Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

5 October, 2007

The nature of Evil
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:46 AM

Matt Mahaly over at The Forge posed an interesting question: how do you indicate that someone or something is evil without falling into the old stereotypes of “dark and ugly things have to be evil.” The meat of Matt’s problem is this:

Here I am though, doing some world design, and running up against the same problems that cause so many content creators to take the “bad guys wear black, good guys wear white” approach. I have a camp of Beasts doing some clear-cutting of the forests and they need stopping by the players. When I try to imagine myself as a typical new-ish player (it’s not a newbie area but it’s not too far past that), I feel as if I (as a player) need the bad guys to fit all the ridiculous stereotypes. In the context of games I’ve been so conditioned to make moral judgements based on visual clues that I find it almost impossible to fully visualize these clear-cutting scumballs as my enemy unless I throw in some visual clue, however small: Perhaps a jagged facial scar, or a nasty sneer, or an “evil-looking” symbol on their woodsman clothing.

So, what is a good solution?

On one hand, we have a lot of cultural assumptions that are useful as shorthand in a story. A movie might not have a lot of time to show that the antagonist is a bad person, but a visual sign like a scar often does the trick. Of course, in an (online) RPG, game designers usually have more time and freedom to establish characters instead of having to rely on shorthand like this.

I also want to disagree with Matt’s opinion that tension between fantasy races (or, more properly, species) encourages “real life” racism. I think this is just a retread of the argument that violent video games make people violent. A game isn’t going to turn a well-adjusted adult into a violent person, or turn them into a racist. But, this is tangential to the discussion; tread carefully if you want to discuss this issue in the comments below.

Now, let’s tackle Matt’s problem. Consider: what is evil? Usually it’s defined as someone or something that’s doing something that harms other people, especially something that harms you. The supreme example would be the Devil, who is evil because he wants to harm your eternal soul by having you reject God. A more human example is an enemy soldiers in war: they’re trying to kill your soldiers (or you, if you’re a soldier) and working against the goal of your group (nation, tribe, whatever).

The problem Matt is running into is when the “evil” tag gets applied too broadly. “All people wearing purple sashes are evil because I was once kicked by someone wearing a purple sash.” Replace “wearing a purple sash” with whatever race or species description you want.

The thing to consider here is that “evil” in my definition above deals with action and implies a choice for humans. The enemy soldier is evil because s/he has chosen to shoot at me. Of course, s/he might not be 100% willing, but they are at the very least choosing to value my life less than his or her own. So, you need to show that the characters have made a choice and are performing some action that makes them evil, not just because they are of a particular species or are in from a particular location. I think this is the important aspect to remember if you want to present “evil” characters in a game without having to rely on stereotypes.

So, going back to Matt’s problem, he needs to consider things in terms of the game world. He apparently wants clear-cutting of the forest to be evil. Why? How does it affect other characters in the world? Especially consider how it could affect the players’ characters in the world. If there’s no negative effect, then why are these characters really evil? Make the action evil to establish the first reason why the beasts are evil. Next, show that they have a choice. Actually, one of Matt’s suggestions would work well: give them an identifiable icon to wear to show that they have chosen to join a group that does evil actions (like clear-cutting forests). By giving them a chosen identity, and showing them doing an action that has been demonstrated to be evil, you establish that the characters are evil without having to rely on shorthand or stereotypes.

Do you think there’s a good option to make game characters evil without relying on stereotypes?


  1. Isn’t this what cute dryads in distress are for?

    Comment by David Moles — 5 October, 2007 @ 2:56 AM

  2. Isn’t “evil”, in itself, a stereotype? In real life spotting an “evil” person is not as clear cut. Is your boss “evil”? Your ex-girlfriend? The traffic cop who gave you a ticket with no kind of leeway?

    You could say the clear-cutters are “being evil”, because their actions are motivated by greed and cause harm to others (e.g., local inhabitants, animals, future generations). Note that capitalism, in itself, is not inherently evil — it’s the “let’s overlook other people’s well-being” line of thought that does it.

    (Also, of course the enemy soldier values his life more than yours. Then again, so do your fellow soldiers. That’s probably true for anyone save parents and certain other exceptions — and it’s not evil at all.)

    Think about Hitler going home to sing a lullaby to his nephew. He’s not being evil *then*. As you said, it’s all about game designers showing the character’s actions and their consequences — if you only show “bedtime story time” at Sauron’s abode, I guess he’ll come across as quite a nice guy. Too bad those pesky elves keep slaughtering his minions.

