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For The Evulz! Let's talk villains... (pt1)

Deathwing: "You have done NOTHING! I WILL TEAR YOUR WORLD APART!"

This is something I've been meaning to discuss for a little while, both as a broad topic and also within the context of an analysis of World of Warcraft, the international monstrosity of a video game that makes all of Blizzard's previous endeavors look like small time indie games - and anyone who actually knows anything about gaming history will know how utterly insane that is.

Also, some folks have expressed disappointment at the lack of substantial journals lately. To this I can only say: if you don't comment, I have no reason to believe you've read it, thus I have no reason to believe it's worthwhile to put my thoughts down on this website.
But, hey, I've got time tonight and really would enjoy doing something interesting rather than wasting time sleeping, playing silly games or whatever.

Firstly, I want to talk about the major antagonist of WoW's most recent expansion pack: Deathwing. If you're not a WoW fan, don't feel alienated, this isn't just a vacuous nerd-rage about Blizzard's lore-fluff. As I said, I just want to use WoW as a lens through which to display my points. I also promise not to talk about the game directly - no mention of mechanics or anything that you actually need to have played the game to understand.
I'm talking about writing here.

It's been said that video game writing is still only about as good as a mediocre B-grade film, and I find it quite difficult to contest that, overall. Even some of the most complicated, moving, involving plots I've experienced through interactive media still ended up striking me as woefully juvenile or clumsy at best - insultingly puerile at worst.

Bioshock is a good example of this, honestly. I've given Bioshock positive reviews in the past, but the truth is, the story is clumsy and uninteresting. For all its bluster about exploring socio-political themes such as objectivism and the folly of uninhibited freedom, it really amounted to nothing more than a game about shooting things with a tommy-gun and whacking an amoral asshole about the head with a golf club.
People sometimes point out how it toys with the notion of player freedom, but come on. It's a video game, of course I'm going to attempt to progress the game. The only other alternative would be to turn it off and do something else, which I did many times during my play-through.

Sure, it's a great game and far more intellectual than the usual fare, but is this really all we can do? Is this our idea of fantastic video game writing? No? Oh, of course not, everyone has their own two-cents to weigh in with, but the truth is that after hours of wracking my brains I still can't think of a video game that would match, say, a movie like Inception or Blood Diamond in terms of writing and execution of a script.

I talk of movies rather than literature, despite my hobby as a crappy author, because movies are extremely powerful mediums that utilize music, acting, visuals and virtually every single aspect of creative media. What other medium does that? Oh, right. Games. So why is almost everything about video games so utterly piss-poor?

Incidentally, please don't comment and tell me that a particular game would "prove me wrong" or whatnot, because I've probably played the very game you're talking about, or you're tragically overestimating it. Last time I mentioned this, someone told me that Metal Gear Solid 4 was well written. Not only is it not, but the previous game was far more mature and entertaining - and even then, only if you forget the mystical elements.

How does this relate to World of Warcraft, you ask? Well, some of you may know that I got around to reading the WoW books not long ago. So far, I've only read 3 of them, and one of them really doesn't count (I dunno what Knaak was smoking when he wrote Stormrage). Far from enhancing my WoW experience, I find that it's merely made me jaded. Every single time the game ventures down the storylines that a book has covered, it stumbles like a drunken cripple into a alley-side dumpster and proceeds to puke all over its own face.

In my distracted brooding, I tried to boil my problems down as best I could, to identify the best examples I can give,and here's what I found. This part might be a little impenetrable to non-WoW fans, but just bear with me.

In one of the first dungeons of early Cataclysm (current WoW expansion), there was a hard-mode encounter with a boss called Sinestra... who was not a minor character. Sinestra, a dragon, was the mate of Deathwing himself, and her character was very well established in the novels, most particularly in Night of the Dragon.

Tangent: what is with fantasy authors and sex between dragons? Why is dragon-mating such a big deal to them? Yes, I'm looking right at you, Anne McCafferey.
... Oh, that reminds me. If you're a fantasy fan, and you've read Anne McCafferey's Dragonriders of Pern novels, you'll know the inspiration for the name of one of my characters. It has NOTHING to do with Digimon. Credit where credit is due, I was inspired by an author, or rather, a pair of excellent authors, not an anime.

