essay

I choose you, antagonist!

One of the first things you are taught in analyzing Literature is to pick out who the protagonist is and then who or what the antagonist is. Once you have that, you can start to define what the conflict is between them and then start, if it is not as obvious, to construct the series of events plot in a linear or chronological order. It is necessary, then, that you know both who protagonist is within the work and what role they have in the events of the story. They should be a catalyst, in one way or another, for why things happen — their decisions trigger other decisions and events. (Remember that the point of view might not be the protagonist. The narrator does not have to be central to the story.)

For Literature, this is the process. However, for games… it doesn’t work as well.

For those who have been reading my work for the past few months, you might remember my attempt at trying to isolate the antagonist in New Vegas. It all started when I was playing the DLC content Lonesome Road and then, after finishing it, decided that I had much more to say than just that “I am disappoint”. What followed was a breakdown (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) of many of the problems I saw with the (newer) Fallout games and specifically the problems with taking that framework I mentioned at the top (isolating the protagonist and antagonist first and foremost) and applying it to those games: it becomes very hard to point to one central antagonist. In the best case, the world itself — The Wasteland, The Mojave — is the antagonist (i.e. Character vs Nature) to the player’s protagonist. And that is assuming you don’t side with me and place the player controlled character in the 1st-person peripheral role — you are there but do not actually matter much overall. You might also, depending on which version you played, make the case that Fallout 3 is Character vs. Destiny as, no matter what choice you make at the end of the game, it does, in fact, end. (This was patched out later.)

It was with this approach that the post on Rampant Coyote, “Choose Your Own Enemy,” caught my attention. [Note: Line beat me to talking about it recently: “Readings: Conflict Management“]

“But a thought struck me today about the concept of the hero not by what he represents, but by his antithesis. Sometimes the villain is the inverse of the hero – the polar opposite. Other times the villains are often mirror images of the hero, someone sharing many of the same features – even virtues – of the hero, but at some juncture the hero takes the path of “the good” where the villain failed to do so. And the struggle of the hero against his nemesis is the championing of that one virtue that led to that different path… The relationship between protagonist and antagonist is perhaps the most important one in a story, even if it may be indirect.” (emphasis added)

I highly agree with this statement. If you want a story in your game that the player assume a role within, then, yes, you will need to address this issue very directly. You will, as developer, need to give the player a reason to go against the villain. This is why such exposition is delivered so early in games. “Look,” the developer says through the introduction cut-scene, “this is the villain, the bad guy. See him doing evil things? At the end of this game, you will fight him.”

“So it seems that if we’re talking non-linear, interactive storytelling, this should be an area we should explore. Who is our “big bad?” Wouldn’t that be even more important to defining our hero than choosing their stats in an RPG? Of course, choosing a different enemy could have massive repercussions throughout the entire storyline. Done right, this would have a much bigger impact than a few meaningless alternate endings.

That’s kind of the whole idea, isn’t it?” (emphasis added)

Jay Barnson just made my point for me. In the consideration of non-linear storytelling (like New Vegas), the player decides not only when they will take on the antagonist, but often who that antagonist is in the first place. This is, as you might imagine, the wrecking-ball into the scaffolding of the constructed plot of games like Oblivion and Fallout 3. If I decide, as the player, that I do not care about the antagonist that is forced on me, I might not take on that challenge and thus render it moot. If I disengage with the connection between the two, protagonist and antagonist, I have just collapsed the central conflict, the reason for any of the game events to happen, and broke “the story” of the game.

If my entire “mission” is to catch a criminal in the West and I spend all my time collecting flowers, I create my own story, true, but I also break the assumed narrative (Red Dead Redemption). If I decide I would rather spend all my time driving around and listening to 80s music in my car than join the local gang (Grand Theft Auto 4), I create a parallel story to that of the game, a dual canon to that of the game. There is my story and then there is the story of the game.

