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October 23, 2014

Revenge is Boring

Yep.  Taking a hard stance on this one -- because I’m convinced that contrary to popular belief, it’s not a dish best served cold.  Or at all.  But let me back up a little.

My friend and I both gave my brother trouble over Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor because it just looked like a knockoff Assassin’s Creed.  Licensed game garbage, and little else.  But considering the majority of the reviews and reactions, it looks like the two of us were wrong -- and if nothing else, my bro’s been having a hell of a time with it.  So yeah, I guess I can’t help but offer up my blessing to those that enjoy it, and the game itself.  To an extent.

I’ll concede that the gameplay and the Nemesis system are (apparently) amazing, but there’s more to it than that.  The question that was on my mind for a while was “All right, so how’s the story?”  And the answer I’ve gotten, more or less, is “awful”.  You play as some guy whose wife and child get killed, and he strikes out with newfound ghost powers to exact his revenge on those that wronged him, leaving a trail of bodies in hizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

So, uh, can we talk for a second?  Like, am I being unreasonable here?  I just thought that, you know, we would mostly be past this by now.  You know what I mean?  It’s freaking 2014.  This plot would have been hackneyed in 2004, if not earlier.  But here we are again, with “revenge” being the driving force of the story.  And to be perfectly, totally honest, I’m sick of it.  At this stage, I’m starting to genuinely believe that it’s doing more harm than good.

I will be fair, though.  I recognize that just because I’ve started taking issue with revenge plots doesn’t mean that they’re an automatic failure state.  There’s potential in them, without question.  They’re the backbone of some very important ideas in some very important stories -- the essence of their quality and merit.  Moreover, just because I take issue doesn’t mean that anyone who doesn’t is automatically wrong, or stupid, or evil.  They have their opinions.  As do you.  As do I.  And it’s high time I share mine.

So let’s start with a story about self-defense.

I’ve been lucky enough to never end up in a fight, and if at all possible I’d like to keep it that way.  But the possibility of it has come up, most notably in a conversation with one of my friends.  I confessed that I didn’t know what I’d do if I got in a fight; ideally, I’d try to do everything I could to avoid one (or diffuse it entirely) before we came to blows.  My friend brought up the prospect of acting in self-defense, as if that would make things all better.  In his words?  “Once that guy throws the first punch, you’re allowed to do whatever you want to him.”  I’m surprised how much glee he managed to put into that sentence -- at least, I was.

Setting aside matters of legality (because the back half of an episode of How I Met Your Mother showed just how risky it is to throw hands), there’s something cathartic about being able to strike back without having to worry about rules, or laws, or ethics, or any of that.  Once someone hurts you, you may very well want to hurt them back.  And you can want that for any number of reasons.  Because you want to regain your honor; because you want to make good on Hammurabi’s code; because you want justice served immediately, and by your own hand; because that really hurt, and punching someone else will make you feel really good.  In theory, at least; I’ve read that if you’re not used to punching and you finally go at it, chances are you’re bound to hurt yourself first.

But I guess that’s the thing about video games, isn’t it?  You don’t have to worry about laws, or fists, or breaking your hand with one clumsy blow.  If someone slights you, you can slight them right back.  And again, that plot is something that can be explored meaningfully; it’s been done in fiction before, and it can be done -- possibly even better -- in a medium that effectively makes you into the avenger du jour.  There’s very little in this world that can’t be explored meaningfully via a story.

It’s just a shame that not everything is -- the revenge plot well among them.

I can’t stress enough how disappointed I am in Shadows of Mordor.  When I think of The Lord of the Rings, I think of sprawling adventures.  I think of bands of travelers -- men small and large -- going up against the elements.  I think of perseverance in the face of adversity, and the most unlikely of heroes choosing to press on because of a sense of responsibility; he does it because he needs to, but to some extent because he wants to.  I don’t think of some guy who’s not only out to kill everyone he needs to for the sake of a slight against him, but is actually empowered to do so, AND is rewarded in doing so. 

It’s embarrassing, really.  There are so many motivations that you could give a character -- things that could make them more than just a blank stand-in in untold dozens of ways -- but instead we’re just given a flimsy justification for a killing spree.  This is why I used the word “slight” earlier; if the victims are just plot devices/motivators instead of characters, they’re slight by design.  In order for me to put stock into a cause, I need reason to believe why it’s important.  Why should I go around killing orcs or whatever if I have no anchor to anything that’s going on around me?  Why should I care what happens when the game can’t bother to give a good reason?

