Jaws. Alien. Predator. What do these three films have in
common? They are obviously successful action/adventure stories that left their
mark on the genre. They feature a group of protagonists who must team up to
defeat a creature they've never seen before. But what's interesting is that the
antagonists are singular beings. Whether we're dealing with residents of a
beach town, the crew of a space freighter, or a squad of trained commandos, the
enemy structure is the same.
Many movies are like this; we've seen a thousand stories wherein a lone
villains tries to destroy of what our heroes hold dear. This staple of story building
is powerful in establishing great characters and drama. It's a great way to
unite protagonists and focus the story's events. The lone enemy is necessarily
memorable and complex - two undeniably positive traits. But this method is
conspicuously missing from video games. So why don't games do it?
There are many reasons. Unlike movies, games shoulder the burden of player
reward. It's hard to express progress to players if they're not constantly
vanquishing enemies. It's also hard to maintain a consistent game world if the
enemy is constantly changing.
It's also just easier to design a bunch of
enemies that compliment each other's abilities. Instead of one complex enemy, a
number of simple enemies are used to fill the gap. Unfortunately, the
consequence of these difficulties is almost always a set of forgettable
antagonists to whom the player just can't relate.
But I believe we can and should create more games with single antagonists.
There's no doubt that audiences connect with the terror of No Country For Old
Men's Anton Chigurh. Dr. No, on the other hand, is less scary with all his
The Rambo movies feature hordes of nameless enemy soldiers, and do it
well, but the focus is on Rambo himself. In a game, it's much harder to develop
the main character without breaking immersion, but we still use the same armies
of unidentifiable villains.
But how do we, as game developers, go from Aliens to Alien? They're both great
movies, but with different and equally valid configurations for their
antagonists. Both would make good games, but only Aliens would make a good game
chock full of killable bad guys. Alien makes for much better suspense.
movie features a constantly changing antagonist that keeps the crew on their
toes. We like how the monster's complexity is revealed as it changes; the first
alien we see is very different from that in the final scene. The same happens
in The Thing, another classic action movie. The creature evolves and stalks the
men in their base, growing from a disgusting animal to a horrific behemoth.
these changes we see the protagonists learning and adapting, and so we connect
with them. We see the villain's character build and become less
one-dimensional, and so we connect with him. We have time to think about the
enemy, and he therefore becomes more interesting and memorable.
The single antagonist of a game needs to change in ways that offer new
challenges but reinforce previous gameplay. Story, level, and character
progression have to be nailed down early. Players have to be able to hurt the
antagonist, to make him fail, and sometimes see him succeed.
We can spend time
searching for him, fighting him, outmaneuvering him, and eventually conquering
him. This type of game involves much more time with the enemy, but we need to
feel that we're making progress even when we can't yet finish the story. The
antagonist doesn't have to be completely alone; he can manifest himself in
other means, as long as we connect these secondary challenges with him.
Obviously I don't have any concrete answers or proof for how to make a singular
antagonist really work in a game. However, I do see this as a direction and
strength of future games. While games and film are not the same thing, we can
learn some great lessons about connection from the movies. And that's what it's