We are the Villains by Tauriq Moosa
Tauriq Moosa explores the unique ways that videogames portray villainy.
"Hard" spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead: 400 Days and BioShock follow. Please read our spoiler policy here.
The most interesting villains are those who think they’re heroes. Considering video games primarily are about casting the player as the hero – or on the side of the hero – games, sometimes more than other mediums, can tell a “villain” story powerfully. But, first, we must recognize what we need to get rid of, in order to keep and develop what’s necessary.
The stereotypical villain cackles, while twirling his mustache.
Stereotype dictates he be male, control a horde of minions, and have a fortress somewhere lit by flashes of thunder. His plans are some unfathomably weird concoction of revenge and pure malice, directed at something unachievable and vague – like “world domination” – and born from some dark deed or horrid wrong done to him or a loved one. He probably is talented at creating weird gadgets and weapons which, without fail, will fail.
Such a person has never existed nor ever will. This Saturday morning cartoon villain is often – but not always – just the creation of the lazy writer, not our complicated world and its even more complicated inhabitants. He is a reason to act, a reason to defend, a reason to show off our hero, to get us to care: he is not a character in a meaningful sense, he has no motives that we question – since that would mean questioning the hero – and he is written to be the dark to our hero’s light.
Do you even wonder why Bowser keeps taking Princess Peach? Does he actually deserve destruction? Does anyone really care about the villains’ motives during a Call of Duty game (a franchise whose laughable single-player story (!) campaign has long been recognized as a mere, offhand add-on to its multiplayer)? In the Lord of the Rings films, does anyone know Sauron’s motivations, aside from “cover the lands in shadow” – or whatever?
I’m sure the reasoning exists. It must. But it’s clearly not translating into something we care about as an audience.
It’s just bad guys doing bad things because they’re bad or for badness’ sake: call it “banal badness”.
Even “rooting for” the villain is largely done with a smile: In the Overlord franchise, for example, clubbing (verb) seals and destroying innocent villages is a fun, often hilarious experience. Villagers’ big-eyed, dopey innocence and heroes’ 110% all-natural, organic goodness are pumped to extreme levels, such that they’re nauseating – anyone would want to destroy such horrid things. Dungeon Keeper found you often destroying (corrupt) leaders – but here, too, heroes embodied nothing but goodness to the power of repulsion divided by minion’s sword.
We can and do enjoy playing the bad guy. We can enjoy “playing at” evil, especially when “good” is carbo-loaded, diabetes-inducing idiocy. But too often this is the only treatment we get and it’s an imbalance.
Why do we get “conflicted” heroes, whose actions are coated in the grey of moral dilemmas – such as Mass Effect’s Shepard or The Walking Dead’s Lee – but, rarely, conflicted villains? Of course, since we’re playing a game from the perspective of one character, we don’t see the other side: but that’s not a reason to keep up the pretense of obviously bad versus obviously good.
By now, it should be obvious that the problem isn’t boring
villains or banal badness itself: It’s banal, uninteresting story and
story-telling. But it comes through most strongly from writing proper villains.
You could say a good rule of thumb is: if a story has a villain who is
interesting, it’s probably a sign that the story is interesting, too.
But let us say we have done away with obvious black and white morality; that we’ve removed the stitches that’s woven the story showing our hero as worthy of respect and the villain as one to detest. What would such a story look like?
What’s surprising is that many of us have already experienced such stories.
Consider Spec Ops: The Line. On its surface, from screenshots and trailers, it was the embodiment of the typical, gritty modern shooter. A team of thick-necked Americans carrying thick-necked guns are dropped into a foreign country to shoot Arabic-speaking people because something, something terrorism. The final nail was discovering Nolan North voiced the main character, Walker. We had seen this a thousand times before, but usually with a title featuring the words “Call” and “Medal” and “Ops” and “Modern”. What hope could such a game, from fairly unknown developer Yager, possibly hope to achieve in a market already full with American-bravado-based, foreign-killing, story-free games?
A lot apparently.
