The very concept of vengeance is amazingly complex, something we approach in our cultural artifacts with both awe and trepidation. By inhabiting birds, aliens, and even gods, we can explore the darker sides of being human.
Revenge. Some say it is a basic human need—when one is so grievously harmed by another, only retribution delivered in kind can provide catharsis. Others believe the Ghandian proverb that an eye for eye makes the whole world blind. The thirst for revenge has toppled kings and incited mob violence. Undoubtedly, the desire for revenge is a deeply felt human emotion, at times cold and calculating, and at other times heated and virulent. Although the pursuit of violent retribution is commonly frowned upon, we recognize the emotion as natural, even primal. Vengeance is not equated to justice, although the terms are intimately related. Revenge is a concept laden with complex emotions. In our pursuit of evocative game design, how do video games best capture and discuss the intricacies of vengeance?
Revenge stories abound in other mediums. From Hamlet to Inglorious Basterds, victims have sought retaliation throughout the centuries. No collection of works, particularly in film, so thoroughly dissect revenge than South Korean Director Park Chan-Wook’s appropriately titled Vengeance Trilogy. Park’s three films (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) have all received considerable acclaim, and they each deal almost exclusively with revenge in its many forms. While Mr. Vengeance portrays selfish reprisal as unattractive and misguided, Lady Vengeance depicts revenge as disturbing but cathartic, unsettling but spiritually cleansing. Oldboy focuses instead on the power of vengeance, on its ability to swirl out of control, to have a mind of its own, growing inexplicably in scale and completely enveloping practitioners, driving them ever onwards towards terrible acts.
How do games approach Park’s themes? A more relatively recent example is Bioware’s Mass Effect 2, which features the topic of revenge on multiple occasions. During Garrus’s loyalty quest, titled “An Eye for an Eye”, Commander Shepard has the opportunity to prevent Garrus from assassinating Sidonis, a turian whose treacherous act took the lives of Garrus’s old team members. In this tense scene, Shepard stands between Sidonus and certain death. If the player misses the Paragon interrupt trigger, Garrus kills Sidonus without hesitation. Here, like in Oldboy, revenge is a powerful personal force, one that blinds Garrus to reason when most heated.