Antihero Exposed My Privileged View of Heroism

Antihero challenges us to consider how our view of heroism has been shaped by our perspective and our privilege or lack there of.

Written by Mike Perna / Published on August 30, 2017

Long before I had the vocabulary to understand what an “antihero” was, I was interacting with them in video games. In broad strokes, an antihero is a character central to the larger narrative that doesn’t have any of the usual characteristics we normally associate with heroes. For instance—vampires had always been monsters to be killed—until I roamed the halls of Dracula’s castle with the vampire Alucard. The thought that a character could take heroic actions while still being less than heroic stoked my curiosity. They were somehow more human, and that made them more approachable. So when a game claiming tactical movement calling itself Antihero crossed my path with its hooded, dagger-wielding protagonist—that old fire rose up inside me. His name was Lightfinger, and he was going to have me further questioning the concept of heroism. The criteria by which we judge our heroes is neither as clear or as universal as I had once thought. Even to call someone an antihero may be missing just how heroic that person is to someone who sees them in a way I never could.

"As I see him, Lightfinger is stealing and murdering his way to power on the backs of brutes and the hopes of the disenfranchised. But he doesn’t live in my world."
You enter this turn based game as Lightfinger, the master thief of a thieves guild in a land reminiscent of Victorian England. Initially your guild can only perform certain jobs. Lightfinger relieves homes of their valuables, your urchins—local orphan boys—watch over local businesses and churches to keep an eye on them and press them into your service, and your gang wanders the streets taking out undesirables. As you progress, your crew will grow in size and skill. Thugs grow your gang or make sure only your people can pass them. Saboteurs set traps for other guilds trying to invade your territory. Truant officers round up your opponents’ urchins and locks them up. Finally, assassins—powerful, one-use contracted units —assassinate targets.

If describing the function of these units has not sufficiently solidified that Lightfinger is less than admirable, let me tell you about how you win. Each round of the campaign has its own goals, but players will also be required to do some combination of nefarious deeds. You can send your urchins to churches until they find enough info to blackmail the priests, bribe local officials, or assassinate targets wandering around the city. Each of these actions constitutes one point toward victory and your growing dominance of the city. You will do each of them multiple times, and you will have to take pains to ensure your opponent’s guild doesn’t do so first.

Watching the game over someone else’s shoulder, it may be hard to see how there’s any level of heroism here. You are a collection of despicable people doing despicable things to other despicable people before another group does equally terrible things. It’s only when you watch the interconnecting story, played out in a series of animated comics, that you see something courageous unfold. It’s here that you meet Emma, a young girl Lightfinger takes on as his apprentice. In a later mission, Emma takes on the role of master thief. Without going into too much detail, this campaign isn’t so much Lightfinger’s story as Emma’s. It’s when we look at Lightfinger through Emma’s eyes that we see his heroism. When we first see Emma, she’s on the street begging or stealing anything she can just to have something to eat. Lightfinger gave her a chance to step out of that.

The world Emma lives in isn’t our world. Everyone in her world, without exception, is corrupt, ruthless, and uncaring. Her world consists of murderers, manipulative officials, and traitors. As far as she’s concerned, Lightfinger didn’t tempt her into a life of riches and greed. He taught her how to navigate a world that would press her under its boot without blinking. Living in our world, Lightfinger doesn’t make sense as a hero. This man hires children to do his dirty work, protects his property with high explosives, and rallies armed gangs to walk the streets in his name. We wouldn’t be cheering for him. We’d be gathered around our televisions to hear the news of this madman’s capture in a daring raid by special forces . As I see him, Lightfinger is stealing and murdering his way to power on the backs of brutes and the hopes of the disenfranchised. But he doesn’t live in my world.

In Lightfinger’s world, there are no shining champions. There is no such thing as a hero who can rescue them all from their existence. There is only the guild and a hope that maybe they may be able to carve out some sort of existence if they can hone their skills. He is collecting up the forgotten and the wayward of a broken city. He isn’t consolidating his power as much as he’s forging a family that will support and protect each other. And when Lightfinger retires, he will leave this family in the hands of the woman he trained to be for them what he was for her. Much like the same legends of Robin Hood could be used to paint him as savior or demon depending on your lot in life, in Emma’s eyes, there is no “anti” in front of hero when she speaks of her mentor. She remembers the man who found her on the street, gave her a home and a family she didn’t have before. She sees the man who saw something in her. A natural talent that showed potential. She saw a man betrayed by those he thought he could trust, and a man who refused to let that betrayal destroy what he had built. I can’t disregard Lightfinger’s crimes – can’t forget that his blade is far from clean. But I can force myself to look past what would otherwise make him a villain, and try to see through Emma’s eyes for a while.

About the Author:

Mike Perna is a storyteller and player of great games. He is the founder of InnRoads Ministries and cohost of the Game Store Prophets podcast. email: Twitter: @mikethebard / @innroads