In Part I of my discussion of antagonists, I argued that “bad guys” are critical, nuanced and under-appreciated elements of a good narrative. Whether it is an actor directly opposing the protagonist, a force of nature, or even the protagonist himself, the antagonist is an appealing figure. He, she, or it is often more complex and compelling than the protagonist himself. The antagonist has motivations beyond black and white morality and is as such, more relatable to the audience. Video games, like any other form of media, also have antagonists which are critical to the narrative of the game. Some antagonists are intentional products of game writers’ designs. Others are results of emergent gameplay and the player’s imagination. In all cases, the antagonist is a deep reflection of who we are. In each “bad guy,” we see our own desires, prejudices and interests.
Video games are still a young form of media, so they tend to follow the most basic forms of narrative conflict. It still follows the common thread of a good guy trying to rectify some sort of problem brought about by a bad guy. Mass Effect is a science fiction-based role playing game series developed by Bioware which chronicles the adventures of Commander Shepard, a human soldier turned intergalactic special agent. His (or her, as the player may choose to be female) mission in the first game of the series is to bring former Specter (space special agent, more or less) to justice for the murder of another Specter. The rogue agent, Saren, is the main antagonist of the first Mass Effect game, and is in many ways representative of the basic reasons why we like antagonists.
Saren is a more interesting character than Shepard. Saren is a former agent of the Citadel Council, the governing body of the entire galaxy. His fall from grace and into “evil” is the result of a sense of duty to the galaxy, to his species and to his own values. He is also corrupted by outside forces, blinding him to the evil he commits. Saren is therefore both an admirable character and a pitiable one, whom the player actively enjoys pursuing and eventually (***spoiler alert***) defeating.
On the other hand, Shepard is boring in comparison to Saren. Mass Effect gives the player the option to make decisions aggressively and without concern to the life and well-being of others, or humanely, respecting innocents and minimizing collateral damage. Even with this option (an option lacking in most games with simple protagonists), Shepard still lacks Saren’s depth. At the end of the day, Shepard has a specific agenda, which the player must satisfy. The choice to kill an innocent civilian or save him ultimately serves the same purpose: to save the universe from a greater evil.
Protagonists in video games are often intentionally boring, so the player has an easier time filling the hero’s shoes. Some games do this to good effect. Mass Effect is a success because the supporting cast of characters surrounding Shepard is significantly more interesting than Shepard himself. Other games do this poorly. A recent release, Duke Nukem Forever, has drawn criticism for featuring a deplorable, misogynistic protagonist to whom players cannot relate. The Grand Theft Auto games have drawn similar criticism for having protagonists who amount to little more than murders and psychopaths.
In their most basic forms, antagonists serve a very important purpose. They provide depth that protagonists cannot. They give players motivation and a raison d’être and in doing so, can deliver a meaningful narrative experience.
Some antagonists are reflections of deep psychological factors. In episode 138 of his podcast, The Psych Files, Dr. Michael A. Britt, Ph D. discusses why we are fascinated by zombies. Zombies have recently become an important (albeit perhaps over-used) antagonist in video games. I recommend listening to the entire episode of the podcast, but to summarize, Dr. Britt argues that there are six reasons that might explain why we enjoy zombies (specifically killing them) in film and video games.
- Freud would argue that we all have an aggressive nature, and killing zombies is a release for this aggression.
- We are inherently curious about death, and zombies are a unique “form” of death, so we are drawn to them.
- Killing zombies may represent a desire to break free from our set social roles (In the land of the dead, one would assume lawyers would have trouble finding gainful employment!).
- Zombies are clearly evil. In order to make the world a better place, they need to die therefore we must kill them.
- We are afraid of the scientific progress that might destroy our society. Note that this reason mirrors the suspected underlying social issues which gave rise to Godzilla; nuclear fears in Japan created the fictitious monster.
- Zombies remind us of our own mortality. In order to get rid of that reminder, we wish to kill the zombies.