Many games seem to veer between having an uninteresting or non-existent story or one so complicated it becomes a flatline of meaning. Spec Ops: The Line plays with all these tropes to manipulate its own brilliant end. Your mission is never really explained: you must conduct reconnaissance in a dust-covered Dubai, after revered colonel John Conrad sends out a message his evacuation mission failed. What this “reconnaissance” entails isn’t outlined, but the three main characters have a clear sense of duty in completing it. There’s little doubt, as they enter, that what they’re doing is justified.
We as players agree – tacitly. After all, we’re not thinking of anything other than getting to the end of the game. That’s the nature of play.
The name Conrad, the journey to find a mysterious military leader in the middle of a foreign land – all of it of screams Heart of Darkness (or Apocalypse, Now). Factions, foreign language, furious firing – the volume and velocity increases at a rapid speed, until we’re killing anyone who is in front of us. Why wouldn’t we?
Then you kill fellow Americans. Then you kill soldiers protecting civilians. Then you kill these civilians, sheltering from violence. Throughout it all, your squadmates are telling you: “Turn around. Call it in.”
Turn around, indeed. Our lead character’s moral compass is clearly facing a different direction, but the dust storms of dogmatic certainty have made him conjure a non-existent destination, a moral mirage he calls “mission success”.
And when we say lead character, we’re saying “ourselves”. We can pull out anytime, stop the game, refuse to continue. Yager has mentioned how even their own people walked out at certain scenes.
And still the game pushes you on, throwing more goals to be completed as if nothing has happened; as if you haven’t just led your character slouching toward an ethical Gomorrah, too afraid, too certain to turn around lest he - and we - turn to gaming salt.
Because if he turned, he’d see “the line” from the title. He’d see it for a brief second before it is consumed by the sands. "We can’t go home,” says Colonel Conrad. “There’s a line men like us have to cross. If we’re lucky, we do what’s necessary, and then we die." They will never return as heroes - or, more importantly, as people.
The necessity of certain actions to achieve greater ends means the erosion of smaller but common acts of humanity. That, after all, is almost the definition of war. As Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his seminal piece On War: “It is easier to use theory to organize, plan, and conduct an engagement than it is to use it in determining the engagement’s purpose.” Clausewitz’s term, “fog of war”, is used today in a variety of ways, but primarily it concerned the uncertainty in situation awareness experienced by those involved in military operations.
What are we fighting for? Why? Such questions are silenced by obeying orders. And yet the answers’ repercussions are felt.
How often, if such questions were answered truthfully, would those bearing the brunt recognize that they have become the monsters they had been fighting? Walker’s denial, continual progress and finally seeing his reflection in a shattered mirror confirm what he knew - but pushed down - all along: He had crossed the line and had become the villain.
More importantly, we had commanded him to do so, by clicking, aiming, saving, continuing to play. How long were we in denial of our awful actions?
How long had we been the villains, making life worse for all, but continuing anyway because some artificial goal told us to? Looking back, we can piece together how we came here, standing on the dark side of the line.
If we, in our role as hero, can end up here, how can we deny it doesn’t and couldn’t happen to others?
Bioshock, too, presented itself as another quirky first-person
shooter; the spiritual successor to System
Shock. A beautifully-realized world beneath the seas bloomed into a
decaying flower of a once noble aspiration: to see humanity achieve its goals,
unblemished by various factions of dogma like religion or government. Already,
as players, we knew this wasn’t just some fantastical steampunk jaunt. There
was some heavy philosophy behind it (even if it was written by a writer no one
actually reads, but who everyone claims to)! You were smart for “getting it”.
So you play.
You journey in, a stranger, anchored by this lofty ideal that seems rationally-based: Why should a man be dragged down by debts he actually owes to no one else? Why can’t you reap what you sow? You take tonics and you kill, because the voice asks you kindly. And you play and kill and continue, because he asks you kindly. Water seeps into the world, eroding it, and you follow through, the orders going through your ears, out through your bullets into the flesh of opponents – driven insane by their need to be better.
What are you fighting for? At hardly any point do you really question this: nor your abilities, nor your reasons for following the orders of a stranger. But you do it.
And then you discover the truth: you were made to follow orders. All this was an illusion to control you, led by the nice words of the kindly man.
