In her book "Samurai From Outer Space", Japan historian/anime fan Antonia Levi coins a term she affectionately calls "the nerd hero." Anime, of course, is what the Japanese call their animation, and it often features insecure, dorky men in love stories where they are inexplicably pursued by well-meaning and sweet women. This trend began in the late seventies with anime series like Urusei Yatsura and continued into the 90s with series like Tenchi and Ah, My Goddess!. What these series offer, Levi implies, is a more reality-friendly view of romance in the pop-consciousness of modern Japanese fantasyscapes. The male protagonists are designed to more accurately reflect the mundane readers that make up their fan-base, and the result is often a gentle reconciliation between fantasy and reality, a post-modern reinvention of storybook romance that addresses more directly the anxieties of modern social life.
Interestingly, Japanese videogames have experienced a similar phenomenon, although many may not have realized it. When heavy narrative emphasis in gaming began to gain steam in the late 80s, much of it was borrowed directly from already-established anime traditions, resulting in a wide variety of storytelling styles. However, those styles were complicated somewhat by currently established trends within videogames themselves. At that time, right at the end of the 8-bit era (roughly 1989-90), games were fairly limited in their subject matter. Whatever the genre, plots involved little else than simply triumphing over adversity, and this helped shape the way more narrative-based genres such as RPGs (role-playing games) typically choose their content. In this era, Japanese RPGs were based around classical ideas of standard hero quests in which a bright, young hero triumphs over evil and wins the girl. At the time, this seemed only appropriate. After all, what better way to explore a new medium than with the earliest, most mythical, and most simple traditions of storytelling? Games like Dragonquest and the original Legend of Zelda were clear examples of this. These games established a contextual arena for much of Japan's gaming industry, and it would be a few more years until these mythical stories collided with the growing modern sensibilities of the anime that inspired them.
Enter the 32-bit era. Although throughout the 16-bit era games branched out considerably in theme and content, it wasn't until the 32-bit era that it developed the irony anime had in a self-reflective sense. Like the phenomenon of Levis "nerd hero," games finally began to subtly comment on the medium itself as well as the audience it had spawned. The result is a series of games that incorporate the modern and post-modern notions of popular anime into themselves, which includes, naturally, their own version of the "nerd hero."
Possibly the most significant (and least understood) example of the modern Japanese gaming nerd hero is Cloud Strife from Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VII. The game itself works as an excellent post-modern text on Japanese gaming in general, and no more so than in the way it handles its central protagonist.
The difference between videogame nerd heroes and the anime male leads that inspire them are that they have to exist within the tradition of classical hero narratives. The formal gameplay structures of Japanese RPGs (combat, exploration, etc.) do not offer room for a departure that would support a nerd-hero in a normal sense. After all, how do you make a character that reflects the anxieties of modern players while still satisfying the inevitable "save the world" narrative outcome? In other words, how do you make the player believe a nerd is a hero? For Squaresoft the answer is simple: lie.
Final Fantasy VII proposes a vision of the nerd hero born of self-absorption, fear, and personal delusion. It introduces Cloud as it might a typical RPG protagonist, as a tough and confident male who seems well suited to win the girl and save the world. However, it then begins slowly peeling back layers of his psyche until he is revealed to be nothing more than an angst-ridden adolescent. People who think Cloud's flirting with Aeris in the first half of the game is in any way indication of his prowess as a desirable man have been taken in by a clever trick. It is eventually revealed that Cloud is only pretending to be a man Aeris used to be in love with, and that her attraction to him is based solely on this superficiality. Likewise, it proves Cloud's self-absorption and personal delusionment: He actually has convinced himself he is this man, and considers himself a capable hero because of the fact. Later, when this illusion is threatened it results in Cloud's total emotional collapse, catatonia, and regression into a childlike state within his own mind, which the other female lead, Tifa, then has to single-handedly untangle. She is actually the person who is attracted to him for who he is and not who he is pretending to be, and when she discovers the genesis of his delusion was his embarrassment at not being able to impress her by being a "hero," it reveals a pivotal irony that says as much about gaming archetypes as it does about double-standards of masculinity the (presumably male) players face in the everyday world. Cloud is clearly meant as a metaphor for the player in that he himself is "role-playing" a fantasy hero. So what happens when the fantasy hero you are role-playing for escapism is revealed to be escaping himself, and you realize youve been playing a role of someone playing a role? Final Fantasy VII squarely asks its players this question, and the answer is in the cathartic daydream of the nerd hero, the modern compromise between fact and fiction. Final Fantasy VII seeks only to do what its more modest anime counterparts have been doing for years: tailor a new, more recognizable fiction to fit its ever-changing audience.
