Enemy Known

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.

Comments

Having clear oppositions are part of what make games so different from me (coupled with defined goals and feedback). A lot of the issues I tend to see in real life are amorphous and systemic. In games, I can focus on the antagonist, or at least feel some sort of victory in declaring "this game cheats."

At first I figured HJ for a sort of Captain Qwark bumbler antagonist. A threat, but a comic villain. Then I started completing some of the sidequests...

He's way worse than he seems on the surface, at least so far with my puny lvl 8 character.

Andrew Ryan was no more the villain than Angela Cross is in the second Ratchet game... He's a slightly selfish person that sees his entire world collapsing around him and reacts to it, but the real villain is the one who is orchestrating the collapse for his own ends.

A wise man once said, "For every cat, there must be a fine rat."

I agree, the villain is the most important part of the story. Imagine that Episode 1 had actually been made first. Would that brownish, stripling whelp have given us the iconic menace embodied in Darth Vader's first step onto Leia's ship? I don't think so. And no one would have waited around to find out.

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.

The thought occurs that they could change the nature of the villain depending on the choices you make, potentially giving you a very different opposing force on different playthroughs, but I don't remember seeing that actually done. They sort of hinted at it with Mass Effect, but then threw out every decision you'd made in the whole game to funnel you into three choices, so that's sort of the opposite of what I'm thinking of.

Say, for instance, you pretty consistently chose selfishness throughout the game; the ultimate bad guy could actually be fairly altruistic, or vice-versa. If you choose a 'magic' path, he might either choose magic (to mirror you) or melee (to oppose you).

Games are malleable, and so are enemy characters... DA2 showed a little bit of the potential there, by silently altering your companions quite a bit, based on your usual choices (Boy Scout, Snarky, or Asshole.) But I don't think anyone's really done much with the idea of a malleable villain.

Hmm. It kinda sounds like something Peter Molyneux would talk about a lot, and fail to actually accomplish.

The antagonist in a Civ game is, like its victory conditions, changeable, and it could even be changeable from one era to the next in the same game.

When I'm starting out, the enemies are those Civs who want my cities for their backyards. I need to fight them to survive. Once the issue of survival is sorted out, world domination is next on the to-do list. Finally, there's legacy - the race against time to win one of the VCs before the game timer runs out.

Some gamers like to pursue one of these to the exclusion of all else. A Civ player who aims for Cultural straight off the bat is really in a score chase scenario - see how fast he can Cultural Vic without dying.

Minor spoilers below:

kazriko wrote:

Andrew Ryan was no more the villain than Angela Cross is in the second Ratchet game... He's a slightly selfish person that sees his entire world collapsing around him and reacts to it, but the real villain is the one who is orchestrating the collapse for his own ends.

Spoiler:
Andrew Ryan was hanging people in the streets of Rapture, orchestrating assassinations, welcoming murderous lunatics into his inner circle, and ultimately devolved into hypocrisy so that one could not make a convincing argument to defend the totality of his actions.

Wr3nch wrote:
Minor spoilers below:

kazriko wrote:

Andrew Ryan was no more the villain than Angela Cross is in the second Ratchet game... He's a slightly selfish person that sees his entire world collapsing around him and reacts to it, but the real villain is the one who is orchestrating the collapse for his own ends.

Spoiler:
Andrew Ryan was hanging people in the streets of Rapture, orchestrating assassinations, welcoming murderous lunatics into his inner circle, and ultimately devolved into hypocrisy so that one could not make a convincing argument to defend the totality of his actions.

Yeah, Ryan is definitely a villain, but it's easy to lose sight of that because he's not the only one.

I found Bioshock 2's Sophia Lamb a compelling villain, largely because she was so pathetic and misguided.

great read.

kazriko wrote:
At first I figured HJ for a sort of Captain Qwark bumbler antagonist. A threat, but a comic villain. Then I started completing some of the sidequests...

He's way worse than he seems on the surface, at least so far with my puny lvl 8 character.


Handsome Jack is the best - by which I mean "most villainous" and "guy that I most want to punch in the face because he's an asshole" - villain I can remember. They did an absolutely fantastic job writing him.

You're missing one antagonist... or perhaps I should say, "the opposition": the level designers. Going way back into the depths of gaming, I always felt that who I was really trying to beat was the design, not the fictional character in front of the design. And indeed, this is a style of play many adopt; re-playing Skyrim, I'm surprised to find so many online instructions telling you how to get infinite XP or how to exploit a (readily-exploitable) skill system.

