On Villains and Dicks
It’s no secret by now that I’m very big on storytelling in games. As an interactive medium, I think gaming is a fascinating method for conveying stories to the player, and even today with all the technology being brought to bear of the latest gen hardware, we still see too few developers really putting time and effort into the story process of their games. It’s getting better, no doubt, and to be fair writing a story for a game is incredibly difficult compared with a film or a novel, but it’s still something we can see more of, and better.
In that interest, I want to talk about a specific aspect of storytelling today, the Villain. For many, villains are the most interesting character in a story. For all the faults of the Star Wars series, is there any character more iconic then Darth Vader? While Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz herself is a fairly insubstantial character, a young girl clinging to adolescence who serves as a proxy for the audience, it is Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West who has people writing novels to explore her background. We want to know how she became who she is. She is the one who is far more interesting and compelling.
More to the point, I think we need to make sure we understand the difference between the sort of evil machinations that makes for an effective villain, as opposed to someone who’s just trying to be a dick.
Let me cite an example. Sometime ago I was discussing games with a friend, and I was asked if I was familiar with the Overlord series of games. It was suggested that I might really enjoy them, and honestly, I wasn’t sure how to take that. For those unaware, Overlord is a series of sandbox games which centers the player as the titular overlord, who is typically tasked with taking over the world. So you run around, wipe out villages, enslave mistresses, gather minions, and eventually return to your evil doom fortress to laugh maniacally over the world below. For anyone who ever watched Lord of the Rings and wanted Sauron to win, this would be kind of for you.
Like I said, I wasn’t sure how to take that. Being a harsh critic and general misanthrope doesn’t make me evil! I thought it was my giving money to terrorists that did that.
More seriously, I can kinda see what the developers were going for here. Sandbox games like this are characterized by an open world, and the freedom to do whatever you want in it. Typically when presented with games that offer this type of freedom, most gamers respond by being absolute dicks, as evidenced by the Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row series.
So the idea of Overlord seems to be, since gamers mostly tend to be dicks in these games anyway, let’s just set up a game where the point is to be a dick. Which is a smashing idea, that completely fails in execution, in my opinion. The reason why being a dick in many games is because in most of these, you’re the hero, tasked with saving the world and heralded up as the messiah. Seeing Gordon Freeman for example running over his allies even as they continue to hail his coming carries a perverse, twisted fun to it, while Overlord is just being a dick in a dick-head simulator, and it lacks the context to provide meaning for your evil actions.
Simply put, you’re being a dick for the sake of being a dick, and this does not make for an effective villain. Not to watch, and not to play as. This is the failing of Overlord.
Another example I would provide would be Lucien from Fable 2. An hour after the game started he had already shot my sister, and was preparing to shoot 12 year old me. I was waiting for him to hunt down and kill my dog next, and he did, it just took a while. There’s a paper thin veil of a prophecy about you becoming his enemy, so he needs to kill you before you’re a threat, but despite this, he just comes across as someone really just trying to be a dick, and the game fails to ever make him any more menacing then that.
So what does make for an effective villain then? Well, firstly, you need a personal connection to the hero. Sometimes this can be a fairly obvious one. The revelation of Darth Vader as actually being Luke Skywalker’s father for example. Now Luke had spent the years leading up to that confrontation with nothing but contempt, if not outright hatred for Vader, who he believed was responsible not only for the death of his mentor Obi Wan in the first film, but also his father. However, in one instant, Vader’s admission to being Anakin Skywalker changed Luke’s world completely, and dramatically changes the relationship between the two. While Vader intended to use this information to make Luke susceptible to coming over to his side, in reality, it simply just changed Luke’s quest from one of revenge, to redemption for his wayward father.
This is just one example. Sometimes, the personal connection doesn’t even have to be familial, or even that literal. In the Batman series, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman to create a symbol for Gotham City, something to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, but ultimately, Batman is used as a symbol for order. The Joker, consequently, creates himself to be the polar opposite, to represent the chaos that he believes Gotham City is. It’s a fundamental case of two contrasting forces of nature. Neither has any connection to the other, save that what each of them are dedicated to, the other is fully committed to defeating. Imagine a being who’s every goal and motivation was the opposing viewpoint to your own. More then once Joker takes pleasure in pointing out this nature to their relationship.
“You… you really are incorruptible, aren’t you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun! I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”
In this one line, you learn everything you’ll need to know about these two characters, and how they define each other by their respective actions.
Additionally, in any story, it is vitally important that the villain be properly characterized. This is what serves to focus the story around the menace of an effective villain, as opposed to occasionally running into someone who’s fond of twirling his mustache. For this example, I want to look at Darth Malak, from Knights of the Old Republic. Yeah I know I’m milking the Star Wars license here, but any regular reader should have known I wasn’t going to go a whole article talking about stories in video games without bringing up a Bioware game.
So you, as the hero player character spend the majority of the first part of the game looking for a specific Jedi, your goal being to find her, and get the heck off the planet you’re currently stranded on. At the same time, Darth Malak has his Sith forces scouring the planets looking for this same Jedi, and trying to kill her. After some time, and the search yields no results, Malak orders the Admiral of his fleet to bomb the entire planet from orbit to make sure she didn’t escape.
Let’s be clear here. Malak orders an entire fleet of galactic warships to level a planet, killing billions of its own inhabitants, as well as the hundreds of his own soldiers he still has on the planet’s surface, in order to kill one woman.
Luckily, you, the wanted Jedi and the other allies you’ve made so far manage to escape the destruction of the planet, but in one instant, Malak has been completely characterized as a ruthless warlord, dedicated to the eradication of the Republic, and anyone who is a threat to him. There is no trying to stop the destruction of Taris, no heroics, your only option is to get the hell out of there, and run as far away as possible. You, the hero, are utterly powerless in the face of an enemy hell bent on wiping out civilization as we know it.
So now with our villain clearly established, we’re ready for the next act. The hero can go on his journey to save the galaxy, with an end goal clearly in mind. There is no ambiguity here, everything about the rest of the journey is about facing Malak. And eventually when it does happen, further revelations and twists make this relationship even deeper.
No, I’m not going to say what it is. Seriously, if you’re reading this, and a gamer, and you have NOT played this game, you need to get off your ass and get to it. Until you do, we’ve nothing to say to each other.
Look these are just a few examples, but what it comes down to is there are still far too many examples of stories in video games where the villain, one of the most core parts of a story is thrown together haphazardly, without thought for context, motivation, or believability. When these aspects are missing, the story is permanently tarnished, and the immersion of the player is ruined. Something to keep in mind; are we asking too much of a video game to keep in mind these fundamental aspects of storytelling?
And if you ever ask that question again, I’ll be forced to smack you with a fish.
-It is Always a Trap