Those We Love to Hate

[Massive spoilers ahead for Final Fantasy VI, BioShock, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.]

Typical old school game antagonist.

Traditionally, antagonists in video games have been treated as merely another obstacle, a dragon for the player to slay in pursuit of their goal. And this worked fine, back in the days when video game stories could be conveyed within a paragraph in the instruction booklet. Because of this early trend, that still persists today, many lists of the best video game villains will contain a lot of characters like Bowser or Dr. Robotnik, characters who are well known and liked mainly because their games are. With this article though, we want to focus on antagonists who are good characters in their own right. These guys aren’t just waiting for you at the end, they’re taking risks, planning, and changing along with the protagonist. And because of this, your struggle against them feels all the more real and rewarding. They become a part of the game themselves– antagonists so hateable that your desire to bring them down turns into a gameplay element.

Kefka Palazzo from Final Fantasy VI

This article could never be complete without talking about this guy. After all, Kefka was one of the first main video game antagonists to really develop throughout the course of his story. He’s not super complex and definitely not subtle, but he manages to be both incredibly sadistic and brutal while also being funny as hell.

If his magic doesn’t get you his bad puns will.

One thing that sets Kefka apart from most earlier video game villains is that he doesn’t start off as a huge threat at the beginning of the game. Sure, he starts off with some political clout in the Gestahlian Empire and he was able to force main character Terra Branford to do some despicable things (via a mind control device) before the game begins. But earlier on, he seems much more like the comic relief villain who’s not good in a fight and plays second fiddle to the much more powerful and serious main antagonist (in this case, Emperor Gesthal). Kefka’s more sinister side first rears its ugly head when he poisons the water supply of the war torn city of Doma, killing nearly everyone there (even some of his own imperial soldiers invading the castle). From there, he continues to rise through the ranks of the Empire, commit more atrocities, and gain more magical abilities by torturing, killing, and absorbing otherworldly creatures called Espers. The player begins to recognize Kefka as an increasingly dangerous threat in the same way that the Empire begin to recognize the player’s characters as emerging threats. Kefka’s assent to power culminates about halfway through the game when he moves the Warring Triad (three statues that are the source of the world’s magic) out of  alignment. Emperor Gesthal had been seeking this power source to tighten his control over the world, but Kefka reveals his true loyalties by killing the emperor and absorbing the power himself, becoming a god and reshaping the entire world (not to mention, scattering your party members all over said reshaped world). Many video game villains plot to carry out a plan like this, but Kefka is on of the few to actually achieve it, at least for a while. The one potentially good trait Kefka’s had the entire game was his ambition, and it’s led him to godhood.

The grinning face of God.

Kefka doesn’t show up as much in the second half of the game, but you can feel his influence in nearly every corner of the reshaped world (also known as the World of Ruin). Towns have been decimated, millions are dead, and the world is composed of more washed out and dead looking textures. You have the sense too that even if you kill Kefka, things can never really go back to the way they were. Instead of assuming control of the remnants of the Gestahlian Empire, Kefka simply remains in his tower at the center of the world (constructed from random debris) and rains down his “light of judgement” on random towns just for the fun of it. There is a cult dedicated to worshiping Kefka, but he never really interacts with them or uses them as henchmen, and if his violent reign continued, Kefka might have blown up the cultists anyway simply for a moment of enjoyment. When the heroes finally reassemble and attack Kefka in his tower, he’s developed a nihilistic attitude on life and the world. The once-ambitious psycho has gotten everything he ever wanted, and since his mad quest for dominance and power was the only thing he ever cared about, there’s nothing left for him to strive for now that it’s over. He’s really the perfect villain for a story that revolves the need to find something worth defending and fighting for. And in the end, that’s something that Kefka simply cannot do. He’s not simply a nemesis, but an extension of the game’s themes: his failings and flaws serve as a contrast to your own characters’ growth.

Frank Fontaine from BioShock

“The most dangerous type of hoodlum…the kind with vision.”

