How I Learned to be the Bad Guy in Video Games

Illustration for article titled How I Learned to be the Bad Guy in Video Games

I suck at being the bad guy in video games. I always get all invested, and then I'm hardly ever able to commit to being evil. But for some reason, Infamous 2 has become that game that's made it so much fun for me to be bad–-and I have those annoying guys that drum on pails to thank.

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When the game industry heard the complaint that most game stories were two-dimensional, overly linear and generally crummy, they implemented a pretty creative solution: Make games that let players decide which kind of character they want to inhabit, and what that character's story should be.

Most of the time, "player choice" is implemented by giving you the option to be good or evil – and in the past, the lack of nuance has been a source of humor for longtime gamers: Would you like to murder these ailing orphans, or give them your basket of kittens?

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Fortunately, developers continue to pioneer ways to let us customize our experiences and see the consequences of our actions, which is lots of fun. Right, player choice and blah blah blah. I write about this stuff, all critically and whatever. And whenever I'm presented with a moral spectrum game, I get tangled up in my own train of thought. I'm busy analyzing my emotional impact, I'm gazing into the eyes of NPCs and trying to feel something.

There is one exception in my past: When I played the first BioShock, I decided to try to test out what the pre-release hype had promised: That the world of Rapture would call me to account for the decisions I made within it. I harvested all the Little Sisters in part because I considered it some kind of critical obligation, to experience and measure for discussion in my writing later.

Illustration for article titled How I Learned to be the Bad Guy in Video Games

I ended up being rewarded: I think the narrative works best that way. The infamous plot twist wherein your character gets his comeuppance in the form of a lesson in free will hits harder if you've been ruthless and reckless. But after that point, it's too late to redeem yourself, disappointingly—in my view, one of BioShock's few failings.

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That experience reinforced my hesitance to be bad. BioShock's "good ending" is much better than the others, and I had to watch it on YouTube and hear about it from all my friends, bereft of the satisfaction of having gotten it myself. Since then I've struggled tepidly for moral middle ground, paralyzed by indecision. During Fallout 3, I marveled at all of the options I was given, the subtlety of the choices I could make, and yet half the time, in conversation with NPCs, I sat still, controller in hand, staring at a dialogue screen, agonizing over what I should do. What would I do? What would I want my character to do? What should I write about it later? Do normal people overthink things this much? Is this supposed to be fun?

I never played the first Infamous. I can't recall what else was out at the time it launched; I just remember there was too much, as there always seems to be too much. But I know all my friends loved it, so when the second one came around, I decided I should take it for a spin.

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And true to thoughtful, considerate form, I immediately wanted to empathize with the people in this sympathetic setting, this ravaged New Marais. Half-flooded and full of destitute, frightened people, it bears more than a passing resemblance to post-Katrina New Orleans, from its lively jazz clubs and outdoor cafes to more sinister omens.The city is hazy with poverty. Anti-government vigilantes and criminals try to exploit the instability. Police are short of resources. The threat is not a natural disaster, but a looming supernatural force called "the Beast."

Illustration for article titled How I Learned to be the Bad Guy in Video Games
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Yet New Marais' population is still begging for salvation in the face of ruin, while news broadcasts warn of failing tourism and a dearth of governmental support. There's even a bright-lit locale called the "Yes We Can-Can Club", perhaps a subtle reference to the positive national revival President Obama's election campaign promised on the heels of a Katrina-marred Bush era.

These are the first things I noticed about Infamous 2, aside from the cool powers, the fantastic environment design and how good it simply feels to control Cole McGrath. I was inclined to empathize with the poor city. But since Sucker Punch gave me game design that made me feel like I had super-powers at my fingertips, I decided that I was going to cause some mass destruction, dammit. I wanted to be a bad guy, for once.

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My goal very quickly foundered. The natural response to the inequities the game presents is to want to help. For example, what to do but try to help people in a suffering region under the martial law of hick purists who'll shoot at anything that looks weird? I felt vindicated when I saved citizens from muggers, I wanted to play "correctly," not make "mistakes," not hurt anyone I didn't have to. Very quickly, I started to become a Good Cole, just by virtue of doing things that came naturally to me. The idea of concussing this wounded little city any more than it'd already been felt repellent.

I felt depressed. Why do so many video games make me uncomfortable with their violent destruction, I wondered? I've never been able to be one of those people who says "it's only a game." And why should I? This is the most powerful medium of the 21st century. It's not a toy. It's long bothered me that people can spend hours upon hours pretending to be soldiers, splattering the native populations and one another all over gameworlds that look just like real-world warzones. That isn't fun to me; games can give us the power to do anything, and yet all we want to do is wreck and kill stuff. "Who cheers for war," I once wondered, in a past Kotaku column.