However, in the game, when Sinestra/Sintharia makes her long-awaited appearance, it was an incredible let down. In more ways than one, in fact!
But most disappointing to me of all was the fact that nothing of her personality remained intact. Sintharia was a bitter, angry dragon, furious and scarred by Deathwing's brutal rape but driven to do her mate's bidding - she struggled against him, fought to retain her independence, but couldn't resist her twisted master. The conflicting emotions forced her to deny her true motives even to herself, as Deathwing heartlessly used her to further his own ends. She was a slave, not the master, and she knew it, and she hated it. She was as angry at this truth as she was afraid of it.

How can we not feel sorry for her? Her madness is not her own, it is Deathwing's. Her life, desires and motivations are all nothing but machinations of the deranged Aspect of Death.

Well, Blizzard answered that question. She has no personality. Just get high-DPS on her and avoid the [insert generic ability here] in order to bring her down and get phat-loots.
Honestly, nothing she says in the encounter, nothing she does, even hints at her personality or hopeless, internal struggle.

Sure, okay, Sintharia isn't a major lore character... well, that's bullshit, no, she's a massively important character and Blizzard squandered her. But she's not Deathwing himself, is she? Cataclysm is the chance we finally get to take on Deathwing himself!

Only problem is, they screw that up too.

If I got someone to play WoW, and only WoW, not read the books or comics or anything, and I asked them exactly what Deathwing's motivation or personality was, they'd be totally clueless.
Why is he trying to massacre everything in existence? What thought processes are going on in his head?! What would he gain by literally smashing the world to pieces and slaughtering everything so he could cry out the remainder of his days in loneliness and pain? What has he got against Alexstrasza? Against anyone?

What, and why, is the true madness of Deathwing the Destroyer?

As my friend put it, Deathwing is nothing but a "generic doomsday villain" in Cataclysm. We could exchange him for a magical, angry raccoon and what would change?

Don't get me wrong, Deathwing's personality does peak up from the murky depths of pointless antagonism now and them. His arrogance, mostly, but not his rage. Not his reasons.
Blizzard's writers are not disconnected from the lore. They simply don't take the time to make the story and characters prominent enough, and that's very saddening, since Cataclysm was the first real chance for Blizzard to really get these things across.

With players less likely to want to read and do "boring" stuff like that, they honestly should've wrested control away and used more cinematic scenes. Should've recorded more lines. Should've had more, better, and focused roleplay events - there are ways to do this without being obtrusive.

Hell, one doesn't need to have a wealth of lore background to work with to achieve it, and yet Blizzard did with Deathwing. Meanwhile, while I feel they may have impressed players with minimal standards, I simply got nothing out of Cataclysm. No real resolution to the story of Deathwing - just as we got no resolution to the rich, sympathetic story of Illidan Stormrage. Just phat loots and overacting.

Interestingly, I feel Blizzard did an excellent job with a minor ass-pull character named "Ultraxion." A DPS-race/gear-check boss roughly halfway through the last raid of Cataclysm, before you face Deathwing himself. They just made him up on the spot, probably to stymy the fans who expected Chromatus to appear.

***A monstrous force pulls you into the twilight realm!***
Ultraxion: "I am the beginning of the end! The shadow which blots out the sun! The bell which tolls your doom! ... For this moment ALONE was I made! Look upon your deaths, mortals, and despair!! Now is the Hour of Twilight!"

I was going to do a full-on, epic write up of Ultraxion, but I'll spare you that for another day. Basically, Ultraxion is also nothing but a tool. He's a twilight dragon, a race of engineered, incredibly powerful monstrous drakes infused with unstable energy and utterly beholden to Deathwing's wishes.
He is noteworthy in that he is incredibly powerful, incredibly unstable to the point he causes intense destruction to things in his vicinity, and he is very arrogant.

But like with all Twilight drakes, his adolescence is greatly accelerated. Yes, even Ultraxion would be mentally a child - his father's praise and his desire to please his sire practically define his young personality. His flair for dramatics, his proud declarations, and even his weak, disbelieving, almost childish cry when he dies by the hands of Azeroth's defenders... it's all perfectly fitting.