    Comment by Shade — 5 October, 2007 @ 8:32 AM

  3. You dont need to do anything. The player is “good”, so anyone against the player is therefore “evil”, no distinguishing features necessary other than “theyre not with us so theyre against us”, G.W. Bush style :p

    Comment by paul — 5 October, 2007 @ 8:43 AM

  4. Hey, look buddy, Im an (software) engineer. That means I solve problems. Not problems like “What is evil?”, because that would fall under the purview of your conundrums of philosophy. I solve practical problems …

    Sorry, couldnt resist :)

    Comment by paul — 5 October, 2007 @ 8:55 AM

  5. The player isn’t automatically good. Perhaps a game can create such a scenario, but evil can probably be roleplayed (or, at least, adopted as the player’s vision of his or her character) in most games.

    There are entire books devoted to defining evil. The debates about it in my college philosophy classes lasted weeks, so I’m not going to get into that here. But I will point out that individuals can think of their own actions as evil and consider parts of their own personalities as evil. There are certainly criminals who don’t think they’ve done any evil, but there are plenty more who know they’ve done evil and revel in or regret that fact.

    Just as it’s possible for a married person to know that his or her adultery is wrong and do it anyway, momentarily but repeatedly casting aside his or her conscience to revel in the evil act (assuming we’re talking about folks who believe adultery is evil), more sinister acts like torture, murder, and mutilation can be carried out with full belief that the acts should not be done. Evil is generally the easy way, afterall. Nobility requires work and often sacrifice.

    I posted about game races and the decision of whether or not to include moral gameplay on Matt’s blog.

    Comment by Aaron — 5 October, 2007 @ 11:23 AM

  6. Shade wrote:
    Isn’t “evil”, in itself, a stereotype?

    Well, there are shades of evil. (heh heh) I’ll agree that the concept of an absolute evil is cliche, but all the people you mentioned could be considered “evil” to some degree. Evil is matter of perception; that cop giving you a traffic ticket may be a hero to me because he’s punishing someone whose actions put other people at risk.

    Also, of course the enemy soldier values his life more than yours. Then again, so do your fellow soldiers.

    I will disagree. Anyone who values their own life highly usually does not (willingly) become a solider. You have many stories about people doing things in battle that goes against their own sense of self-preservation, or acts that even guarantee their own death to spare others. The cliché is the solider who leaps on a grenade to save the other members of his unit. Any solider who has lead a charge, put himself in danger, or gone on a suicide mission has shown that they don’t necessarily value their life above all others.

    Too bad those pesky elves keep slaughtering his minions.

    Well, yes, according to the other side, your soldiers are “evil”. One problem with typical fantasy is that “good” and “evil” tend to be put in absolute terms. This is the core of what Matt wanted to avoid, I think.

    Aaron wrote:
    Evil is generally the easy way, afterall. Nobility requires work and often sacrifice.

    This is an interesting statement. One problem is that games don’t provide real opportunities for heroism, because there are no opporunties for sacrifice. Throwing yourself at an enemy in an act that guarantees your death is meaningless, because you’re only “wasting” a few minutes of your time. This is one of the reasons I don’t ignore permadeath arguments, because I think it gives people more opportunities for heroism and truly noble acts.

    Interesting comments. Keep ‘em up. ;)

    Comment by Psychochild — 5 October, 2007 @ 1:12 PM

  7. Two words for you, from the zone in WoW which will stay with me for the rest of my life: Defias. Brotherhood. The Defias aren’t just randomly dropped into an area forcing you to kill them — to even FIND them, you have to walk through an area filled with ransacked houses, fleeing refugees, and bespoilt fields. They’re not evil because they dress-to-be-killed (although they certainly do), they’re evil because of what they’ve done to Westfall (in the service, you eventually come to learn later in the game’s most interesting plot, of a plan to Take Over the World). And by the time you get your first (of many) Stop the Defias Brotherhood quests, you WANT to stop them.

    I always thought it was interesting that the hands down best zone and most compelling instance (story-based, anyhow) of WoW was one that every Alliance player would reach within their first week or two of casual play. Sure, you spend much more time later in Stranglethorn and the Eastern Plaguelands… but none of them packed the visceral punch and cohesive narrative of Westfall. (Start by driving them off Joe Random Farmer’s little homestead, disrupt their mining operations, intercept their messengers, penetrate their conspiracy, raid their home base, and work your way to assassinating their leader! If everything in WoW was that well done we’d be talking about the days when WoW had only ten million customers.)

    Comment by Patrick McKenzie — 5 October, 2007 @ 7:36 PM

  8. Well, I see the problem being less good vs evil and more antagonist vs protagonist. The main character himself may indeed be “evil” as it has been done in various MMORPGS already. I would also say (as it has already been said) that making a scenario that revolves around being able to prejudge an enemy based on clothing/uniform can work for soldiers, but shouldn’t be used for everything. You also could toss in a few people in that same uniform which might have strayed from the view of the many, keeping the player guessing.

