When I was a child, my kindergarten teacher used to read fairy tales to the class. These stories were not too complex for our putty-like minds and shared a common moral theme: good always prevails over evil. That is an appropriate lesson for young children. Even though in reality, evil sometimes wins, children need to feel safe and be given a good reason to maintain proper behavior in class; a student could steal a pen or someone’s snack, but in the end, such an evil act would be corrected. Ah, how fiction parallels real life!
Most kids fell for the lesson. It would take them years to realize that the binary distinction between good and evil has no place in the real world. Eventually, they would realize that knights in shining armor did not really exist however, this does not mean that they could not idolize these paragons of virtue. Although mankind is certainly incapable of attaining such a flawless and principled state, people should still at least respect the idea of heroic protagonists standing against evil with an unwavering sense of duty. This is one of the first lessons all of us learned as children.
Well, not quite all of us.
You see, I was a weird kid. Whenever I watched Disney films, I had a strong desire to see the villains win. For instance, in the Lion King, I thought Scar was an interesting character because he was ambitious and decisive whereas the protagonist, Simba, was a reactive and generally passive character. What is worse, even as a child, I knew how the plot was going to turn out. Simba was going to win because he was the good guy lion.
In my eyes, Jafar, Governor Ratcliffe, and Ursula were all victims. Here were well-designed characters with deep, diverse and complex motivations being dismantled by boring, cookie-cutter protagonists. At a young age, my problems boiled down to one question: who would I rather hang out with: Jafar or Aladin? Pocahantas or Ratcliffe? Ursula or Ariel?
I would rather spend my time with characters who would not put me to sleep with songs about how moral they are.
Thankfully for me, it turns out I was an early bloomer with respect to my relationship with antagonists. Starting in middle school, I learned that some of the most interesting stories ever produced in any form of media have well-imagined antagonists.
I admit that the word antagonist is a nebulous term, at least in the sense that I can take any great work of fiction and identify a compelling antagonist even if that antagonist is not the typical “bad guy.” After all, an antagonist is merely the force that operates against a protagonist. Their relationship forms a conflict, and a conflict has many different forms. There are three basic forms of conflict, so there are three types of antagonist.
1) Man vs. Man – This is the most obvious form of conflict in media. It involves the struggle of wills between the protagonist and an antagonist who have different goals and often have different sets of morality, principles and standards. The simplest antagonists exist simply to oppose the protagonist. These antagonists are boring, and could not exist in the reader’s mind without the presence of a protagonist. Think of a James Bond villain’s henchman. Without Bond, the henchman has no reason to exist.
Thankfully, such simple-minded antagonists rarely exist in fiction, which is surprising. One would think that complex protagonists would greatly out-number complex antagonists, but the opposite is true. Let us recall the example of Disney films. Are the protagonists in those films really interesting, or do we simply respect them for representing societal ideals? Can we really relate to the idealistic and naïve characters who become targets of villains? Or do we see in ourselves those all-too human qualities embodied in the bad guys? We might like the good guys, but we relate more to the antagonists.
I do not mean to imply that we want the bad guys to win. Certainly, it would make for an interesting James Bond movie in which the main villain kills Bond in the first ten minutes of the film. What would happen to the world if the madman had a chance to use his doomsday device?
The truth is, we like antagonists because we know they will fail, and in their failure, we have a window into the human mind. We see what happens when greed, ambition, pride, stupidity, lust, revenge, hatred or insanity corrupts the villain, leaving the pure-hearted protagonist to win the day. An antagonist is therefore a compelling character, not because he is a model of what we should be, but because he is a model of what might be inside of all of us.
When I think of the Man vs. Man paradigm in conflicts, I like to think of the HBO series, Deadwood, which is a show rife with conflicts. What I like most about the show is that it consists almost entirely of antagonists. No character truly represents the heroic ideal. Every character has a vice and ambiguous motivations. In any given encounter, a character might be a protagonist or an antagonist, but the distinction is never clear. Is Al Swearengen a bad guy? Is Seth Bullock a good guy? The answer is: it depends on the situation.
In summary, the Man vs. Man conflict is a common type of conflict, and has a wide range with respect to quality. Some basic Man vs. Man conflicts are too simple, with antagonists serving little purpose beyond cannon fodder. A step above this simple type is a scenario in which the antagonist has diverse aims and becomes a deeper and more sympathetic character than the protagonist, who remains too pure and idealistic to elicit a strong emotion from the audience. The pinnacle of Man vs. Man conflict is the scenario where every character can be called a good guy or a bad guy depending on both the given situation as well as the view point of the audience.
