This discussion contains major spoilers for the Hardcore Henry film.
Henry, the protagonist of Hardcore Henry, is not played by any single actor. Instead, like a video game character played by different players, Henry is really the composite of a number of individuals, stuntmen, cameramen, and even the film’s director. In any case, Henry isn’t really a character, anyway. He’s merely a vehicle for action.
This idea speaks to the Hardcore Henry‘s rootedness in video games as a medium. While we use terms like “first person” and “third person” to describe perspectives in video games, when considering the narrative perspective in video games, all games are largely more like a story told in the second person; that is, from the perspective of you.
Yes, Mario has a name and Ezio Auditore has a backstory, but the game’s present is always concerned with your decisions, when to jump, how to approach this combat scenario, what solution you choose to solve some moral conundrum thrown at you by the game, and the like. The reason for names and for backstories and the like all boil down to one thing: what will motivate you.
Motivations to become Pac-Man, to become Gordon Freeman, or to inhabit the role of Chell vary depending on the era of a game’s release and its general interest for the player. In the arcade era, it was all about points and high scores, which often remains the case in games that become the arcade’s inheritors, many mobile games, for example, as well as many multiplayer competitive games. These games don’t tell stories very often, but instead focus the player on achievement and competition with others or with one’s own high scores.
“Beating a game” by completing its storyline is a convention that evolved over time. In games that wish to tell stories alongside their action, storytelling provides a largely narrative motivation for completing the storyline. Saving the girl or saving the world are probably the two most common of the earliest goals of gaming narratives, providing both premise and motivation for action. The completion of each of the fourth levels of every “world” in Super Mario Bros., for example, results in a constant reminder of what Mario’s goal is, which by extension is your goal, of course, since you’re inhabiting the virtual skin of Mario: “Thank you, Mario! But our princess is in another castle.” Time to move on to the next stage in the game. You need to save the girl, and the clock is ticking. (It always does in Super Mario Bros.).
It’s no surprise, then, in Hardcore Henry, a film that apes the first person perspective of the video game and thus the idea that the audience is seeing from behind the eyes of an action hero, that following a very brief opening scene that gives a sense of Henry’s childhood and his relationship to violence, the film then gives way to a scene in which Henry (whose memory has been lost) is awakened by a woman claiming to be his wife. When this woman, Estelle, is then almost immediately kidnapped by the film’s antagonist, the “final boss”, Henry is immediately motivated to do what so many countless video game characters and video game players have been motivated to do by so many games. He feels compelled to save the girl.
She is for all intents and purposes a princess, that figure in fairy tales and folktales that is emblematic of the promise of marriage, resolution, and completion. We recognize, as Henry does, that she is the goal.
All of this is very traditional, a sense of purpose is given to a male character by suggesting that the role of a man is that of a man of action, that of a protector, and that of a savior of a woman who is very important to him, which is why the revelation of who and what Estelle really is later in the film is of critical importance to the film and to its discussion of video game conventions.
Estelle is really the wife of the film’s villain, Akan, the man who “kidnaps” her near the opening of the film. Akan is developing an army of cyborg soldiers, just like Henry, and in transforming men into machines that can be directed to accomplish his desires, he finds that wiping those men’s memories before he does so is helpful in controlling them. These are men, much like video game players, who will be charged with accomplishing missions, and he doesn’t want personal motivations from their past to cloud his goals for them. Instead, he implants each soldier with a memory that provides a motivation that is simple, direct, and familiar to the video game player presumed often enough by the developers to be a male heterosexual: save the girl.
Each man has a memory of Estelle as his own wife implanted in his head. Estelle is the goal for every one of his soldiers, his “players”. That Henry discovers this, that the “princess” is bait, a means of driving him towards someone else’s goal, someone else’s design, becomes a means of deconstructing the convention of this motive as a goal in video games.
Throughout the film, Akan taunts Henry, implying the idea that Estelle has been unfaithful to Henry. Indeed, she has, given that she serves as the “wife” of every killing machine built by Akan. As noted, this is achieved through the implanting of a past life with Estelle in every new cyborg’s mind. Like Princess Peach, Estelle has become an emblem of femininity as a motivating factor for a presumed male heterosexual player, the promise of intimacy given a particular face, a face remembered by and, thus, also “shared” by all of these dutiful soldiers.
In essence, Estelle has become every one of these men’s princesses. Paralleling this idea with video games through our understanding of Henry as a shell-like creature of action, much like the shells that we inhabit as video game characters, we are intended to draw the conclusion that every damsel in distress that each video game player has ever saved is seen as having been unfaithful to that player. After all, she is the girlfriend, the wife, and the lover of every player of a particular game. She is a shared goal and motivation that the game has created an illusion of intimacy with, between the player and a digital partner. In other words, Hardcore Henry argues that Princess Peach is to be understood as an unfaithful slut.
Sure, Mario always saves Princess Peach, but after all, Mario isn’t much of a character. He is a vehicle for action. Your action, my action, and every player’s action is driven by the same woman, as Hardcore Henry‘s aping of a second person narrative through its aping of the first person perspective of video games is constantly reminding us. It isn’t the shell-like figuration of a chubby plumber that is intimately connected to Peach. It is you, it is me, and every player that seeks her.
By doing so, Hardcore Henry flips the script on traditionalism, questioning the motivating factor for playing a game and this instinctual need to fulfill a particular role within the context of masculine identity. It’s a tragic moment in many ways, not merely because the validity of player and human motive is questioned, but because the trust we place in intimacy as a reasonable motivator for action is challenged.
In the film’s final moment, Henry responds to this revelation by annihilating the illusion. In a moment that seems a nod to the satirical ending of Grand Theft Auto III, which played a similar kind of reversal for laughs because of its seeming absurdity, Henry executes Estelle. Destroying the princess is a concept that is likely anathema to most game players for a simple reason: to execute her is to execute our own purpose in this exercise in role playing and to question a very, very central narrative to human life and culture, love as a motive for action.
There is no princess.