Friday, July 23, 2010

Proper Villains

"In the old days villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don't want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings."
-Alfred Hitchcock

When video games first came around, we were content to do battle with invaders from space, irate barrel-tossing monkeys, mysterious missiles falling from the sky, and spiky-shelled turtle creatures. They were our villains, and they were enough. In many cases, they were even memorable characters, though they were literally and figuratively two-dimensional.

As games have evolved we've seen the development of "narrative games", games that try to marry traditional a traditional narrative with the interactive capabilities of this new medium. These games have tried a number of approaches to help immerse the player in the game world, to create that suspension of disbelief so common in film, television and novels, and to create suitably awesome villains. As is to be expected, some of these approaches have been more effective than others.

To truly create a memorable experience, games use narrative choices and techniques to serve an the ultimate purpose of creating appropriate and motivated villains that make sense in the game world and behave appropriately. While the environment can be a character in and of itself (like Rapture is in BioShock), without villains, that kind of game world is just a set without actors.

The Shock Approach and 
The BioWare Approach

One of the more successful approaches is that of Ken Levine/Looking Glass/Irrational Games. I wish there were a really snappy name for it, but since there isn’t one, I suppose we could call it "The Shock Approach," because it covers System Shock 1 & 2 and BioShock 1 & 2. (I think "The Shock Approach" is totally snappy - Ed.)

The Shock approach is to have a small number of central characters in the story directly address the player, but typically not face-to-face. Instead, interaction takes place via radio or e-mail, though the occasional face-to-face meeting is not completely out of the question. The Shock approach also immerses the player in the gameworld through the recovery of e-mails, audio recordings and notes (digital, painted, scratched or smeared) left behind by non-player characters. The player is typically the vital link in the narrative, serving as the foot soldier for one or more of the other characters, literally as an extension of their will as opposed to an independent, self-sufficient contractor. The most important character here is the villain, because the player himself is a blank slate.

A contrasting approach to the player/antagonist relationship is the BioWare approach, which eschews the limited communications channels of the Shock approach and substitutes a full and dynamic conversation system, allowing you to have a meaningful conversation with your villain before you battle to the death. In my case, in the first Mass Effect I convinced Saren to off himself, because I'm just that kind of a guy. I don't think I'd've been able to talk Kane or GLaDOS down, but I like to think that Sam Shephard can do anything.

The Shock approach, at least since System Shock 2 and including BioShock, is also one of playing with the video game conventions in a manner that deepens the player involvement in the world. The way that the games do this is twofold. First, System Shock and BioShock undermine a key aspect of the player/game studio convention: that the game, and the company, won’t betray the player. The game, though initially appearing straightforward and trustworthy, is an unreliable narrator. Things that you took for granted such as control over your actions and being able to believe what you see and hear are all elements for the designers to play with.

That isn't to say that the Shock team has an exclusive on playing with genre conventions; the (*spoiler*) revelation that the player character in BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic is actually a brain-wiped Darth Revan, former master of primary antagonist Darth Malak, shows that BioWare and other companies are also exploring moving beyond strictly linear predictable narratives. By no means are these the only two companies, but as an overview of the general approaches to villains and structure in narrative games, they suffice.

But enough about philosophies and approaches; let's talk villains.


So, we’ve discussed System Shock 1 & 2 from a structural and narrative standpoint, but we haven’t discussed the heart of the games: SHODAN. An abbreviation for Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network, SHODAN is a character that seared herself into the memories of everyone that played System Shock and System Shock 2 (though playing the "talkie" version of the original System Shock definitely made a much deeper impression than that "standard" version). This amoral, psychotic, insanely malevolent Artificial Intelligence, voiced by Terri Brosius, was groundbreaking because she specifically engaged the player as a character, both directly and indirectly. At a time when first person shooters were barely beyond the Wolfenstein 3D phase and entering the DOOM phase, System Shock brought you into an immersive world with roaming enemies, random chance and constant risk. Throughout SS and SS2, SHODAN was a constant presence (in one guise or another), pushing the player forward, taunting them, belittling them and reminding them that they were being watched. It sounds like a small thing, but it was really one of the first titles to have a villain regularly and directly addressing the player.

