Recently, I was listening to a games-related podcast when a listener asked “Why won’t games let me play the villain?” It seems like a reasonable question. Games are primarily about putting the player in the role of hero or someone out to do good. Whether your character is Mario or Geralt or Lara Croft, your mission is usually heroic.
Of course, some games do let the player be the “bad guy” (or gal). Overlord places you in the role of an evil wizard, who commands minions in a war against decent folk. Like the similar Dungeon Keeper games, it’s all done in a lighthearted, cartoony style without any hint of malice. At the other end of moral spectrum are games like Super Columbine Massacre, Postal or even Hotline Miami, where the player is dropped into the role of an unhinged serial killer. Interesting, games that force the player into evil deeds are often the ones that become most notoriously misunderstood by the general public. For many players, it’s extremely uncomfortable to play the part of someone whose moral compass is clearly broken.
But the real answer to the question is that nearly all story-focused games do let the player be the villain, or at least commit what most people consider villainous acts. In real life, there are rarely, if ever, true heroes and villains, just shades of moral ambiguity and points of view. Terrorists, dictators, or serial killers don’t think of themselves as “evil,” they often think they are on the side of righteous good, or they are preserving order by any means necessary, or they are even ridding the world of something they find violates their moral code.
While games like Rise of the Tomb Raider feature a protagonist with whom we are supposed to identify and protect, the truth is that Lara (and the player) commit what amounts to mass murder in the game. The same is pretty much true of every action game or RPG, where body counts climb into the hundreds, killings committed by characters we would identify as “good” or heroic. The game usually helps the player feel less uncomfortable by making the antagonists starkly, black and white evil, but occasionally a game gives us an antagonist whose motives are less clearly amoral. Many RPGs like Fallout and Mass Effect give the player the choice to play as relatively “good” or “bad,” though the choices don’t ultimately impact the larger story arc.
In general, people are nuanced, complicated, and sometimes conflicted about their beliefs, actions, and ethics, and games have long been recognized as something of a release valve for players, allowing them to safely give expression to their darker or less acceptable desires. Playing characters who are basically “good”– like most people like to think of themselves — but who are capable of committing “evil” or morally questionable acts is a more relatable experience than playing a purely “bad” character. So, the answer to the question “why can’t I be the bad guy?” is that you can, and you do, in almost every game you play.
“Making you a better geek, one post at a time.”