What we are talking are the moments of collision between the fabula (the player’s ‘series of events’ as they experience and, in games, create their own story) and that of the story placed in the game by the developer. The game developers intended that the player follow a certain path or pick from certain limited number of options. If a player has an alternative interpretation of the events and then, despite or even without pressure to conform to the known paths, continues this way, they create their own story.

To return to Literature for a moment, these collisions are purposefully placed by the writer in the creation of the story. They serve, in the ‘reading’ of the story, as guideposts to the reader in the process of information synchronicity.  They are the delineation between one selection in a paint-by-number picture and the next. The reader can pick the colors they want (e.g. interpretations) but there is some structure placed there by the author. There comes a point where the fabula, in the process of reading a book or watching a movie as two examples, equalizes with the sujet, the order of events. The information asymmetry that was started at the beginning of the ‘reading’ is closed and the reader now has ‘seen’ what the story was and how the events transpired.

Jumping back to games, we now have a problem. We want, as developers, (I include myself here) to enable the player. We want them to create story (fabula) from and influenced by their own personality (in the case of open-world, non-linear games).

“Can a designer create a game with a number of additional ‘choices’ or situations to be sprinkled into the game to change the storyline or landscape based on this villain’s decisions? While the player is completing his first newbie mission, can the game wipe out a small castle the player has not yet visited (and now never will, at least not in this play-through) in a situation that mirrored the player’s final question — the castle lord got uppity in desperation for his people, and rather than negotiate with a former ally to relieve him and his people, the bad guy took the challenge and completely demolished the castle and nearby village, killing everyone.

One or two set-pieces like that could really make a game (albeit at significant cost in terms of designing alternative states), but perhaps there’s room for more generic, algorithmic changes as well. Text-based backstory items. The types of monsters inhabiting certain dungeons. The types of enemies likely to be faced among the enemy’s forces. The types of algorithmically-generated quests some NPCs send the player off to tackle. That kind of thing.”(emphasis added)

Yeah, that is the problem I saw too. I could not think of a way to conceive of the problem without it having a huge scope. You would have to mold things in such a way that exposition allowed for alternative interpretations that then were actionable within the game. That is, for large amounts of content to exist within the game that some — or maybe even most — players would never see because their algorithmic-derived experience shaped the game in such a way to exclude those areas or, as Jay mentions, “wipe out a small castle the player has not yet visited (and now never will, at least not in this play-through).”

Then, as I was reading the comments to “Choose Your Own Enemy” a few days later, I saw this awesome comment from LateWhiteRabbit:

“I would LOVE to see your idea in a game. The closest to this kind of thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve mentioned it before, is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I keep bringing it up because it really is, in my vast experience, one of the single best uses of narrative in a game EVER, precisely because it does a version of what you suggest here.

In all the Silent Hill games, the town itself is the real villain, the bad guy that morphs, changes, and adapts its horrors based on the specific personalities and hang-ups of each game’s protagonist. So what Shattered Memories does is truly brilliant and subversive. It takes the stance that this guy you are playing as – Harry – is just an avatar. Of YOU.

YOUR actions and personality are what it observes and twists things around. It is amazing all the things the game watches and notices about how you play and act. Did you rush over when you heard someone scream for help? Or did you proceed cautiously? Did you pause and fuss with your inventory first? Did you hesitate or even turn away?

It also notices things like how long you look at things and WHAT you spend the longest looking at. Did you stare at that swimsuit calendar a long time? Did you call those numbers on the bathroom stall? Did you try and peek at that NPC undressing when she asked you not to? Did you stare or even zoom in on her dirty panties on the floor after she left? Well, player, the game has determined that you are likely a perv and Silent Hill will start reflecting that.

It is all beautifully subversive and subtle, to the point where you have no idea it is happening. Everything seems natural, and the game gets more and more antagonistic towards YOU as it ramps to the finish, before delivering such a scathing finishing condemnation on your personality that is so eerily accurate a lot of gamers just freaked right the hell out. And . . . BOOM. Silent Hill … just … got … in … YOUR … head.”