Addressing the player directly was innovative, but how SHODAN talked to the player is what made her memorable. SHODAN didn't just drop instructions on the player like a "Quest Giver" NPC from World of Warcraft or any number of other titles; instead, she mocked efforts, seemed aware of the environment and events, and appeared to respond and react to actions taken by the player. The fact that SHODAN bothered to antagonize the player added a layer of humanity to an otherwise fairly stock villain. Additionally, a lot of your missions weren't literally given to you by SHODAN, but were instead responses to actions she took. This served to make her seem like an active player in the world, gave the world a sense of variability, and generally made things seem more dynamic. I barely remember the supporting characters in System Shock, but I damned well remember both fearing and hating SHODAN.

SHODAN was so groundbreaking that her archetype is repeated in several other games, two of which we’ll discuss a little later. First, though, let’s take a look at a “crossover” villain, one that directly bridges the space between traditional cinematic villains and in-game villains.


What a gloriously charismatic bastard. The original Command and Conquer (by Westwood Studios, before it was broken up for parts by EA) was the game that introduced me to the concept of "Real Time Strategy", and I have a real soft spot in my heart for the design of the original.

Kane was fantastic because he served both as a head of a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world (The Brotherhood of NOD, or "The Brotherhood"), but also, when you play the NOD Campaign, your leader. The novelty in Kane's character was that he started out as this distant person that you heard about but never really interacted with. If you played the GDI campaign, he was a fairly traditional "take over the world" villain that you never really dealt with until a brief video view at the end of the campaign. However, as the narrative progresses through the NOD campaign you start hearing more about him, seeing more of him, and generally getting a better idea of his motivations. About halfway into the campaign your handler, Seth, starts to show some cracks and is subsequently fired.

Anyway, in addition to using sudden narrative changes and storyline alterations to make the gameworld a little more unpredictable, once you become Kane's right hand, he also regularly directly addressed you as a character (although using the understandably vague title of “commander” or "you"), and this less than a year after System Shock's debut. It's a little distracting because he breaks the fourth wall by looking straight into the camera while taking to you (uncommon in movies and television unless you’re Ferris Bueller or Silent Bob), but since he's ostensibly your leader and you're serving as a general, the story makes the interaction work.

Joe Kucan as Kane is the classic scenery-chewing villain, but he was certainly a novelty in computer games. While the style has been aped repeatedly, they never quite recaptured the magic from C&C. I think part of the problem was that the focus changed to be more on these cutscenes than the gameplay themselves, but regardless, Kucan is a memorable, if much more cinematically traditional villain.

Spider Mastermind

Just hearing the name probably made players of the original Doom and Doom 2 start wishing they had 20 rockets or a couple of BFG blasts. Probably one of the finer examples of the traditional video game “Final Boss” model of gameplay; you play all the way through to the end of the game only to be handed your ass by a creature you had never seen before. In this case, the ass-handing came in the form of mutant robot spider-brain wielding a blisteringly fast chaingun that pretty much pulped you the second you stepped in front of it.

DOOM, following the conventions of the time, told its story (“You’re a marine on a moon of Mars and it just got real, teleportation-experiment-gone-wrong style”) mostly via the manual and on some text-heavy screens at the end of Episodes One and Two (Episode Three ended with a much more…graphic…depiction of the outcome of things). Now, in fairness, Doom has never been a title to stand on its epic storytelling. It stood on the amazingly fast John Carmack game engine, the awesome power of Romero’s epic mullet, and Deathmatch. Shakespeare it was not.