Maybe it's my gaming roots dating back to the days on the VIC-20, or maybe it's my computer-programmer mentality, but I often find myself looking for the puppet wires. I want to see the hidden underbelly of mechanics, and then play with them.

Nathaniel wrote:
You're missing one antagonist... or perhaps I should say, "the opposition": the level designers. Going way back into the depths of gaming, I always felt that who I was really trying to beat was the design, not the fictional character in front of the design.

Did you skim this part?

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.

Did you skim this part?

I plead the fifth... But it doesn't say the same thing. When I'm playing, I'm actually thinking about the motivations of the game designer, the faceless, nameless entity who put the obstacles in my way. "Is he thinking about a good game, or a self-consistent world? Whups, yeah, definitely just the game - no way these torches would still be burning in the underground tomb that no one has touched for hundreds of years. Bet those dead bodies are going to wake up and be angry zombies. Yup, I was right. Good try, Mr. Faceless."

It's like trying to outguess your friend, the DM.

Nathaniel wrote:
the motivations of the game designer

*recoils, hissing, in terror*

Nathaniel wrote:
You're missing one antagonist... or perhaps I should say, "the opposition": the level designers. Going way back into the depths of gaming, I always felt that who I was really trying to beat was the design, not the fictional character in front of the design. And indeed, this is a style of play many adopt; re-playing Skyrim, I'm surprised to find so many online instructions telling you how to get infinite XP or how to exploit a (readily-exploitable) skill system.

Maybe it's my gaming roots dating back to the days on the VIC-20, or maybe it's my computer-programmer mentality, but I often find myself looking for the puppet wires. I want to see the hidden underbelly of mechanics, and then play with them.

I have this same issue. For me it is definitely my programming background. I will very often look past the gameplay and the story to see the programmers and designers behind it. This usually occurs when they "break the illusion" by doing something that doesn't hang with the rules they have defined or make a task difficult only from a game mechanic perspective (ex. timing the jump "just" right). Then it becomes simply a battle of wills between me and the developer, and they are holding all the cards because they can do whatever they want.

I don't feel this way in books or movies, probably because I am not being forced to pass some test in order for the story to proceed.

This is why I loved Ultima IV. One of the first CRPG's of that era that branched out beyond the "Kill the Foozle" type bad guy ending. But at the same time I felt let down at the end that the entire point of the game it seemed was to insert some cards in the right order to "win"

That might have been the first game where I was old enough to start understanding the limitations of technology and programming. Origin had the "right" idea they just didnt really have enough technology to map out exactly how U4 should have ended. Changing the land and people around the avatar should have been a complicated set of checks against a comprehensive database of actions and reactions. Your "win" condition should have been 100% based on how much of the Avatar you personified.

TheGameguru wrote:
This is why I loved Ultima IV. One of the first CRPG's of that era that branched out beyond the "Kill the Foozle" type bad guy ending. But at the same time I felt let down at the end that the entire point of the game it seemed was to insert some cards in the right order to "win"

The cards and the order were Ultima III: Exodus, in which the big bad is a computer. To win U4, you have to become a full Avatar and get to the bottom of the Stygian Abyss.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
TheGameguru wrote:
This is why I loved Ultima IV. One of the first CRPG's of that era that branched out beyond the "Kill the Foozle" type bad guy ending. But at the same time I felt let down at the end that the entire point of the game it seemed was to insert some cards in the right order to "win"

The cards and the order were Ultima III: Exodus, in which the big bad is a computer. To win U4, you have to become a full Avatar and get to the bottom of the Stygian Abyss.

Still, I think they were very much on the right track at Origin. Too bad.

wordsmythe wrote:
Quintin_Stone wrote:
TheGameguru wrote:
This is why I loved Ultima IV. One of the first CRPG's of that era that branched out beyond the "Kill the Foozle" type bad guy ending. But at the same time I felt let down at the end that the entire point of the game it seemed was to insert some cards in the right order to "win"

The cards and the order were Ultima III: Exodus, in which the big bad is a computer. To win U4, you have to become a full Avatar and get to the bottom of the Stygian Abyss.

Still, I think they were very much on the right track at Origin. Too bad.

In fairness, Origin also started the careers of guys like Warren Spector, who later expanded on the branching, reactive endings ideas that were started in the Ultima series in Thief, System Shock, and Deus Ex. I don't really see anything Origin did as being a "too bad" in that their ideas died when OSI went belly-up; they were pushing some pretty interesting narrative boundaries, and those guys kept the momentum going after leaving the nest.