Just What Is That Damn Fool Thing Called Evil: Part Two

July 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

Note: as usual, check out johnmoyer.ca

Part One is here.

For anyone who hasn’t read the first part, since playing the game inFamous and reading books with “evil” protagonists, I’ve been looking at what evil means in video games and books. The last part was a discussion of some particular things I saw in-game, but I think I missed a basic point that is pretty important to talk about: when I’m talking about “evil”, what do I mean? What does that word mean?

I’ve also restructured how I’m going to talk about this a bit; the first part isn’t negated, per se, but it isn’t exactly true anymore. Please forgive me; I was really hurried and tired that morning.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say most media interprets evil as “bad things”, hence an evil character is “someone who does bad things to other people”. Here’s the thing about evil when understood that way: it doesn’t make sense. What do I mean by that? Well, “being” evil is an active verb. I must do evil things to be evil, especially in a video game or book, but doing things demands I answer “why am I doing this?” That’s a damn hard question to answer (apparently there’s this thing called “philosophy” or something), but being evil makes it harder because evil is universally a bad thing to be. Hence, the difficulty in doing evil: why would I, especially if I shouldn’t?

When games (and most protagonists) are evil, they’re almost always, and unfortunately, frothing-at-the-mouth rabid dogs. Don’t get me wrong, those villains can be cool and interesting, but never that interesting. And, sadly, when someone wants to do something different, they often head too far in the other direction: cool, collected, and calm villains that have utterly alien motivations, rendering them opaque to the reader/player’s sensibility. Let’s look at two examples: one from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Darth Nihilus, and one from Night Circus, Mr. A. H___.

I won’t bore you with unnecessary Star Warsdetails(even though I argue that all details from Star Wars are relevant), but Nihilus is essentially hunger made corporeal. He doesn’t have much in the way of motivations (eat), much in the way of goals (keep eating), or even an end game (eat…then eat some more?), but he’s a great antagonist because there’s no way to reason with him, and it’s certainly not possible to sympathize with him. By the time you fight him, even if you’re pure Sith and 100% evil in game terms, you still have to kill him or else he’ll eat you. He’s the perfect story bad guy because you’re compelled by circumstance and impelled (he wants to eat you, after all) to fight him, but he would be incredibly boring to follow as a character. He’s evil, and only for the sake of being evil (that’s not entirely true, but true enough for this argument); Hell, if he had a mustache beneath that mask, I bet you he’d twirl it. No sane person would ever want to be Nihilus because not only is he dying, he’s a slave to his hunger for little tangible benefit. He’s mad; completely over the edge and there’s no coming back. His evil is untenable, and, most importantly, not profitable. He’s too far gone to be tempting.

His evil can be contrasted with Mr. A. H____ from The Night Circus.

Strictly speaking, and avoiding spoilers, Mr. A. H___ isn’t evil, he just lacks all morality and/or understanding of human compassion. He doesn’t care how what he does affects other people, and if he does care, then he doesn’t let that stop him. Sure, he’ll trample lives underfoot and push people to their limits and beyond, but the why of it is unknown and unknowable to the reader. He doesn’t make it clear, even at the end, and his reasoning doesn’t make sense anyways. He put people through Hell just to prove a point…or does he? While this certainly makes him interesting as an antagonist, he wouldn’t be much fun to play as or read the story through his eyes. He’s too alien, too wrapped up in the mystery so that once that mystery is removed, he’ll be the same as any other petty villain: he’s doing it for his own reasons. The interesting thing about him is that we, the reader, are kept guessing at his reasons. The only thing he’s got going for him is the glamour, and once it’s gone: poof. He has motives, just like us. He has needs and desires, just like us. Now he’s boring. That’s one reason why I like the monsters from Lovecraft‘s mythos: they have their motivations, obviously, but we don’t know them and cannot know them. They’re beyond hunger, thirst, and, for that matter, life and death. We can’t understand why they want to eat us all. Maybe they don’twant to. Maybe they don’t even know we’re there. In the end, it doesn’t matter: we can’t understand, and even trying to would make us go mad.

If I were, then, to make a game where I wanted the player to make choices and wanted to give him the option of making those choices in an evil way (“evily”, as it were), and, assuming of course, that I want to make those choices meaningful and consequential (you might be surprised how often game designers forget to do that), I want to stay away from those two extremes. No-one wants to be a rabid dog, ruled by hunger rather than purpose, and no-one can be the unknowable, mystical monster because, well, the player needs to know what he’s doing (I’d love to be proven wrong here and play a game where you don’t know the goals of the character you’re controlling but you’re pursuing them anyways. Know any?). I need a middle course, agreyof evil.