Part of the issue here is that this character is highly memorable, but mostly due to novelty and its unusual design. The Spider Mastermind was one of the the largest enemies in DOOM, at least width-wise (the Cyberdemon easily won in height), and it was also the rarest, faced only once at the very end. On the other hand, the game did a pretty poor job, narratively speaking, of explaining what the hell was going on. The name "Spider Mastermind" implies he is the brains behind the operation, but the game never really explained how the invasion happened, what the goals are, etc, and exactly what the mastermind... masterminded. He was a memorable character design, but not necessarily memorable as a character himself. Sort of like ED-209.

They tried to sort of redo the Doom story with the “remake” Doom 3, which contributed very little to the overarching narrative and instead delivered a great deal of darkness, monster-filled closets, and expletive laden switching from my flashlight to my freaking shotgun so I could miss the monsters and wind up being buggered by the teeth of some half-pig half-robot demon. Not that I’m bitter.


Both in character, writing and design, GLaDOS is clearly the child of SHODAN, though she has been gifted with a much more sardonic tone. GLaDOS does follow the same character arc though. Initially helpful, gradually becoming more malevolent and moving from a background character to a more active role before finally revealing herself at the conclusion. GLaDOS's character arc is actually fairly interesting, in that she serves originally as a sort of sidekick/overseer before transitioning into a puppetmaster/antagonist role.

As with SHODAN, what sells GLaDOS is the character's consistency and believability. The writers created a believable personality to wrap around their cake-loving test-runner and kept her tonally consistent throughout the game. Again, taking a play from SHODAN's book, GLaDOS seeks to betray Chell (lying about the cake, also trying to incinerate them and generally murder them) as well as taunt, trap and belittle her throughout their time together at Aperture Science.

What we're dealing with here is a character that, for 95% percent of the game is completely invisible, but still a felt presence. This is a powerful design to use for a videogame villain, heard but not seen, a puppetmaster. GLaDOS is a lot more whimsical in her nature though, which I think makes her more endearing overall. While I hated and feared SHODAN, I felt more like I was waiting to see what GLaDOS would do next. I wasn't dreading it, but I wasn't totally looking forward to it either.

The G-Man

The G-Man, despite being mostly seen in quick glimpses throughout the Half-Life series, is as significant and memorable a character as Alyx Vance. Granted, they are significant to the player in vastly different ways, but each is significant. Indeed, I'm not entirely sure that classing the G-Man as a villain is entirely fair. His behavior is obviously detrimental to Gordon and earth in general, but it's clearly not as malicious as one would first assume.

Valve chose to reveal the G-Man in quick glimpses throughout the original Half-Life, never really explaining who he was or what he does. There was speculation he was "The Administrator", an alien, a government agent, but no concrete information. He served as a sort of MacGuffin to keep the player guessing, but other than offering the player a "job" at the end of Half-Life, he provided little background information. The character did offer Gordon a legitimate choice at the end of the game though; life, or death. This was an unusual move by Valve, and I'm not totally sure how many people realized, at the time, that it was a legitimate choice.

G-Man's motivations, monotone speaking style, and mysterious mannerisms have made him a longstanding puzzle, the solution to which Valve shows no particular eagerness to reveal. I actually hope that Valve is very careful with what they do and do not reveal about that character, because I think the mystery around him and his motivations is an extremely powerful aspect of the character and that actually revealing all about him would undermine the mythos. That's not to say that they don't have it written; I'm sure Marc Laidlaw has a bible of the universe with a full explanation, but that doesn't mean it needs to be shared.

The Faceless Masses

Typically regarded as the cannon fodder between the real bosses (I’m looking at you, Imps and generic soldiers!), Zombies have faced a sort of resurgence of late, thanks to Valve and Left for Dead 1 and 2. The masterfully minimalist story of the games proposes a delightfully simple premise: You and three friends are pretty much the only survivors of the zombie plague, and the zombies are very hungry for brains.What follows is the unending horror of what amounts to a self-generated story that unfolds with minimal directions from the in-game and unseen “Director”. If you want a truly great explanation of the game (if you somehow have failed to play it), then read pages 41-47 of Bissells “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter”. Suffice to say that while it can be played with yourself and three computer-controlled allies, it's designed to be played cooperatively by four people struggling against the zombie masses.

