Good to be Bad

Good to be Bad
Sympathy for the Devil

Kyle Orland | 31 Oct 2006 07:01
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More than multiple viewpoints, though, Indigo Prophecy succeeds in having believable characters because it is focused on human interactions rather than endless battles. Far too many games feature hordes of expendable enemies that are barely around long enough to form a wisecrack; good luck forming a believable character structure around them. The ones that do stick around longer are usually just more powerful versions of the throngs of chattel, similarly waiting to destroy or be destroyed.

To truly understand your enemies, in virtual life as in real life, you need to be able to engage them in conversation as well as battle. Games like Indigo Prophecy and Knights of the Old Republic use branching conversations to engage non-player characters, but this method inherently limits what you can say and how the characters can respond. Every path in the question-and-response tree is predetermined, each discrete branch penned beforehand by a writer.

To really introduce moral ambiguity into a game, you need a system like that in Facade, an art/research project by two artificial intelligence experts. The game invites you into the home of Grace and Trip, a couple in their 10th year of a deeply troubled relationship. The evening starts pleasantly enough, but the resentment between the couple threatens to destroy the civility and possibly the relationship.

You are forced into the viewpoint of the guest, but you aren't limited in what you can say or where you can try to lead the conversation. You can take Trip's side and harp on Grace's insecure need for validation, or you can comfort Grace and defend her from Trip's passive-aggressive barbs. Or you can strive for a balance, picking apart both parties for their petty concerns. Or you can make a pass at the hosts, earning a quick dismissal.

Facade is notable because neither non-player character is the clearly defined bad guy. You're not caught in a battle between good and evil, but between two deeply flawed, deeply sympathetic people. The conflict is more awkward than that of most games, and also more real.

Why aren't more games like this? Well, it took a team of people five years to develop the 20,000 lines of dialogue in Facade, and even then, the two main characters tend to repeat themselves after only a few plays. Apparently, it's a lot easier to design a good gun than to design a good, free-flowing conversation.

But despite their limitations, games like Facade and Indigo Prophecy show that there is at least the potential for videogames to allow players to divine personal as well as tactical knowledge of an enemy. There is potential for a future where game villains aren't just remorseless killing machines, where the bad guy is a sympathetic character that's striving for acceptance and understanding, just like us. When the "love thy enemy" ideal becomes truly integrated in our games, we'll be able to grok our villains so fully, we won't be able bear destroying them.

It's enough to give you preemptive nostalgia for the days when Soda Popinski's only goal in life was to "make you feel punch drunk."

Kyle Orland is a video game freelancer. He writes about the world of video game journalism on his weblog, Video Game Media Watch.

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