Wednesday, May 06, 2009

sympathetic villains

One of the core beliefs of the West's major religions is that evil is a corruption of good. The well-known seven deadly sins of Christianity are all distortions of love. Lust is a corruption of physical pleasure (no, not all such pleasure is sinful). Vanity is a corruption of love of beauty. Envy is a corruption of love of experience, pride a corruption of love of self, and so on.

A major trend in 20th-century literature and film has been to demonstrate this in the form of sympathetic villains. Unlike with pure villains, the original nobility of these villains is shown. It is revealed how their perceptions and desires have been corrupted, how pain has led them to reject their good inclinations, how some noble instincts remain. The audience roots against such a character, but is not wholly against that character.

So it's perhaps surprising that sympathetic villains do not appear more often in games. A notable exception is Bioware's Neverwinter Nights, with one character corrupted by misplaced faith and another turned by pain and bitter regret. But such a scenario seems rare in games.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I'm a fan of fables and mythic characters. But complex characters have their place, too. Why do you think games have gravitated so exclusively toward stick figures and moral extremes?

Mythic villains have been making a comeback in recent decades, particularly through comic books and their film adaptations. Perhaps games are just following a new trend in fiction?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting point about the seven deadly sins being corruptions of love. I think I'd like to try making a minigame of each one that allows the player to experience the mindset in which each corruption occurs, and how to possibly break out of it.

    I like how the villains in Miyazaki movies are complex, sympathetic characters. Though somehow those stories also manage to feel mythical, in some way.

    I think games have gravitated toward simple characters in part because of the early age of the medium (think about early film for example) which affects both the target audience and general approach to the medium (as a novelty) as well as the difficulty of expressing more nuanced meanings. But I'd also consider that games may be fundamentally very similar to oral narrative poetry, and could share a mythic tendency in some inherent way. Though I think games will evolve the capacity for more complex characters eventually.

    I wouldn't be surprised if it has to do with a recent trend in fiction, which I guess would have something to do with societal factors. Interesting question. Are you talking about a trend on the scale of a year, a decade, or half a century?


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