Being good is so boring! Wouldn’t you rather be smashing things? – Fable
In Margaret Atwood’s apocalyptic novel Oryx and Crake, a mad scientist engineers a race of pseudo-humans who are the ultimate good guys. These “Crakers,” as they’re called, feel no jealousy. They have no aggression. Their physiology allows them to live in perfect harmony with nature. And they’re such dull company that the lone human survivor of the apocalypse would rather risk being eaten by feral mutant pigs than keep these people around as bodyguards.
The Crakers’ biggest problem is they’re so doggone nice that they’re incapable of humor. “For jokes you need a certain edge, a little malice,” their fictional creator says. “It took a lot of trial and error … but I think we’ve managed to do away with jokes.”
Does goodness seem bland because villains have the monopoly on irony, wit, sarcasm and irreverence? When we indulge our virtual dark sides, are we trying to escape the weighty earnestness of heroism?
Villainy’s “fun factor” is an issue more pronounced in art than in real life. We usually don’t mind sharing an office or a fence with a nice person, but we don’t particularly want to read about him. In the case of roleplaying games, dialogue writers face an even greater challenge than novelists in making the “good” choices as interesting as the “evil” ones.
Consider, for example, the scene that opens Jade Empire. You’re standing in the ring with one of your fellow students at Master Li’s school. “One of these days,” says your cheerful sparring opponent, “I’ll find a way around your guard.”
If you’re determined to be nice, your choices are a good-natured “One more match, then?” or a terse but polite “Not today. We’re done practicing for now.” If, on the other hand, you’re in the mood to play a conceited jerk, the responses are funnier: “I could blindfold myself. That might even the odds,” you can say, or, “I doubt it, you strike with the grace of a cow.” Not comedy for the ages, sure, but more amusing than the choices permitted to a sincere, earnest bore.
Thanks to the structural constraints of text-based player responses, Chaotic-Evil roleplaying choices are much more likely to involve wit or irony than their Lawful-Good counterparts, due to the standard dialogue tree’s limited scope. Ideally, an RPG would allow players to choose from a whole spectrum of personalities, but in practice, each tree can support only so many conversation paths and character nuances without devolving into an unmanageable labyrinth.
Typically, there’s enough room for about four player responses after each NPC dialogue node. The main goal is to move the action forward, so at least one or two responses must serve the purpose of information gathering or quest advancement. Because tradition has made the heroic role the standard path through most games, these utilitarian advance-the-plot options are most closely identified with the goody two shoes role; “spar again” or “no thanks.” As a result, the dialogue tree real estate reserved for adding color, including mercenary, sarcastic, witty or humorous options, usually falls to personas other than the basic good guy.
What also confines humor to the less heroic roleplaying personas goes deeper than simple logistics: It springs from the fundamental connection that exists between humor and malice. Though most of us tend to think of humor as a genial quality, this rosy perspective is relatively modern. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but for thousands of years, philosophers have identified malice as its bloody beating heart.
Plato and Aristotle didn’t distinguish between “laughing with” and “laughing at.” They considered all humor to be rooted in schadenfreude, aggression and contempt. Two thousand years later, when Thomas Hobbes described the natural human condition as “nasty, brutish and short,” he saw humor as part of the problem, not the solution. Laughter, in his opinion, was an expression of the “sudden glory” that comes from perceiving someone else’s inferiority.
The nastier dialogue options from Jade Empire take the Platonic route: Both jokes are founded on scorn for the opponent’s inferior fighting skills. What’s more, because the responses are text-based, the malice at the core of each joke is utterly exposed. While in normal conversation, the humorous choices could come across as friendly quips, the text alone doesn’t provide enough context to make them viable options for a thoroughgoing hero. Without the aid of body language – or at least a reassuring emoticon – sarcasm and irony can often come across as hostile.
This humor-malice connection is a two-way street. If villainous personas have an inherent capacity to be funny, a healthy sense of irony can also inspire a player to behave villainously. After all, how better to mock social values or clichéd narrative conventions than by flouting or reversing them?
Sometimes this kind of ironic evil is inherent in the design of a game. Overlord, for example, is wholly devoted to a tongue-in-cheek inversion of traditional, Tolkienesque fantasy values. Casting the player in the titular evil role opens up countless opportunities for making fun of various staples of fantasy. Villagers refer to the local halflings as “sneaky little wossnames,” and the Overlord’s subordinate laments that he “cannot be a bastion of evil these days without wretched heroes lining up to prove themselves.”
Beyond parody, the game’s humor is based on schadenfreude; the good old-fashioned enjoyment of nastiness and suffering that puts the slap in slapstick. In Overlord‘s virtual environment, you have carte blanche to laugh maniacally as you slaughter lambs frolicking in the meadows (“All they do is chew grass until something kills them”) or chortle as you sacrifice your own devoted minions.
While such nefarious pleasures are well beyond what we could ever hope to commit in life, their capacity to appeal to our sense of humor aligns not only with classical philosophy, but also with modern psychology. Research suggests that hostility and humor do, indeed, go hand in hand. According to psychology professor Rod Martin, “there is considerable evidence that the playfully aggressive elements in jokes and the perception of pain in others (within a nonserious, playful context) contribute to the funniness of the humor.”
Games, by definition, provide the “nonserious, playful context” in which hostile acts become funny. Even when the satire isn’t built into the game – when evil isn’t presented in a funny way – a player’s own sense of irony can still make choosing to be evil seem funny. I have plenty of friends who, when faced with a choice between good and evil, black and white, Open Palm and Closed Fist, always choose the more villainous option as a matter of course. They’re not especially evil or sadistic; they just think it’s funny to do whatever normal standards of decency suggest they shouldn’t.
The idea that evil is more fascinating than good is as old as serpents, apples and temptation. The dark side is tempting for many reasons – freedom, individuality, novelty – but they share this much common ground: The sort of evil that fascinates us must be the antithesis of whatever makes good seem boring. Humorlessness is pretty boring. But since humor isn’t “nice,” people value the byproduct of traits we usually consider to be bad, which means humor is the best way to make even your grandmother want to be bad, if only for a few dialogue options.
Laura Capello Bromling is a freelance writer for The Escapist.