It may seem silly to poke holes in a game, which has long since been established as a medium that’s not very good at telling competent stories.  But setting aside the fact that they needed to get better the very second they started taking on straightforward narratives, saddling a game with a half-hearted story hurts the game, no matter how good the mechanics.  The plot of Shadows of Mordor pretty much boils down to “REVENGE!” which means that everything gameplay-wise has to cater to that single mission.  The player has to focus on killing, and killing, and killing more.  Gameplay mechanics have to focus on the ability to kill, and kill, and kill more.  Instead of being free to explore infinite possibilities -- the potential handed out like free samples by Middle-Earth -- it’s all about causing harm to others.

And it’s not the only one.

As I've said, I consider Watch Dogs to not only be the worst game I’ve played this year, by far, but one of the worst games I’ve ever played.  Period.  Explaining why would take posts in themselves, but in a nutshell?  They come down to two factors: the main character Aiden Pearce, and the revenge plot the game is saddled with.  It’s such a copy-paste from Shadows of Mordor (or vice versa) that you’d think the dev teams shared their brilliant ideas over coffee and donuts every morning.  

Aiden loses his niece in an assassination attempt by the bad guys -- and not because of his own reckless crimes, no siree bob -- and his sister and nephew get kidnapped, so he has to use his awesome cyber-powers to get them back…which leads to another killing spree in its own right, only even worse because time and time again you end up killing innocent people (cops and uninvolved drivers) when you use your magic cell phone.  But hey, someone wronged Aiden first, so he’s got every right to destroy anything and kill everyone in his way, right?

It’s troubling how many times revenge pops up as a central plot conceit or character motivation in games.  God of War is the most obvious one, of course, but hardly the only one.  It’s there in Assassin’s Creed 2 and 3, in Soulcalibur 5, in Darksiders, and in both Prototype games, to name a few.  And then there are tangential or arguable cases where revenge adds a darker shade to the plot.  It’s understated in games like Far Cry 3 and Beyond: Two Souls, and in DmC as well.  No More Heroes, too.  It’s even in The Wonderful 101 -- though in its case, it offers a meaningful exploration of revenge…or in other words, yet another reason why you should have played the game by now.

When handled poorly, I see revenge plots as a major issue.  Being a main character in anything brings with it some huge responsibilities; if the main character is bad, then everything that follows suffers.  And it starts, potentially, with the basic motivation.  Think about it: if the “avenger” was never slighted, then wouldn’t that mean that he/she would never strike out on the game’s adventure?  Sure, you could say that about plenty of other motivations and inciting incidents, but revenge plots offer little in the way of protection. 

By default, it makes the leading man completely reactionary -- stripped of agency, and strung along according to thoughtless whims, the needs of the plot, and (worst of all) characters far more active in the background.  Watch Dogs plays like a power fantasy -- and it is, no question -- but almost paradoxically, it progressed as if the player and “The Vigilante” were just gofers used to complete menial tasks until something happened in the story.  Aiden wouldn’t have given an eighth of a damn if not for the lofty, almost-tangential promise of “getting his revenge”, but he had to do that dirty work anyway.  As did the player, unfortunately.

Again, these revenge plots aren’t just making for worse stories; they have the potential to make for worse gameplay.  It caps the freedom, and it narrows the scope of the game down to anything beyond a couple of feet past the edge of a sword or the barrel of a gun.  And that brings with it certain expectations, if not requirements -- a rampage that begets violence and death, which in turn begets kills that have to be rendered as lavishly as possible.  Because as you know, the only reason video games exist is to give the player access to top-dollar gore.  Even if -- no, especially if it reveals a severe lack of self-awareness.

I can’t help but think back to the demo for Beyond: Two Souls.  In its defense (and I can’t believe I’m saying that), the game isn’t just a big dumb revenge fantasy, which it likely could have been with a couple of twists.  But the amount of violence our “heroine” Jodie Holmes imparts on others is absolutely unreal.  I find it hard to sympathize with a character that’s willing to turn whole blocks of a small town into a scorched battlefield -- and worse yet, make threats to survivors justifiably trying to do their jobs -- just because “they threw the first punch”.  And I find it even harder to sympathize with the game itself when it forcibly railroads me toward the most violent option, despite my FURIOUS attempts to try and find a peaceable solution -- right up to making the same conversation take place in a different location. 

