The triumph of good over evil.
A cornerstone of great stories since time immemorial. A hero we can root for, a villain we can hate; it’s simple in it’s accessibility, championing the virtues that we as a species admire (for the most part).
Theseus>Minotaur, Holmes>Moriarty, Autobots>Decepticons and so on and so on.
Video games have portrayed the same conflict since their inception: Pacman vs. Ghosts, Mario (then “Jumpman”) saving a damsel from the (then) dastardly Donkey Kong. But it’s somewhat a matter of context…
The presented narrative explicitly tells us who is “good”, but there are other possibilities. Perhaps Mario planned to sacrifice that woman… or eat her… you don’t know.
With the evolution of technology; games as a medium of effective, impactful storytelling have never been more prevalent. No longer just simple fables of good and bad, this is
“The bad team did all this seemingly bad stuff because it might inadvertantly make everything better, and the good team might not actually be that great…they might actually be raving, sociopath terrorists and you’ve been playing as them for 20 hours….ok byeeeeee.”
In that vein, I look at 5 examples of “bad guys in gaming” that might not be as bad as you think.
WARNING- This article contains massive spoilers for the following games: Fallout 4, The Witcher 3, Xcom 2, The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim and Far Cry 4.
Proceed at your own risk, you have been warned.
5. The Nilfgaardian Empire- Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
If you haven’t read the series of dark, fantasy books from which “The Witcher” game trilogy takes it’s name (and acts as a narrative continuation of) I implore you to do so.
Written by Polish author Andrzej Sapowski, it introduces the world and characters made famous by developer “CD Projekt Red”.
A vast epic, set against the backdrop of various all-consuming wars between The Nilfgaardian Empire (ruled absolutely by “Emperor/Imperator Emhyr Var Emreis”) and pretty much every other country in the world, collectively known as “The Northern kingdoms”. The Empire is portrayed as a recurrent antagonist but are they really so bad?
At the opening of “Wild Hunt”, the Nilfgaardians stand all but victorious, having assassinated many of the world leaders (In no small part thanks to “Witcher for hire” Letho of Gulet.) and occupying much of the known world. Their methods of control are brutal, but so are the methods of all engaged parties.
The Northern kingdoms are a mess of greed, petty betrayal and sadism. The remaining Northern monarch King Radovid V is a maniacal buffoon, frothing with insanity. He’s keen to develop a bio-weapon to put Redania back on top and pokes peoples eyes out for laughs. The populace starve, crime is rife, non-humans and magic users are hunted mercilessly and many of the common folk have turned to more nefarious means of protection out of desperation (ear-collecting witch monsters anyone?).
All of this in stark contrast to the Nilfgaardian Empire where the economy booms, the armies are unmatched, the people are disciplined and the big picture is very much at the forefront of everyones minds.
They’re certainly not perfect, but rules are bent or broken countless times in the spirit of common sense.
In the opening area of Wild Hunt you’ll meet Captain Peter Saar Gwynleve, the leader of a military garrison. As you arrive he’s mid-conversation with a local, asking how much grain their village can spare his outpost. The peasant refers to him as “Your Excellency” but is swiftly corrected, “These aren’t the hands of an excellency, but a farmer, so let’s speak peasant to peasant”. The peasant offers forty bushels, but Peter says he’ll accept 30 and that will do. Not just an act of generosity, it makes sense in the long run. What use is this boy’s village if they starve?
Fast forward to Geralts second visit and the boy has brought 30 bushels of grain…and they’re all rotten. In response, he is sentenced to immediate corporal punishment.
Sounds brutal but given every chance of a fair deal, he still tried to trick the Captain.
Give people an inch, they’ll take a mile and perhaps it’s better that the directionless Nordlings live under a tough but fair seat of government.
Complete the game with the correctly corresponding choices and Ciri will be proclaimed Empress of the now unified Nilfgaard.
Show your worth and the empire will reward you (and no one will burn you at the stake for kicks). “Glory to the Great Sun!”
4. Pagan Min: Far Cry 4
The aforementioned Min is an eccentric chap. He wears loud suits, runs a harsh, dictatorial regime in fictional country “Kyrat” and enjoys Crab Rangoon.
Enter player character “Ajay Ghale”. He has a rich heritage within the countries resistance movement and is part American (he’s the saviour-hero so of course he’s a bit American). He’s here to shoot, stab, gyrocopter and tiger people to death in the name of freedom from beneath Min’s oppressive iron fist.
