How the Dehumanisation of Antagonists Leads to Less Compelling Gameplay and NarrativePosted by Ben on 5th July, 2012
This article contains spoilers for the endings of Red Dead Redemption and World War 2.
Psychologist Frederic Zimbardo says the practise of dehumanisation “is like a cortical cataract that clouds one’s thinking and fosters the perception that other people are less than human”. By dehumanising enemies in games, it reduces them from credible threats to amorphous blobs whose sole existence is to be slain by the player. If dozens of identical enemies can be trotted out then any sense of a moral consequence or immersive gameplay are lost.
The better characterised an antagonist is, the more we root for the protagonist to succeed as the threat seems that much greater. At the end of Red Dead Redemption once Jack has killed Edgar Ross, there is a sense of loss, despair and pointlessness. Ross is gunned down whilst out fishing, not escaping on his armoured train en route to destroy Washington, D.C.. Edgar Ross wasn’t just a villain twirling his moustache and laughing manically to no-one in particular. He had motivation for his actions. He had a family, a life and this makes his demise and Jack’s realisation of becoming a killer all the more poignant.
It could be argued that the average Call of Duty or Battlefield player is only after instant gratification and fancy set pieces, rather than any emotional weight or pathos. However I would argue that they don’t care about it because they’ve never been offered it. No real attempt at characterisation is given past “We’re right, they’re wrong and the only way to solve that comes out the end of a gun”. If engaging stories were offered with real people with depth and complexity, other than the generic “theft of nuclear weapons” storyline populated with bland, two dimensional characters, then these games would be vastly improved.
Obviously games shouldn’t come with a family tree for every hired goon and henchmen we’ll murder, but basic characterisation would be appreciated. The most we ever know about the Nazis in Sniper Elite V2 is their rank, what weapon they’re carrying and whether they’re passive or aggressive. Nazis are the polyfiller of video game antagonists, easily inserted into a game with their instantly recognisable iconography, their extremely well-dressed army and their tendency for evil and world domination. Giantbomb put it nicely by saying, “Whenever you need a human enemy with little to no emotional attachment to the player, Nazis are a sure-fire way to go”. One of the better characterisations of a Nazi in media was in Inglourious Basterds, with the character of Hans Landa. He is depicted as cruel, vicious and morally reprehensible man, but it is his actions and dialogue that create that character, not just his uniform. (I would have used a video game as an example here, but I couldn’t find a single game with a well characterised Nazi.)
The only names we see in Sniper Elite V2 are of the Saturday morning cartoon villains in the pre-mission spiel. No reason is given for the German scientists defecting to the Russian forces over the Americans. No sense of moral ambiguity is created by the fact that whilst the goals of Russia and America are clearly identical, the Russians are vilified for no particular reason (It’s never mentioned that at this stage in the war, the Americans and Russians were allies). It’s perfectly possible that somewhere in Berlin is a Russian sniper on an identical mission to Karl Fairburne (The protagonist of Sniper Elite V2. I had to Google his name, that’s the level of characterisation that’s given for him).
No second thought is given to the slaughter of wave after wave of uniform Nazis screaming “Der Scharfschütze, ihn zu töten!!” at the top of their lungs. Only a single German expressed doubt of his commitment to the war and his conversation could be summarised like this:
Nazi 1: I’m sick of this war; I can’t wait till it’s over.
Nazi 2: It is the greatest honour to die for the Fatherland.
Nazi 1: You’re right! My commitment to the Führer is now unwavering.
Nazi 2: Excellent! Fancy some strüdel?
If the game had even attempted to characterise the stormtroopers, then it would have made the game that much more compelling. If the enemies faced were more human, then taking the more difficult stealth option would lead to more rewarding gameplay as we’d be encouraged not to kill them. We’re expected to believe that in the closing days of the Second World War, every single Nazi soldier (bar one) didn’t have a single doubt or worry in his mind, that he didn’t for a second contemplate the horrors in which he partook, that even whilst the Hammer & Sickle, the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack are being hoisted up every flag pole in Berlin that his faith didn’t waiver for a moment?
It is easy to forget that Nazis were people too. Staff Sergeant Ernst Krause was in the SS and probably unjustly killed many people but he was also a talented painter. Whilst you wouldn’t let him housesit over a long weekend, it’s important to remember that Ernst had a mother, a father. He probably did silly doodles in the margins of books and used to fancy that girl with the pigtails who sat at the front of the class. It is important that whilst we should never condone their actions, we shouldn’t dehumanise Nazis. They weren’t a force for pure evil but regular people who carried out appalling atrocities; that’s what makes the looming threat of fascism so terrifying. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments showed what normal people can do under the influence of an authoritative figure.
We need to characterise our antagonists just as much as the protagonists. You should be able to take off the Nazi’s uniform and still be able to identify him as a villain. Believable human characters are the crux of compelling gameplay and once they are dehumanised, narrative immersion is irretrievably lost and the player’s enjoyment is irreparably damaged.