Playing the Bad Guy Feels Good

Last week, Daniel Tovrov wrote a piece for Popmatters on the cult of iconic movie “bad guys” (“It Must Feel Good to Be as Bad as Gordon Gekko”, PopMatters, 1 May 2012). Through the characters of Gordon Gekko of Wall Street, Tony Montana of Scarface, and Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, Tovrov argues that, even though these figures are cautionary tales about unchecked power, audiences come to worship them because the idea of relinquishing control to the id is more appealing than the consequences of doing so. Audiences might not want to behave like these villains or even condone what they do, but wouldn’t it be kind of nice if they could?

That left me wondering about how audiences react to similar figures in video games because in a sense they do become these villains. In games, after all,The audience takes control of the sociopath with no limits that Tavrov writes about. This isn’t something that always works all that well in games because — in theory — if the player can’t relate in some way to their on-screen avatar, then there is nothing compelling them to keep playing. But there are a few cases in which the protagonist is a true, rotten-to-the-core bad guy, and — as Tovrov says — it does feel good.

The most obvious example is God of War’s Kratos. Near the beginning of the first game, there’s a bit where a new and tougher enemy is introduced in an open courtyard with screaming Athenians fleeing everywhere. When I first arrived here, I assumed that I was supposed to be saving these people from a giant monster. After accidentally swinging Kratos’s Blades of Chaos through two or three bystanders trying to get out of the way, I noticed that a few health restoring red orbs bled out of their corpses and were absorbed into Kratos, healing him. It was then that I realized that Athena didn’t want Kratos to save her people; she wanted to save her city and her walls and — if possible — to punish her brother Ares for what she took as an insult. She was acting like a Greek god, and Kratos was just a good dog.

God of War keeps up the pretense that Kratos is sympathetic because the gods orchestrated his family’s murder, but what about those two or three eviscerated Athenians’ families that kept Kratos’s health bar up while he learned the attack patterns of a new monster? The player isn’t supposed to care about them because Kratos doesn’t care. He acts as a divine freelance murderer and rewards are heaped on him for his efficiency. There are several notorious sex scenes throughout the series in which the player must press a sequence of buttons in order to satisfy Kratos’s partner(s). Either Kratos will succeed in providing cartoonish orgasm to a prehistoric bimbo, or he won’t, either way, he storms off at the end of the scene to go kill more things. Murder and sex mean nothing to him. It doesn’t even really matter who he kills or who he fucks, it’s just a part of the job. He’s an ancient Patrick Bateman; he gets to do whatever he wants and none of it matters. But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to act like that for just a little while?

There’s a similar mythology underlying the Grand Theft Auto series, in which the player climbs the urban crime power structure, betraying and being betrayed by countless parties along the way. The character’s only interest is his own. He isn’t loyal to anyone, even though he seldom turns on colleagues without justification. As the player delves deeper into the story, the more city that there is to explore, the faster and sleeker the cars become and the more luxurious the properties available to call home. Simultaneously, the more story that is played through, the more murders the protagonist commits. The more betrayals that he survives, the more enemies he’s eliminated. The crimes may be dramatically warranted, but Grand Theft Auto has always been about criminals.

There’s no shortage of moral outrage over Grand Theft Auto, and certainly the games have become far more complicated in their treatment of urban crime culture. Ultimately, in these games, the “point” is how cannibalistic organized crime is. The protagonists don’t walk away with friends or with respect. They lose people that they care about, and they know that a few years down the line some low-level upstart will try to usurp them, as they usurped their predecessor. Their power is fleeting and destructive. Even so, you can’t play Grand Theft Auto without gunning down a few passersby and running away from the police just to see how many stars that you can get on your crime rating meter before being captured.

Both these series stand out, not just for their enormous popularity, but because their main characters are power hungry, uninhibited sociopaths with a city to ravage for fun. Admittedly, the popularity of these games might not be the most effective measuring stick for how good it must be to be the bad guy, but that popularity makes a case for it. We may only be able to wonder what it would be like to experience Tony Montana’s psychopathic tendencies or Gordon Gekko’s greed, but in games there is a demand to put bad behavior into action.