After an initial escape from evil HQ, you’re thrust into climbing towers, taking over outposts and diversifying your arsenal of weaponry to suit your play style. At key story moments you’ll also choose to ally with one of the two main resistance leaders of “The Golden Path”, effectively deciding the fate of a whole country.
Up first is “Sabal”, a spiritualist type who favours the old ways of his people. Fight in his name and you’ll triumph over Pagan Min to turn Kyrat into a peaceful, strict fundamentalist state that executes anyone who doesn’t hold it’s prescribed religious beliefs…
Ok, Sabal sounds a bit draconian, but don’t worry, you can choose Amita to lead the rebellion instead. She’s strong and brave and feisty. She believes in progress and using Kyrats natural resources to forward their place on the world stage. Sound good?
Because if you choose to side with Amita she’ll turn Kyrat into a successful drug state, conscripting the local populace into factory labour ranging from cheap to “probably slavery”.
She also uses child soldiers. What a Peach.
Neither particularly great choices, but Far Cry 4 isn’t about them. It’s about you, exacting revenge for your dead father whom Pagan Min probably murdered in a fit of jealous rage! Pagan loved your mother after all…
Wrong. Turns out your father was an abhorrent piece of work who killed your half-sister out of jealousy, and was in turn killed by your mother, who actually loved Min all along!
In fact, the only character in the game who doesn’t want you to do literally everything (go here, blow this up, help us Ajay, only you can help us…groan.) is our pink suited “antagonist” Pagan Min.
Wander about in the games opening sequence but don’t leave the room and you’re treated to a secret ending as you’re taken to pay your respects to your Mother, and generally treated as a very welcome guest.
Yeh I’ll stick with Pagan, thanks.
3. The Institute: Fallout 4
Everything’s awful in The Commonwealth of Fallout 4.
Gangs of slave traders and raiders roam the wastes, packs of feral ghouls lurk in dark corners and Super Mutants, Deathclaws and bloodbugs search constantly for their next human catch. Food and Clean water prove scarce, everyone lives in run down tin shacks (if they’re lucky), the air is saturated with a constant stink of distrust.
There’s also hushed murmurings of “Synths”: Lab-bred, synthetic humans indistinguishable from the real thing and sent to the surface from the bowels of an unknown, technologically advanced collective: “The Institute”. They’re here to kidnap our loved ones, play their twisted games and control our VERY LIVES!
The first time you gain access to the institute, it’s an unexpected story beat. I went armed to the teeth expecting some kind of boss battle. Not so.
Vast, clean facilities, limitless power supplies and a group of the top scientific minds squirreled away since the bombs fell, working to save the human race from the chaos we wrought upon ourselves. Their leader explains that time and again, the Institute has tried to broker co-operation and peace with the surface, and every time (like the wasteland rabble that they are) it’s proved fruitless. So the Institute is taking control through measured force.
Even the “Broken Mask Incident”; the first recorded “Gen 3” interaction with humanity is found to be a mistake, unapproved by the Director of the time. Much of the fear and suspicion toward the institute is shown to be nothing but embellishment or outright myth.
Do you join the Railroad, freeing synths from the shadows with no long term goals of what to do with them after? The Brotherhood of Steel, hoarding technology for themselves alone, intimidating or destroying all who stand in their way? Or the Institute? Who’s primary goal is to provide a better quality of life for everyone in the commonwealth, whether they like it or bloody not!
I tell you, I could not massacre the entire Railroad hierarchy fast enough. Bye Deacon. I only wish I could’ve added Preston Garvey to the kill list.
The main plot-hole here is that it’s never explained what the institute does with the people they strategically replace with Synths…
Oh well, gotta break some eggs. Mankind Redefined.
2. The Elders: XCOM 2
The war is over and Earth is lost. Xcom lies scattered and on the run from an occupying alien force. Operations take on a guerrilla style hit and run approach and you’ll never stay in one place for long. Welcome back Commander.
One of the finest strategy games of 2016 also raises questions. Why do the Elders (the dominant alien race) take control of alien life? What do they have to gain?
Enemy Unknown gave us threads of explanation in it’s excellent final mission.
Each enemy type is a conquered race that failed the Elders mysterious tests. Too frail, too stupid, too limited in ability.
