To vam­pire or not to vam­pire? With nation­wide approval of a spark­ly fanger seduc­ing, mar­ry­ing, and ulti­mate­ly impreg­nat­ing a teenage girl, this choice now seems some­what benign, as though an undead blood­suck­er is no longer a mon­ster to be feared, but instead the paragon of boyfriend mate­r­i­al. Taken in this con­text, becom­ing a vam­pire in the new Skyrim expan­sion, Dawnguard, should be a easy choice. But unlike the slow, seduc­tive dance between mor­tal and immor­tal shown recent­ly in pop­u­lar media, as a Vampire Lord in Skyrim you must sav­age­ly feed off inno­cent vic­tims that are kept in a prison under­neath the keep. And after­ward they don’t thank you for show­ing them the attrac­tion of the dark side, they are dead. You are, in every sense of the con­cept, a mon­ster; a crea­ture that lives to serve a baser need with­out a moral com­pass to say what is right or wrong. But it does­n’t mat­ter, right? These are nobody NPCs, cor­ralled strict­ly for the pur­pose of a vir­tu­al feed­ing for an enter­tain­ing end. It’s just a game after all.

If at this point you think I am about to go on a dia­tribe about moral choic­es and how video games are desen­si­tiz­ing our youth, you would be quite wrong. I have a great love for how movies, books, and espe­cial­ly games, with their inter­ac­tive qual­i­ties, allow us to peek into fan­ta­sy per­sonas, inhab­it­ing the super­nat­ur­al spaces in which our real-life selves can­not gain access.

My love of vil­lain­ous types start­ed when I was a child, awe-struck by David Bowie dressed as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, and car­ried on into my JRPG-obsessed teenage years. I still have a paint­ing I cre­at­ed in high school depict­ing Magus, the mys­tic, scythe-wielding antag­o­nist from Chrono Trigger. Although I haven’t played Chrono Trigger since 1997, I can still remem­ber approach­ing his spooky, Dracula-like cas­tle, the epic wingspan of the crouch­ing crea­ture on the rooftop sil­hou­et­ted against a bright, moon-filled sky. Eventually being able to add Magus to your party was a lit­tle girl dream come true, as his per­son­al­i­ty, drive, and back story gave him more weight as a char­ac­ter than the typ­i­cal hero­ic per­sona. Later it was Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII who start­ed show­ing up in my doo­dles and tacked up on my bed­room walls, his sil­ver hair snaking around ten­drils of fire, a slim-bladed sword beside him. Both char­ac­ters are dri­ven to a mani­a­cal state due to trag­ic cir­cum­stances (in Chrono Trigger, Magus’s need to pro­tect his sis­ter and in FFVII, Sephiroth’s tan­gled rela­tion­ship with Shinra and Jenova) and wor­thy of great sym­pa­thy, poor loves…or so my roman­tic, villain-as-misunderstood-hero per­spec­tive would have you believe. Although I still remem­ber Crono and Cloud vivid­ly, it has always been Magus and Sephiroth that have res­onat­ed over time.

If given a choice, I usu­al­ly play on the side of good because the game gen­er­al­ly wants me to and rewards me for my efforts. I help peo­ple in dis­tress, I dive into dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions to fetch kid­nap vic­tims or fam­i­ly heir­looms taken by ban­dits. I have turned sev­er­al worlds away from immi­nent apoc­a­lypse more times than I can recall. My moral­i­ty meter in Fable always stayed bright blue, and I saved all of the Little Sisters in BioShock instead of har­vest­ing them for their deli­cious ADAM. And it always feels good to save the world, or the princess, or escape the lab, but it also seems slight­ly ho-hum, as the expec­ta­tion to over­come obsta­cles in a hero­ic and moral­ly upstand­ing way is slat­ed from the begin­ning. It’s rare to start play­ing a game and not under­stand that the even­tu­al out­come will land solid­ly on the side of the good guys.

