Why do ‘bad guy’ encounters often feel repetitive, derivative, or shallow, especially in rpgs and CRPGs, but also in much genre fiction? I have a theory about that, and also about ways to stop handling antagonists and foils in such shallow ways. It all has to do with COG, which I’ll explain shortly.
In the beginning there was….Fritz Leiber
In the original D&D, thieves and assassins were lumped together into one roguish thief class. It was assumed characters would become members of a thieves’ guild in order to pursue their shady profession. They could aspire to become head of that guild, and learned Thieves’ Cant, the secret language shared by guild members. The Thieves’ Guild as an organization was not well fleshed out in the original game books, but was established as a frequent ‘prop’ or background organization in myriad subsequent modules and adventures throughout the industry. In the mid-’80s, there even existed an rpg publisher called Thieves’ Guild, which produced rules expansions and specialized adventures soley for players of this class, an indicator of how strong a grip on the imagination “thieves in a guild” had.
This element of early gaming established the presence of an organized criminal faction lurking in the shadows of fantasy medieval gameworlds. It was derived from fantasy fiction, in particular Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books (which was credited for this reason as inspirational reading in the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide). In fact, there is little evidence that crime and criminals were affiliated with formal organizations in the middle ages; however, complex networks of association, even kinship, undoubtedly existed at certain levels of society. (One example of this are beggars, whom contemporaries remarked upon as working certain streets in an orderly sharing of space and territory, and having their own pecking order, giving rise to rumor of the existence of ‘the king of the beggars’ who orchestrated their activities.)
The COG model of Evil
Of course, D&D is hardly an historical representation of how things truly were. But this supposition, that unsavory activities have laws against them, and persons criminalized in this way usually work in an organized body: I say, this supposition has pervaded much fantasy writing, rpg-style games inspired by it, and the CRPGs inspired by those. So, to the third derivative generation and beyond, our fiction and games today tend to represent “bad guys” who are either (infrequently) solo mavericks, or (usually) criminals who are part of a criminal organization.
The result of this (and other over-simplified tropes) is that we have defaulted to a consistent but shallow code in games and fiction. It is a stylized symbology through which we represent ‘evil’, and/or the plot device such evil characters and groups turn out to be. It is what I call COG: the “crime + organized group” model of “evil”.
Gangs by any other name…
Street gangs are typical of this style of representing evil; they are the bottom-feeders of the organized crime world, and ubiquitous in certain settings. You can meet them – and trash them ad infinitum – in City of Heroes or Villains, or bang heads with them routinely in Grand Theft Auto. The upper echelons are encountered in large criminal organizations like the Mafia (as in the game of the same name); although that particular organization represents a real-world known thing, it finds a comfortable home in the COG model, which requires well-organized evil as a foe or at least a setting for an anti-hero. The assassin in Hitman (the player’s pov character) is part of a large, faceless organization that dispatches him on his murderous missions. It seems nearly every non-bestial boss in a lair has not only minions but a organization (criminal, secret, or both) that they all belong to.
No wonder encountering “bad guys” has come to feel stale, predictable, routine. Ah, someone opposes me in this quest. Wait; let me guess. He’s….a criminal! And – can you believe it? He’s backed by a criminal organization too!
Granted, this is not the only model for representing evil and/or dramatic foil in fiction and games, but it is a very common one. Now, the question arises: what to do about it.
Certainly we need something to oppose our heroes. Perhaps that thing or person is overtly evil – but I for one find it refreshing when a foe’s motivations are less clearly painted. Maybe by his lights he’s doing right, and if I were in his shoes I might make the same decision to oppose me with deadly force. Hm. Suddenly there are shades of gray in play, and evil is no longer a 1-dimensional ‘bad guy’.
So: that’s one solution to mix it up: take the antagonist out of his blackhearted “evil” mindset. Make him a multidimensional person with real motivations for his action – even more to the point, motivations that the hero or PC becomes exposed to and can actually sympathize with. Now we get into the rich ground of moral dilemmas and choices that are not so black and white. Challenging.
Next, let’s try taking the criminal label off our bad guy. Yeah, maybe he’s a jerk hunting you down the street with a shot gun, but does that mean he must be a member of the hundred-zillionth gang you’ve encountered in the city this week? Maybe not. Maybe he’s a homeowner who’s pissed at all the gang members trooping across his lawn, and you were just the final straw; now he and the neighborhood watch are after your rude ass.
Or to take a page from a closer (and more sobering) reality, maybe he’s like the neighbors in a district of New Orleans who intended to protect their neighborhood from suspected looters, but ended up shooting innocent victims of Hurricane Katrina who were trying to walk to refuge.
That’s not only a change of pace; it challenges assumptions about what’s criminal and why. And suddenly we’re breaking out of this lockstep mold of COG.
As to the Collective…
The last thing to consider are the organizations we situate our fictional criminals in. It is true that people group together, either informally or formally, to accomplish their mutual (“evil”) goals. That may result in gangs, mafia, Illuminati, the Republican National Convention, whathaveyou. I think some other paradigms might serve, though, and take us outside the COG model as well. I’ll talk about that in Part II of this post, to follow in about a week.
To be continued in Part II.
1. I’m applying the term ‘evil’ only loosely to the D&D thief class, since one could simply be “non-good” and still be a thief. Yet to the extent it was “not good”, even the original D&D thief was symbolic of crime and criminal activities and hence falls within this blanket category.