Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What If Video Game Bad Guys Weren't Always So Bad?

Remember this guy? That's Severus Snape, one the most pivotal players in the Harry Potter universe. He's easily one of my favorite characters in the series, if not the actual favorite. I spent the entire time I was engrossed in the wizarding world going back and forth on him, wondering about his motives, and where his allegiances lied.

I'm going to talk more about him in a minute, but first I want to get to the topic of the day.

Video games don't handle grey areas so well. On some level, I understand why - if my character has a sword in one hand and a gun in the other, every moment I'm not stabbing or shooting something starts to feel like a tragedy of unrealized potential. Anyone I come across had better have a target on his chest, or be pointing me in the direction of the next guy that does. Otherwise, why am I here?

That brings us to video game villains, the targets of said shootings and stabbings. I may have been a bit hyperbolic just now, but the number of games I can think of where my character had to deal with any kind of moral ambiguity are unquestionably in the minority. And even in games that deal with that sort of thing, like The Last Of Us (my favorite game from 2013, which I won't spoil with any specifics here), the ambiguity is handled in cut scenes, with the big weighty decisions taken out of the player's hands.

[Note: Spoilers for the Harry Potter series and Skyrim Below]

So let's talk about Severus Snape again. Severus is introduced as an antagonist from the very first moment he meets Harry Potter. He's arrogant, he's humorless, and he seems to harbor a grudge against a poor kid whose parents have been murdered, and who's been been bullied nearly his whole life. Just the way he says "Potter" alone, with a disgusted curl in his upper lip in, calls him out as an obvious villain.

Except, in the end, he isn't. He protects Harry and the others in ways they don't realize until the very end of the series. And its not a spell that's he under or all a clever act he's putting on the whole time either. The truth is actually brilliant in its complexity, something I want to emphasis comes from a book series written for children.

Now I want to talk about Skyrim, which I talked a little bit about before. Skyrim's expansive fantasy world has several class-based factions for the player to join, if he chooses, and one of them is a wizarding school not unlike Hogwarts. For practical reasons, I knew my character, a battle mage, ought to check it out, but as an unapologetic fan of Harry Potter, I more urgently wanted to find out what was in store for me as a player. Would there be all the delightful whimsy that Harry, Ron and Hermione got to experience? Would they have their own version of Quidditch, or have their own rival houses, each with their own motto and sigil?

Sadly, the answer to all of this was no. Which was fine - the wizard's college in Skyrim was only a small part of the expansive world, and it can be forgiven if it didn't have the same level of detail as J.K. Rowling's epic series. What it did have was a number of teachers in the game's various schools of magic, some students milling about with various levels of idolization or scorn for me, and a plot about a mysterious magical artifact that was baffling the school's staff.

There was one character in the wizarding school that caught my attention, because he immediately brought to mind my beloved Snape. His name was Ancano and he was a Thalmor, a race of elves that believe themselves superior (off to a good start!). He was also an elemental mage and an advisor to the head Arch Mage. He was in the classic villain's position, presenting himself with classic villainous white hair and everything:

Ancano is introduced to the player with the same air of suspicion we met Snape with as as audience. He's obnoxious, he's creepy, and he's immediately at odds with the hero (which in this case is you, the player). Even the other teachers and students at the college have nothing positive to say about him. They all question his motives, (especially once the magical artifact comes into the picture) which of course make's the player question his motives. This is pretty unusual - even Snape was admired by some of his Slitherin students.

You might be surprised to hear that after all was said and done, when Ancano's true nature was revealed, the player discovers that...yup, he was totally evil all along. Your instincts were right from the start and this guy was a classic ultimate power/take over the world level douche. Ancano eventually summons creatures to attack the town below, and while everyone is distracted, he locks everyone out of the school so he can begin sucking power from the artifact. I stuck my sword through his throat as soon as the game let me, and it felt extremely unsatisfying, and sword through throat killings go.

So why is this so bad? Harry Potter had Voldemort after all, right? For my money, I think it's a big missed opportunity in a game that's already lousy with Voldemorts. Those are never the most interesting characters in stories, and nearly every video game has at least one of them. I think I took down six or seven Voldemorts on my way over to the Wizard's College for the first time. At best they're challenging adversaries that I fight at some point, but from a storytelling perspective they offer next to nothing.

Ambiguity is not impossible to portray in this game. Earlier in my adventuring I came across an interesting quest involving a woman named Saadia (a rarely seen dark-skinned Red Guard, like my character) who I overheard was being hunted by a group of angry looking men. When I tracked the woman down, after initially pulling a knife on me, she eventually confessed that she was being persecuted for speaking out against a dictatorship in her native land. She asked me to kill the men who were looking to punish her and I agreed. I went to a cave full of mercenaries and starting killing everyone left and right, until I got to the final room, and the leader of the group told me to stop and hear him him out.

The leader, Kemantu, explained that I'd been lied to, that Saadia was wanted for treason, for selling her homeland out to the people she claimed she was being persecuted by. He told me to take a moment to consider how quickly I chose to help and slay all his men without knowing for sure if I was being lied to. He also implied that perhaps I was thinking with the wrong part of my body. At that point, I had to decide who was lying to me, Kemantu, or Saadia? I had no concrete proof of anything. I was stuck in ambiguity. I put the controller down and thought long and hard about what to do next.

This brings back an earlier point I discussed about smaller stories having more flexibility in their outcomes in a game like Skyrim. It didn't matter in the main storyline/grand scheme of things whether I killed the women or the men in the cave, so the game let me choose and stick with my decision either way. After scouring the internet for definitive answers (cheating, I know) and not finding any, I finally decided the men had a slightly better case than the woman, and I allowed them to find and capture her (that she wouldn't be killed by the men, as opposed to the other way around, was another deciding factor).

My feelings are much more along the lines of disappointment.
Ancano could have been ultimately good, or ultimately bad, but it's unfortunate that there was never a moment where I doubted his villainy (except in the blind hope that the game's writers were doing a really terrific job making this character into an obvious Voldemort, only making the later Snape-reveal to be that much more powerful). He could have tried to make his case as to why I should trust him at all, or why his motives were anything but nefarious. He could have offered me a role his plan, which I could have considered (what kind of loot will betraying the school get me?) or declined. When he started cackling at me for the first time, telling me how pitiful I was, and how unstoppable he was about to become, I just nodded my head and quietly sighed. If the game allowed me to do the same with my character, I would pressed the appropriate buttons to do so.

I don't think there's any point in introducing a character in a game that the player doesn't trust but has to wait around to eventually engage with. If there's not going to be any questioning of motives from an antagonistic NPC, the power should be in the player's hands to address the character's loyalty as soon as possible. Otherwise, the obvious enemy should be kept holed up in a castle or a cave somewhere, protected until the time is right for confrontation. I'm not asking for branching paths or sweeping game design changes here, just better writing.

In speaking to the larger issue, if video games want us to get more invested in their stories, they should start putting in a lot more Snapes, and a lot fewer Ancanos. I want to have more moments where I put my controller down on the coffee table, and stop to think about my actions rather than just blindly dashing from plot point to plot point. These moments normally come in the form of strategizing and stat-building, but they rarely make an appearance in the way of questioning my or other character's roles in the story.

I'm going to talk more about this next time, when I delve into The Walking Dead and Mark of the Ninja, two great games with some of the most stellar uses of storytelling I've seen to date.


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