I’d say more, but believe it or not, that’s the least of that game’s problems.

I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with revenge plots if each and every one of them was top-notch in execution.  But they aren’t.  And when they aren’t, they’re absolutely boring.  The idea of playing vigilante or avenger or whatever is tantalizing, sure; I’ll admit that, easily.  Getting to play Batman is probably an ideal situation for a lot of people.  But here’s the thing: it’s my understanding that part of what makes Batman interesting is because he has self-imposed limits.  He has struggles tied to and beyond “get revenge for my parents’ death”.

His code, his mindset, his practices; all of those things and more come together to create a character that may be effectively superhuman, but inviting -- and in a sense relatable -- because his flaws make him almost as vulnerable as a child lost on the city streets.  You would think that in a culture content to give Batman top billing in the sequel to a Superman movie, there would be a better understanding of what makes him work when the time comes to try and do a copy-paste job.

If he wanted to, Batman could resolve virtually every situation with a wave of his hand.  With his power and resources, I’d bet he could not only put an end to crime in Gotham, but take control of it so that the very concept becomes the stuff of history -- even if that meant resorting to pure violence and lethal force.  But he doesn’t.  He acts within his code, and because of that, he has to actually put in work to stop the latest crime.  There’s tension in that.  Merit.  He can’t take every option, or else he wouldn’t be Batman anymore.  He’d just be giving in to his desires, and acting solely for the sake of his revenge.

Compare that to the “hero” of a bad revenge plot.  In terms of a video game, there’s a paradox; they’re at once free to do anything, but cripplingly limited.  They’re free to kill whoever, and whenever, and wherever, with whatever, and there’s not much point in caring about the lives taken.  Nor is there much care as to the route toward that kill; just as long as someone gets dropped, it’s all good.  The paradox comes in when you realize that, gameplay-wise, everything leads up to the kill

Oh sure, there are distractions and detours along the way, but the promise (and focus, arguably) of the game is to shut down whatever target you’ve got your eye on.  You might get in some non-lethal takedowns, sure, but I’m not wholly convinced that that alone can stave off a high body count.  I haven’t forgotten how trying to stop one criminal in Watch Dogs once led to me creating an explosive ten-car pileup.  But I guess that’s fine.  It didn’t move my Karma Meter a single pixel.

But the biggest problem I have with games based poorly on revenge -- be they major or minor -- is that it’s distorting the gaming canon.  For the record, I agree wholeheartedly with some of the sentiments spiraling around these days, whether they’re the result of Hatred or not.  We DO need violence to mean something again, because weaving it into hare-brained power fantasies isn’t doing us any favors.  That much is obvious. 

But I think it goes further than that.  If we’re going to get better games, we have to think about all of their particulars, from top to bottom.  Better stories will help, you know, immensely, but even the most basic elements like context and player motivation can push a game in an entirely different direction.

And we need different directions, now more than ever.  Or else.

Without dynamic entries into a medium -- in this medium, maybe more than any others -- it’s not just the products that suffer, or the players that suffer.  The ideas suffer; the thought-space shrinks.  Just as a big dumb revenge fantasy railroads the player to one conclusion (itself with no guarantee of being satisfying, lest we forget that one Assassin’s Creed game where you punch out the pope), the infinite ideas and possibilities flat-out disintegrate as we’re forced down one path and one mindset ad nauseum.  If that happens -- if our minds aren’t allowed to be opened because creators are content with glorifying OTT retribution -- then it won’t just be games that become worse.  We just might, too.

Maybe.  Maybe.

But that’s nothing The Wonderful 101 can’t fix.  GO PLAY IT, YOU SILLY WOMBATS.


  1. Revenge, huh? The type you've been describing as boring is by far the most blatant and shallow example of an eye for an eye. It reminds me of when I learned about the ancient Germanic tribe ideas of family blood feuds in an endless party ending in a growing pile of decaying corpses in the British Isles. Revenge should ideally be about restoring balance that was disturbed. But in the case of Watch Dogs, Aiden should be executed, revived, and executed millions of times to counteract the over-the-top manner of "restoring balance". A dead niece and two missing family members should not be avenged by a half-demolished city of millions. Any mathematician would tell you one side of the equation is horribly off.