Ha. Of course. There is a very good answer to the problem of closing the gap between game story (sujet) and player story (fabula). Instead of placing the onus on the player, via the statistics they pick or major decisions they make, the game shapes the experience, in context of the game’s story, the character and the plot, by directly graphing the psychology of player onto the character.

“Of course,” the game says with this method, “Of course, the character IS the player. Start at that assumption and then build from there. Whatever choices the player makes, for whatever reason, are now part of the makeup of the character’s mind and thus the town’s manifestations.”

In choosing what we look at, spend time with or even outright ignore, we are saying what the antagonist is — it is ourselves. The town, in the Silent Hill games, is a mirrored darkly look at the psyche of character in its grasp. Just as the character is a reflection of the player, via the choices made through the exercise of their agency, the antagonist, if there is to be, must be represented as some fraction of that same agency and purpose. If the player cares more about flowers than shooting, the antagonist’s features must have some aspect of those same preoccupations.

For the story to matter to the player, more than just as a role they play, some shoes they temporarily fill, then the conflict and participants in said conflict must revolve around the player. If the player is to be the protagonist, the antagonist must be like them, have goals and positions that are, by definition, in conflict with the protagonist. Otherwise, it is just player vs game mechanics as the player tries to get the high score or achieve mastery — it’s not a bad story per se, but more variations are possible.

4 thoughts on “I choose you, antagonist!”

  1. That was indeed an awesome comment…it stood out in my mind when I read Choose Your Own Enemy. Got me wanting to play Shattered Memories…and also got me thinking of how to involve the player and their actions more within the game. One game that apparently fails (quite spectacularly) to do this is Skyrim, and the more I looked, the more apparent this became.

    I’ve been reading people’s comments about Skyrim, and I’ve noticed two major trends. One is that the game gives them freedom to do just about anything they want. The other is that the game doesn’t seem to give a damn what they do; it barely acknowledges their actions with the equivalent of a silent nod, before going right back to the game as if nothing had happened. ‘You just became the head of the thieves guild? …OK, fine. Now you’re an archmage? Great, now go back to doing those fetch quests!’

    Those whose comments tend towards the defensive in regard to Elder Scrolls V emphasize how much they love the game’s total freedom, how the world seems to revolve around them. They don’t seem to notice or care that their actions have minimal impact on said world. As a player, I’d be terribly disappointed with a game like that. What does it matter if I can do anything if the world doesn’t react to my most outstanding accomplishments?

    Freedom of choice is all well and good, but I want some weight to my choices. I want to see consequences. And I think that a brilliant consequence is that the antagonist remains a dark reflection of the protagonist…regardless of his or her actions. This might lead the player to wonder whether they are thwarting the antagonist…or the antagonist is thwarting them. A contest of wills of that sort would be a great way to bring about immersion: I’d care way more about stopping an enemy that reacted to my decisions and tried to oppose me.

    1. I’m glad you mentioned The Elder Scrolls series of games. In my time with Oblivion, I started to get really upset that I was supposed to be this foretold hero of the ages and yet nearly everyone couldn’t care a bit about me. I climbed the ranks of all the Guilds and yet, despite having near complete control of the economy, the Guilds and fate of the land, not a single NPC could even remember that I had just talked with them.

      Once I had finally played Skyrim some, I was going to write something very similar to what you articulated: the world seems hardly to care that you are in it, yet expects you to constantly give towards society in the fulfillment of quests. Just as you pointed out, it gets to a ridiculousness level in the player having multiple titles and then starting at the lowest level of another organization: “I don’t care if you just saved the land from a hell dimension, are the leader of the Thieves Guild and are also the Arch-Mage. You go tell that other person five feet away that I disagree with what he said!”

      “I want some weight to my choices. I want to see consequences.”

      Yeah, I agree with you here but, as was pointed out, I’m not sure that doesn’t mean a great deal of work on the part of the developer to make the world more complex and as well as introducing many more game states.

