Villains in video games: why villains are often the good guys

Recently in the Obsidian role-playing game The Outer Worlds. I’m making my way through the once-hidden passageway of the space station Pioneer. Suddenly I hear a voice saying, “Hey, there must be someone there.” I go to the bell – and find a locked door. I quickly crack it with a picklock. Everything goes fine. Behind it I meet Private Taylor. The poor guy has locked himself in the toilet and then the latrine explodes too! The walls and floor are decorated with a brown mottled pattern. The soldier dutifully thanks him and wants to run away. Wait, not so fast!

We’re still in a video game, and I’m not a Good Samaritan. Result: I ‘persuade’ him to reward me well. Taylor hands me his final bits, curses and disappears. I feel bad for a moment. But then I smirk and rejoice that my rancour has succeeded. And let’s be honest: sometimes it’s just fun not to play by the rules!

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It’s a fascinating story! And new opportunities

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This is evident not only in video games, but also in other media. The Joker is currently breaking all cinematic records – although the focus is not on the knight in shining armour, but on the charismatic psychopath brilliantly embodied by Joaquin Phoenix. And in Star Wars too, most people think Darth Vader is cool, with Luke Skywalker taking second place. Evil has a special fascination for us. But why does it really do that?

Master of Evil      

The first basic question is: what does evil really mean in the game? The motivation of the character’s actions and the purpose of the game set the tone here. For example, am I evil just because I’m destroying all of humanity like the virus in Plague Inc.? Probably yes. Also fantasy games, such as the early parts of God of War, have Kratos, who more than once crosses the moral line for his own good. On the other hand, in strategy games like Black & White or Tropico, I decide for myself how far I will go on the dark side and how much the pursuit of power corrupts me. In other words: Evil can be found in a variety of gameplay options in video games – sometimes as a driving force, sometimes as an extra opportunity that might allow me to win faster. One thing’s for sure: it’s this escape from regulated paths that often makes it so appealing. Sometimes I want to explore the limits, or even go beyond them. And I like it just as much when I meet an opponent in games who does the same.

At the mercy of villains      

Games, and more specifically entertainment media in general, require a strong and rebellious antagonist in addition to a charismatic hero. Only when the threat is completely believable does it create tension and atmosphere. Game authors like to resort to overbearing, almost insane villains – like DC Comics, for example, with the aforementioned Joker character.

The best example of this alignment is undoubtedly Vaas Montenegro .from Far Cry 3: As soon as he appeared in the game, the mood immediately changed. Vaas was completely unpredictable. Still calm after a moment, he could explode and kill in a split second. This alternation between seemingly controlled speech and atrocities created a constant sense of insecurity. Fighting him in Ubisoft’s open-world shooter, for most of the game I felt I was outmatched. Vaas thought beyond me, or at least reacted so well to my counterattacks that even after small victories I found myself even more of a mess. Bold mock madness defines the portrayal of evil protagonists. Vaas was playing cat and mouse with me.

I’m evil!      

In Far Cry 3, System Shock or even Portal, I play a secondary role. Evil is in control and all games are about survival and overcoming the obstacles in front of me. However, other titles have even made me an instrument of evil. In Command & Conquer: The Tiberium Conflict, for example, I was instructed at the beginning of the Brotherhood of Nod campaign by a relatively pale Seth, who introduced himself as Kane’s mouthpiece. He gave me orders, I carried them out. But after my work failed, I had to seek heavier artillery. Kane came out cracking, and in his first scene he shot Seth from ambush before he was even noticed. So it was clear: you can’t mess with Kane!

To this day, Kane is one of the most compelling villains of all time. And even though I preferred playing as GSS troops back then, I wanted to experience Nod missions to see Kane again. In other games, on the other hand, I get to live out my own destructive sides, or at least have the choice of whether I want to act good or bad. In those titles I – or my avatar – become evil, and even there it’s a little easier. In Bioshock, for example, I chose to kill the Little Sisters or save them. If I let the Little Girls live, I get significantly less of Adam’s superpower and thus buy my fighting spirit with a higher level of difficulty.

Fake Choice.      

Role-playing games, on the other hand, gave me the choice of which side I wanted to lean towards more often. Whether it was Mass Effect, Fable or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, many games, in my opinion, relied too heavily on being ‘evil in numbers’. The calculated chaos handles mostly had the opposite effect for me. I didn’t want to be evil just to gain skills or even a certain look. If I go too far, please do so systematically and not by choice. The best example of this is certainly the Megatonna explosion in Fallout 3. Honestly, I just wanted to know if the thing really explodes. Sometimes you just want to watch the world burn up.

More shades of grey!      

In 2019 in particular, I expect some differentiation and heroes, as well as options that will morally push me to the limits of my decision-making abilities. In the indie hit Papers, Please I work as a border guard and have to make a decision in favour of a totalitarian regime. So I am the leader and have to weigh up whether I will do my “job” or stay true to my basic morals in the game. Whether I’m good, bad or just plain human is up to me. Ultimately, everything revolves around motives and motivations for action at that moment. Villainous opponents like Shodan, Handsome Jack or Vaas Montenegro may be evil in nature, but they have to have character depth, backstory and, above all, the right pitch. Only then do they work and really captivate us. For my part, I do feel that GLaDOS offends me again. Do you?

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