Vengeance at Play

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.

In the Price of Revenge, downloadable content for Mass Effect 2, Zaeed’s loyalty quest is also driven by the thirst for vengeance. He, too, is unerringly angry, spurred on by the selfish need for retribution against a treacherous ex-partner. His near mad desire to kill Vido Santiago threatens the lives of innocent factory workers, at which time Shepard must decide whether to give Zaeed some form of relief or save innocent lives instead. So strong is Zaeed’s hunger for retaliation that only a very charming character can maintain his loyalty without sacrificing the factory workers and killing Vido. Again, vindictiveness is an all consuming emotion, one that envelops pursuers of revenge at great cost. However, by giving players the decision to allow and even support such behavior, Mass Effect 2 asks players to engage with a moral dilemma with few easy answers. What measures, it asks players, would you be willing to take to avenge wrongdoings?

Although Bioware raises thought provoking questions, it does not evoke a desire to seek revenge in players themselves. Shepard is, after all, only a mediator for another person’s emotions. On the opposite side of game complexity, but of equal relevance, is Angry Birds, the immensely popular iOS game by Rovio. This bird-slinging tower-destruction game begins with a collection of putrid green pigs “egg-napping” the unborn chicks of the now understandably hostile avians. While the birds are ostensibly trying to free their captive offspring, the game is more about vindictive destruction than heroism. Toppling increasingly extravagant constructs onto the smug heads of mustachioed porkers is a satisfying form of revenge. The game encourages players to delight in the destruction of its comical evil-doers, causing a release of tension akin to the joy one might feel dealing personal retribution to past offenders. Angry Birds is a game that Lady Vengeance would absolutely condone.

To take an older example, Sega’s Shenmue for the Dreamcast featured a main character driven by his thirst for revenge. In the vein of classic revenge stories, Ryo Hazuki, the player character, witnesses his father’s murder in the family dojo. Although a few alternative motivators appear, such as saving a captive love interest or preventing the magical rebirth of the Qing dynasty, vengeance primarily drives Ryo through two games, and possibly into an unreleased third. Although the protagonist’s actions put the lives of others at risk, Shenmue depicts revenge as a noble pursuit. Unfortunately, the open-world game mechanics and quick time events, while innovative for their time, did not strongly evoke the emotions associated with revenge.

The God of War franchise, the QTE grandchild of Shenmue, beautifully incorporates its mechanics into its revenge story. After the death of his family, Kratos is driven mad. Unable to kill himself, revenge is his only option. Sony’s Santa Monica studio intentionally designed an artistically gory aesthetic. Kratos revels in violently punishing the Gods and all of their minions. Each decisive hack and stab, often beautifully rendered in slow motion through stunningly choreographed QTEs, delivers a satisfying vengeful blow. As in Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, revenge takes on a power of its own, fueling Kratos through Hades and to Mount Olympus. Nowhere is this more clear than in Kratos’s climactic murder of Zeus. Players, trained to not stop hitting the appropriate buttons until a QTE is complete, repeatedly punch Zeus into oblivion, literally blinding Kratos with blood. Kratos is so full of vengeful wrath that he will continue to hit Zeus until the player refuses to tap the punch button. Throughout the God of War series, revenge is simultaneously empowering and overwhelming. By the end of the trilogy, the postponed catharsis is so strong that leaving Kratos alive, without another god to destroy, seems wrong. What use is the very embodiment of vengeance when retribution is achieved?

Park Chan-Wook’s films plumb the many facets of vengeance, from the mundane to the terrifying. His films ask viewers to ponder how they might react in such extreme situations. If given the opportunity, would you take revenge on another? Could you at least have sympathy for those who would? Would you be able to stop yourself, before revenge consumed you? The very concept of vengeance is amazingly complex, something we approach in our cultural artifacts with both awe and trepidation. Through art, games included, we can play with such dangerous emotions, test ourselves in extreme situations, even enjoy the imaginary catharsis that we might feel. By inhabiting birds, aliens, and even Gods, we can explore the darker sides of being human.

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