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.