I have never met a person who can do what most video game heroes can do. Can you endlessly jog, climb, dive and jump whilst carrying multiple high-powered firearms, grenades, ammo for everything, take several direct shots from often experimental alien plasma weaponry and yet, somehow, maintain laser-like precision for half-mile sniper shots?
I can’t even run up the stairs and then type accurately on my phone.
Many video games make the hero explicitly transhuman, as in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, in which the character’s transhuman condition is not only essential for explaining his ability to cloak and receive transmissions directly into his mind, but is also a central plot point. Then there are the more obscure transhumans, like Halo‘s Master Chief, a result of the SPARTAN project, placing him in a class of genetically engineered super-soldier permanently inside cybernetic armor. However, Master Chief is still something of a robot, forever hidden behind his golden visor. It’s the ostensibly flesh-and-blood heroes who possess superhuman stamina and survival that contradict everything we know of a standard Homo sapiens. Even Commander Shepard of Mass Effect has psionic abilities due to her exposure to element zero and becomes more heavily cyberized as the series progresses, giving her spectacular abilities.
My two favorite examples are Half-Life‘s mute M.I.T. graduate, Gordon Freeman (pictured above with full load out), and classic noir anti-hero, Max Payne, whose eponymous game drove him through a 72 hour bender of blood and revenge. What struck me about these games is that they do not simply accept that the hero of a video game is superhuman because the game says so. No no no, here we see something of an admission that this is not quite reality and that this impossible human being whose shoes we are filling and barrel we are aiming is something more than we initially understand.
For Gordon Freeman, two things are working in his favor. The first is his Hazardous Environment Suit (HEV Suit). In addition to being bright orange and making an iconic chirp when warning its wearer, the HEV suit both protects and heals the wearer, given sufficient energy. It also gives Gordon a boost in strength. Though it cannot explain away his ability to carry an arsenal sufficient to burden a platoon, it does at least help us understand how he can shlep more than any one of us. Second, Gordon is, well, unique. He has caught the eye of the G-Man, an inter-dimentional agent convinced that Gordon will help “fix” the problems we see besetting humanity. Whether Gordon had this potential to begin with or his exposure to anomalous materials resulted in his special condition is never explained. The point, if one can be drawn at all, is that Gordon is not a mere scientist in extraordinary circumstances, but is instead a man augmented by a cybernetic suit and an exceptional experience. It takes more than a crowbar and a degree from M.I.T. to stop the Combine.
Perhaps most self-aware is Max Payne. Max is, for the bulk of the game, simply portrayed as a man who must kill and cannot stop because the rage will not let him do otherwise. The clarity of hatred keeps a perpetual flow of adrenaline and endorphins surging to his muscles and mind, preventing fatigue, pain, or fear from slowing is slaughter. But then we learn Max is not so ordinary. Unbeknownst to him, he was exposed to the Valkryrie project, designed to make super-soldiers who experienced no fatigue, had supreme fighting skills, and who could survive impossible amounts of damage and pain. The cocktail of hormones in his blood, released by grief and fury, mixed with the subtle chemical lurking in his veins unleashes the one-man-army that is Max Payne. Suddenly the game is self-aware, with Max pontificating on how he hadn’t even stopped to use the restroom. No sleep, no exhaustion, no hinderance from injuries, just incessant violence thanks to a special substance he never knew was inside of him. A chemical enhancement that explains everything.
I should add a caveat to this post’s title: just because the most realistic video game heroes are transhuman doesn’t mean all transhuman heroes are realistic. Earthworm Jim is a vision of cybernetic enhancement, but somehow I just can’t place him in the bucket labeled “believable.”
Like anyone, I’m happy to suspend disbelief and just play the game. But I can’t help notice transhumanism when I find it.
Bioethics is controversial.
No one endorses the ideas or concepts explored here, not even me.
You will develop a strong opinion about something you find here. I want to hear it. Philosophy is a conversation.
popbioethics [at] gmail [dot] com
Long Form ArticlesWhy Mass Effect is the most Important Science Fiction Universe of our Generation