Often depict­ed as stoic lead­ers and helpers, the pro­tag­o­nists live a life of per­pet­u­al sac­ri­fice, car­ry­ing out a pre­de­ter­mined path at the cost of per­son­al choice. In video games, heroes under­take these objec­tives in silence, with­out fuss, plod­ding forth brave­ly to save the realm with­out com­plaint. My Warden in Dragon Age bold­ly walked into dan­ger know­ing what it means to be hero­ic, the line before her straight as an arrow point­ing towards poten­tial doom. This is one of the rea­sons that Dragon Age shocked me with its sud­den men­tion of a realm-saving “demon baby” near the final bat­tle. To go from being a leader and poten­tial mar­tyr to sav­ing Ferelden using a wicked short­cut was bizarre and dis­rup­tive. Heroes don’t cre­ate demon babies to throw into the fray and avoid the con­flict com­plete­ly; heroes nobly throw them­selves into the fire.

Sometimes the heroes can be vil­lain­ous, even if we don’t quite see it at first glance, and this aspect makes play­ing them more enjoy­able. Their sto­ries are often more intri­cate than just “Saving the World” and have nuances beyond just main­tain­ing a role model sta­tus for the realm. GLaDOS from Portal is my new favorite vil­lain, as her witty per­son­al­i­ty and ded­i­ca­tion to cre­at­ing a fucked up envi­ron­ment is top notch. Since Valve gave play­ers the abil­i­ty to design their own test sce­nar­ios, they must agree that being GLaDOS is some­times more fun than being Chell. Newly mint­ed Vigil Games is doing amaz­ing things with their Darksiders series, even with their pro­tag­o­nists being mem­bers of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. I’m unsure whether we can ever call the embod­i­ments of Death and War hero­ic (depend­ing on your Biblical inter­pre­ta­tions, I sup­pose). Being bad, or maybe just slight­ly naughty, cre­ates a wide­ly dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence for play­ers, as the results can vary depend­ing on the moti­va­tion. Sometimes it’s for power or love, other times for spite or vengeance. It’s rarely just because of a sense of jus­tice or, the trap heroes often fall in, it’s sim­ply the “right thing to do.”

One of my favorite things about the sec­ond Assassin’s Creed pro­tag­o­nist, Ezio, is his rise from an adorable brat to Italy and Constantinople’s favorite Robin Hood fig­ure. Whereas we asso­ciate Robin Hood with being a sym­pa­thet­ic out­law because the money he stole from the aris­to­crats was given back to those in need, Ezio uses his under­ground net­work of out­cast types (his Merry Men of thieves, cour­te­sans and mer­ce­nar­ies) to drive the Templars out of power. Both are dri­ven by great anger (an emo­tion often depict­ed in vil­lains) and have cho­sen their sub­ver­sive path because of great loss (Robin Hood is often por­trayed in folk­lore as a man unjust­ly stripped of his land and pos­ses­sions by a cor­rupt power; Ezio is car­ry­ing on his fam­i­ly lega­cy after a cor­rupt power unjust­ly mur­ders his father and broth­ers) in an pow­er­ful need for vengeance.

Both char­ac­ters are extreme­ly sym­pa­thet­ic and hero­ic in nature, but their actions can occa­sion­al­ly be seen as less vir­tu­ous. Sometimes these char­ac­ters are called “anti-heroes” instead of vil­lains because they do immoral things for a greater cause. Robin Hood and Ezio bran­dish weapons and kill in the name of jus­tice, but they are not killings evil trolls or snarling balver­ines, they are qui­et­ly putting arrows or hid­den blades through peo­ple for sim­ply wear­ing the wrong col­ors on their sleeves. Assassin’s Creed is great at remind­ing the play­er which NPCs are essen­tial­ly “kil­l­able,” for if you choose the incor­rect tar­get a mes­sage will pop up that “Ezio did not kill cit­i­zens.” The unspo­ken con­no­ta­tion that Ezio is still a good guy and “those cit­i­zens who are wear­ing a guard uni­form are guilty by asso­ci­a­tion.” Robin Hood and Ezio are very attrac­tive rogue fig­ures, both for their fierce devo­tion to an ulti­mate cause and their will­ing­ness to sac­ri­fice to achieve suc­cess. Joining Ezio on his jour­ney is a delight­ful treat, as the play­er gets to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly be part of a noble cause and test the role of an aveng­ing angel, includ­ing the less “good” acts.

