30 Days of Video Games: Day 17, Favorite Antagonist

The conflict is the reason I read and reread Frankenstein.  I actually hate the characters.  They’re all whiny and incapable of sucking it up and facing their responsibilities.  Victor always has a fever and is always swooning, and everyone around him buys it and pities him.  Then they get killed.  It’s frustrating and annoying, but the conflicts are what keep me going back for more in that book.  Conflict is necessary in a story; without it, there’s very little story.  Often when we complain that “nothing happens” in a book or movie it’s because there’s no conflict, or the conflict is so subtle we don’t really pick up on it.

The essence of video games is conflict.  It’s a game, so there’s an objective of some sort that must be met.  To meet said objective, we must overcome obstacles; conflicts, if you will.  And then there’s the ultimate conflict of all, the Final Boss.  I think my favorite antagonist would have to be Atlas/Frank Fontaine from BioShock.

One of the beauties of BioShock is that for a game classified as survival/horror, it’s very intelligent.  There’s a great deal of philosophy and moral/ethical issues at stake, and how you play the game determines a lot about how things play out in Rapture.  The underwater city has deteriorated because of a lack of ethics and morals brought on by an objectivist philosophy.  Basically, peoples’ own desire for pleasure as their main basis of existence led to the downfall of Rapture, and the propagation of that philosophy can be traced back to two men: Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine.

Ryan creates Rapture as a place for creative, free thinkers to be free from government involvement.  It’s supposed to be a creative utopia, but perfection cannot exist in an imperfect world.  Where Ryan seeks to run a utopia, his foil, Frank Fontaine, seeks to exploit it.  Their disagreements erupt into a war where Fontaine is supposedly killed.  By the time the protagonist, Jack, reaches Rapture, the city is in ruins.  Jack’s only help comes from a mysterious voice identifying itself as “Atlas”.

Atlas is, of course, Fontaine.  He takes on the name of the mythical Greek titan who held up the world, but is also an allusion to the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, who fleshed out the objectivist philosophies on which the story of BioShock is based.  If Atlas shrugs, the world comes collapsing down; therefore, the world depends on Atlas to hold it up.  By taking on the alias of Atlas, Frank Fontaine has basically declared himself the one upon whom the survival of Rapture rests.

What I like most about Fontaine is that he is a smart antagonist.  Smart villains are the really scary ones.  The big bad ones with all brawn and little to no brain are formidable and a bit scary, but when they can think?  And out-think you?  And use you as a pawn in their larger scheme?  That’s when they get really frightening.  Fontaine has basically used you, the protagonist, to achieve his own ends, and you only really come to realize it toward the end of BioShock.  You’ve spent the whole game surviving mad Splicers and psychotic Rapture citizens only to realize that Atlas, the comforting voice guiding you and asking you “would you kindly” do this favor and that, is the ultimate enemy.  How does that even happen??

Certainly, the moral dilemma about the Little Sisters and the ADAM is a major component of the BioShock experience.  But even more of an ethical issue is the realization that the protagonist, who really is you since it’s in first person, is being a mind-controlled pawn.  Atlas/Fontaine has essentially tricked you into doing his bidding.  For the first two thirds of the game, if not longer, you are going about doing his dirty work, completely convinced that it’s the right thing to do.  Only as you do more research and more of the story unfolds, and then when he tries to kill you bystopping your heart do you realize that he’s no better than anything or anyone you’ve encountered.  Rapture?  Rapture my arse.

Yes, in the end he becomes the big scary brawn over brains final boss.  But that didn’t worry me.  I can use any number of weapons on that.  What did worry me came after the face when I realized that the game had tricked me through Atlas/Fontaine.  While I had the rest of the game to go ahead and track him down and get even with him, it didn’t change the fact that the majority of the game had been what it was.

For those reasons Frank Fontaine is my favorite antagonist because he’s the scary-smart bad guy.   He’s not the scary monster under the bed; those aren’t scary because they don’t really exist.  He’s the predator out for his own gains.  And that is infinitely scarier, becausethat is real.

Tomorrow: Day 18, Favorite Protagonist.  Or, the other side of the coin.

Rated M, for Different Reasons

Recently I’ve been giving some thought to the concept of M-rated.  Most of the games I own are M-rated.  It’s more of a coincidence than anything else.  I didn’t go out looking to get only games appropriate for those over age 17, nor did I consider that those would be the only things in my collection.  It just happens that the games I enjoy that have a good story and characters and settings also happen to be judged as appropriate for those 17 and up by the ESRB.

Most of the games explain why they’re rated M for mature audiences.  Usually it’s because of violence, other times due to nudity and/or sexual situations.  But after some conversation that’s been going on in my Dragon Age writing forum, I’ve begun to wonder if mature audiences means only those situations such as gore, violence, sex, nudity, and/or drugs. 

As a writer and literature lover I tend to approach video games from the perspective of story, character, and most of all, themes.  And it happens that the themes of such games as BioShock, Dragon Age, and Gears of War transcend the levels of violence and sexuality as far as maturity is concerned.  In those games and many others there is far more going on that I would almost call subtext that isn’t always meant for young audiences.

