Video games, by their nature, are about some kind of conflict. That conflict can take many forms. You against another player. You against the clock. You against the score. You against yourself. And, of course, you against the malevolent evil that threatens the very existence of your town/family/planet/spaceship.
This is nothing intrinsically new to narrative structure or even to our basic ideas about conflict. Man versus man, nature, fate, self or whatever other form of antagonist you care to classify — these are the basic building blocks of pretty much every story anyone bothered to expend breath telling. But unlike such things as movies and books, where the experience is a passive read on the story happening to and through a protagonist, in most cases with video games the hero is always in some way the same person: some version of you.
Now, you may be represented in different ways through the game, perhaps as a sexy elf or a gun-wielding dispatcher of unearthly evils (who is also sexy), but ultimately, when you play, you are filling a skin. Underneath, it’s still basically you. In some ways, I think this ultimately diminishes the value of the hero’s narrative — not eliminates, mind you, just diminishes. After all, it can be hard (though not impossible) to paint a complex central hero, when ultimately that hero had to have enough space inside for your ego to insert itself.
But while the hero in many cases has to be defined by and fixed to the player, the problem with villains in games is almost the opposite. It can be literally anything.
Which is why, if I were going to write a video game tomorrow, I would spend substantially more time, effort and thought on creating a great villain than a great hero. To my mind, it is the enemy that has the best opportunity to make or break a game’s narrative, or even the game itself.
An adversary can and should take many different forms. After all, the villain is just the second part of that “you-vs-something” equation, and it can be everything from the ghosts chasing Pac-Man to GLaDOS. It can even be the world and environment you place the player in. It can be the very challenge of the game itself. For example, a game like Peggle. The villain in that is almost luck itself, and the framework of the game serves that particular antagonist very, very well. So it’d be hard to write the Dummies Guide to Writing Villains.
If you start with the image in your head of a cloaked, snarling evil twirling his moustache and stooped over a helpless maiden tied to a railroad track, then you’re approaching it, I think, from all the wrong angles. However, a more conventional villain can be every bit as fun.
It’s the recently released Borderlands 2 that got me thinking about enemies, and not in the sense of the ammunition fodder that makes up the majority of the game, but the omnipresent Handsome Jack. The great thing about ol’ HJ is that he is a part of everything you do in the game. He is sort of always there, even without being quite there, to give you a reason to keep moving. When he talks, you want to hear what he has to say. When you progress through the story, you have a sense of how it all ties back to this adversary. He is a motivation, a reason to keep pressing on. There is a part of you that wants to hear what he’ll have to say next, to see how he’ll escalate the conflict, and ultimately to have the chance to fill him with high velocity projectiles.
At this point, it would be easy enough to tick off the favorite villains of gaming history from Bowser to Andrew Ryan (though, was he really a villain?), but to do so would be to lose the deeper point, which is that those are good but traditional and limited examples. Who is the antagonist of a Civilization game? Besides Gandhi, I mean. And yet, that series is phenomenal, and never seems to lack conflict. Who is the enemy in a game of Counter-Strike? Isn’t it more that the enemy is another person on some far distant computer?
The point is that the beauty of a game is that, for all the flexibility game creators might lose with crafting your hero, they seem to gain that much more latitude in crafting the antagonist. The enemy might change from one play session to the next. It might change halfway through the game. It might be time itself, or, at least in my case, it can be my fumbling thumbs frantically working a gamepad.
When I think about the games I love, I think part of the reason I love them is because I felt connected to the idea of who or what was my foe.