Humanity is the key, but even if you manage to beat the game (which I did, many times on “classic” ironman because “Impossible” is for masochists) you’ll learn that humanity lost anyway. The Elders don’t move on to another world with us as their thralls. They stick around for 20 years, cure all earthly ailments (according to Xcom head of science Richard Tygan) and implement a harsh (but stable) regime. Events take a shady turn but we roll with the punches.
The Elders are in a constant state of physical degeneration and scour the universe for a way to live on. They’re being hunted by a much greater, unseen threat and It could be argued they’re the only ones capable of combating it with their natural psionic ability. At a stretch, the Elders domination of humanity is surely for the greater good.
The greater good mostly involves processing thousands of innocent human beings into goo to develop “The Avatar Project”. A process by which the decaying elders are transposed into new, powerful, organic frames.
Black mark against the Elders for their modus operandi but what if their protests of, “You’re making a huge mistake.” aren’t standard villain fare? What if by expelling the aliens in the events of Xcom 2, you’re genuinely dooming the entire galaxy to a far worse fate?
In the final scene, an ominous glow protrudes from a deep sea crevasse. It’s a reference to the history of the franchise; MicroProse “Xcom: Terror from the Deep”.
Is that all it is? Or have you, the player, heralded the ultimate destruction of our people?
Great job Commander!
As a side note, Elder figurehead/propaganda puppet “The Speaker” is torn apart by an angry mob. He’s voiced by Brandon Keener, so you’ve effectively killed Garrus Vakarian on top of screwing humanity.
1. The Imperial Legion: The Elder Scrolls V
General Tullius, Leader of the Imperial forces in Skyrim, has a raw deal.
He’s sent far from home to one of the coldest parts of Tamriel to put down the Stormcloak Rebellion, and see that Skyrim doesn’t secede from the Third Empire.
The Empire isn’t what it used to be following the Oblivion Crisis. Much of it’s territory is lost and the one sided “Great War” (a slaughter in all but name) with the Aldmeri Dominion has led to the signing of the “White-Gold Concordat”. A treaty of peace whereby the High Elves set all of the terms. The Empire doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Back to present-day, and upstart noble “Ulfric Stormcloak” starts a rebellion against Skyrims Imperial handlers. He claims the Empire is weakened by the White-Gold Concordat. This is never denied by Imperial high command, it’s more a case of: “We do what they say so that they don’t murder us all, please don’t make them angry.”
Unhappy with due process, he “duels” the democratically elected High King Torygg, a young man nowhere near as experienced or battle-hardened as the aforementioned Jarl.
Even then, he fails to beat him with simple swordplay, choosing to enact his “Thu’um” and shout Torygg to pieces. He flees soon after with the help of a Nord sympathizer. This man is subsequently left behind and executed.
“Sorry ‘bout it”.
On countless occasions Ulfric claims that Skyrim belongs to “The true sons and daughters of Skyrim”, the Nords. Although he’s more than willing to take aid from any and all of Tamriels people, despite numerous showings of xenophobia and discrimination from his followers (particularly aimed at the Dunmer residents of his own town.)
Does he have a plan for after his victory over the Empire?
Of course he doesn’t. Follow the civil war quest line to it’s conclusion (fighting on his side) and he’s content to take the throne, sit around all day and have other people hunt down Imperial garrison remnants.
What about the High Elves, Ulfric? The Thalmor with unlimited power held in check by a flimsy peace agreement with your Cyrodilic protectors? You’ve just spat in their faces and they will come for you. Good luck with your guerrilla army pal.
At the beginning of the game, the narrative is heavily skewed in favour of the Stormcloaks. They’re the underdogs, and you’re mistakenly bunched in with them for a mass execution at the hands of the “evil” Imperial army. But the truth is, the Stormcloaks suck. They’re a ragtag bunch of bigots, willing to risk everything and everyone for personal gain and the freedom to do whatever they want. Even banned deity “Talos” is tolerated within the Imperium as long as it’s kept on the sly from the High Elves.
The Empire doesn’t really care, they’re just trying to keep everyone from a grizzly Thalmor genocide. Just trying to protect the people.
So, what do you think of these picks? Did you take the fight to the Institute or butcher every “Nilf scum” soldier you came across in Wild hunt? Let me know in the comments below.