When BioShock comes to mind, most people instantly think of Andrew Ryan. And it’s true, Andrew Ryan is also a great antagonist. He’s in many ways a tragic hero, brought down by his own hubris, his unfaltering belief in his own infallibility, and also Jack (you), his own illegitimate son. But both of us here at Cardinal Virtual have always been more interested in the true villain behind BioShock’s interesting plot. Unlike Ryan, Fontaine has no class to speak of. He isn’t trying to defend a grand vision or a sweeping philosophical belief, he’s simply out for himself and is willing to go to any lengths to achieve money and power. And that’s why he’s such a great villain: this inhibition allows him to hit the player harder than Ryan ever could. Fontaine essentially spends the first two thirds of the game disguised as a freedom fighter known as Atlas, aka the only person in the underwater hell hole Jack stumbles into who doesn’t seem to want him dead. As Atlas, Fontaine goes to extreme lengths to gain the player’s sympathies, mainly by claiming that he has a wife and child who he’s trying to get out of the city. Fontaine later stages an explosion to make Jack believe that Ryan killed his family, which serves as the impetus to start pursuing Ryan directly. The fact that he makes the player sympathize with him makes the betrayal all the more devastating. And Fontaine is where the game’s ideas about control and family and freedom are thrown into their best relief.

Sure the boss fight with Fontaine isn’t that great, but the way he dies more than makes up for it.

It’s interesting that Fontaine chose to appeal to Jack’s sympathies, when he had Jack mentally programmed as a child to do his bidding when he uttered the phrase “Would you kindly…” Obviously, from the developer’s perspective, Fontaine works to build camaraderie with Jack in order to make the story more interesting, but he also seems to take joy in the fact that he’s getting Ryan’s son to willingly kill his father (even though Jack isn’t aware of that fact for the most part), only using the “Would you kindly…” commands to nudge Jack in the right direction. Later in the game, after Andrew Ryan’s death, Fontaine reveals his identity and turns against the player. His ability to manipulate Jack’s actions is canceled out by a another character so he resorts to a different phrase. When he utters the words “Code Yellow”, the player’s maximum health decreases and continues to do so until the player manages to find a complete antidote to Fontaine’s mind control. The first time you play through this segment it’s terrifying, because you’re not sure if these effects are going to be permanent, you just want to get to that antidote as fast as possible. Even though your health will return once you consume the antidote and your health cannot be lowered to nothing (as far as we know at least), it definitely makes you want to kill Fontaine even more. Ryan obstructs Jack in a narrative sense, but Fontaine’s control runs so deep that he directly fights the player themselves. He doesn’t simply represent a Randian ideology (of which he is the ultimate, twisted, conclusion), he represents the rules and obstructions of the game’s system.

Despite Fontaine’s completely brutal and selfish exterior, you you can gleam a few hints of loneliness from some of his actions and dialogue, a feeling that he himself might not really be aware of. The wife and child lie that he feeds Jack is certainly a ploy to garner sympathy but you get the impression that part of him wishes it were true. Later he says “Maybe I’ll get a real family someday, they play well with the suckers.” You get the feeling, part of him would like to have an actual family for more than just the con game. Also he does seem to care for Jack a little bit, even though he needs him out of the way for his plan to succeed. Just before the final battle (after he’s genetically altered himself to hell and back), Fontaine admits “You were my ace in the hole, but you were also the closest thing I had to a son. And that’s why this hurts.” Fontaine feels a connection to Jack, even though he cares more about his own success. Mentally programming Jack to be his assassin is the closest this man’s ever come to really caring about another. Of course, at the end of the boss fight, when Fontaine has Jack on the ropes, the “Little Sisters” come to their rescuer’s aid (or to their oppressor’s aid for some reason if you’re aiming for the bad ending) and finish off Fontaine once and for all. The perfect end to a nearly perfect game.

Officer Tenpenny from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Cleaning up crime in the worst possible ways.

Most Grand Theft Auto antagonists mainly appear at the beginning of the game to set up the conflict and again at the end when the protagonist finally finishes them off. Officer Tenpenny from San Andreas on the other hand is a consistent presence throughout the game and is the first antagonist Rockstar seemed to put a lot of effort into developing. The fact that Samuel L. Jackson voices him doesn’t hurt either. Tenpenny and his underlings use their law enforcement clout to pit gangs against each other and even goes so far as to sponsor a drug operation aimed at making Grove Street kids into addicts in a ploy to reduce gang violence. Tenpenny rationalizes all this by saying it’s for the greater good but in reality his actions are just as destructive as any gang violence he manages to prevent, not to mention all the law enforcement personnel he has killed to cover his tracks. Throughout the game, Tenpenny coerces many gang members and cops into his corrupt way of operating, but he seems to take real pleasure in manipulating player controlled Carl Johnson. He was involved in the murder of Carl’s mother. At the start of the game, when Carl returns to Los Santos to attend her funeral, Tenpenny accosts him and threatens to frame Carl for the death of a cop (whom Tenpenny had actually killed), if Carl doesn’t do some jobs for him.