Anyway, what Valve managed to do (again) is make your cannon fodder the most memorable part of the game. There is no single “big boss” for you to fight, no face to put on your enemy except whichever one happens to rotting off the closest zombie. I suppose you could pick up another zombie's face and put it on there too.

Andrew Ryan & Atlas/Frank Fontaine

Ryan presents an interesting character. I swore for 2/3rds of BioShock that this guy was my enemy and that he needed to die for what became of Rapture, his mad vision of the future, but it turned out that he was getting played by the same person I was: Atlas. Of course, it turned out that I was a pawn to both of them.

BioShock was, for me, one of the most brilliant plays on video game convention that I've ever seen. I mean, don't get me wrong, when I had to plug my controller into the other port in Metal Gear Solid I thought that was pretty clever, but listening to Andrew Ryan mock me for following video game conventions, for being a slave to another person's vision? A man chooses, a slave obeys? That was some metafictional burn.

Then, simultaneously, Atlas played me for a fool for pretty much the entire game. Here I thought this unusually polite ("Would you kindly") gentleman was just out to help a random stranger whose plane crashed out of the sky right next to the entrance to a secret city in the middle of an ocean and then was trapped inside by some freaky creature and...huh. Well, when I put it like that I guess it was blindingly obvious that I was in the middle of some kind of trap.

That realization, that moment, to me, is the key part of the experience. We've bought into so much of the over-the-top melodrama inherent in games (saving the world, you're the only hope, you're a super-solider, you're the luckiest person alive, etc) that we've come to the point where we accept these concepts without a second thought. It is for this reason that our girlfriends, wives, boyfriends and husbands can sometimes think we are idiots for playing these games. They are utterly preposterous! For some reason we're okay reading novels about other people being chosen ones, struggling against odds, but when our friends and families see us taking on these roles ourselves, we cross this invisible line into goofyville. This is what Ken Levine and the crew at Irrational point out to us - using their game to make their point, they illustrate the video game's failings to us and hint of a way free.

Then, to drive the point home I am forced, against my will and with no personal control whatsoever, to brutally beat a man to death with a golf club. This is an act that shouldn't have bothered me, at least in the abstract. I mean, I'm responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of virtual creatures, both human and computer controlled. I've killed characters with fists, Excalibats, chainsaws, chainguns, AR's, AK's, helicopters, spreadfire guns, flamethrowers, RPGs, bumpers, rotors, propellers, magnetic accelerators, atomic weapons, shrink rays...but this simple, savage murder had more power than any of those other events.

Ryan himself has a strong presence throughout the game beforehand, and it feeds into his megalomaniacal image. The announcements, the taped messages he leaves behind and are left about him, the struggle between him and Atlas. Atlas' struggle against Ryan even serves to pull at our own patriotic feelings, to tempt us to side with him against the Randian nightmare of Rapture.

He has the same air of constant presence and action as SHODAN, but much less of the personal interaction. Instead, that role falls more squarely upon the shoulders of Atlas, who reveals his true nature in a manner not unlike that of Shodan in System Shock 2, when you find Polito.

The combination of Andrew Ryan and Atlas/Frank Fontaine create, to me, one of the most innovative game villains, a pair that really pushed the genre forward and brought some subversive action to the broader gaming public.

I know that game companies are bound by real world financial concerns, and that even amazing, adventurous games like System Shock and System Shock 2 can be financial failures. But in order for games to be taken more seriously we need to actively, aggressively expand the borders of what games are and what kinds of stories they can tell. By creating proper villains, as well as proper worlds and proper experiences, we can start really turning the tables on both players and critics.
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