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This post, like all of my ramblings, has to do with specific complaints about videogame plots and story premises in general. (Don’t worry, I’ll try to keep the use of the word ‘narrative’ to a minimum.) First, on my list of narrative annoyances: Evil. As the title of this piece suggests I’m sick of it. Every game, (and movie, or popular novel) it seems, features some sort of an ancient, newly discovered, supra-galactic, underground, Mayan, divine, satanic, it-was-man, undead, insectoid, magic, mechanical, cybernetic, EVIL force, character, or organization bent on destroying everything in existence. Worlds, galaxies, universes and parallel universes are ceaselessly under threat of obliteration. Existence as any one has ever known it or imagined it is constantly in jeopardy from some conscious Agent of Doom. This ensures that the stakes are always at their highest. It’s a formula that goes something like this: “So, what are we gambling for today Johnny?” “Oh, not much, just EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, EVERYWHEN!”

Within my complaint about evil, hides another related problem: why are all videogame plot conflicts global? Why can’t we have a friggin’ game once where the plot is entirely local, with conflicts between individuals or even countries that affect only the immediate context, while managing to remain exciting and making the audience care about the fate of the characters? I know this is possible. I’ve seen it done. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance pulls it off, as well as a number of other games. But unfortunately, in this case as in so many others, the exception proves the rule. Most games, even the likes of my beloved Mass Effect, fall under the former category where one man or one group faces pure destructive evil to save the world. Even the otherwise wonderful and complex plot of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, the sequel to PoR, fell victim to this structure. (After hours of ambiguity, it turns out that the real force behind everything was an evil, destructive goddess.)

“I will destroy everything…I will create a monument to non-existence!”

Now, please, don’t confuse my rant against distorted stakes and scale of events with a bashing of the Epic as a genre. The central feature of the Epic is indeed the concept of heroism but the stakes of adventures in the genre of the Epic are more often local or national rather than global. (An interesting argument can be made here re: the fact that at the time of the invention of the Epic the ‘national’ was perceived to be virtually the same as the ‘global.’ But we’ll leave this for some other forum.)

And so the two ideas, (great evil and global stakes) seem indivisible, at least as far as the plots of most games are concerned. On the surface the connection seems understandable. Would it make sense if an ancient source of evil arose only to decimate some poor fisherman and then go back to whence it came? Or would it feel believable if the existence of all reality were threatened by some minor ambiguous agent, perhaps the very same fisherman? I suppose some might say that such premises would make for boring stories.

For me, the answer to both of the above questions is a resounding ‘yes.’ I’d find it much more interesting if the fisherman somehow threatened the world. (As in Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) And, I’d find it equally interesting if an all powerful force of evil did not mess with the ‘World’ but rather a singular individual (like in Faust). As a matter of fact once a superhuman force of evil starts threatening, everything, everywhere, everywhen, I usually start to check out of the story. The irony is that as a result of the super inflated stakes the writer neuters all the tension. Unless you are actually naïve enough to think that the plot might end with the end of the world. So, at that point all that’s left is to become a passive observer of an easily anticipated conclusion, instead of an engaged and invested player/reader/moviegoer, at least as far as the plot is concerned. And that is terrible storytelling.

So, at the very least, I am arguing for a division of the two above mentioned concepts; at most I’m saying neither is necessary for a riveting plot. Take heed game developers or I shall break the seal to release the mighty Quetzalcoatl and let him reign destruction upon the creation.

To be Continued… (The next installment, ‘I’m so sick of Good Guys, I could arrest a pedophile!,’ will feature rants about plot devices that affirm confidence in sources of authority, as well as the root of the problem: our over inflated sense of agency.)

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8 Comments

  1. Stefan said on May 12, 2008:

    “Would it make sense if an ancient source of evil arose only to decimate some poor fisherman and then go back to whence it came?”

    Actually, that happens fairly often in horror movies, where an ancient evil often seems to be confined to a small backwoods village, lake, or campsite.

  2. chris said on May 12, 2008:

    The Suikodens are pretty good here. Some of the subplots imply that a couple countries are out for world domination, but haven’t been successful. If there’s a disaster it only threatens a region, etc.

    I’m trying to think of any other games that didn’t use this threat and not having much luck. Many of my favorite games invoke it at some point despite being otherwise reasonable.

    The Evil Threat was what ruined a large part of Wild Arms 5 for me, though. The bad guy has built a device to destroy the world, and he could turn it on any… minute… now!!! (a plotline which goes on for several hours, wherein you destroy his main power source, he goes to a backup he could have just used in the first place, and so on).

    I often wonder at games that have powerful and evil secret bosses, too. Are RPG worlds all Cthulhu-esque, where they stumble through existence barely escaping utter annihilation at the hands of ancient, uncaring gods with only the weakest bothering to announce their plans?

  3. Neil said on May 13, 2008:

    I completly agree that the “Evil” approach has been over used and has become more corny than entertaining. But what else can be done for a game?
    Overlord has you playing as the evil force, gamed like Black and White and Fable give you the choice of being the hero or just running around kicking puppies(or in this case Chickens).
    They have made several attempts to create a game with neutral parties; the plots are weak and they rely on the gamer making their own aligance. Chromehounds is the first one to come to mind, 3 countries locked in perpetual war each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and very slow, very repetitive gameplay.
    But in the end, it is the concept of the “evil”(I hate the things oyu like)villian that drives peopel to involve themselves with the game.