“Fifty of me and this town would be okay.”

What really sets Tenpenny apart from all the other corrupt and terrible people in the Grand Theft Auto world is his confidence in how justified his terrible crimes are. He’s the perfect character for GTA’s America: simultaneously completely corrupt and yet still clinging to an absurd moral high ground.  Other characters in the series (like GTA IV’s fellow corrupt cop Francis McReary), echo this personality trait, but none of them have nearly as big a negative impact on the world as Tenpenny does. He terrorized inner-city Los Santos to such a degree that when he’s finally put on trial, his acquittal (due to the witnesses he forced Carl to kill for him) causes a full city wide riot that lasts until his death at the end of the game. How he got this way we never find out. Maybe he witnessed one too many brutalities growing up, or perhaps the futility of the war on drugs caused him to snap. All the same, when he’s crawling out of his wrecked firetruck and bleeding out in the street after an attempted escape from Carl and the city went awry, you can’t help but feel that he got what was coming to him. He’s not just a villain, he’s the living embodiment of everything wrong with The System.

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Wine or Vinegar: Morrowind

Morrowind was an amazing game. It was beautiful, original, hugely immersive, incredibly fun, and ground-breaking. There was nothing else

Don’t even pretend you don’t want to ride this thing.

like it in all of gaming. It wasn’t just the best Elder Scrolls game, it was arguably the best Western RPG of all time.

In 2002.

In the ten years since, gaming’s changed a lot. The Elder Scrolls series has progressed through the crowd-pleasing-yet-broken-and-ugly Oblivion (which we’re never going to do for this series because that game has aged about as well as a sack of meat) to the crowd-pleasing-and-pretty-awesome Skyrim. Western RPGs have changed from the D&D-style romps of Neverwinter Nights to hugely ambitious spectacles like Mass Effect. So how does Morrowind hold up? Is it still an incredible RPG, or merely a stop on the genre’s evolution?

(One thing that’s not up for debate: the theme song. That will always be amazing. In a thousand years archaeologists will find it and say, “man,  these people knew what was up.”)

Graphics and Art

It’s worth joining the Randian slaver-wizards just to hang out in their awesome houses.

We decided to start here, since it’s where the passage of time is most obvious on games. Morrowind didn’t have a huge amount of graphical power when it came out, compared to contemporaries like TimeSplitters 2 or Windwaker— its textures were flat, it had a fair bit of copy-pasting, and the game’s color palette heavily tilts towards shades of brown. We came into this category with low expectations.

We were more than a little surprised. This game’s aged better in ten years than Oblivion has in five. The game’s still fairly brown-and-grey, but it works very well within its limitations and produces some fantastic visuals. The game’s short draw distance is strategically used to make the island of Vvardenfell seem mysterious and shrouded in dust and fog, while the roughness and blockiness of the game’s models lends itself to the rustic, inelegant architecture and hostile landscape of an unwelcoming and harsh country.

Its biggest visual strength comes through here– the incredible art design, which is honestly heads and shoulders over Skyrim or Oblivion. The architecture and look of the

This image contains just about everything wrong with the game.

world is incredible and inventive, and serves to create a lush and deep world. From the twisting vines and mushroom towers of Telvanni wizard colonies to the insect-shell homes of the volcanic interior, there’s a ton in Morrowind that looks absolutely original. Your first time visiting Sadrith Mora, as you walk out of the plain Imperial fort and see the bizarre mushroom city emerge from the fog, is a moment of strangeness and wonder that not many games could hope to match. The game doesn’t have great graphics on pure hardware, but elements like this infuse it with a real life and energy.