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So as much as I wanted to experience all of the wild, destructive fun that Infamous 2 seemed to promise, the best I could muster was a tepid neutrality. Which is, of course, the only way not to play this game – if you want to get to do everything there is, gain a full slate of powers, you've got to pick one side or the other. There's no joy in the middle road.

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And then, a breakthrough. The game gave me the opportunity to zap something I really don't like: Street performers. Those effing guys that bang on pails, those halfhearted, talentless saxophone noodlers, and those damn people pretending to be statues.

. I like independent musicians. If you follow me on Twitter, I probably talk about music just as much as I do games. But here's the thing: If you want to try to make some extra cash busking, or even if you want to try to make your living that way? Please know how to play an instrument. Be a little bit good at it. The acoustics in the subway station are such that if you are going to just wail on a couple of some buckets endlessly with some sticks, I can't even hear my headphones. You people drive me crazy. If you are in need and you have no other options, please just hold out a cup for me to put some change in and spare me your goddamn toneless noise. Oh, yeah, and the "I wear body paint and pretend to be a statue" thing? It's been done. Like, a million times. Everyone has seen it. If you want to be an artist DO SOMETHING ELSE.

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Do I sound a little heated? Sorry, I just played like five hours of Infamous 2 as Outlaw Cole and it gets my adrenaline up. So yeah, anyway. When I saw that poor New Marais was under threat of a seemingly-endless supply of identical badly dressed hippie jerk street performers, I had to do something. I started zapping those asshats. I started laughing. I started racking up bad karma. And I started loving it.

Many hours later–-I've lost count–-I'm doing great at being bad. It took that one moment of personal connection to remind myself that, even though I've got high hopes for the medium of games and I want to speak to them through my work, once in a while it's all right not to take myself, or games, so seriously. Now that I can throw a truck at a helicopter–-or, hey, at another truck or car or taxi or person or building or whatever just for fun—I realize I'd forgotten that games have another incredible power: To help me zone out and decompress.

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And, y'know, I guess once in a while it's okay if that's all I'm doing. These aren't real cops I'm divebombing for Ionic Charges. And (unfortunately) these aren't real crappy street performers I'm chasing down the street with red-lightning retribution. Because I am having a royal flippin' blast, and I can't stop playing. Damn, it's good to be bad.

Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a wide variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com. NOTE: The images and video from this post were captured from Stephen Totilo's playthrough of Infamous 2. He's an anti-musician bad guy, too.

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DISCUSSION

The bad guys choices are always too one-dimensional for me.

Take Mass Effect, if you will: the Paragon choices usually have you acting like a human being, while the Renegade choices usually have you acting like a flaming asshole. This isn't always the case, of course — sometimes the Renegade choices make the most sense, and I take them — but it holds true for the majority of situations.

For Mass Effect you can blame my experience as a military officer for the largely Paragon choices, since the first rule of a conflict is "don't start shooting". In other words, the only way that you can be assured that you won't lose any men in a firefight is to NOT HAVE A FIREFIGHT IN THE FIRST PLACE. Paragon choices usually allow you to avoid the violence; sometimes Renegade choices provide the same course and when they do I take them.

But then you have games like Dragon Age (the first one). Compare Alistair, who is definitely a "good guy" with Morrigan, who is supposed to be a "bad guy". Alistair is snarky and irreverent; he often has an off-color joke about whatever situation you are in and likes to backtalk the main character. However, he also has a sense of compassion, and is a troubled soul as a result of what he has been through and the atrocities that he has seen. Morrigan, on the other hand, is just pure flaming bitch 100% of the time. There is no complexity to her character whatsoever — she's just angry at the world for the sake of being angry, and when other characters confront her with this she always has the same lame excuse about the world being a "hard place".

Alistair is a character with deep complexities, while Morrigan is about as linear as a character can get. Alistair seems human — cracking jokes in an effort to maintain his "tough guy" image in the face of a lifetime of suffering and inevitable death. Morrigan is a caricature of an all-too-popular bag guy trope, and ends up falling flat as a result.

So maybe that's the problem with the bad guys: we haven't really figured out how to present that option in a graceful manner. I would like to see a game where they convinced you to be the bad guy while thinking you were actually being the good guy.

I want to be the guy who decides to invade Iraq to depose a dictator, without the foresight of the lives that will be lost and the long-term damage that will be done to the country.

I want to be the guy who decides to build coal-fired power plants in the middle of city centers, convinced that I'm helping my dramatically overpopulated nation to grow and flourish while at the same time not realizing the pollution will lead to a dramatic spike in birth defects, cancer, and lung and heart disease.

I would love a game that give you THAT perspective — the person who is convinced that they are doing the "right thing", even though those around them see the folly of their hubris.