Yet another tool, another victim of Deathwing's insane machinations, Ultraxion was merely a living bomb, created for just one purpose, and you deny him that. Ultraxion was just one of many hundreds of thousands of reason to want to rip Deathwing's heart from his molten, soulless chest, if you're just willing to examine the character and story with more than a cursory glance.

Aside from being an excellent, fun encounter (especially to heal!), Ultraxion manages to be a more substantial, epic boss and character than Deathwing's own mate, Sinestra! Heck, you could argue she isn't even in the game!

Ultraxion: "The final shred of light fades, and with it, your pitiful, mortal, existence!"
Nozdormu: "The cycle of time brings an end to all things!"
Ultraxion: "I will drag you with me... into flame and darkness! ... B-But... I... I am... Ultrax... ion...
*The Twilight dragon's torn and lifeless body plummets to the earth...*

Meanwhile, Deathwing himself feels quite bland and pointless. It seems like the game's writers were aware of the wealth of fluff-lore already written about him, and felt that they didn't really need to bring his personality into the game itself. That's a very wrongheaded attitude - oh, sure, he's cool. He's a big dragon made of molten metal and lava, but he isn't the complex, tormented character long-time fans know. The ineffable rage and frustration that has simmered to nothing but contempt and simple hatred is represented as nothing more than the fallen aspect being evil "for the evulz."

The game sold. Millions play. Many will even contest my words here, insisting he is a great bad-guy for the expansion - some of those will be young people, some will be much older. But they're all missing the point: the lore, the substance, already exists. As good as WoW's writing and character design is, it could be even better. Deathwing could be more than just menacing, cool-looking and powerful - if that's all you require to please you, then cool by me. But World of Warcraft, the online role-playing game played by millions, could've been an avenue for further development and a true resolution to the Deathwing storyline... it wasn't. I wasn't satisfied, and no real fan will be either.

Yes, the fight with him is epic. I don't agree with <Paragon>: I feel the Madness fight was excellent, if a little easy (though I haven't faced it on heroic; anyone need a shadow/holy priest for heroic DS? >:3), in light of the story. Deathwing on the brink of total insanity and rage, both mentally and physically torn apart until he is nothing but a mindless aberration of anger and murderous, destructive forces.

Could things have been better? Absolutely. But, yet, isn't it just absolutely awesome at it is? Would I not say it's good enough already? Yes... for a video game. That's sort of my point.
Forgive me for saying we could do better. I'm like that.

***Off-balance and in agony, Deathwing falls forward onto the platform!!***
Nozdormu: "It is time! I will expend everything to bind every thread, here, now, around the Dragon Soul. What comes to pass will never be undone!"
Alexstrasza: "The fire of my heart glows with a brilliant purity unmatched! Every spark of it I will channel into the Dragon Soul!"
Deathwing: "I... am... Deathwing. The Destroyer! The end of all things! Inevitable! Indomitable! I... AM... THE CATACLYSM!!"

Here's to another expansion of epic, geeky fantasy - which we should all enjoy with every ounce of our inner dork, then deny it vehemently. Tune in again sometime this week, because I'm going to discuss the topic of villains in fiction, and video games, more obliquely. Oh, and of course, I'm going to discuss my own villains, and what I feel makes a good villain.

Tonight, I speak of what could have been and how it was not. I don't need to say what I think should have been done, as it's fairly obvious. Blizzard's writers know what to do. They just need to do it, and they need to be allowed to do it. Get your novel writers on board, Blizz.

Come on, guys, this has been the fruit of over a decade worth of labor... although I question how many anti-RP retards in WoW have any idea that there was a Warcraft franchise before this game came out. A rant for another day, I guess...
Viewed: 46 times
Added: 6 years, 10 months ago
6 years, 10 months ago
With respect to the broader subject, I suspect developers in general just haven't gotten the sense that narrative in video games is a worthwhile pursuit for its own purposes rather than being merely a vehicle for other aspects of the game. As long as the story is "good enough", it'll get passed on (and far more often than should be allowed in decent civilization, not even "good enough" is required before it passes).