It does have its faults, of course. The character animation is unbelievably stiff and clunky, a lot of the interior environments (especially the caves) look really, really, dull and repetitive, and a lot of the magic effects are fairly ugly and look like basic particle effects. Then again, that last one’s the only one we have a right to complain about, since apparently Bethesda’s firmly committed themselves to bad character animation and repetitive dungeons.

Role-playing and Exploration

ORIGINAL CHARACTER COPYRIGHT CARDINAL VIRTUAL, DO NOT STEAL.

Okay, this is what Morrowind’s famous for. There’s just so much stuff. So many skills that you can, if you want, build a character that specializes entirely in useless ones… which is not a point in the game’s favor (if you want to play it, don’t invest in Spear). The ability to hyper-specialize in character creation is fun, but it does make the game less intuitive and with a steeper difficulty than its predecessors. It won’t be until your second playthrough that you learn that there are almost no good spears or blunt weapons, that Medium Armor doesn’t have any great endgame gear, that Security can be made obsolete with only two spells, or that Alchemy is a free pass to break the game. That said, it’s nice that the roleplaying is much less combat-heavy than later TES games– it’s much, much more viable to play as  someone other than a god-killing warrior, and more routes to fame and fortune. You can go diving for pearls and hunting for valuable supplies, you can dedicate yourself to raiding tombs, you can even go all Omar Little and rob crime syndicates and drug smugglers for a living (although, if arrested, you can not put a tie on over your armor and talk about the corruption of the system). And, unlike the later games where smashing everything is a viable option, each of these will require different skills and a different play style.

This choice really shines through in the game’s sidequests, which absolutely dwarf Skyrim in their variety and number. For the sake of the replay we focused on only three factions: the Fighter’s Guild, The Temple, and Great House Redoran. No main quest, barely any sidequests apart from these, no other factions. It took about 30 hours. And there’s still the main quest, two guilds, two Great Houses, another church, the Imperial Legion, and the club of government-sanctioned assassins. And two expansions. This amount of content definitely leads to some repetition (and a fair bit of walking, since there’s no fast-travel apart from the major towns and a couple spells) but it also makes the game feel epic and gives a real sense of scale to your accomplishments. It can be fairly grind-heavy and occasionally tedious, but we prefer it to the Skyrim model where you can go from a new recruit to Guildmaster over the span of about five days.

The world’s just as complex and sprawling. It has its faults– the Ashlands are just not fun to be in, and needing to walk/fly/swim everywhere gets real old– but the thrill of exploration that the game offers is fantastic. Because it doesn’t rely on random generation (the worst thing in Oblivion hands-down and one of Skyrim’s big problems), there’s always a chance that you’ll stumble upon something wonderful and cool, whether it’s a cache of endgame weapons, a book that can help decipher a dead language, or a secret ring that can change the whole balance of the game. It also means that there’s some incredibly powerful things in the world, just waiting for you to come and take them– meaning that exploring isn’t just about becoming gradually stronger, but about the chance to find real treasure. And since the world is so unique and alien, simply exploring is its own reward. In almost every fantasy RPG you go into the world knowing what it’s going to be like, but poking around Morrowind’s dark corners brings you ever-closer to actually understanding the weird and unwelcoming world of the game.

Gameplay

After all this praise, it’s good journalism to end on our reservations, which is why we saved the actual gameplay for last. This wasn’t great when

Wait, no, THIS picture contains everything wrong in Morrowind.

the game was new, and time hasn’t been kind to it. The combat system is too dominated by invisible dice rolls and repetitive animation, and you won’t be consistently hitting enemies until your weapon skills are incredibly high. There is an upside to this– watching your character transform from a bumbling oaf who manages to miss a crab 80% of the time to a master swordsman who can duel gods is pretty rewarding– but it’s not worth the frustration. If you’re a new player who gives up on the game, we’d wager money that’s what drove you away. Enemy hitboxes can be  fairly weird (especially cliff racers, pictured right– the much-despised enemy who is hard to hit, screechy, persistent, and everywhere), and some things, like enemies who can damage your stats or absorb your health, are intensely frustrating. Magic and stealth don’t fare much better– casting spells in a combat situation is infuriatingly trial-and-error, while sneak-attacking enemies is so futile as to be almost laughable. They’re both much more tolerable outside of combat, so playing a pacifist thief or specializing in healing and exploration magic are both viable.

