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Bad Guys

Bad Guys.  They’re very cool.  Awesome even so use them wisely.  They can make or break a story, book, movie, game.  Darth Vader (until those last three abominations) was always more interesting than Luke.  

I really got to thinking about villains after the epic fail of Mass Effect 3.  I was thinking back over the final ten minutes where Shepard is faced with this glowing AI/Star Child who gives you this gibberish reason why the Reapers show up every 50,000 years and kill all organic life, and then the little brat goes on to tell you that he/it controls the Reapers.  

Which means they have no agency.  They’re just the equivalent of big squid shaped guns or knives or clubs being wielded by this new factor that suddenly appears in the final ten minutes of a multiple-hours long game.  Which completely undercuts the tension of this frightening force that has been personified by first Sovereign and then Harbinger in the previous games.  The thing you are told you have to defeat turns out not to be responsible in the ethical sense for it’s actions.  I think they did this to make the idea of allowing the Reapers to survive more palatable — “hey, they weren’t really mass murdering machine intelligences, they weren’t responsible.  No harm to foul, right?”

Yeah, really bad story telling.  Game companies — you need to hire real writers.  But back to bad guys.  First things first.  You need to establish the villain pretty damn early in your story.  You can ramp up the level of threat though that needs to happen at least in the first third of the book, movie, etc., but evil needs to step on stage and take a bow.  You can’t wait until the very end, and then tell me this thing I never heard about or knew about is actually the problem.

Let’s use Dragon Age as an example.  You’re faced with Dark Spawn, and there is a mention of this Archdemon thing.  Then pretty damn early in the game you have a nightmare where you actually see the Archdemon — a mucking big dragon that controls the Dark Spawn.  Whoa, scary, the stakes just got higher, the threat more threatening.  You realize your little Grey Warden is going to have to face this thing.  Yikes.

The bad guy needs to be at least the equal of the hero/heroine, and probably more powerful so that the reader/viewer/player feels tense and worried about the ability of the hero to save the day.  You also have to have a sense that the hero will find a way.  There is something ancient and primeval and that speaks to all of us in the David and Goliath story.  We love stories where the little guy pulls it out and wins against almost impossible odds.  

That is again one of the many problems with Mass Effect 3.  There is nothing you can do to the glowy, pontificating Star Child which leaves you feeling jammed and coerced.  And in fact when, in this new DLC, Bioware offers you a chance to shoot the glowy, pontificating bastard in the face it leads to the destruction of all life in the galaxy.  “Ha ha, you lose, wanna play again?”  Actually, no because I know that the designers of this game just threw me a big finger.

Your bad guys need to not be evil just for the sake of being evil.  There should be nuance to their actions.  They shouldn’t just kick puppies for the hell of it.  Remember, in another version of this story the villain sees themselves as the hero.  Try to put yourself in their shoes, view everything you’re going to have them do through the lens of logical, rational choices.  There is a good reason for what they do, at least in their own minds.

Actually using the villain correctly is how you build tension, and will help you lay out the beats of the plot.  In a sense the villain is driving the action.  Your hero shouldn’t just react, he or she need to protag while they’re being a protagonist, but the actions the hero takes are directly related to the villain’s actions.  Its a push pull tension that will take you to a satisfying resolution.

14 Responses to Bad Guys

  • A good bad guy can make a story, especially considering MY personal love of the Mad Scientists! When they would say

  • Melindas says:

    I do love a good villain rant to our hero. 🙂 I just happen to think scientists are very cool so I’d like to seem them as heroes rather than villains a bit more often.

    • Marcos says:

      The game designers and evyroene at bioware have been talking about how Mass Effect 3 will show a more human side to Shepard, I think that this scene is almost necessary in a story telling context because it shows Shepard in an extremely emotional moment. Not only does it help build character for Shepard but it sets up what really is at stake The scene in MW3 wasn’t nearly as moving and that game didn’t need it because it is not as much of a story oriented game.

  • Kenneth Caruso says:

    … that the fall was devastating. One of the biggest problems I had with the Starboy was that at the last possible moment, he usurps both the role of the Antagonist, until now the Reapers as a general and Harbinger as a specific, and the role of the Protagonist, both Shepard the character and the human being, the player, guiding his actions. Suddenly a clearly ill-informed and overly literalistic Artificial Intelligence is both the only problem and the only solution in the entire Galaxy. Potentially, the entirety of the conflict could have been removed if the Reapers themselves had built the Crucible and used it to their own purposes. And in that realization, two hundred hours of exploring a masterfully crafted universe becomes utterly pointless.

  • RS says:

    The odd thing is that Mass Effect 1 had a good villain in Saren. Saren’s actions directly affected the actions of Shepard. Moreover, he is like a mirror image of Shepard, creating a very effective dynamic between them. You find out that Saren and Shepard are both trying to save the galaxy from the Reapers, their only difference being their choice of how to implement their plans.