But, of course, I’m still dancing around what evil means. What is it to be evil? What is it to do evil? What is evil? Frankly, these are questions that have deep, deep ramifications that I have neither the time nor the education to talk overmuch on. Here’s, however, what I find the most interesting; this is the first line of the definition of “evil” from Wikipedia”

Evil is usually seen as the dualistic opposite of good.

I’m going to use this dualistic paradigm to frame the next posts I make: in order for there to be “evil”, there must also be “good”. These are, obviously, impossible without a moral framework to hang those opposite poles off of. In short, if we’re talking good and evil, we’re talking poles of morality. I’m not going to argue about the existence of morality (as social/religious construct or whatever), I’m just going to take it as given. What that morality is can change, but there must be morality.

So fine. We’ve got morality. We’re moral. Now, can you please, John, tell the kind people what evil is? I’ll do one better. I’ll show you:

Meet Pokey. Pokey is a major antagonist in two of the Mother games, commonly known in English as the Earthbound series. Now, I hope you’re asking me what makes this kid so evil (actually, I hope you’re not, because that means you’ve played the games and are therefore, awesome). It’s quite simple, really, but best illustrated by explaining what Pokey does in Earthbound.

He starts the game as your friend and urges you to go out and explore a mysterious meteor that crashed nearby, but mostly because his brother is missing. During that brief trip, he shows himself to be a complete coward that depends on Ness for everything from protecting himself to saving his brother. Later, he runs off. When he’s met again, he has a position of power thanks to consorting with, in this case, an evil alien. He tries to control Ness, the main character, and when he fails, he flees again. Pokey then hooks up with Gigyas, the embodiment of evil, pain, and suffering, and tries to destroy Ness and conquer the world. He fights Ness, his only friend, who’s also trying to save the world, and, once defeated, he flees through time. He is, in fact, so cowardly, that at the end of Mother 3, when he senses he’s about to be defeated, he flees inside the Absolutely Safe Capsule.

Where, according to the series creator, he will remain, trapped but alive, until the Sun novas and destroys the earth 5.5 billion years into the future. He was supposed to die, originally, but the creator, Shigesato Itoi, changed it to better reflect the complexity of Pokey’s evil.

Yeah. For example, in the very middle of the spectrum [between good and evil], you have fun and games. Beyond that, you’ve got mean pranks, and crimes. And beyond those crimes, you have evil. And on the opposite side, you’ve got the very embodiment of justice. But to me, evil and the embodiment of justice are both unpleasant. The space between those two extremes is something which fluctuates between mean pranks and crimes, like pulling out a needle a little, having things go terribly wrong, and unwittingly causing suffering to other people. My theme is regarding that kind of problem. It’s very compelling…The grief of that [Pokey’s end] is incredibly depressing to me. It’s amazing… Porky is truly a poem in himself. (Source)

Pokey is, at heart, a child who’s made a series of progressively meaner and meaner choices. He started out as a boy, not raised well by his parents, who was a coward. That cowardice exhibited itself bit by bit until it became fear. Fear of losing to Gigyas. Fear of death and therefore the creation of the Absolutely Safe Capsule, a place where he can be, well, absolutely safe. Fear of Ness, the friend he’d once had (or thought he had), until he became the embodiment of justice and Pokey that of evil.

Evil, like good, is rooted in desire, and evil actions are done to express that desire. Pokey just wanted a friend, and then when he tasted power, he never wanted to be hurt again; never wanted to be scared again. And there was nothing that was not worth giving up in order to make that so. And for the purposes of this little essay, that’s how we’ll think of evil: everything, good, bad, or neutral, has its price, and that price must be paid. “Good” pays its own way. “Evil” gets, or makes, someone else pay it for them (this is a rough, unclean definition that is a little contradictory. Bear with me; it will at least be better than the tripe from inFamous).

Now, now we have a scale to measure our evil (how much are we paying), a moral frame to hang that evil on, and, most importantly, a reason to be evil. Because, after all, who wants to pay their own way, especially when the cost can be so high?

I’ve got three more parts to this for the coming days/weeks (you know me. I hope it will be days. Emphasis on hope), and I’m taking a few examples for each

Part 3: The economy of evil, or, “money is the reward of all good”. Good and evil in inFamous and Bioshock.

Part 4: Turning “evil” into “efficiency”, moral choices in Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together and Mass Effect.

Part 5: Choice in the face of no-choice: undefined morality in Bastion and Team Fortress 2.

Part 6: Infinity is the only limit: exceeding moral boundaries in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve written an essay this big? This is going to be fun!

It’s been 388 days.

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