Header art by Sunless Design

2017's Worst Villains Were More Than Just Monsters

From profit-hungry corporations to technocratic kingdoms to, yes, Nazis, games were filled with systemic villainy this year.

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Jan 2 2018, 3:34pm

Header art by Sunless Design

Welcome to Waypoint's Pantheon of Games, a celebration of our favorite games, a re-imagining of the year's best characters, and an exploration of the 2017's most significant trends.

In our myths, the monsters are always somewhere else. Odysseus traveled through a world of foreign lands and enchanted islands, home to witches and the cyclops, to make his way home. Thor had to go on the hunt for Jormungand, the serpent of the deep. Quetzalcoatl went deep into the land of the dead to find Mictlantecuhtli and steal the bones he coveted. The story of a hero is one about overwhelming odds and superhuman feats, and the creature who would stop them is the villain. A monster. It is the being who would stop this story right here if they could.

In our games, these beings come in two shapes. The first is the easy one: the singular being. This is Odysseus’ cyclops, a hulking mass that plants its feet in the path and demands that the hero overcome it or die. Agent Smith. Vladimir Makarov. Bowser. Their power us unbounded, their ability to destroy the world unmatched, and the video games that feature them are heroic stories of Neos and Marios who put on their monster-stomping boots and go toe-to-toe with things beyond the knowledge and capability of the average human.

The second enemy shape, though, is different. It is more dispersed. There is no one figure that represents it. Instead, it is the invisible lines of connection between the figures. It is the structure itself. This is the enemy that Odysseus discovers when he finally made his way all the back home to Ithaca: dozens of men harassing his wife in an attempt to marry her and legally take over the couple’s estate. The enemy here is not the individual suitors, as annoying and bad as they are, but their presumption that she would be married and that they could take her riches. The shape of the enemy here is common sense, the idea that “this is how things are done.”

2017 has been a year of video game enemies that tend toward this second shape. It’s the year of shadowy foes from the deep, definable only in their amorphous mass but rarely in their individual, singular forms.

Consider Bayek’s story in Assassin’s Creed Origins. He experiences tragedy at the hands of The Order, a secretive conspiracy of rulers, merchants, and politicians from various locations in Egypt. He sets off on a journey to slay them all in hot-headed revenge, and as we work our way through the narrative, we learn that there is no stopping point for The Order. It is not an individual passing down orders like The Godfather. Instead, The Order is many different people with many different personal goals. They don’t agree on everything. What binds them together is not a core belief or a goal, but instead the commitment to the binding. Their relationships, their strategic partnerships, help them advance their own agendas. Their hope is that the multi-pronged mutual benefits between them will steamroll all of their opposition. Until Bayek comes along, it works.

Screenshot of Assassin's Creed: Origins by Rob Zacny

The New Colossus presents Nazi and white supremacist ideology in the same way. In a standout scene from a non-combat section of the game, we see American Klansmen speaking to a Nazi soldier. They talk about their differences; the Klansman should work on his German. We can see the differences between the two groups, differences of class and value in this fictional nightmare culture, but what we can’t see are the ties that bind them. The monstrosity that is immanent to this scene, enveloping it and yet constructing it, is the concentration camp, the walled city, New Orleans. The vast structure of violence and oppression that supports the entire fictional world of The New Colossus is the villain here; each individual agent is merely a stomach-turning symptom, a human who made a choice within a field of choices. But that field of choices is determined at a much higher level.

Injustice 2 gave us a new world order policed by superhumans. Resident Evil VII and Prey both kicked traditional video game plots upstairs into corporate decisions about who should be able to live their life and who shouldn’t. Link faced down not just the evil entity, Ganon, but “Calamity Ganon,” a stand in not only for environmental devastation, but Hyrule’s own historical failings, too. Destiny 2’s villain was a stand-in for an entire societal ideology, a might-makes-right belief that transformed into might-makes-godlike. All of these experiences were about characters facing something like what Odysseus met back at Ithaca. Cyclopses and sirens, the everyday monsters, were inconvenient at best and mostly trivial. 2017 has been the year of fighting the big things.

Enemies as big as the ones we’ve got don’t just need big guns. They need big plans.

All of these games were in the works before 2017, but the alignment between our political lives and the ones we experienced in big-budget games is depressingly clear. The government of the United States has spent the entire year dismantling protections for the least powerful among us and further empowering our richest citizens. We have no interest in stopping global warming, and thus we are barrelling even further into a global catastrophe that, again, only the richest of us will be able to weather. Hundreds of brave individuals have come forward to speak about what we can only call a crisis of sexual abuse. This has been the year of broad, structural critique, and our leisure activities, these games that we throw so many hundreds of hours into, performed similar work.

We’re still left with the perennial question: What is to be done? Our video games don’t have good passages forward. They tend to answer the question in the same way that Odysseus did. After all, he ended up killing all of those people harassing his wife, a move that Bayek or B.J. Blazkowicz would execute with extreme efficiency. But it doesn’t deal with the real enemy, the structure, that big thing that lives in the gaps between the individuals that stand in for it. It doesn’t solve the problem, it just solves this one issue. 2018 might have some hope. Maybe 2019. We need games that look at problems and conceive of large, big solutions that emanate beyond single actions.

Enemies as big as the ones we’ve got don’t just need big guns. They need big plans. Fiction is the process of creating new worlds, and god damn, we need a new one. We can’t go back to some time before, and the games of this year have showed how people can grasp and wrangle amorphous power structures beyond themselves. Some, like Origins, have even tried to explain the next step. The games of the next few years need to think about how people live on and thrive in a world that’s stacked against them. 2017’s been the year of games that present us with age-old problems; the games of the future need to imagine new solutions.

Follow Cameron Kunzelman on Twitter.

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