Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
February 2010

Am I Evil?

Evil is a funny thing. It's a concept that a lot of video games are to some degree dependent on. What would Super Mario be if he hadn't a Bowser to constantly kidnap the princess? The JRPG genre in its entirety is arguably built on the concept that some ultimate baddie is in need of a walloping. In short, as bad as evil is, it's something that games, if not all fiction as a whole, could not survive without. It always leaves me wondering then why so many games seem to shoot so low.

I suppose that's a bit strong. There's nothing necessarily wrong, after all, with stories focused on villains of true, unadulterated evil. I'd be a fool to say that The Lord of the Rings is anything but a monumental work on account of Sauron's no-frills depiction of wickedness. Nor would I berate Star Wars because of Emperor Palpatine (Vader is beyond criticism). I would simply argue that in the grand scheme of evil, these guys aren't nearly as interesting as those villains that have the brass to have foibles, to be complicated.

One of my favorite book series is George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice. While I am constantly begrudging having become so enamored in a series that will most likely never be finished, the book has some brilliant villains simply from the virtue that they aren't necessarily evil. They do bad stuff most certainly, but their reasons for doing so are generally understandable. After all, who wouldn't consider doing something wrong if it meant saving your country or family?

Video games have been pretty slow to embrace this type of villain. The medium often clings to the blockbuster formula of good guys being really good and bad guys being really bad, and that's fine to an extent. Bowser wouldn't be the loveable baddie that he is if his quest to kidnap the kingdom was grounded in real life issues. Nor would the Overlord games be made better if your character were an ultimate evil with Mommy and Daddy issues. That said, outside of the realm of the intentionally silly it can be nice to have a bit of variety.

Uncharted 2 was one of my favorite games last year because of its cleverly written characters. The heroes in the game are heroic without being shining paragons of good. The enemies though? The big villain is your typical hardliner mercenary seeking power for the sake of having more power. Now granted, Uncharted 2 was for all intents and purposes an interactive summer blockbuster, but using that as an excuse is the same as saying Michael Bay should keep getting away with making brainless films, and I doubt many would agree with that. Video games, like films, can be smart and fun.

It isn't as if there are no examples to draw on. In Wing Commander IV, the once heroic character of Admiral Tolwyn -- played by a brilliant Malcolm McDowell -- turns bad. He initiates a war against an innocent people, killing millions in the process. But his reasons for doing so aren't arbitrary. Through the Wing Commander games his entire focus has been saving the human race and in the fourth game those motives remain. He starts the conflict out of the hope that continued fighting will weed out the weak in the human race so that when the next alien threat arrives, humanity as a whole will be strong enough to face them.

Similarly, Dragon Age's Teyrn Loghain does horrible, destructive things throughout the game. Thousands are killed because of his actions, but his motives are understandable. He sees his country going down a path he thinks disastrous and does what he thinks necessary to ensure its survival. He's wrong, of course; and as the game goes on, it becomes clear to everyone around him that he's been corrupted by power and his own nationalistic nature, but it's still hard not to sympathize with the guy. He's wrong, but all he's trying to do is continue what he's spent his life doing -- protecting his people.

The flawed nature of evil in video games, though, becomes most apparent to me when the choice to be bad is placed in the player's hands. Evil in a lot of games about choice is too often treated like a novelty. Dragon Age is a game all about gray moral choices. You're often faced with decisions where there's no real right answer, just two wrong ones where you have to choose which you think to be the better one. That said, the game still does tarry at times with the sort of black-and-white good and evil that too many fantasy stories insist upon. This isn't a problem if you're playing a hero. A big part of Dragon Age is that you can choose how your story begins, and no matter what character you choose to play as, it always makes sense to be the be good guy.

Being a bad guy though? Not so much. Some of the evil choices in the game are really evil, and none of the various origins offered by the game give much basis to do them. It's kind of a stretch to be fighting bravely to save your family one second and then the next mass murdering a clan of elves. Similarly, inFamous, another 2009 favorite of mine, gives you the option to be evil but doesn't really give you a character who seems like they would ever do the kind of stuff that you can do. Whether you choose to save the innocent or trample them, main character Cole remains largely the same person. He pines after his girlfriend, chats amicably with his best friend and then can butcher innocent people on a whim. Cole never effectively develops into an evil character if that's what you choose to make him. The writers swap a line here or there, but it's not enough to make Cole the sort of evil he needs to be.

The few games that I can really think of that let you believably be evil are the ones that give you a blank slate to play with. Fallout 3, Fable, Black & White -- you can develop an evil character because the game lets you create your own persona as the story moves along. This is fine, but sometimes I'd prefer a more structured experience than that. The character backgrounds offered by Dragon Age provided a nice foundation that often made events more interesting personal. It's just a shame that none were offered that really made it viable to be truly bad; because honestly after a long day of doing the right thing, it's nice to be truly immersed in doing something wrong.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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