Postcards Poostcards From The Th he Clipping Plane
James Leach Leeach picks through the th e DNA of off videogame baddies
Right now I’m at the stage of a game project where the main baddie has to be created, and, as I have the luxury of a little time, I’ve taken the bold decision to actually think about bad guys in games.
First, there’s the idea of the boss. If you’re battling an organisation, somebody has to be the architect of all the unfolding evil. Imagine a game where legions of warriors rampage across the plains, burning and wrecking, while the Arch-Warrior head of the army stands by the side and begs ineffectually for them to stop, in the manner of a supply teacher at an inner-city comprehensive. No, we need the bad guy to be in control.
The bad guy needs to be big, too. Crime empires and military organisations work, it would seem, on the same principle as colonies of chimps. The most physically imposing gets to be in charge. He’s often a few feet taller than everyone else, and he’ll possess unique fighting techniques and weapons which, to be honest, you wouldn’t expect from someone who has so many other demands on their time.
Bad guys can only have two emotions. Anger is the first and most important. They can’t be business-like or quietly effective; they must be almost permanently enraged. After all, which of us doesn’t do our best, clearest thinking when we’re incandescent with fury? The other emotion is pretty much a lack of emotion. What’s not to love about an evil uber-dude with an icy, dispassionate line in sarcasm? It says intelligent, English – as often as not – and it also makes the bearer appear dangerous. Someone that disconnected cannot feel sympathy or compassion. They can, though, do a mean line in pitiless, hollow laughter designed to chill the soul.
Actions speak louder than words, so the bad guy needs to be defined by what he’s up to. Of course, there’s the grand plan – the thing the player is up against. It’s usually evil enough to stand on its own merits, but there are other ways to reinforce the egregiousness of the villain. In screenwriter circles it’s called ‘kicking the dog’, and requires our nemesis to carry out personal or petty acts of meanness. It might not be enough that he’s sending fleets of star cruisers to wipe out our Solar System. It’d establish him with more solidity if he battered a servant or threw a hen into a furnace. Now we know what he’s really like, the swine.
Early in Fable’s development, one of the ideas floated for Jack Of Blades, a particularly nasty boss, was that when he spoke, he’d do so accompanied by a piercing ringing sound. The player would be able to make out what he was saying, but having to listen to him would be a profoundly unpleasant experience. We played around with this notion, even going as far as getting some recordings made, but eventually the idea was shelved. The consensus was that it’s fine to hate a boss character, and great to fear him a little too, but to find him purely annoying robbed the game experience of some of its majesty.
Experimentation is fun, but there’s no getting around the fact that evil characters in games all have a lot in common. We, as players, like it that way, since we know what we’re getting. Other elements, if not too annoying, can be added. We’re happy for them to have a surprisingly weak side, which might give us pause for thought just before we dispatch them. We’d probably be disappointed if our boss wasn’t in fact a coward, who has an elaborate way of trying to escape his doom. We’ll even allow him, once he’s close to death, to gain a whole new slug of health or power, born of how angry being killed is making him. And if he wants to double in size, or glow or something, that’s OK too. As long as he’s angry and callously mocking by turns, we’ll be delighted. What we will not stand for is clear and should be laminated and tacked to the wall. We draw the line at the Wizard Of Oz trick, where it turns out the bad boss is, under the mask, tiny/feeble/dying/a little Japanese girl. Nor will we allow the boss to be absolutely any member of our character’s family at all. No relations. Ever. And finally we need the boss to die. Surviving for the purposes of a sequel is not an option, but frankly it’s been years since I’ve seen anyone actually pull that one.
Bad guys are, it turns out, easy: two emotions, the simple act of popping a kitten into an industrial coffee grinder, and an array of impressive combat skills. All that remains is to give them a short name with a few spiky consonants: Rex, Marok, Xerxes or something. Next, remember to add at least a few scars and a mask or a hat, and the job is done. All that remains is to rue the fact that Alan Rickman isn’t around to do the voice work.
It’d establish a baddie with more solidity if he threw a hen into a furnace. Now we know what he’s really like, the swine