There are other examples, too. In many ways, Final Fantasy VIII is a similar reworking of this idea only without as much cynicism. My favorite example, however, is one that is a little more complicated. It is Konami's Metal Gear Solid. It doesn't have a nerd hero in the literal sense, but it has something that functions identically: It has a nerd and a hero, and their relationship forms a bizarre commentary on exactly who is playing these games and why.
Metal Gear Solid, among other things, is a perfect pop-culture crossover. Not only it a classic Japanese (mis)interpretation of American action cinema, it is sprinkled throughout with so many little intentional and unintentional ironies that it gains a kind of goofy transcendence. It never stops for a minute to consider what it is saying about anime, gaming, masculinity, and their relation to fan bases in both Japan and the U.S. It is way too innocent for that, but at the same time it carefully builds its story around the relationship of super-soldier/protagonist Solid Snake and his fanboy/admirer Otacon in a way that thoughtfully explores todays gaming fan culture.
Otacon himself is a cultural analyst's jackpot. He is an American character, created by a Japanese storyteller, who's obsessed with Japanese Animation and wants to emulate its fantasy vision of technology in the real world, in hopes that it will amend for the fact that his grandfather was partially responsible for the bombing of Hiroshima. This kind of cross-cultural dyslexia gets even more interesting when you bring Snake into the mix. He is a Special Forces superhero, and very much like the visions of stoic heroism Otocan is used to seeing in anime. To Snake, Otacon is very much the kind of person he can't stand being around: physically weak, emotional, and naïve. Yet, the two form an odd bond throughout the course of the story that is used to underscore their ironic connection. Throughout the game, Otacon's social isolation as a nerd, and Snake's emotional isolation as a soldier continuously compliment each other, as if the game were saying, deep down, they both are really the same.
The fact that Otacon is an anime-nerd is vitally important (his name is, in fact, a variation of the word "Otaku" which loosely means "nerd" in Japanese) because that puts the whole story into a subject/object study both inside and outside of media. Snake, essentially, is the videogame avatar both to us (the player) and to Otacon—who is also a videogame player (as evidenced by the Sony PlayStation in his lab). The three-way relationship going on between the Player, Otacon, and Snake is weirdly fascinating. The player is Snake, but the player is also Otacon, since Otacon clearly represents the "audience" Metal Gear Solid is catering to. Otacon is the "fan" who normally would "be" Snake if he were playing a videogame or idolize him if he were watching an anime. This is made explicit in one scene where, during a fight, Otacon says, "What's with these guys? It's like one of my Japanese animes!" At which point he runs into a locker and watches the events as if they were an anime. The game clearly establishes Otacon as existing outside Snake's world, looking in. Yet we, as the player, are clearly established inside Snake's world looking out. And what are we looking out at? Otacon, i.e. ourselves, the assumed Otaku audience of the game. Their whole relationship is about them seeing themselves in each other. Snake sees himself (us) in Otacon, and Otacon sees himself (us) in Snake. The game is about "us," the similar parts of each, bringing them together. In the end, Snake and Otacon represent a subtext in Metal Gear Solid not unlike the subtext of Final Fantasy VII discussed earlier: the reconciliation of subject and object, of fan and fantasy, into a redefined post-modern whole where the media serves as both mirror and window.
Are these games saying that nerds can be heroes or that heroes can be nerds? Naturally, this all depends on the player. It all depends on his/her own level of neurosis and how much of it he/she brings to these games. For many, Final Fantasy VII is just another "save the world" plot, and Metal Gear Solid is just another macho action story, but for others they may be oddly compelling in the ways in which they slyly address modern anxieties and incorporate them seamlessly into their traditional escapist structures. Whether this is great art is certainly open to debate, but media is often so much more than art. It is often a clear window into the subconscious of the modern world, a finger forever pressed against the pulse of popular anxieties. The fact that the creators of this media my or may not realize it is simply part of the charm.