2) Man vs. Self – Look at yourself in the mirror, and what do you see? Is it your arch-rival?
The antagonist and protagonist being the same person goes beyond the self-evident example of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. We do not often recognize the internal forces a protagonist battles as a separate foe, but it is a helpful exercise to identify such internal conflict as a distinct antagonist.
As with the Man vs. Man paradigm, different levels of complexity exist in media regarding internal conflict. Some characters completely lack an internal antagonist. Action heroes from the eighties rarely had deep philosophical misgivings about wanton murder or quests of revenge. Other protagonists have complex and deep personas that yield a separate and antagonistic personality. This form of conflict creates a fascinating antagonist, who is a fundamental and relatable part of the hero. Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the dark side in the Star Wars series is an example of an internal struggle that leads to an antagonist’s initial triumph (in Episode Three) and its eventual defeat (in Episode Six).
3) Man vs. Nature – The Man vs. Nature paradigm encompasses more than simple stories of a hero’s conquest over the elements. It also includes struggles against the paranormal, spiritual and even technological. I find good examples of this paradigm difficult to describe, because in many ways, this paradigm is the most difficult to relate to. For instance, I have never fought a goblin, and I am pretty sure neither have you. They are still antagonists in many fantasy works, but since they are complete machinations, they rarely have any qualities which effect in readers strong emotions.
Old Man and the Sea is on the surface, a novel founded upon the Man vs. Nature conflict, but at its heart, it is a story about a man coming to grips with himself. You will find in good novels that have an obvious Man vs. Nature conflict, that the truly interesting conflicts are those based in other paradigms.
A man’s fight to survive against the elements is a good story. A man’s fight to retain composure while trying to survive the elements is a great story. Cormac McCarthy’s On the Road exemplifies this dynamic.
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Video games are like any media with respect to antagonists. A good conflict is a necessary component of a good narrative within a game, otherwise the enemies a player faces are irrelevant. Unfortunately, the majority of video games have enemies that are drawn from mindless action movies. In other words, the player character can face and defeat hundreds of antagonists, but the conflict is weak, and the narrative is not engaging.
Just because video games have a lot of conflicts which include forgettable antagonists does not mean that those games with meaningful conflicts are any less impactful. Games like the the Metal Gear Solid series feature villains with diverse motivations and backgrounds. Far Cry 2 is a game in which the main antagonist and protagonist can both be considered good and evil, forgoing the notion of a black and white morality tale common to most action titles.
Video games can also represent a unique form of conflict. In other forms of media, the viewer or reader is a passive consumer of action, but in video games, the potential for emergent gameplay creates unique experiences for the player. In other words, the player has an opportunity to develop his or her own rivals.
In Total War: Medieval II, a strategy game, I controlled England in its quest for world domination. Part of my strategy was to invade France and breakthrough to the Mediterranean to establish a port for the Royal Navy. My invasion was successful, with Paris falling to my army. I made a mistake however, letting my King lead the invasion, and stray too far from his main army. He was ambushed by two separate French armies. He defeated the first army, but fell to the second in a glorious charge. I then spent the next twenty years (game time, of course) seeking out the French general who slew my King and bringing him to justice. I had created an antagonist that the game had not intended, nor had I anticipated.
Emergent antagonists in video games represent the high point of antagonists in media. They are unpredictable, personal and satisfying to defeat.
One major deficiency exists in video game conflicts: The Man vs. Self paradigm is under-represented. One could argue that examples exist, like in the PC game, Amnesia, in which a man is constantly fighting his own insanity. Amnesia is a clever game, but ultimately relies upon a standard Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Man conflict to advance the narrative. The trouble with Man vs. Self in video games is that the main character is the human player. It is hard for developers to instill in the player internal conflicts, so these developers have to seek alternate methods of creating Man vs. Self conflicts. For instance, a non-player character (NPC) might suffer from a mental illness or internal struggle, allowing the player to view the experience as an observer rather than as a participant. This is not an entirely satisfactory compromise since it wastes the interactivity element of video games. Video games still have enormous, untapped potential for improving conflicts and creating more interesting antagonists.
In Part II of this essay, I will discuss how even boring antagonists are reflections of society’s interests, and that by acknowledging the roles antagonists play in narratives, we can see that bad guys are as important to our study of video games as good guys.