Because the world is obvi­ous­ly so fan­tas­ti­cal or, in Ezio’s case, fan­ta­sy by the way of his­to­ry, I believe that these less vir­tu­ous expe­ri­ences give the play­er a lit­tle tingly thrill with­out bear­ing the bur­den of feel­ing over­ly gross about what is hap­pen­ing as they are still far removed from real life. I don’t play any of the mod­ern war sim­u­la­tion expe­ri­ences because I find that realm a lit­tle too close to real­i­ty, and pulling out a firearm and blast­ing ter­ror­ists in the face sounds icky. Quoting myself from AU Magazine last year: “The line between fan­ta­sy and real­i­ty used to be obvi­ous, but…I worry that the under­ly­ing mes­sage being con­veyed to impres­sion­able minds night after night in COD is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a pos­i­tive or enrich­ing one, as with the nar­ra­tive and char­ac­ter rich [super­nor­mal] games that sus­tain me, but rather a con­tin­u­al drive to achieve a high­er kill to death ratio.” I believe it’s fun to be vil­lain­ous in fan­ta­sy games, because, as far as we know, these super­nat­ur­al crea­tures, such as were­wolves, necro­mancers or, in Sephiroth’s case, genet­ic muta­tions that may or may not be our moth­ers, do not exist, and play­ing them is akin to dress­ing up on Halloween, enact­ing a role for a brief time with­out any dire consequences…just for fun­sies. It’s all pre­tend. The idea of play­ing Call of Duty cross­es my eth­i­cal line, as sim­u­lat­ing a mod­ern war­fare expe­ri­ence is less hero vs. vil­lain in the Disney arena, and more human vs. human in the less than desir­able PTSD and CNN way.

So what about vam­pires? Vampires have been vil­i­fied and roman­ti­cized through­out his­to­ry. Even before Stoker and Polidori hit the fic­tion­al jack­pot in Victorian England with their spooky tales of ele­gant­ly dressed seduc­ers eager to get a nip of a fair maid­en’s neck, Eastern Europe was qui­et­ly bury­ing its dead sans heads or with gar­lic bulbs stuffed in their maws to keep their recent­ly deceased from ris­ing as incu­bi or stro­goi (icky blood­suck­ers). Thanks to authors like Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris, and the pop­u­lar­i­ty of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood, these tra­di­tion­al­ly evil mon­sters are now con­fi­dent, charis­mat­ic and roman­tic anti-villains, tor­tured by the pas­sage of time and their unend­ing hunger for human blood, eager to find lov­ing com­pan­ions to keep the lone­li­ness at bay. Heroes? Debatable. Villains? Definitely. Captivating? Utterly.

Ultimately I chose the vam­pire path in Dawnguard out of sheer curios­i­ty to see the world of Skyrim from a dif­fer­ent, more wicked, per­spec­tive. I played all of the Daedric mis­sions, sac­ri­fic­ing ran­dom folks and col­lect­ing vials of spe­cial blood because it felt dif­fer­ent from the nor­mal mis­sion requests. I knoow what it’s like to be the hero in Skyrim, but I have not yet tread the path of Vampire Lord through­out the land. Being the Dragonborn is one thing, but flip­ping the tables and becom­ing utter­ly evil? Treading that path is delight­ful­ly dif­fer­ent and unknown, a chang­ing of the nar­ra­tive that helps me con­tin­ue to stay engaged and inter­est­ed in my cho­sen hobby.

Jessica Dobervich

About Jessica Dobervich

Jessica Dobervich lives in Seattle and can be found with either a trashy Assassin’s Creed novel or an Xbox 360 controller in her hand. She likes peppermint ice cream and wishes she could vacation in Rapture. You can find her on Twitter @masquerade78 or read her blog at