The life of a video game hero is normally pretty easy to predict. Fight the good fight. Defeat the bad guys. Save the world. But with recent movies like Disney's "Maleficent" built around outright villains, the video game world is starting to embrace its bad guys, too.
In Gearbox and 2K Australia's upcoming addition to the Borderland series -- Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel -- game designers ask players not only to work for the main villain from Borderlands 2, but also to play as major villains they've defeated in the series' other games.
Conventional wisdom says players don't like games where the characters they inhabit have strong personalities because it can make it harder for a wide audience of players to relate to a character; there's a reason that some of the most iconic characters in the game world never even speak. But Gearbox writer Anthony Burch said he's happy to offer mouthy, complete characters that embrace doing all the wrong things for the wrong reasons.
"The idea was to push and see how far outside the normal characterization we could get," he said.
There have always been game protagonists who stray from the straight and narrow. Some games have tried to make the bad guy the hero before -- most notably "Dungeon Keeper," which turns the common game and fairy tale trope of conquering a bad guy's lair on its head: Instead, players defend their homes against plundering "heroes." And there are plenty of games out there that start players with a moral blank slate and then let you become good or evil over time with every choice you make. But even with those options, there's often a player impulse to play through once as "good" so that you can be evil without guilt later. (No, really, there are studies that back this up.)
There's glee in Burch's voice as he describes the truly awful characters he's made. The same is true for Steve Mander-Jones, a gameplay designer at 2K Australia who helped design the powers and abilities of each character -- "She can clear a whole room in a matter of seconds; kill them all instantly," he said of Nisha, a character Burch described as "evil but someone you wouldn't mind hanging out with."
But it also turns out that today's players don't necessarily need to identify with their characters to enjoy playing them. In previous Borderlands games, Burch said, players were actually annoyed that their characters didn't talk more. Players and designers are finding that they sometimes love getting wrapped up in the story of the game, without needing to relate to any of the characters.
Doing so, Burch said, offers players a certain kind of release. "Part of the fun of this is that it’s fun to be bad guy," he said. "It's fun to play as someone who only wants to get paid."
And what if, in the middle of mowing down a group of good guys, players identify a bit too much with their on-screen selves and get a little moral twinge? Burch has the answer: "Even if someone does get a little squeamish, well, you know that character is going to die, anyway. So it's no big deal."