That said, the combat’s general weakness isn’t as huge of a deal as it might sound, because it’s only one path through the game. Even in the main quest, there’s only a handful of missions where combat is the real priority, while exploration, intelligence-gathering, and diplomacy are the real meat. Even a character with no particular skill for violence can get by most quests by investing in some decent enchanted items, finding a decent weapon, and keeping stocked on potions. If you’ve ever had the experience of trying to play a thief in Oblivion, you can see why this approach has its merits.

Still Worth It?

Absolutely. It may not be as fun or as pretty as Skyrim, but as far as game design goes it’s every bit as good. The issues with the gameplay aren’t really a product of its age, either: they were an issue in 2002, and they didn’t keep it from being the best game of the year then And the game’s triumphs, in some cases, still haven’t been surpassed. It’s still one of the best settings in video game history, still has a clever and well-written plot, and in some cases still looks amazing. In the end, it’s not so much that it’s aged well as that it hasn’t really aged: the things that were problems have gotten worse, but the game’s sheer scope and ambition look even more impressive in comparison to a lot of RPGs since then than they did when it came out. If you’ve enjoyed the more recent Elder Scrolls games, and especially if you’d wished they’d had more depth or a more original setting, check it out by all means (slap on a mod that gives you a house and some merchants with more money, first). It’s not the game it used to be, but it holds up as a fun and interesting experience, and one of the deepest and most detailed RPGs of all time.

Wine or Vinegar: Grand Theft Auto III

[Our “Wine or Vinegar” series examines older games that were influential in a big name series and examines how well they’ve aged.]

The most influential sandbox game ever.

Every medium has it’s classics, film has the all to often mentioned Citizen Kane (still a great movie though), literature has The Great Gatsby, and theater has Death of a Salesman, just to name a few. The art form of video games is in the process of building it’s own library of classics, but due to the nature of the medium, these classics don’t always stand the test of time. That’s why we’re starting this series, to see whether highly influential titles have aged like fine wine or grown bitter like vinegar (or in most cases, a little of both). Whether you like the series or not (and we do), Grand Theft Auto, particularly the third instalment, has had a nearly unparalleled impact on video games, arguably on par with Super Mario Bros. and Doom. But wait, you probably won’t ask, why GTA III? What about the first two games in the series? Well, to the few people asking this question, Grand Theft Auto III was the first installment that most people played, the first one that was considered a truly landmark game, and, not coincidentally, the first one that was 3D (2D graphics can’t quite capture that signature GTA gameplay). So let’s look at some of the aspects of this classic game and see what still works and what doesn’t. Even though one of us is a huge GTA fan, we’ll try to stay objective.

Gameplay

Harder than it looks.

This section’s honestly a very mixed bag. As far as the controls go, driving still holds up pretty well. It’s easy and intuitive to get the hang of (probably easier than GTA IV) whether you’re coming back to the game or if it’s your first playthrough. Even this early on in the franchise, Rockstar did a good job of making the different types of of vehicles (cars, trucks, SUVs, etc) all feel different, so that there’s more of a reason than just aesthetics to choose a sports car over a van. Boats on the other hand control alright once you’re out in the water, but getting out of them is a pain since you can’t swim and jumping can out can be somewhat imprecise. The one plane in the game is nearly impossible to fly without a lot of practice but given the name, the Dodo, this is definitely intentional and you never have to fly it on missions, it’s strictly and easter egg. You’re able to move around on foot much faster than in GTA IV and hijacking cars is also quick and painless, but the controls really fall apart when it comes to the shooting. Keep in mind, we’re talking about the PS2 edition here since it was the original version and the shooting mechanics work better on PC, but on PlayStation 2, shooting is clunky and unintuitive. You’re supposed to lock onto the nearest enemy but often times you’ll find yourself targeting a fleeing pedestrian instead and though you shift between targets, you’ll lose precious health while shifting to the target you want. Oh yeah, and there’s no map of the whole city on the pause screen so you have to navigate by mini-map alone. Have fun watching for landmarks.

Tailing someone, very conspicuously.

