The Analog Gamer: Touching Evil

88161_620_46.jpgThis week I’m going to step back a bit from the reviews and products and talk about the concept of evil. I was reminded of this concept because I was fortunate enough to begin a new tabletop role playing game and the players as a unit decided they wanted to play evil characters. They wanted the freedom to do bad things for the right reasons as well as good things for the wrong ones. This whole discussion got me thinking about the nature of evil in games.

While many games, like Dungeons & Dragons, have a firm moral system that determines the “alignment” on the axis of good or evil there is really little evidence that most games follow this concept closely. We see evidence of evil in most game storylines or scenarios – “the power hungry dictator is trying to conquer the world and you must stop him!” or “The evil wizard has enslaved all the nubile young maidens and made them his love thralls with his magic and only you can liberate them!” These types of stories are rife in games of all kinds – from tabletop to the HDTV set.

When a game approaches the concept a little differently, like by allowing the player to be the “evil” character ,people tend to revel in the novelty but the portrayal of evil is still just the cardboard mustache twirling baddie with no real motivation or drive other than greed or insanity. Most games fail to make the bad guy anywhere near as interesting as I’d like.

The recent Bioware games – dating back to Baldur’s Gate even – often break that trend and show us flawed people with skewed perspectives. Bioware has constantly done a good job in both enabling the player to see villains as more than bullet catching, plan spewing baddies and in allowing some degree of player choice that is less than honorable in their games.

fable.jpgGames like Fable, which purport to allow players to make “evil” decisions and reflect the choices of players via the character’s appearance are however very hollow. While players can wantonly murder anyone and everyone, steal from children and rape sheep (okay the last is an exaggeration) – there is no real consequence to these acts aside from people being frightened of you in towns and the need to pray at a different church. The weight of evil actions has no truly evil results and serves no story linked concept. Sure you get the “bad” ending but what weight does that really have?

Mass Effect introduced players seemingly to a meglomaniacal racist alien cop bent on galactic purification in Saren. But as the story evolved we came to understand that he was not quite as simple as he seemed. Something had changed Saren’s heart and every so often we got glimpses of the Saren who had been the pride of the council. Did this make us despise Saren less? Not for me – it “humanized” him a bit but it also explained why he was doing what he was and how he could go from the side of light to the side of darkness so quickly and not have a personal crisis over it.

Sometimes revealing the human side of a villain is a failure as well. When a bad guy is evil for unknown reasons and shows alien motivations it is often ineffective to tell too much about him. A good example is Darth Vader in Star Wars. Vader is the first thing you really see in the first film that grabs you visually. He is a towering imposing figure with an army of armor clad soldiers at his command. His face is a skull and his mere voice and presence are fear-inspiring. Through the original Star Wars Trilogy we learned a little about the man who became Darth Vader and ultimately got to see his son help to redeem the imposing villain and overcome a greater galactic evil for very personal reasons.

Then things went south from there.

promo-vader.jpgWhen next we met the man who would become one of the greatest film bad guys we see him as a whining pedantic child slave. Brilliant and gifted in the force but somewhat dysfunctional. Immediately the imposing Vader concept takes a hit but George Lucas plants the seed that this young, innocent boy would one day become a great evil man and many of us were interested.

Over the course of the next two films however ,we are never again given any reason to fear Vader. Anakin becomes a petulant teen and is cocky and mostly unlikable. By the end of the prequel trilogy I was rooting for Obi-Wan and Mace Windu far more than I was for Anakin. I’d lost respect for Darth Vader and I’d lost interest in his transformation because it felt too ordained. There really was no gradual fall. There was no seduction and corruption of a good man into a tyrant. There was an angry young mass murderer who was mad at the world and whining about it at the point of a lightsaber. Vader had evolved from the cardboard villain he appeared to be originally into something far more pathetic.

I know there will be a lot of people who take issue with my summary of the almighty George Lucas’ main man but remove the fanboy love of the series (as I’ve learned to do) and look at the scene objectively.

Where I’m going in all this discussion however is in analyzing what it is that makes evil interesting in a story or a character. “The brighter the light the more deep the dark” is a phrase I’ve come to adopt. When we create our stories and we design our arch-enemies we should consider how that reflects on the characters. The paladin who wields the holy sword and title of his god in cleansing evil should never be paired with someone who cheats on his taxes as a foil.

88161_620_30.jpgThe players of our games will desire villains who’s darkness is at least as great as their goodness. But as storytellers we shortchange the whole tale if we shortcut and make all the foils stereotypical Bond villains. Don’t we want to leave our players, our friends with something that will be talked about for years to come? Don’t we want to give them a sense of satisfaction that they overcame great adversity and deserved the honors or spoils they earned? Don’t we want our evil players to feel the same feeling when they manage to establish an empire, a dark guild or open a rift letting the old ones destroy everything?

I know as a storyteller those are the goals I set (and often fail to achieve).

How do you feel about evil in games?

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3 Comments on The Analog Gamer: Touching Evil

Spectre J

On March 28, 2008 at 10:44 am

Evil is almost certainly a necessity in games, or at least some conflicting force we view as evil. I think Bioware has most definitely been the one company to get it right. To give us a villain we could hate, and eventually come to sympathize with and pity. That is what I want, but I think some prefer the clean cut, simple villain.

Tarrelond

On March 28, 2008 at 12:40 pm

The clean cut villain is hardly a simple one. For instance, who could be more of a clean cut villain than Dracula? Do you think of him as a simple villain?

The clean cut villain is just sometimes what people want, they want to be Sephiroth.

I feel the same as the OP, I hate it when villains are ruined by backstory. I don’t want to sympathize or pity a villain, I want them to be scary, evil, and imposing.

Tamrhind

On August 27, 2008 at 10:16 am

I’ve never understood why such a fuss was EVER made of the Star Wars trilogy and had even less comprehension , if any, for the prequel mania following them.

For me, these Hollywood handouts epitomised almost everything you pointed in the sterile ‘good’ v. ‘evil’ stories; they were nothing more, and perhaps less, than colossally-glorified Westerns, with bad guys wearing black and good guys in white (the stormtroopers were clones of a bounty hunter, just doin’ his job like us regular folk), ‘true love’ triumphing and with everyone (in white) happiness filled at the the end(?)Yuck!