I suspect video game stories will become the penny dreadfuls of our generation.
6 years, 10 months ago
That's not always limited to video games though. People tend to want instant gratification about EVERYTHING, and if it even remotely caters to their interests they'll gobble up garbage and call it prime rib. Look at Twilight, or Eragon. The stories are generic, the characters hollow, and the romantic tangles are, respectively, unwieldy, unrealistic, unhealthy and unimaginative, and uninspired, insipid, and poorly executed.

One of the reasons I follow KK is that his stories are compelling (which is apparently something I need to work on before I get jaded with the whole fandom). So much so that it breaks people, myself included, out of the maddening tendency to want everything spoon-fed to them with a pat on the head. Meanwhile we have artists and authors churning out much less well thought out stuff, but because they do so quickly (or because it has <insert primary or secondary sexual characteristic of preference>) they get tonnes of watchers in very short order. It's the whole reason chains like McDonalds and Sonic are able to thrive stateside. People are told: You can either have a filling, tasty plate of food and a drink but you'd need to wait 20 minutes (some place like Chili's or Applebee's), or you can have 50 chicken nuggets in a bucket, a drink, and some soggy fries in 5. Decisions are apparently anathema.
6 years, 10 months ago
I know you said, "Don't try to prove me wrong" that video game stories are made of bad, but I feel compelled to mention 3 games - ICO,  Braid and Bastion.
The thing that games do over movies and books is immersion. You /are/ the hero going out to save the princess, not a camera following him around. /You/ drive the plot.
Now, I'm not disagreeing with you. Most games out there have rather ah... lacklustre stories outside of "Boy want girl, boy chases girl through 20 levels of jumping on shit". As always I respect your opinion and have taken your words to heart.
However. The above games... In ICO, you're told very little at the beginning, and you find out about the evil queen, what role Yorda has and what you need to do to save her as you play through the game. What you're not told and are instead shown, is the relationship between ICO and Yorda. The small things, like how she'll gasp when you dangle off a deadly ledge, or rest her head on you at the save points. As the game progresses, the relationship grows and becomes deeper. You're never told "HEY HEY LOOK AT THIS AW ISN'T IT CUTE" but are instead left to watch as Yorda grows to trust and respect you through your own actions.
Braid had an... interesting story. Most of it was told in flow breaking text walls, so in that sense it was rubbish. However, the last (first) level, where you're chasing the princess, then rewind... that was amazing, and you couldn't get such a thing from a movie or a book. You are the bad guy, and you didn't even know until then.
Finally, Bastion. Bastion, as with everything above, has a very simple story. Games tend to have very simple stories, because if they put too much depth into it it'll clutter and leave no room for anything else. In most games, it's the telling, rather than the story.
Bastion was basically, "Something shit happened to your world, protagonist goes to find out what, and fixes it in the process". But it's told progressively to you as you act, and you've given a couple of characters to learn about. Each character has a life story you can learn, and through them, you find out what happened to your world and yourself.
Mind you, as I'm typing all of this out, I come to realise that in these games, the main focus is the player. Ico and Yorda, Tim and the princess, the kid and the characters from Bastion... the villains aren't as well characterised (save for Braid, I guess :P), because you're out saving the world, the game is about your thoughts and troubles. So... yes, I agree that villains in games can be rather flat and 2 dimensional, but in return, the good games will give you a rich and detailed protagonist, and tell you about the world, it's struggles, it's life, in such a way that you simply can't gain from watching a movie or reading a book.
Hopefully I... made sense during that.
Please feel free to utterly stomp on my argument.
Much love. <3

Also for some reason, Chrome thinks movie isn't a word. >.>
6 years, 10 months ago
Not to surprise you too much, but I actually think you make a good point with those examples. I haven't personally played them, but their reputation is well known.

It's not that I feel there are NO good games with good writing, there are actually quite a lot of them. It's just that it's very unlikely for them to match an excellent movie - for no real reason. Also, too many developers have a "fuck it, it'll do" attitude towards their writing.

I don't quite agree that games can be better with regards to audience immersion than movies or games - it's quite rare for a game to really suck me in to the point that I truly lose myself in it. I find that books and movies can do it just as well, it just depends on how your brain works.