It is fascinating how our interest in such a common and seemingly one dimensional enemy can have so many psychological motivating factors. Other games have enemies that remind us of our political and societal motivations in seeking a worthy enemy.
We like equally-match opponents in a conflict. This is why we leave early from baseball games with score differences greater than ten runs. This is why we prefer to see films about men surviving encounters with bears, and not men surviving encounters with butterflies. We enjoy close matches and underdog victories. During the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, the Japanese used wood printing to depict the Chinese enemy as weak and easily tread-upon. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Japanese again used wood prints to depict the war, but this time, the Russian enemy was portrayed much more heroically. You can tell from the wood prints that the Japanese had greater respect for their Russian enemies than for the Chinese. In other words, the Russians made for more compelling antagonists.
Video games of today also reflect societal attitudes towards enemies. Games of the eighties and nineties often featured Communist hordes as the primary antagonist. Games released in the aftermath of 9/11 often featured Muslim extremists as the enemy. Virtually every country that has ever had tension with the United States has been portrayed as a worthy (and evil) adversary of the United States military in one game or another. China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam have all made appearances as the “Opposing Force” in countless Western-developed action titles. These countries have generally been politically convenient and socially appealing antagonists.
The political and social aspects of antagonists are not limited to games developed in the United States. The Chinese government has recently developed a game remarkably similar to the America’s Army series. Whereas America’s Army is a series of games released by the United States military as a recruitment tool and training aid, the People’s Liberation Army has funded the development of a similar military simulator, Glorious Mission. What is the difference between the two games? In America’s Army, America is the protagonist, but in Glorious Mission, America is the enemy. The gameplay footage from Glorious Mission shows PLA soldiers engaged in a fictional conflict with the American military. AH-64 Apache helicopters are shown being destroyed by the PLA in a graphic portrayal of China’s forces overcoming the best the U.S. has to offer. Admittedly, these scenes gave me pause. I am an American who has played a lot of games where it is the Apache helicopter destroying PLA tanks. This role-reversal serves as a distinct reminder that in any narrative, one man’s protagonist might be another’s antagonist.
Finally, I would like to discuss emergent antagonists. In Part I of this essay, I argued that antagonists that emerge independently of both the developer and player’s intent represent the pinnacle of conflict in video games. There is something genuinely exciting about inadvertently creating ones own archrival in the middle of a game. The other day, I was playing Napoleon: Total War, a strategy game that allows the player to become the general of early nineteenth century armies and navies. I admit to being fairly ignorant of the politics of Napoleonic Europe, so when I picked sides for a battle, I cared little about England’s grievances with France or Spain’s relationship with the Ottoman Empire.In spite of such ignorance, I still manage to view opposing armies in the game as a worthy foe and a satisfying antagonist. Take the following battle account as an example:
Before I played this battle, both armies were anonymous collections of soldiers and horses. After the battle, they were heroes, rivals and cowards. Emergent conflict at its finest. The Spanish army became the perfect foe for me. They were powerful, organized and because they were facing me, loathsome. My conflict with the Spanish became inexplicably personal. This personal quality is one of the most important aspects of a well-realized antagonist. It just so happens that no one had specifically planned for this rivalry to occur.
In conclusion, the antagonist is an important character in any narrative’s conflict. This antagonist can take on many forms and have many different meanings. Classical “bad guys” represent an element of depth we seek in characters that we cannot find in the protagonist himself. Creatures like zombies are reflections of a number of different psychological factors. Even random enemies have to the potential to become powerful antagonists through a little imagination on the part of the player, creating unique and personal experiences.
Antagonists are an important part of any game. Games’ narrative structures depend upon the compelling forces against the motivation of the protagonist. If we spend time analyzing these figures, we can see how important they are with respect to the narrative itself, as well as a reflection of the societies in which they are created.
In other words, the next time we are facing a video game boss, ask yourself this:
“What does this bad guy say about the narrative? What does this bad guy say about my society?”
Stay tuned for an article next week.