Sunday, April 09, 2006

Introduction to Villainy

My special villain power today is the power of run-on sentences much like the ones you'll find below. Sentences that continue for too long, strings of words for which there are no periods inserted into the gaps between them. I am Mojo Jojo!

It struck me that there is a bit of confusion in the forums about the role people want to play in video games. Lately, playing as a villain has been getting more common. Not necessarily playing a villain, but playing your character as if he were one. Killing off the citizenry, for example.

This rise in villainy is mostly because the simulations have finally become advanced enough to give us the freedom to exterminate everything that moves... without the accompanying freedom to build. This is not a fundamental change in the preference of players, just in the capability of the games.

In truth, the only real demand people have for a role in a game is a simple one: something that gives them a taste of a life they do not have. If they are allowed to, they will experiment with every kind of life they find unusual. At least, until they get queasy.

At the moment, I think playing a villain is "in" for two reasons. One: until recently, you weren't given much chance to. So it's a sharp contrast from the usual fare, and therefore more interesting. Two: being evil is always a slippery slope.

In a set of games where you can be good or evil, chances are you'll try each. Maybe not in the same game, but you'll contrast, in your mind, the "prize" for being good and the "prize" for being evil.

Every time you're evil, you're rewarded. With loot, with a sharp reaction from the simulation, with the chance to play a new minigame called "kill the cops". Every time you're good, the game doesn't even notice.

This is largely true to life. Being nice out on the street gets a whole lot less attention than a shooting in the middle of downtown. Obviously, games build off of that. But that means that the interesting short-term thing to do is to be evil. And games can't do the other half of the equation very well.

Let me see if I can explain.

"Evil" is a very relative term. I generally play through a good game twice, and once will be mostly me slaughtering innocents and stealing everything. This is because they are nameless, faceless hordes. As soon as someone starts putting some humanizing features on the faceless hordes, I can't do it any more. Instead, I want to interact positively, build a useful relationship. Suddenly, I expect the simulation to allow me to build, rather than destroy. It never does, unfortunately, which really pisses me off.

For example, in any KoToR game, I can't be evil for two reasons. First, the evil is a twelve-year-old's idiot evil, rather than the more sophisticated kinds of evil I would prefer. Second, I don't trust the villains. If I ally myself with the good guys, I expect they will hold to their side of the bargain and even rescue me if I need rescuing. The evil side? They're as likely to shoot me as pay me, and they certainly won't raise a finger to back me up later.

It turns out that the KoToR games don't think that way, and most of the evil people are as trustworthy as the good people, and nobody ever backs you up. But that's a weakness in their simulation - in real life, it holds true. And that's what I bring to the game.

Similarly, in Oblivion, the people all have faces full of personality. Although I'm not fond of the fact that half their faces look identical and they only have three voice actors, that doesn't keep me from getting upset whenever I accidentally stumble into a bandit camp and are forced to kill people who look unique enough that I would have liked to have talked with them.

In these games, the world is getting deep enough that the simulation can't keep up. There's simply no reward for being good, and a reward every time you are evil. I can't let go of my wish to build rather than destroy, but obviously I'm not in the majority. The majority of players gravitate to where the simulation is deepest.

The simulation is deepest at the "evil" side. For the moment. That means that evil is the play style of choice. For the moment.

At least, that's what I think. Any other opinions?


Patrick Dugan said...

I think the problem goes a bit deeper, and thats that moral complexity is getting simulated. There is hardly a shade of gray in any games, except maybe the occasional moment in the Ultima series, a fair portion of Planescape: Torment, and maybe Beyond Good and Evil, but thats just gleaning from the title.

I think good gets a fair crop, at least in KotOR, but the problem is that only the extremes are really interesting, and the bulk of the dynamic is hollow.

I think interactive drama will solve this problem, or this problem must be solved in order for interactive drama to work. Probably the latter.

Corvus said...

Well, I'm not a big believer in evil anyway. There's behavior which fits social norms and behavior which doesn't. There's constructive behavior and destructive behavior. There's behavior which ensures the survival of self and behavior which ensures the survival of others... which, is really just the former behavior with some intelligent thought behind it.

I don't play evil characters, even when following the dark paths in KotOR and Fable. I play a troubled person with some social issues to work out.

Hm... there's a full post in this. I'll tag team you later this week.

Craig Perko said...

Well, evil or not, the activities these games condone is sociopathic.

I look forward to your post.

Patrick: Beyond Good and Evil had a name which had nothing to do with the game. The game was strictly "Good".

kestrel404 said...

Based on the title, I was hoping for an article on how to portray an interesting/convincing vilian. Ah well.

Yeah, I agree. Even the games that are all about morality (KoTOR, Black&White, Fable) tend to be horrible as far as giving you reasonable moral choices. The shades of gray are either useless or non-existent, and there is no thought at all given to enlightened self interest or ends justifying means.

Craig Perko said...

I don't know, have I ever portrayed a convincing villain? :P

GregT said...

In the midst of replaying Morrowind, I'm struck by how much that game encourages some types of "good" behaviour simply by accident. On my first play-through, I robbed every house I found blind, and slaughtered anyone who looked at me funny. About halfway through, I discovered that I'd accidentally looted and sold key items I'd need to finish quests, with no recollection of who I'd sold them to. Also, key plot figures and quest givers had been brutally murdered in the street and their corpses neatly disposed of. Now my hopes of finishing the main plot were ruined, or at least severely set back. I'm currently playing it again now, as a "good guy" (although I'm still a little lightfingered where I know it's safe).

But I suppose this isn't really encouraging me to work within the system so much as it's encouraging me to work the system. And that's really all any "system" can manage to do. What motivates us to be good in real life is a personal and unique investment in the system, and that's something that's very hard to recreate in a game, especially where so many narratives inherently cast the player as an "outsider" or a "loner" or at least as a dynamic force for change.

Craig Perko said...

That's true, Greg. When you destroy too much of the system, it collapses. That's a sort of punishment, although I find that it's usually pretty clear what is "plot" and what isn't.

On the other hand, I have to disagree with the last bit of your last paragraph. I don't see any reason why the player can't become invested enough in the game that he prefers to do good. In fact, that's really the reason I play good even when there's no motivation to.

Games can make you, personally, angry. Or sad. Or greedy. Or anything else. We just haven't mastered it, yet.