Yes, we were given a choice to save or drain Little Sisters; we faced down Big Daddy after Big Daddy, despite him not interfering with us (and leaving his Little Sister vulnerable to Splicers). But you followed orders and killed because you were told.
To think back, at what point did we cross the line between hero and villain? Putting it down to “I was being controlled!” or “I was being manipulated” is surely no excuse for murder. And yet we did it anyway.
Others would look on us as villains. And we would’ve provided enough evidence, in blood, to justify this perception.
But to qualify this perception, few games do this better than The Walking Dead: 400 Days.
Telltale, as a studio, has emerged as one of the greatest sources of
story-telling of the modern era. To play The
Walking Dead (Season 1) is to experience the full emotional toil of
characters so relatable, my experience of the game is more lived memory of a
zombie apocalypse of actual experiences than a game.
Bridging the gap between Season 1 and 2, Telltale offered us a smaller jewel in the form of myriad perspectives – 400 Days. Here we journeyed alongside five individuals, each with their own backgrounds but all centered around a truck stop on a Georgia highway.
The difference between 400 Days and the first series is, of course, that the next “episode” sees you playing the role of a completely different character, at a different time.
Telltale did the best thing a developer could do with this possibility: It showed conflict in a way that eroded notions of good people and bad people. For example, if you played one character, made difficult decisions, defended her, tried to find ways to support her group, you obviously start to build a connection with her.
Then the game changes and you’re playing someone else entirely, in a snapshot of a life amidst the zombie apocalypse, at a different time. Now, she’s being attacked and you realize that the attacking group is the group from your previous game – who you defended, protected, made difficult decisions for. You realize that they’re trying to survive as much as the current character. This will result in conflict and, usually, would see you calling these others “evil” or “villains”.
Since you were in their shoes, walking or running around, you recognize these are not the attire of cold-blooded villains – but the attire of another person, pushed through circumstance to desperate actions.
You simply can’t hate the person you’ve just spent time caring for. By playing with our emotions and forcing us to realize we were just playing the current character’s enemy, Telltale has stabbed the knife of mature thinking into the heart of banal badness.
These games are the exception (indeed, they’re all exceptional). But there are other games, where I recognized my “hero” could easily be seen as a villain. Joel, in The Last of Us, makes decisions I find incredibly immoral; as already indicated, Mass Effect's Shepard is often forced into a moral dilemma, each one resulting in the suffering or death of innocent people. However, these are often so thoroughly grounded in “doing the right thing”, so grounded in telling only their perspectives and providing little context for their opponents, that we can’t really grey their blinding white moral purity.
Banal badness needs to be undermined if we are to make better stories in all mediums, not just video games. Villains don’t come ex nihilo from some womb of evil; they’re made by circumstances, idiotic people, dogma, stupid beliefs. Villains hardly think they’re villains and it's this that must be remembered when they’re created. No one cares about the evil laughing guy in the dark cloak – and it's our lack of caring that allows lazy writing and banal badness to continue. Our creative apathy will be the fertile soil from which these drooping flowers of easy, boring characters will grow and act.
This isn’t a justification for evil actions and shouldn’t be considered as such. There do exist evil people in our world – but we know they weren’t “born” with a poisoned blade and plan in their hands. And, naturally, fiction doesn’t need to align to reality.
But the reason we need to point out reality is to show what we can’t take seriously in fiction. For example, just because it's fiction doesn't mean a character that was French on one page is American in the next. There is after all such a thing as fictional reality. Reality (even in fiction) is a step-by-step plotting of why characters do things: A failure to understand why your villain is evil is a failure to understand your own fictional reality. Why should we take you seriously when you’ve provided no reason, no outlining of reality, to make us even partially understand why your character is acting a certain way?
For too long villains are given a free pass to just be evil. And this rubs off on those who are their opposites.
As we’ve seen, interesting villains are usually the hallmarks of interesting and innovative games; we are treated like adults, since we aren’t given Saturday morning cartoon villains. And games can powerfully show us this, sometimes more than other mediums. Creators failing to do this are not only doing the games a disservice but artistic expression itself.
Tauriq Moosa writes opinion pieces on social issues and pop culture, seen on his blog at Big Think, Guardian, New Statesmen, io9 and elsewhere. Dislikes dolphins and puppies.
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