    Setting aside debates on the value of human lives, I always found personal revenge stories between characters or within a person to be more interesting. It can mean it's just a subplot that doesn't overshadow the main story, or if it's the central plot sometimes a moral discussion or questioning of motives can keep things reasonable. Hell, despite the whining on both ends, 'Naruto' at least succeeded at showing how naive Naruto is in wanting to save Sasuke, who is also blatantly shown to be batshit insane along with his "restore family honor" justification.

    'Silent Hill Downpour' played around with the idea of revenge to reveal Murphy's past and for the wackiness of the town to make him face the consequences for his destructive thoughts and actions. 'Sonic Adventure 2' had Shadow when he was still cool; he planned to destroy the world by activating a fuck-you laser, but his methods involved theft and (unintentional) deception, not direct collateral damage. Still, he saved Rouge when he could have left her to die, and he immediately changes his ways when he realizes the memory he obsessed about had a distorted message. Plus, he's a glass cannon like Sonic and company; no one in that universe is the poster child for power fantasy without hours of hunting for powerful gems. 'Mass Effect' had a crapload of revenge subplots: some personal ala hacking and corrupting data and others acts of contained terrorism. Freakin' 'Hamlet' is beloved because the desire for revenge destroyed Hamlet, his family, Ophelia, and the kingdom of Denmark.

    In most circumstances, revenge is settling a debt that needs to be paid to one person or entity. Mindless destruction of anything in the way is terrorism. Some hypothesize that revenge can lead to blood knight habits of solving many problems with violence, but it depends on the character's psyche, the setting, and the environment. Not everyone who seeks revenge will target anyone who steps on their toe in a Walmart, but making a lot of stories and games with this intention leads to annoying and boring cliches.

    One thing that should be done at the very least is for writers and developers to recognize the difference between a vigilante and a terrorist. From what I've seen, Aiden from 'Watch Dogs' is a terrorist because he refuses to have any kind of moral code in minimizing casualties and holds no remorse for anyone innocent he hurts. Batman, however, knows when to back off from beating someone to death and likely ponders on his actions when he goes too far. That is more of something a vigilante should see themselves. They will bypass the law to ensure justice is served, so long the consequences will not end up causing more harm than good (like the entire city collapses into utter anarchy).

    That being said, I can deal with vigilantes or terrorists or revenge plots so long as the narrative is aware that every issue has two faces. Complete power fantasies without challenge or scrutiny is indeed boring because it's overly simplistic and can get stale extremely quickly.

  2. Cripes, I can't upvote this comment enough. I wish I could get everyone in the world who planned on using a revenge plot to read this. It'd probably help at least a little bit.

    You know, sometimes I feel about about constantly making an example out of Aiden and Watch Dogs...and then I remember how terrible it is, and all the guilt just melts away. But truth be told? I think I'd be okay with it, or at least tolerant, if it had even one shred of self-awareness. If Aiden, the cast, or the game at large pulled back and examined The Vigilante and said "Hey, you know what? Maybe I should think about what I'm doing", then I GURANTEE that it would have made for a stronger game on all fronts. But it didn't. It could have (and should have) gone deeper than it did, but couldn't be bothered. It's no wonder, then, that a game starring a couple of feuding hedgehogs is more competent. And that's saying something when it plays a song like this with a straight face.

    It's the "designated hero" bullshit all over again -- and again, and again, and again. I like heroes, but I have absolutely NO objections to walking in the shoes of a villain. If I have to play the role of a terrorist, then fine; all I ask is that the game or story or whatever doesn't act like I'm the hero. A quest for revenge alone isn't enough of a justification, especially if it just leads to a massive body count. There's so much more that can be done besides cheap, and borderline delusional reasoning. (I'd personally like to add Xenoblade Chronicles to your sterling list, because it ALSO does something interesting with revenge.)

    *sigh* I don't know. It just feels like sometimes, these guys aren't even trying anymore. Or worse yet, they ARE trying, and stupid power fantasies are the best they can do.

    ...Smash Bros. 4 can't get here soon enough.