    But I completly agree that the “destroy the world because mommy didn’t love me” approach is tired and overused.

  4. Stefan said on May 13, 2008:

    @Neil: I think there are options between evil and neutral. There are plenty of ways for characters to be bad without being evil. They could be greedy, imperialistic, a megalomaniac, feral, consumed with revenge, insane, etc. All without having to resort to the generic title of “evil” which offers no real motivation or depth. (Why did she kill him? Oh, because she’s evil. That’s what evil people do.)

    Shenmue I think did a good job of this, although by the end of the second one there were hints at a larger magical force, so its restraint might be a consequence of it having been canceled before succumbing to indigo prophecy syndrome. There are the Romance of Three Kingdoms games, of course, and similar games like the old Castles series where your goal was simply to unite a large nation.

    Sonic the Hedgehog actually might count as well – you’re working as a rather extreme, speedy animal liberation activist against the inhuman forces of technology, and Dr. Robotnik isn’t trying to destroy anything, he’s trying to build a technological utopia. (Admittedly with himself as leader)

    I also seem to recall the Thief series featuring very well-balanced conflict which was also limited in scope. The clerical forces of order and the pagan forces of chaos are both equally bad, as they take their ideals to extremes in the fight to control the city.

    None of these are really RPGs though, honestly the only ones I can think of off the top of my head that don’t feature world-threatening supernatural evil are the Fallout series. Maybe paper Mario, although Bowser is still stereotypical evil, just not supernatural and world-destroying.

    Also – Shota, I completely agree that the “EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, EVERYWHEN!” stakes ruin things for me. Not only do I know they won’t let it happen (unless I’m fighting Kefka), but I also really just can’t comprehend global devastation, either numerically or emotionally. A villain planning to kill 50 or even 1000 people is going to emotionally impact me a lot more than my finding out that 3,000,000,000 people are going to be killed. Izzard got it right when he said “At that point you’re almost going…well done!”

  5. Neil said on May 13, 2008:

    Stefan,
    I am glad you brought up the motive point because that does quantify evil into a closer relation to the cardinal sins. Dr. Robotinic (turning the creatures of the world into his servants) is all about greed and glutton, Fallout had the Master(an anti vault overseer) who was trying to turn the entire world into mutants out of greed, even Bowser was a servant to his Lust for Princess Peach, even going as far as to convince one of his sons (Spoiler alert)(in Super Mario Sunshine) that Princess Peach was his mother. Each has an inherent flaw that drives them to want more, or to want to make everyone like them so they fit in. but in this case Bowser was not trying to destroy the entire world (or the world as we know it).

    But we can go further to say that the ideals of religion are the basis for every villain that has entered the scene since storytelling started, even the Grendel was (after the church had it’s way with the story) an abomination in violation of God’s ultimate plan. The goal of the hero doesn’t change only the scope of what is at stake…think back to the NES Popeye game(unless I’m the only one who ever played it) where you had to fight Bluto off before he could kiss Oliveoil. He wasn’t trying to destroy existence, but for his time, he was a true villain.

    In games where you kill thousands to get to the main boss, it would seem unbalanced if it was all to stop the villain from kissing your girl…but add in that he plans to detonate a neutron bomb in time square, then you have a just cause.

  6. Stefan said on May 14, 2008:

    I think you just hit on a key distinction. The seven deadly sins are all very human. Things like lust, greed, and envy are all very understandable human motivators, and they make it easier to relate to villains because we’ve all seen some aspects of them in ourselves. Evil with relation to them seems (to me at least) to be more a descriptor of what comes from them, and less of a primary motivation. This is a bit different from the use of “Evil” that I was talking about before, when it is treated as a character trait.

    Bad guys do often need to do evil/bad things to provide for a good conflict – and as you said to justify the hero’s often violent/destructive actions – but they’re almost always more riveting if they’re doing evil/bad things for a reason, rather than just doing evil because that’s what they are.

    Also, I totally didn’t realize that I knew you until Angie pointed out exactly which Neil you are. Welcome to VL! :)

  7. Neil said on May 14, 2008:

    Thanks, I would have never found this if it weren’t for my big sis and her husband.

    But we are absolutely on the same page with this, nothing disappoints me more then to play a game, battling an unknown “evil” only to find out that it was doing it because it was evil. One of my favorite movies, Dogma, even had the entire chain of events take place because one demon would rather negate existence than spend any more time in Hell. It was a plot to destroy all existance, but it still had a human desire behind the plot.

  8. chris said on May 14, 2008:

    You know, I just remembered something. In my last play-through of FF6, I found a townsperson in Vector who said that Kefka started gradually going insane after he was the prototype magitek knight (i.e. he was a semi-successful prototype for what was done to Celes). I thought that was kind of neat. I hadn’t found that out in the previous 3 times I’d played through the game. Wish they’d actually made that point a bit more visible.

    We don’t often see why a character would want to destroy the world, though. Those games that do have clear motivations for villains are among the best – more often we see a lot of characters who seem to be just nasty people or Evil with no apparent motivation.

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