Heroic Thief: the process of making a villain a hero

I have always preferred playing as a morally good character in video games.  Evil actions, ruthless behavior, and harming the innocent went so strongly against the grain that I could not enjoy roleplaying as an immoral character.

As I discussed in my article Moral choices: does allowing immoral choices in games impact real world behavior?, human curiosity is at the core of us all, and it is good for games to provide immoral actions and character types for players to explore, since wrestling with the temptation to do wrong is part of human nature.  Whether it is taking one more cookie than we were supposed to, or lying about who broke the vase that fell from the table, people face moral choices at all stages in their life, some with consequences more severe than others.

That being said, in a game world where the consequences are contained to a playthrough, the player can always start over and try something new. Being able to experiment with moral choice in a game and observe the consequences of immoral behavior, can be a powerful tool for growth.

However, of all the immoral things that one can do; start a fight with the city guards, become an assassin, work as a mercenary, or chase coin as a soldier of fortune, I was never interested in being a thief.  Thieves are sneaky, good for nothing, scoundrels who profit from the taking of other’s valuables, criminals too cowardly to give their victims a chance to defend themselves.

In my mind, wanting to be the honest good guy, returning a lost pendant to a traveler far, far away instead of pawning it, the last thing I wanted to do was grab for money with sticky fingers. Yet, as I began working on my character build series, I realized that I had completely neglected an entire class of character.

Although Robin Hood is hailed as a hero and defender of the weak, he is best known for his archery skills, a weapon whose purpose is to kill efficiently, implying that he was not beyond combat and killing in his thievery

I had disregarded them as characters without narrative value, as enemies to defeat, yet a great many tales exist of honorable thieves, which changes the lens with which we view them. Robin Hood used thievery as a way to fight oppression, protect the weak, and give them resources they desperately needed, Sly Cooper used thievery to steal back his family’s legacy from crime lords and disrupt their criminal organizations.

Sly Cooper, breaking into safes and stealing back his family’s secrets to becoming a master thief

To be fair a thief is no great paragon of morality, but perhaps this desire for distinction, among the degrees of evil and how one’s actions are more justified than another’s, grants us insight into the minds of those who walk the path of immorality. Many thieves began stealing out of necessity such as Aladdin, a ne’er-do-well  seeking to survive in a world which grants him no opportunity to be more than his caste.

At the start of his story Aladdin lives as a “street rat”, a common thief stealing food to get by

Thus I thought to myself; there must be a way to make a thief a hero, as legends and lore long before me have done. The path to righteousness through dirty deeds can be a tricky one, and is often told as a tale of redemption, where a character uses their skills, forged by malicious intent, to right wrongs and fight injustice.

I will be diving into these themes in my fiction series The tale of Bael, as well as the mechanical analysis of his playstyle in my character series Bael the Thief (part 1). Do you enjoy playing as a good or bad character, or someone who is morally grey? Many games feature an all or nothing morality system which rewards players for either being good or bad but not in between, do you feel that this helps define a character or do you feel it sets up a false binary which real characters do not fall under? Do you enjoy characters who redeem themselves from past evils?  Do you find evil characters turned good more interesting than those who have always followed the straight and narrow path?   I welcome discussion on this topic, if you liked this article or have something to share, please leave a comment below or write in to playprofessor@gmail.com.


Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor.  You can check out more of his content on FacebookTwitterInstagramand Youtube.


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