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Conscience Is But A Word: Why videogames need better villains

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ESSAY #11

Alfred Hitchcock once suggested in an interview that a cardinal rule of his filmmaking was: "The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture." In any medium aspiring to create drama, the antagonist is one of the most complex and important figures the audience is presented with. It might be the heroes who get their names on the front cover or box, but all we want from them is an interesting travelling companion with a decent reason for having us tag along. A villain, on the other hand, carries far more weight in the storytelling mechanism: they are by necessity at the heart of the drama, not only as the hero's moral counterpoint but also a figure around whom the themes underpinning the central story revolve. If a story carries a subtext about political corruption (to pick a random example), it needs an antagonist representative of the worst aspects of that corruption as a starting point for the audience to latch onto the theme and follow it through the consequences of his actions. Even for a more abstract idea, the antagonist, as personification of the story's dramatic conflict, has to facilitate its communication to the audience either through his actions, values or relationships. A straight-laced hero can never provide drama on his own. Even anti-heroes, at war with themselves, must find something to encourage them to follow a better path.

For an audience, it is easier to sympathise and align ourselves with a hero who has an almighty villain standing in his way. On the other hand, if that villain seems underpowered or if we are not given a sufficiently clear reason for why we should be rooting against them, it's hard to connect to either the hero or his conflict. This is why it's not uncommon for villains to be given more depth to their characters than the protagonists and why the bad guys will often be the focal points of discussion about any particular story. It's important that if the protagonist is a big character, the antagonist is at least as big so the dramatic odds seem stacked in their favour. Everyone loves John McClane, but Hans Gruber is remembered just as fondly. When Alan Rickman (again) stole the show as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Kevin Costner demanded that the film be re-edited because test audiences were enjoying the villain far more than the hero: the finished film, for all bar the Sheriff's scenes, was considered a critical failure. Rickman is one of a long line of actors who are considered specialists in playing villains, because no matter how complex and intelligently written the story, audiences need someone to boo and hiss at.



As storytelling becomes an increasingly important part of gaming, this key dramatic device continues to go largely overlooked. When talking about their games, developers will go to great lengths pointing out how much backstory has been written for their heroes and the worlds they inhabit, yet scarcely allow the villain so much as a footnote. This is a particularly unusual development because if anything, having strong characters as protagonists in games is less important than in any other medium. In gaming, we do not following a protagonist as much as become them. Their actions are our actions and while we need motivation to do perform the tasks demanded of us, all but the key points of any extended game protagonist's backstory becomes irrelevant the moment a gamer picks up the controller. Nobody cares that Marcus Fenix is in prison for saving his father or was previously a war hero, because none of those things have anything to do with us or the mission we are engaged in. The gamer's story is the hero's story, written while fighting as one.

While all this information on Fenix ends up doing little more than filling out space in the manual and drawing out cut-scenes, it often seems to have been at the detriment of providing a compelling antagonist for the player to look forward to conquering at the end of the game. Taken as a whole, the Locust are fine for gunning down/chainsawing on a battle-by-battle basis. But the game's supposed true antagonist, General RAAM, is given little more development than being bigger than the other Locust and killing one of Fenix's allies. On the basis of Gears of War as a standalone story, RAAM does not feel linked with Fenix's journey other than to provide a boss battle at the conclusion. There's little effort made to give a prevailing reason for gamers to want to beat him any more than the multitude of other Locusts. Even if he is ultimately revealed as the henchman of a higher power in the Gears trilogy, we aren't given enough information about that power to make doing damage or learning more about them by conquering RAAM any greater motivation: just knowing they exist doesn't make them a credible enemy. It's unfair of course to focus entirely on Gears when that game is no more culpable of making this misjudgment than countless others. The villains of the Uncharted games are mired in cliché, Modern Warfare designates villains by role (ultranationalists) rather than action, while Nintendo repeats themselves so often with the likes of Ganondorf (I'll excuse Bowser, since he's supposed to be one-note and ridiculous) that even with greater personality his threat becomes negligible because we've beaten him so many times before – plus his most powerful attack only takes off three hearts, but that's a different problem altogether.

But while Ganondorf has become tiresomely overused, one of the few occasions Nintendo did use a different villain proves how much a well-developed antagonist can add to a game. In Majora's Mask (which I wrote about recently), Skull Kid (or Majora, if you prefer) is not only developed fully as a character, but in a way that makes him key to every aspect of the drama (Link arrives in Termina because of him; his hatred is the reason Termina is in peril) and symbolic of the game's themes through his opposing nature to that of protagonist Link (Skull Kid's mission is to destroy lives because of his loneliness and lust for revenge; Link wishes to save the friends he makes and find those he lost). The more we learn about him, the more he as a character makes players want to keep fighting until his plan is thwarted. System Shock 2's SHODAN or BioShock's Andrew Ryan are equally fine examples of how fully constructed villains, made integral to the dramatic experience of a game, can become focal points for player immersion and drive. As the medium slowly but surely finds its artistic feet, hopefully more videogame writers will start to see the importance of duality in their drama, giving their protagonists worthy foes to give meaning and purpose to his efforts throughout the game, rather than just for end-of-game spectacle.



PREVIOUS ESSAYS
Cheats And The Free World
Can 'Platform-Agnostic IPs' Ever Work?
Why We Can't Help But Love Flawed Games
The Accidental Death of a Plumber
The New Politics of Gaming
Do We Really Want Difficult Games?
Can Motion Controls Overcome The Hurdles of Gaming Logic?
Can Traditional Third-Party Games Ever Succeed On The Wii?
I Want Your Love And I Want Your Revenge: No More Heroes Series Analysis
Storytelling or Storyplaying?
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About Xander Markhamone of us since 3:08 PM on 02.07.2010

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I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.

In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?

My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.

I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!

Good gaming, everyone!