• Heroes in video games don’t always win – some are destined to face tragic outcomes due to rigged fates beyond their control.
  • Characters in games like
    Red Dead Redemption
    may be caught in unwinnable situations, with sacrifices necessary for heroism.
  • The journey in video games can lead to complex moral choices and an exploration of free will, showing that heroism comes with a price.

The standard Hero’s Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell, usually follows a protagonist from a mundane background whose life is disrupted by unusual circumstances. The journey typically involves developing skills and facing trials that allow them to eventually triumph against an overarching antagonist. This nearly-universal format has been seen in literature, mythology, theater, television, film, and video games. The interactive nature of a video game goes well with the hero’s journey, since it provides a good starting point for the player and gives them the satisfaction of building themselves from the ground up. With a well-written protagonist, the player will want to keep moving forward and see them continue to overcome further challenges, and when the hero has been through a lot of pain and suffering, it is immensely satisfying to see them finally come out on top.


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Sometimes, writers like to shake things up a bit. Sometimes, the hero can’t win, at least not in the most obvious sense. Maybe their enemies really are too powerful. Maybe the cost of victory is just too high. Maybe sacrifice is the only way forward. Or maybe someone rigged the game against them. Whatever the reason may be, the hero was always doomed to their tragic fate. This can be a powerful tool for storytelling. Finding out the hero will die, or at least be in a worse state than they started, can shape a character arc. It can add a sense of urgency to their goals, or open the door to self-reflection as they try to figure out how to use the time they have left.

Spoilers Ahead For All Games Listed

Bioshock Infinite

You Never Had Free Will

BioShock Infinite Elizabeths

Bioshock Infinite

PlayStation 3 , Xbox 360 , Microsoft Windows , macOS , Linux

March 26, 2013

BioShock has always been interested in asking questions about the existence of free will, having explored its relationship to video games in the original game. The strange follow-up Bioshock: Infinite takes this to another level. Ex-pinkerton Booker DeWitte gets dragged into the sky city of Columbia, where he has to help a girl named Elizabeth and fight a cult built out of the worst parts of American history. His journey through Columbia involves encounters with robot presidents, jumping between realities, a giant biomechanical bird, and a pair of “twins” who are actually the same person. Amidst all the chaos, a major theme becomes apparent: Booker has no agency. With a few exceptions, his path has been set before him, and he is unable to deviate from it. In fact, the Booker controlled by the player is one of thousands of Bookers from different realities who have gone through this exact same sequence of events.

It eventually turns out that antagonist, Zachary Hale Comstock, is an alternate version of Booker, whose entire existence is contingent on one choice that happens in every timeline. The only way to get rid of all versions of Comstock is to kill all versions of Booker DeWitte, something that has been set up to always happen. The Burial at Sea DLC goes further with the idea, with another version of Booker also being set up to fail, and die at the hands of a Big Daddy.

Heavenly Sword

Being a Hero Will Cost You

Heavenly Sword Nariko Cropped

Heavenly Sword

September 12, 2007

Hack and Slash

Before they became known for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Team Ninja made the God of War-inspired hack-and-slash Heavenly Sword. This PS3 exclusive was a fantasy adventure centered on Nariko, a warrior who must wield the titular sword against the forces of the tyrant King Bohan. The sword is immensely powerful and versatile, working with several different fighting stances and even having a ranged function. The thing is, its power is a lot more than any mortal can handle. While this has attracted many over the years who wanted to claim its power for their own, it works by draining the life force of its wielder. To carry the sword is a task meant for a hero who will sacrifice themselves for good.



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This puts Nariko in a tough situation when she becomes the new wielder of the sword. The in-media-res opening establishes that her death is a foregone conclusion, even using it as a framing device for the rest of the story. Although she does manage to bargain for a little extra time to ensure Bohan’s defeat and save Kai, Nariko still has to let the sword claim her life.

Modern Warfare 2

You Were Just A Pawn In A Bigger Scheme

call of duty modern warfare roach alex theory

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009)

November 10, 2009


Call of Duty is no stranger to throwing its characters into seemingly hopeless situations. Sometimes there really is no winning, or the biggest “victory” anyone can hope for is just getting out in one piece. Yet the campaign for Modern Warfare 2 was never going to end well for its playable characters, two of whom are actually set up to fail. This is thanks to the actions of General Shepherd’s true goal of starting a war with Russia. First, he sets up Private Joseph Allen with an undercover assignment in Makarov’s terrorist organization, ostensibly to gather intel and save lives. Instead, Allen has to participate in an airport shooting only to find out that Makarov knew his true identity all along, presumably having been told by Shepherd.

Later in the game, Gary “Roach” Sanderson ends up being executed as a “loose end” when a supposed intel-gathering mission turns out to actually be a cover-up. While Price and Soap do manage to kill Shepherd, they are unable to stop his plans going forward, and end up becoming international fugitives.

Red Dead Redemption 1 And 2

Death Is The Ultimate Fate Of An Outlaw

Red Dead Redemption 1 and 2 John Marston Arthur Morgan

Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption

May 18, 2010

Rockstar San Diego

The Red Dead Redemption games love stories about characters dealing with unwinnable situations, and this comes up in both titles. In the first game, John Marston is captured by government agents and coerced into hunting down former members of his old gang. He knows the Pinkertons will hurt his family if he doesn’t comply, so he has no choice but to go along and hope that he is eventually let go. Of course, these guys give the player every reason not to trust them. That distrust pays off when Agent Ross finally has John killed. The prequel game, Red Dead: Redemption 2 also indicates that Ross had a far more personal motivation for everything (possibly wanting to avenge his partner Andrew Milton) and was never going to just let John go. He was set up from the beginning in a game that was always rigged against him.



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Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2

October 26, 2018

Red Dead Redemption 2 follows suit with Arthur Morgan, an outlaw who gets to witness the gang he sees as family fall apart around him. The situation only gets worse as Dutch’s poor choices keep digging them deeper, putting them in an increasingly precarious situation. Furthermore, it’s revealed that Micah was feeding information to the Pinkertons, ending any chance of escape. As if most of the gang being doomed wasn’t enough, Arthur Morgan’s fate is finally sealed when he learns he is dying of tuberculosis, having contracted it from a sick farmer back in Chapter 2. The reveal makes an already cynical story even bleaker, as it becomes clear there is no good ending for Arthur. He is at least able to use the time he has left to make things a little better for some of his friends, but even that is only a partial victory when one remembers the events the first game.

Spec Ops: The Line

You Tried To Be What You Are Not

Spec Ops the Line Captain Martin Walker Colonel Konrad Cropped

Spec Ops: The Line

June 26, 2012

Yager Development

Third-Person Shooter

Yager’s cult classic is an unusual example. Most entries on this list see the protagonist doomed by factors outside their control, but a big part of Spec Ops: The Line’sbrutal critique of military shooters is the way protagonist Martin Walker actually dooms himself by charging in without understanding the full picture. He keeps trying to do the right thing, but every attempt to be a hero just keeps making things worse.

Walker’s recklessness and his tendency to quickly jump to conclusions in the name of “helping” leads him to shoot white phosphorous at civilians and help the CIA kill thousands more by letting them die of thirst. Even his supposed goal of stopping Colonel Konrad turns out to be a futile one, after it turns out that mission was all in his mind. Ironically, Walker’s attempts to be the hero only doomed him to becoming the villain, with no way to make up for his crimes.



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