    Everything you list was actually done in the first game. It seems so strange, then, that this was lost somewhat in Mass Effect 2, and very much so in Mass Effect 3.

  • Melindas says:

    You are so right, Kenneth. I was denied the catharsis of the final confrontation with Harbinger who was the avatar for all the Reapers. Clearly he is obsessed with Shepard. They wanted his DNA to add to the human Reaper — that is a big deal in the second game, and then Shepard just goes and gives it to them in the third game if you picked either control or synthesis? That’s nuts, and so out of character for Shepard whether paragon or renegade.

  • Melindas says:

    Good point RS. When you look at it, all three men — Saren, TIM and Sheapard are trying to save the galaxy from the Reapers. Sarin with Synthesis — “Let’s join with them.” TIM with control. “We can harness them, learn their secrets, etc.” Which is why there was no choice for me but to go with destroy. And Anderson was the image I saw standing at that console. The father figure, the mentor, the man who is counting on you to make good as the first human spectre to erase what he saw as his failure. That’s powerful stuff, and they just threw it all away.

  • Confused Reader says:

    You say that the Archdemon is a good villain, and that the Catalyst in ME3 is a bad villain.

    Then you say this: “[b]Your bad guys need to not be evil just for the sake of being evil. There should be nuance to their actions. They shouldn

  • Melindas says:

    The problem wasn’t the Star Child in and of itself. The problem was that it was dropped into the game literally at the very end without any foreshadowing or preparation. The Archdemon is hung over the mantel early in the first act. We also learn about these creatures. It’s not just a big dragon. It carries the soul of fallen god. It twists what it touches, it has a plan, we just don’t see it reach fruition because the Warden and companions defeats it. In this case I was intrigued by what the dark god was ultimately after. The Archdemon speaks, and we know older wardens can understand. They made it mysterious, but suggested an ultimate goal.

    With the star child they gave me an explanation that was frankly just idiotic. Synthetics and organics will always fight therefore I create synthetics that will kill all organic life. Talk about tortured logic. Except in this game you have just proved that conflict is not inevitable. So why doesn’t the creepy star child say — “Hey, good job, you stopped fighting. My work here is done. Ciao, later.

    There was a way to lay this AI in much earlier using the scans you made of the Keepers. Each game you begin to learn a bit more. This literally was a deus ex machina in the worst sense of that phrase. From the beginning we knew that the Reapers were the problem. The Geth and the Collectors were just minions, but we knew it was Reapers and they were scary. The glowing kid was just pompous and seemed to arrive out of nowhere.

    • Arya says:

      I think it’s more of a symbol of what’s going on aruond Sheperd and the choices he’s gonna be forced to make. I believe it’s a sign that maybe you can’t save them all, so you must be prepared to lose many friends and comrades. To me it not a shocking scene because thousands are dying at that same time, just because you can’t see it doesn’t’ mean it’s not happening.

  • Justin says:

    Folks need to remember that Bioware was tne first and only company to make a cinematic video game trilogy. I think they failed in the story aspect but succeed in creating great characters, atmosphere, music and overall art direction. I just hope that if they or any other company in the future attempts to make a story driven game in the future, that they hire gifted writers and plan out the story.

  • stysiaq says:

    the most tragic thing about the writing in ME is that despite all the inconsistencies, nothing ever pointed to that shameful Deus Ex Machina. Harbinger was the supposed villain since ME2 and even the horrible Arrival DLC just extended that feeling. It’s not that the villain wasn’t introduced; It’s that the villain was introduced, and then, for whatever reasons, abandoned. Sure, he wasn’t as grim as Sovereign – nothing’s perfect. He wasn’t as compelling as the bipedal antiheroes (TIM and Saren) – he didn’t have to. But the plot would benefit from keeping things simple, and including Harbinger in the story, and in the end, seeing our most silent squadmate, the Normandy, tear him apart.

  • Melindas says:

    I completely agree, Justin. Between Dragon Age, and Mass Effect they have pretty much spoiled me for games like Skyrim. They created vibrant, fascinating characters that I came to care about, and there was a narrative drive to the stories. Open sandbox games aren’t to my taste. Maybe because I am a writer I like a strong story, and while Skyrim is absolutely beautiful I’m really not interested in crafting, and it’s driving me crazy that almost nobody reacts to the fact a big dragon came and ate this village in the opening sequence. I know a lot of people love the open ended, just explore aspect, and that’s great, but Bioware had created something so unique — really a new form of entertainment.

  • Melindas says:

    I was really looking forward to the final confrontation between Harbinger and Sheparad. Every time Harbinger announced he was “taking direct control” in ME2 it gave me a shiver. The idea that this vast intelligence had split off a part of itself and was focusing just on [u]me[/u] to try to kill me, really upped the tension.

    And, Stysiaq, that’s an excellent point that the Normandy had become a character in this series. Just as Middle Earth is essential to Lord of the Rings, that ship carried and protected the people we had come to care for.

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