gang while also expounding upon a conflicted protagonist who inspired John to flee the life of crime in the first place. Players are allowed to sway Arthur towards a more or less noble end based on their own moral actions throughout the story. The tale at large depicts Arthur as a man who is set in his criminal ways, yet who is also not cruel by nature and becomes conflicted over time about his place in a changing nation of laws. While he never really gives up on his vagabond lifestyle, he sacrifices his own life to get John away from Dutch and the Pinkerton agents on his tail and give him a chance at a better life with his family. He wasn’t overtly altruistic in his living, but Arthur dies for a noble ideal much bigger than himself and cements his place as one of my most admired characters in all of gaming.
Another twist of the modern age is featuring a tragic hero who is still alive despite their comeuppance at the metaphorical hands of their foe. While not inherently villainous, these fallen heroes are controlled by another entity and forced to do bidding that goes against their will. Artorias the Abysswalker of Dark Souls is a good example of this altered formula. One of the Four Knights of Lord Gwyn, Artorias ventured from Lordran to the distant land of Oolacile to battle against the Abyss and rescue Princess Dusk. But instead of driving back the Abyss, Artorias was consumed and corrupted by it after sacrificing his left arm and shield to save the life of his friend and ally, Sif the Grey Wolf. The player’s chosen undead is tasked with laying the Wolf Knight to rest once and for all when they venture through Oolacile themselves in the game’s first DLC.
The titular antagonist of Hollow Knight possesses a similar lore as Artorias, but I would argue that it takes the player’s sympathies one step further. Hallownest is an insect kingdom that is ruled by the Pale King and White Queen: two god-like entities. At some point in the game’s history, Hallownest is beset upon by an Infection that stems from The Radiance: a moth deity that is bent on taking the population for its own. The king and queen make an effort to combat this threat to their rule by birthing beings in the Abyss to that possess both of their own essences, as well as that of the Void, in the hopes that one could contain The Radiance’s influence. These creatures were called Vessels, created with the mantra “No mind to think. No will to break. No voice to cry suffering. Born of God and Void.” After thousands, if not millions of attempts, a Pure Vessel is finally created: the Hollow Knight. It attempts to seal the Radiance within itself and is locked away in the Temple of the Black Egg to further stymie the infection. However, its hold weakens over time. This is where the player comes in, as the Knight returns to Hallownest and is tasked with overcoming this fallen hero in battle, finally destroying The Radiance for good. But even in your victory, the Hollow Knight’s tragedy tugs at your heartstrings: in the later stages of the battle, the corrupted Vessel begins to display some semblance of its former opposition to The Radiance by frenziedly stabbing its own abdomen to aid the player’s fight against itself. Even though it was corrupted from within, the Hollow Knight’s will to do its duty was never broken and it died a hero.
Despite the moral flexibility and variety of motivations that drive these tragic heroes in their journeys, they are each appealing in their own right. The reasonings of why exactly we attach so strongly to these individuals has always fascinated me. At a base level, it is because we identify with their positive qualities despite their flawed nature: the same nature of every human being on our planet. These aren’t heroes who live perfect lives and overcome insurmountable obstacles with no struggle: they are beings like us that try their hardest to live life the best way for themselves and their situation, yet still fall victim to their own flaws, shortcomings, and obstacles. John and Arthur’s insistence on a life of violence eventually caught up to them. Artorias and the Hollow Knight both fell prey to their own overconfidence in trying to conquer an omnipotent foe on their lonesome. Even Crono, with his love for his friends first and foremost, challenges Lavos prematurely and cannot conquer its pressing might with the meager strength he possesses at the time. Despite the fatal repercussions, each of these heroes exhibits choices that the player is able to see, understand, and empathize with thanks to the context of the story.
And this is why tragic heroes are incredible: they teach us about living. Their stories outline the importance of living a good life and not falling prey to our own personal character defects. I’m not suggesting anyone aim to be perfect, as flaws are simply a part of human nature: it’s when we give our shortcomings control that they can drag us down. For me, it’s anxiety that tears me up from within if I leave it unchecked. Others battle with depression. Addiction. Loneliness. It’s up to us to persevere through these struggles and continue living life to the fullest no matter the odds against us. Never let your personal challenges dictate what you can or can’t do. Don’t become the tragic hero of your own tale.