Anti/Villain

Anti/Villain
Stop Killing the Foozle!

Rowan Kaiser | 13 Jul 2010 13:00
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Like the great gaming question - why do so many games involve violence? - the answer is complicated, but much of it has to do with inertia. Game studios and designers don't change their ways easily. Since most games throughout videogame history have used stories with evil antagonists who are defeated through violence, it makes sense that modern games use that model. As major game releases became multi-million dollar investments through the 1990s, risks like uncommon narratives without a major villain were frowned upon.

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It's also easier to use Foozles. Let's be honest with ourselves: the vast majority of videogame storylines are lazy and generic - a big bad guy is threatening to destroy or take over the country/world/galaxy. In most cases, you know that if you succeed in your quest, then the evil plot will be foiled. For most games, and apparently gamers, that's enough. With both traditional and economic reasons for designers to use Foozles, it's no surprise that Foozle-less games are so rare.

And to be honest, that rarity isn't a bad thing. Where would videogaming be without Sephiroth, Andrew Ryan & Frank Fontaine, Luca Blight, Bowser, Liquid Snake, Kreia or the Guardian? These are our Darth Vaders and Anton Chigurhs - mythical villains who dominate their respective stories. A drive for all games to be Foozleless ignores this aspect of videogame history, and may do more harm than good. Games like Ultima IV & VI should be rare and special; they should momentarily make you stop and wonder how certain game mechanisms work - or don't work - without a primary antagonist, something that could make any game better.

Two classic PC games, Planescape: Torment and Warcraft III, illustrate in completely different fashions how games can use the narrative boost of a strong antagonists without having a simple Foozle. In Planescape: Torment, the goal of the game is self-discovery, as you play an immortal - or at least, impossible-to-fully-kill - amnesiac called "The Nameless One" attempting to understand the circumstances of his condition. The obstacles placed in your path as you navigate the game have the same function as a straightforward antagonist. However, the game slowly reveals that these obstacles were put in place by previous incarnations of the protagonist. His faulty memory and a detached personality known as "The Practical One" muddle The Nameless One's journey to uncover his true identity, but they're trying to help, not hinder. At the end of the game, the primary antagonist is revealed to be yet another detached rogue aspect of Nameless, called "The Transcendent One."

The formal experimentation of Warcraft III and especially its expansion pack, The Frozen Throne, works in a different direction, by having multiple in-game factions with different antagonists for each, who often double as playable characters (building on a model began with StarCraft, another game that doesn't get paid its dues as a single-player experience). The primary villain at the end of the game - who continues in that role in World of Warcraft - is Prince Arthas. But the story is in many ways his story, as you control Arthas more than any other character in the game. He is the protagonist of three of the game's seven chapters, and his story arc of descent into evil and rise as the new avatar of the Lich King is the primary storyline. By making you, the player, guide Arthas and act complicit in his crimes, Warcraft III offers a more nuanced and mature kind of story. Protagonist and antagonist, hero and villain, are mixed together in one of the most satisfying plots in videogame history.

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