As for the missions, the best ones tend to be the less linear missions that involve wide portions of the city. Unlike GTA IVIII isn’t really capable of telling a narrative through it’s missions. Many of the more linear missions, especially the ones that introduce new gimmicks like the “spookometer” shown on the right, tend to fall flat since said gimmicks are often unintuitive at first (the spookometer for instance is way to sensitive, rising almost quicker than you can react if you get too close to the target). Also the linear missions don’t have a sense of progression. The bank heist in GTA IV was linear but it covered a lot of ground, leading you from the bank, through the surrounding alley ways, down into the subway, and then finally through one last car chase. Most of the linear GTA III missions, even if they have an interesting premise, don’t amount to much more than “go here and kill these mooks.” One of the best missions in the game, “Triad’s and Tribulations”, tasks you with killing three Triad leaders on behalf of the Leone Family. These Triad kingpins are scattered all over Portland (the first district of the city) and as you drive around looking for them, you’ll see Triad and Mafia soldiers fighting on nearly every street corner. This mission manages to be fun by making you feel like your part of an epic citywide gang war and gives you the freedom to take out the Triad bosses in any order and in any fashion you like. It uses the sandbox to it’s full advantage.

Characters

Claude: “…”

The inhabitants of Liberty City in GTA III are not as deep as the characters in the later games but entertaining none the less. First off, Claude, the player controlled character, is a silent protagonist. Rockstar presumably made this decision to make the player feel more a part of the world. The problem is, Claude feels like a lazily designed silent protagonist, with the bare minimum of gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations (grunts, screams, etc). Link, from The Legend of Zelda series, is such an effective silent protagonist because he’s given a wide range of the above features which all work to give him a personality. He has all the advantages of a silent protagonist without feeling like a cipher. If Link is a stylish designer suit, Claude is a used sports jacket; he still gets the job done, he just feels like nothing special while doing it.

Donald Love: “Nothing drives down real estate prices like a good old fashioned gang war.”

Unfortunately, the other characters Claude interacts with are also hampered by his muteness. Most of the pre-mission cutscenes merely feature a character giving a brief monologue to set up the mission, though the writing is usually still entertaining. Special mention goes out to Donald Love, CEO of Love Media which owns several of the in game radio stations, who is a yuppie billionaire using gang violence in his business practices and has some…questionable eccentricities. Another interesting fact about the characters is that two of the major gang leaders in the game are women: Asuka, the sadomasochistic leader of the Yakuza and Catalina, the head of the Columbian Cartel in Liberty City, the main antagonist, and Claude’s ex-girlfriend. This is noteworthy because many of the later GTA games (with a few exceptions) don’t feature women in such powerful roles. Overall, while the characters don’t feel nearly as fleshed out as those in Vice City or San Andreas (not to mention GTA IV), they’re still quirky and interesting enough to hold your attention and leave a lasting impression.

The World

Welcome to Liberty City, where your car is all our car.

The Liberty City in GTA III is much less based on New York city than the GTA IV incarnation and is more an amalgamation of north-eastern American cities in general. The intro to the game perfectly captures the feel of the city. The slow jazzy piano theme that plays over the intro is the perfect combination of class and sleaze to introduce the world of GTA III. The city itself, definitely leaves something to be desired today. It doesn’t have nearly as much of a distinct look and feel as Vice City or the Liberty City of GTA IV. There just aren’t enough noticeable buildings or other landmarks to make the city truly interesting. The city does however have a very dirty, gritty look that emphasizes how poorly run Liberty City is. If GTA IV’s  Liberty is modern day New York, GTA III Liberty is more like 1970s New York. Pedestrian models recur far too often and the pedestrian dialogue, while funny at first can get old pretty fast. There aren’t nearly as many songs on the radio stations (Flashback FM for instance is just the Scarface soundtrack– okay, yes, that’s awesome) and you won’t find very many famous songs either. The radio DJs, however, are just as funny as those in other GTAs, especially Head Radio (fantastic satire of mega corporation radio stations). Finally Chatterbox, the first talk radio station in the GTA series and the first appearance of Lazlow, is just as funny as ever.

In the end, GTA III is nowhere near as amazing as it used to be, especially after GTA IV, but it’s still genuinely fun to play. Age has dealt the game a lot of shortcomings but the best parts of it are still a lot of fun and make it worth playing.