I began to think about this when a new forum member on the younger side said she disliked Anders and dared us to change her mind.  A forum member who loves Andes (and has analyzed him extensively and writes him beautifully) took up the challenge and wrote up a very mature, eloquent post explaining her analysis of his character as it related to the situation in Kirkwall in DA2.  The crux of her argument was that what Anders does isn’t just for Anders; it’s for the freedom of mages everywhere, and the more one understand of mages the more one will understand Anders and his motives.  The response?  It was along the lines of “good point and thanks for trying, but I got a laugh out of the fact you even did try, I still hate him.” (paraphrased, of course).

The second member’s post was well-researched, well-worded, and addressed the validity of the first member’s claims, while stating her beliefs.  The response she received was… well… typical for the age range.  I remember being that age and wanting to be right all the time.  But as I’ve grown I’ve learned to listen to other arguments and consider them, and reply in kind–or more eloquently, depending on the person with whom I’m debating.  And that’s a sign of maturity.

So is understanding what’s beneath the surface of Dragon Age 2, and even Dragon Age Origins.  Yes, both games qualify for an M rating under ESRB standards.  Another friend and I laugh over the fact that in your first fight as a human noble in DA:O, you slaughter a few large rats, and come out of it covered in blood.  And of course there’s the not-so-subtle love scene, and Morrigan’s offer.  But the choices you must make along the way: to listen to various party members, to accept the assistance of mage v. templar or wolves v. elves… while your world is being torn apart by civil war even as a Blight of darkspawn threatens everything you know and love… it’s a lot to consider and think about.  While it is just a game, many of us have to make choices that will affect the well-being of others.  As a teacher I face choices of that nature every day.  While the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, it’s still a great responsibility.

Dragon Age 2 is even more mature in terms of theme and subtext.  The game’s story has a much larger scope.  And while Meredith’s tyranny threatens only Kirkwall, the ripple effect affects the rest of Thedas.  Dragon Age 2 is about more than hacking and slashing, and exploring identical sewers, dungeons, and caves.  It’s about more than just deciding who to romance, and is Anders or Fenris cuter or a better love interest.  It’s about city struggling to run itself under a broken system, as its citizens begin to expose the system for what it is.  There are religious zealots who kill the Viscount’s son to make a point.  There are gangs preying on the weak and impoverished while the wealthy flourish and pretend it doesn’t exist.  There are people living in squalor and no one willing or even able to do much of anything about it.  Once Viscount Dumar is killed by the Arishok, Meredith refuses to allow anyone else to take his seat, becoming the sole power in Kirkwall.  And with that she wields martial law, has citizens hanged on suspicion of harboring apostates, and suspects all mages of blood magic.  Kirkwall is a broken town running on a system so broken it’s nearly impossible to fix without destroying it entirely and starting fresh.

This is what Anders seeks to do by blowing up the Chantry.  And Hawke and company are all caught up in the midst of this, looking for a better way.  You don’t have to be mature (mentally) to handle the combat aspect of it.  But to truly understand what’s going on and how the characters fit in requires a level of intellectual and emotional maturity.

Take for example BioShock.  BioShock is brilliant on so many levels.  The setting, gameplay, graphics, all of it makes for a truly beautiful, haunting game.  But it’s the story and themes that is really haunting, and must be approached with a level of intellect and emotional maturity to truly understand the irony.  Now, you can play BioShock as just a game, and enjoy killing Splicers; that’s fine.  But I’m looking at it from the perspective of what’s below the surface of gameplay.

One of the beauties of BioShock is the literary allusions.  The setting is Rapture, which is an ironic name given what’s happened there.  And of course the game reflects and alludes to the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, down even to the philosophies explored through the game’s characters.  One of the final areas of Rapture you can explore is chock full of mythological references.  And then you realize that the Splicers you’ve been shooting up have become that way because of the way Rapture has fallen apart.  They’re not just enemies; they’re people who placed their trust in Rapture, and it failed them.  One of the most haunting scenes in the game is when you’re in an empty theater, and a young man is told to play the piano; when he fails to complete the task an insane director blows him up.  Yes, the violent death is worthy of the M-rating; but it’s comprehending the senselessness behind it that truly requires maturity.

I think even of Gears of War.  The game is beyond violent, and yet it’s still highly character-driven.  The interactions of Delta Squad, and their relationships, and seeing how they hold up while trying to save their planet, make this game an intensive experience.  While it’s easily an action-adventure game and far from role-playing, seeing the characters at work is interesting.  There are so many ghosts that Marcus Fenix must deal with; Cole is a Gear now, but he still relives his Thrashball glory days.  And then there is the heartbreak of Dom searching for his beloved Maria, which is just a minor character point in the first game, but become a major plot point in the second, and finally motivates his actions in the third.  Honestly that point in Gears 3 may have been the first time a video game drove me to tears with the sheer power of character and story.

It’s cool to run around with a machine gun that’s also part chainsaw.  It’s fun to blast the soulless bad guys back to where they came from.  I love doing it, don’t get me wrong.  But to understand what’s behind the characters as they do this is truly powerful and requires a level of understanding that comes with maturity.  And maybe it’s not even conscious maturity, in the vein of “I’m old enough to handle this” or “I know exactly what’s going on here.”

I’m not trying to come across as some holier-than-thou intellectual, or trying to overly analyze or intellectualize gaming.  But mostly I’m looking at the idea that while blood, violence, sex and drugs (and maybe some rock and roll?) certainly warrant an M for Mature rating, some of these games’ themes are also more mature and should be considered by parents thinking of picking up such a game for their not-quite-M-aged child.