Ambivalent morality lies at the heart of what makes the Legacy of Kain series such a sophisticated work of video game art.
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Genres: Action, Action/adventure
Multimedia: Legacy of Kain
Platforms: PlayStation 2 (also on Xbox and PC)
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Mature
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
US release date: 2007-07
Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.
At the end of Blood Omen II, the fourth entry in Crystal Dynamics' Legacy of Kain series, the protagonist Kain has vanquished his foe, the Sarafan Lord, and stopped the Hylden race from conquering the land of Nosgoth. It seems like the usual end to a fantasy-adventure game with the great hero saving the world from an evil threat and restoring order. However, Kain is certainly no ordinary hero and the Legacy of Kain series is no ordinary set of video games.
Far from the hope for a utopian future that heroes typically personify, Kain ends Blood Omen II wondering whether his rule over Nosgoth will be any different from that of the fascist Hylden and their human Sarafan agents. As a vampire, Kain kills hundreds of people in the course of the game -- Sarafan warriors and innocents alike -- and gorges on their blood for his sustenance. Laughing mercilessly when murdering and feasting upon helpless humans, black-hearted Kain is hardly a hero in the classic mold. He is right to wonder what kind of a ruler he will make.
Such ambivalent morality lies at the heart of what makes the Legacy of Kain series such a sophisticated work of video game art. The first Blood Omen game introduced Kain's voracious blood-sucking as he attempted to restore the world-sustaining Pillars of Nosgoth. It ends unexpectedly with Kain's selfish refusal to sacrifice himself in exchange for the Pillars' rejuvenation, dooming them to destruction and Nosgoth to decay. In a brilliant twist, the next two games in the series -- Soul Reaver 1 and 2 -- turned Kain into the antagonist and followed his lieutenant Raziel's quest to kill him and return Nosgoth to its former glory.
This is a far cry from the familiar, black-and-white "saving the princess from the evil monster" plot device recycled in game after game in its many different forms. Super Mario Bros. never gives players a chance to see what might have motivated Bowser to kidnap Princess Toadstool (although to be fair to Nintendo it was pretty bold to make Mario the villain way back in Donkey Kong Jr.). Never allowing us the comfort of an equivocal good guy/bad guy dichotomy, the latest Legacy of Kain game Defiance continues the series' ambivalence by allowing players to control both Kain and Raziel. At one point, the player must even oversee a showdown between the two uneasy allies and unenthusiastic foes, fighting alternatively from both perspectives.
The fertile imaginations at Crystal Dynamics, notably writer/director Amy Hennig, have created one of video gaming's most convincing worlds in Nosgoth, a land of amazing depth and detail. Via the series' penchant for time-travel, Defiance takes place mostly during the same time period as the first Blood Omen game, released in 1997 for the original PlayStation. With painstaking attention to continuity (which can be seen in fan-generated timelines for the series such as Will Roy's), the game weaves in and out of Nosgoth's history, picking up all of the threads from the Soul Reaver games and answering the questions lingering from Blood Omen II. More interestingly, the revelations in Defiance entirely change one's perception of the events that occurred in those other games. Much like the Metal Gear Solid games, the Legacy of Kain series is continually rewriting itself, giving its players no stable ground on which to stand and no solid truth in which to believe.
Likewise, no character or race is able to survive with its reputation intact. In Soul Reaver 2 Raziel learns that the Sarafan, the warrior-priests who tried to purge Nosgoth of the vampires and whom he once thought to be noble heroes, were in truth the upholders of a bloodthirsty totalitarian regime. The intentions of the seemingly helpful Elder God who resurrects Raziel at the beginning of the first Soul Reaver are also cast into doubt by the end of that game's sequel. Defiance only proves him to be even less trustworthy.
While Kain's motives are unknown, Raziel fights to assert his own free will. Fate itself seems aligned against him, though, as his every move seems calculated, if not scripted, by his enigmatic enemies. Raziel's explorations lead him to discover hidden secrets about the nature of the vampires and their traditional enemies, the Hylden, whose battle for control of ancient Nosgoth ended with them banished at the hands of the triumphant vampires.
However, even this tale is not as simple as it first appears. Uncovering Hylden accounts of these wars allows Raziel to see how the victors' version of history leaves out incriminating details. The effect on the player, having been sided with the vampires for four-and-a-half games now, is something like what reading a history of her country from the perspective of its native peoples would do to any North American teenager, fresh from her glossed-over elementary school textbooks.
These real-world parallels are very applicable. Just by coincidence, as I was playing Defiance I also happened to be reading a history of the Palestinian people. Their struggle for political freewill in the face of opposition from Israel, surrounding Arab states, and Western powers struck me as rather Nosgothian. Nobody in the conflict is without some blood on their hands and skeletons in their closet. As in most conflicts, whether it's vampires fighting Hylden or Palestinian rebels facing off against Israeli soldiers, it's hard for any side to claim a higher moral ground.
None of this stops Kain and Raziel (or Yasser Arafat, Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush, etc.) from fighting for what they believe in, but it does allow the rest of us to see their true nature. The good that they accomplish, as Kain realizes, might only mask the terrible future that they bring. Kain, Raziel, and their various antagonists are all part of the same problem in the end. The Legacy of Kain series asks a powerful question, then. It forces us to ponder whether we would be better off if our heroes simply went away.