Locating Videogame Heroes: a Comparison of Jason with “Michael”

Erudition and intertextuality are recurrent themes in Hellenistic literature. Both place higher demands upon the reader–that he or she have a certain level of cultural literacy–than any Classical literature prior to it. The final lecture of this semester’s Sunoikisis Greek Literature course, led by Norman Sandridge, explored a few examples of modern cultural productions which require varying degrees of prior knowledge for a viewer or listener to “get it.” The first song, “Baby It’s You” as performed by the Shirelles, represented one extreme of self-contained simplicity and universal comprehensibility. Another extreme was represented by by an adaptation of “Walk Like an Egyptian” performed by a parody Bluegrass band called The Cleverlys. Among the viewers present at the performance, several different groups may be discerned. There were elderly country folk who, we may reasonably suppose, had never entered a nightclub, who had spent all of their adult lives in rural Tennessee. They would have approached the song just like any other bluegrass song performed by a “serious” band–they weren’t “in” on the “joke,” the humorous stylistic and cultural contrast between a song by The Bangles and traditional folk music. Although they might have enjoyed the song, they would not have realized that it was an adaptation of a famous rock song. Another group would have had no prior knowledge of The Cleverlys  but would have nevertheless recognized the song and enjoyed both the quality of the performance  and the quirkiness of the song’s stylistic transmogrification. Yet another group might have known about The Cleverlys and their style in advance and would have expected the kind of transformation inherent in such a performance. The experience of all three would have differed slightly based on their level of cultural knowledge.

Like comic books in the 90s, early videogames were preoccupied with violence and featured interchangeable heroes with exaggerated masculinity and physical strength; the entire industry relied upon the patronage of only one demographic: teenage boys. Also like comic books, they drew upon the rich stock of heroic archetypes and narratives in popular culture to frame their narratives, which usually centered around a black-and-white struggle of absolute good versus absolute evil–there were many important exceptions to this rule, but until the turn of the century, this trend was prevalent. Unlike comic books and other non-interactive forms of entertainment, however, videogames made the player a direct participant in the narrative. In Double Dragon, the protagonist Billy Lee represents both a predetermined set of variables in the game’s script and graphical interface and the role of an avatar which the player takes control of whenever he plays the game. Billy Lee becomes Billy Lee/Michael or Billy Lee/Jane. He responds sometimes to pre-determined commands in the game’s code, other times to the choices of the user.

At the end of Professor Sandridge’s lecture, the class watched a video on YouTube which a student had submitted for a class discussion of modern comparands to Jason from the Argonautica, who is often thought of as a compromised or only partially adequate hero. The video depicts the meeting of several iconic videogame heroes in a cabin in the woods. As each makes his or her (yes, videogames have come a long way since the 80s) entry, they praise the heroism, diligence, or leadership of someone named “Michael.” Michael, we discover as the camera centers on a portrait of a boy hanging on the wall, is a gamer. He is absent from the action despite playing the most important role in its execution; he is both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it. Jason, as  has been frequently discussed in this semester’s course, sacrifices his own autonomy in the narrative for the good of the Argonauts as a group; the center of his identity is more collective and shared than individual and unitary. He makes decisions that diminish his own standing, which seem to benefit other heroes. The video also linked up with our discussion of intertextuality; one must recognize that all the characters in the video are from famous video games to understand the point it is making.

In literature, drama, and film, the reader–or listener or viewer–is only a passive observer and, although he may feel deep sympathy for the characters and their struggles, he has no personal stake in their outcomes. In videogames, the user becomes simultaneously viewer and participant–the identities of the characters whose fates he controls are momentarily bound up with his own. Like Jason in the narrative of the journey to obtain the golden fleece, Michael is only a partial participant in the videogame narratives he engages with. He is the under-acknowledged leader who only partially occupies the heroic traits valorized by the narrative’s discourse.