And yes, your examples are of good games, but not good antagonists. This journal was more of a primer to the one I'm going to write now, where I wanted to actually talk about realistic, threatening antagonists - and it's really an area where a lot of game developers, and writers in general, don't even try.
Most of my favorite games have rather bland villains - although what makes them bland isn't necessarily a lack of back-story or anything, but just lackluster presentation. Consider Colonel Volgin from Metal Gear Solid 3; I actually believe he's a damn decent villain, and at no point is it ever explained why he has electricity running through his body.
6 years, 10 months ago
I agree with you about the WoW books--I found the writing style to be a bit on the flowery and overblown side. Like this sort of flow: "But blah was no ordinary blah. Blah was a BLAH!" eg. in the War of the Ancients trilogy, when Krasus's secret identity as Korialstrasz, a red dragon, is treated as a SHOCKING REVEAL even though many of us knew it already. Also, it was WAY too early in the book to give something that much artificial suspense--they were in the middle of introducing all the characters. The kind of point where you'd mention the fact that this mage is really a dragon kind of offhand, rather than ASTOUNDING REVELATION! Or the reverse--keep it a secret until midway through, dropping subtle hints here and there that a very clever reader will pick up on, and slightly less clever readers will go back and find on a second read. I think they even did it again in the second book even though you'd expect people to already know from reading the first, if nothing else.

Our guild raid has taken down Deathwing himself, and every other normal-mode boss in the Cataclysm expansion.

But not Sinestra. None of us has even SEEN her yet. I honestly think that making her a hard-mode-only boss was an enormous mistake on Blizzard's part and probably contributed to the problems you raise here--they knew most players would never see her, so they didn't devote as much resources to her appearance as they could have. And that is a shame.

*clinks a glass with you to pandas*
6 years, 10 months ago
What shits me is that Sinestra was supposed to be the next Algalon, but I think Kichi's already made it clear she didn't quite live up to the legacy.
6 years, 10 months ago
Simple; A character is only as good as they are written. If a boss is there just for the challenge and loot, I think I'll play a supernintendo game.

Give me a bad guy I care about. then we'll see if I feel like stabbing them.
6 years, 10 months ago
There are also several different attitudes toward what makes a good bad guy.

Is a good bad guy one you love to hate, who you consider highly entertaining despite being an irredeemable monster? (See: Faux Affably Evil) Or would you prefer one who's got a very mixed set of traits (much like real humans do), and that makes you realise that if you saw the story from his point of view you'd actually be rooting for him?

KK and I do share a lot of ideas about bad guys. We love to have "Genre Savvy" badasses, though I think I'm the one who leans more on the Lampshade Hanging aspect of that. (Lampshading - when a character points out a story convention). We both like our villains to make clever decisions and not to hold, as TVTropes (yay trope rich post) puts it, the "Villain Ball."

However, we do seem to differ in one area. I seem to favour morally grey villains a tad more, while KK seems to emphasize true monsters who don't fuck around (like... I haven't read the story properly, but I think Darren?) Not to say his characters don't have sympathetic sides too, but I don't think they approach mine. Mine are mostly anti-villains. I'll post another comment to elaborate on that.
6 years, 10 months ago
The villain from my MLP fanfic (don't look at me like that) is an emotion eater, who's spread discord through mortal realms for a thousand years to build up his power. The thing is, he doesn't do it for the evulz. He does it because his power itself is a curse - he suffers from eternal psychic hunger (if that makes any sense) and immortality, and if he doesn't feed he becomes a powerless husk unable to move or die. For eternity.

Already, would you be willing to suffer that? Would you consider anything worth that? Doubtful. At any rate, he feeds because he has to, and his ultimate goal is to gain so much power (by sucking the life out of a god) that the curse is broken. And despite creating tension between friends and loved ones (to feed on their emotion), he doesn't kill anyone or even permanently harm them.

He's doing what he has to do. In fact the only selfish goal he has is that he wants to kill a specific person in revenge. And that brings me to another dimension of his character. His reason for wanting revenge? Misguided anger. Anger he's had time to realise wasn't entirely justified, but he's "gone too far to admit that now."
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