      I might attempt to tackle something like it when I get ready to test Mintybreath. It might be interesting to take the statistics someone puts in as theirs and then mirror them in another character within the simulation.

      “This might lead the player to wonder whether they are thwarting the antagonist…or the antagonist is thwarting them. A contest of wills of that sort would be a great way to bring about immersion: I’d care way more about stopping an enemy that reacted to my decisions and tried to oppose me.”

      Yeah, this was something I didn’t point out — because I had already hit 2K words — in the post: most games have you face off against a villain whose only real threat (as far as the player is concerned) is in ending the ‘world’ (e.g. experience). I can name a dozen games where the goal — the primary goal — of the antagonist is to destroy the world/universe/everything. This involves the player (as protagonist) only in that it is a threat to their investment in that/those characters, not that they are in anyway mirrored by said villain.

      I really like your idea of the protagonist and antagonist being pitted against each other as a contest of wills… in a game. In Literature, of course, this is quite often the case. One decision by either triggers a reaction by the other. Their conflicting goals fuel the story’s plot. However, once I started thinking about it, I hardly see that in games.

      “Look! Look! That one guy might destroy the world,” the game will try to tell me.

      I would then be shocked. “What!? But-But what about all these side-quests I just got access to? The world-ending battle can wait for a few in-game months as I collect all these flowers, then kill a bunch of bears and then romance a few people.”

      If we want the player to care, we are going to need to raise the immersion, the consequences and shift from caring about what role they might be playing to what performance we can enable them to perform.

  2. Your final reminds me of the Pokemon games where you always have a rival one step ahead of you.

    I came away from your article thinking that in order to have weight in our actions in open world games without creating boatloads of content, we have to be creative. Maybe there should be a penalty for dilly dallying with side quests too long. Having a pokemon-style rival would be a great motivator too. Hmmmm I will have to think on this one.

    1. We want, as developers, to instill the constant ability of the player to have a great time through their own actions in our games — to empower them to act within our constructed context. We give them information, abilities (with tutorials) and then unleash them into a structured world to enact their own creative wills to weave their unique and individual adventures.

      Ideally, that is. That is the promise of an open-world game, that you matter. That not only are you the savior of the world (universe/town/school/room), but that you can have a place, a performed identity, that is special to you. The player-character is a combination of both identities, one part as written and another as performed — developer and player.

      The problem, as you and I have both mentioned, is that that normally means content — a great deal of content — in order to be as inclusive as possible. Developers try to predict possible variations and then put in as many syntactically valid verb+noun combinations as possible, all while hoping that they have put in enough to cover most players. However, it can never be enough for everyone.

      I can preach toward marching to the mythical town of Every Player is Equal, but it’s not true — it’s fictional. The process of designing anything, as I am learning, is to exclude some people. You try your best and work within your means toward a product that is aimed at an audience, some subset of all the people who might consider playing your game or, in my case, might read your written work.

      To ground this comment some, I like your idea. Mass Effect 2 does something similar in one of its missions. If you do not tackle it immediately, more people die — people who Shepard, as written, would care about in some way. However, that, along with your “there should be a penalty for dilly dallying with side quests too long,” means that the player is penalized for something they did not know about though.

      That’s the problem in a nutshell: we have been trained to think about the hero being the only person that matters in the story. If we step back and look at this problem from a greater (gamer culture) view, we see that developers, by enabling the option for the hero to take the actions when and if they want, are breeding more and more narcissism into the play mindset. By telling us that only the hero matters, that rescuing that person or taking care of that humanitarian issue is secondary — literally a side-quest! — we are telling players that they matter, yes, but also that only they matter in our worlds.

      Maybe there needs to be a rival, someone there to deflate our ballooning sense of importance as we play. Some of the scariest times in my own gaming past is when there is a rival like Dark Samus from the Metroid Prime series. If there is another entity in the game — another, often stronger entity — I am forced, via tension, to always think as the character would: hunted, challenged and that my time matters because at any moment I might have to face off against a rival, an opponent or someone, God forbid, my equal.

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