    I’ll also say that back in the day I used to get annoyed with movies and games using unattractive traits to be synonyms for looking evil. Whereas a scar does look evil, we have to ask ourselves why that is? And since this isn’t a social issue blog that’s probably something to leave for another day.

    To go back to “what is Evil?” Good/Evil ingame relates to more of the real life feelings on an action. In-Character, brigands probably don’t really view their actions as evil, they probably don’t even think about it. Good and Evil in-game should be shown by actions not by looks. Like Patrick said above with the Defias Brotherhood. But to add to that, if you were playing a rogue and [your character] grew up having no problem with thievery you might consider the Defias Brotherhood protagonists since they in theory wouldn’t be working against you.

    Comment by Sowy — 6 October, 2007 @ 11:37 AM

  9. Weekend Design Challenge: Characterization

    [...] the previous post, I talked about how to characterize the NPCs in your game. The specific example was how to avoid [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 8 October, 2007 @ 1:50 AM

  10. Practicalities first:

    I would argue that you should avoid defining any character or group of characters as evil – the decision of what constitutes evil should be down to the player.

    Also, by defining characters as “evil”, you’re handicapping your own story/world. Which is more interesting, the Evil Overlord who wishes to destroy the world purely because he’s Evil, and that’s what Evil does… or the once noble warrior who, having seen all his loved ones perish, has been twisted by grief and anger, has gone totally insane, and wishes to destroy everything in a futile attempt at revenge against life?

    These lead on to the theory:

    “Evil” is a poitical word. I don’t think that any living thing can truly be defined as evil. There may be acts that can be defined as evil – once again, down to the individual to define, but those who commit these acts can’t generally be defined as evil, although it’s often easier to see them in this way. Mostly, they’re just seriously damaged in some way, and malfunctioning. Or their set of values are vastly different from our own. A lion killing a baby certainly can’t be considered evil – it’s just hungry, and acting out its nature. Even a lion killing everyone in a small village, not for food, but out of madness born from a painful wound, cannot be considered evil, just damaged.

    The enemy soldiers in a war certainly aren’t evil, but it’s a lot easier to kill someone who you think of as “evil” than someone who you think of as “probably a nice bloke, who I’d get on with if I met him down the pub, and who I’d rather not kill, but who I have to kill, because otherwise I’ll be in trouble with my own people, and because he might kill me instead if I don’t act fast”.

    From a political viewpoint, you want your soldiers to think of the enemy as “evil”. It makes things simpler, and it makes propaganda and conditioning more effective.

    From a designer’s point of view, however, the moral ambiguity which is avoided through the use of the term “evil” is a valuable storytelling tool, one which shouldn’t be cast aside lightly. Which would you prefer, out of these two cases?

    A) Player finds the group of beasts. They charge. Player slaughters them all. Ding! Level up, move on to next quest. Forget the beasts ever existed.

    B) Player finds the group of beasts. Player confronts the beast leader, and finds out that the beasts would rather fight to the death than leave, as they will be tortured horribly by their superiors otherwise. The beasts warn the player off, and it is down to the player to decide whether to attack them or not. The player feels obligated to stop the destruction of the forest, and attacks, killing them all in the fight that ensues. However, long after the fight, the player still carries a niggling doubt over whether they did the right thing, and the embers of a hatred that will lead them into a vicious battle with the overlords at a later point.

    Of course, many players will just go “yeah, bla bla bla, skip the story already and give me the XP!”, in which case, they have their orders clearly defined “go to the clearing, kill the beasts” – however, those that are interested, and stop to investigate first, will find that things aren’t as clear-cut as they appear. At no point was “evil” needed.

    Comment by Lobosolitario — 8 October, 2007 @ 2:15 AM

  11. Overall, agreed: the entire question depends entirely on a meaning of evil, which is philosophical and outside of purview. To show something to be “good” or “evil” requires an understanding of those terms, first, and then a convincing of your audience to share the same understanding.

    If evil is a matter of birth, choice, action, intent, then that is the cultural assumption you necessarily carry with you into the game.

    An interesting sidenote: evil tends to be involved with asymmetric games. Is Black evil in chess? Of course not: there’s a player behind it. Food for thought.

    Comment by Michael Chui — 8 October, 2007 @ 9:20 PM

  12. All this philosophy is wonderful, but lets get back to nuts and bolts. Evil in video games is limited when we chain it in stereotypes – we see the bad guy visual, we reflexively kill them.

    Left unspoken, is the fact that many villians look like heroes in real life, and may even have noble motives, in destroying the lives of others.

    One of the best ways to see evil, is to watch what people do to those they demonize.

