5 October, 2007
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?