    So don’t give the players an easy answer all the time. Let the observant player notice the cold distant eyes that keep a victim outside just before the blade strikes. Let the player hear warm laughter, only to find out that joke that caused it ruined a life.

    And let evil be beautiful.

    The uncanny valley is wonderful for creating complicated emotions on the part of the player. No need to be obvious.

    Sometimes it’s just scarier when you know something is wrong, without knowing why.

    The uncanny valley is great for delivering the feeling of having been decieved.

    Comment by Samael Howard — 11 October, 2007 @ 12:37 AM

  13. Start by driving them off Joe Random Farmer’s little homestead, disrupt their mining operations, intercept their messengers, penetrate their conspiracy, raid their home base, and work your way to assassinating their leader! If everything in WoW was that well done we’d be talking about the days when WoW had only ten million customers.

    This is where I see us (the genre) needing more work. As its been pointed out and also I would add that to me, seeing someone or people cutting down trees is not an act of evil, unless I was a tree hugger – aka Druid (a class I don’t play). I live in the Pacific Northwest and that is an industry for us up here. We cut (clear cut) and replant, what evil in that activity. Yes there was not talk of these MOB’s replanting the area they cut, and we won’t see anything like that in games for quite some time. Even Vanguards trees were ‘poofed’ back in to the world after you harvested them.

    Portraying something as Evil or Good will come best from story, but we don’t build a great deal of story in to the game worlds. We filling them with a ton of other quests that really don’t lend themselves well to an ‘overall’ story of that town, the faction or anything. Because 99% of the things we do have no merit or impact on the world.

    Comment by Boon — 12 October, 2007 @ 2:58 AM

  14. My suggestions run much along the lines of the comments that have come before… show that a particular group is evil by showing the results of their works and actions.

    In the instance provided: you already have, presumably, a clue that the group is less than restrained in their actions by having to pass through a vast field of dead stumps and trampled mud to get to them (or being able to see such a field if you approach them thru the forest, depending upon how channelled/free-form the area design is).

    You could also have “personality tics” that illuminate a less than beneficient outlook: perhaps they regularly mistreat random lesser beasts… throwing daggers at birds and chipmunks and laughing, perhaps. Rudeness to one another, shoving and displays of bad temper that quickly come and go, also could be used.

    If they are not automatically set to attack the PC on sight, perhaps they still react negatively: getting tense and defensive, “avoiding eye contact” (facing obliquely away) and sidling away, or drawing weapons and “staring” (facing toward), depending upon their designated role in the logging camp.

    Obviously, some of the story could be told by the verbiage used when the character is tasked with confronting the group to begin with.

    In terms of strictly visual cues, perhaps making their tools and weapons a bit more “evil”… extra spikes, splashy colors, as opposed to strictly utilitarian designs. Splashes of dried blood on the very axes they are using to chop down trees…

    If sound and music is being routinely implemented, maybe have their camp music be of a darker tone or more chaotic as a subtle additional clue. Deep gutteral vocalizations (even if it’s just inarticulate grunts) or sharp hisses might achieve a similar effect.

    Gratuitous smoke and flame could be used to set an “evil” ambience as well, as could a somewhat chaotic or disheveled appearance to the camp or worksite. No neatly piled barrels and boxes or regimented rows of tents… randomly strewn litter and tents facing every which way instead. Depends on the rest of the backstory as to how appropos these indicators might be, of course…

    Oh well, some ideas at least…

    Comment by Craig Huber — 12 October, 2007 @ 4:19 AM

  15. And yes, I avoided getting into the “definition of good and evil” aspects on purpose. On that score, I’ll just link my favorite Onion article ever…

    God, Yahweh, Allah, etc. Re: THOU SHALT NOT KILL.

    “I guess I figured I’d left no real room for confusion after putting it in a four-word sentence with one-syllable words, on the tablets I gave to Moses. How much more clear can I get?”

    Comment by Craig Huber — 12 October, 2007 @ 4:32 AM

  16. Actions should determine wheter someone or thng is evil, not words

    Comment by Shalok-Gul — 23 October, 2007 @ 1:37 AM

  17. For the purposes of a game… I think evil could be described as a proclivity to use other people as a means rather than an end.

    Thus a leader who pushes his soldiers to exhaustion because he knows that conditioning is vital to their survival, would be acting for the good. A leader who performs the same acts to receive sadistic pleasure would be acting for evil… as the soldiers are a means to the end of his twisted pleasure.

    In this system, it is motives that matter more than actions. However, I would argue that there would be a baseline set of actions which are evil regardless of motivation or situation. Acts such as sexual assault or the murder of a child would be considered universally evil regardless of circumstance.

    Comment by Brent — 5 November, 2007 @ 1:38 PM

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