Dragon Age: Writing the Bad Villain Well

One thing I’ve always appreciated about the Dragon Age series is their unusual choices in villains.  The strength of the antagonist can make or break most stories, even moreso than the protagonist in a lot of cases.  Dragon Age has been taking a lot of risks with theirs, and that they’ve all worked out decently is quite impressive.  Dragon Age Origins started out by putting you up against the dual villains of a faceless, personality-less horde, and the whims of politics, rather than giving you an actual well-defined character to fight as most other games would.  Sure, Loghain was at the center of the political storm, but the true enemy he represented was wider than just that.  Dragon Age II did not improve on much, but it did up the ante on the central antagonist, pitting you against the city’s commitment to see itself destroyed.  There wasn’t even a real face to the evil, that time.  And yet it’s Dragon Age Inquisition that gives the series it’s most unique antagonist yet.  They pulled out all the stops to bring you the core enemy this game, giving you something most games would not even attempt.  For this game, the central antagonist is Corypheus, the complete stupid loser.

Corypheus

Corypheus is the North Korea of Dragon Age.  He’s dangerous because he’s somehow amassed enough power to do some real harm before he’s taken down, but he still cannot wipe his nose without it blowing up in his face.  There is nothing he does that does not make things worse for him.  Corypheus shows off his sweet immortality power?  Turns out that defused some of the traps lying in between you and the big macguffin he was after.  Corypheus invests the core of himself in a big, intimidating, permanent show of force?  That ends up creating a vulnerability you’ll exploit later.  Even his greatest triumph, marching down to your house and kicking you and all your homies right out of it, ends up being his undoing as it gets you crowned inquisitor and solidifies your political base.  Also, that ended with you hitting him with a mountain.  A whole blasted mountain!

One thing that really strikes me is how easily the writing of this villain could have ruined the story.  There’s a number of ways to have a good antagonist, but usually, you want them to either be threatening or relatable.  Corypheus fails on both counts.  He is absolutely the opposite of what most authors would want in their work.  It’s hard to maintain a sense of danger when every time you see him, he’s in the process of screwing something up, and it should be hard to relate to such a total dickweasel.  Corypheus is not what you’d normally want in a compelling antagonist.  Yet he still manages to make a decent villain.  How is that?

Well, part of it is that the challenges you face are more part of a machine operated by Corypheus than any traditional You vs. Hostile Force conflict most games will present, so he doesn’t really need to be the big bad wolf, he just needs to set things in motion.  But I think most of it comes down to one thing.  Corypheus may not be relatable, but he is at least interesting, because of the way he’s presented.  Corypheus is not the traditional dark force you’ve seen in so many games, the inhumanly wicked being.  He is evil, but he is evil in a very understandable manner.  He is simply a person handed too much power, whose existence is centered around one central flaw that ends up dragging him down.

In this case, it’s all pride.  Pride is his elemental weakness, the vulnerability the plot hits for extra damage.  Every time he loses, every opening he leaves, every resource he lets slip through his fingers, it’s all because he was acting in some way to manipulate other’s perception of him and satisfy his pride.  As flaws go, it’s not particularly subtle, but it does help to round him out, make him more interesting.  Flaws are the building blocks of characters.  Authors have known this since the days of Oedipus.  People are going to be drawn more to a flawed human being than they are the pure white Mary Sue.  And it makes no difference what role they play.  You see flawed characters in the protagonists’ side so often, while the antagonists, evil though they may be, often seem to fit an idealized model besides that.  Yet, as Corypheus demonstrates, flaws are important for villains as well.

I don’t think Corypheus will be topping any character lists.  Though his flaw does demonstrate some thoughtful writing, it doesn’t change the fact he’s still kind of a wiener.  But the flaw that guides him does make him a more interesting and more understandable villain, even as he never puts up an effective fight.

Crafting the Experience vs. Sidequests

Imagine you’re reading a book, or watching a movie, or whatever you’re into. It’s still in the exposition, and the hero’s just received the call for some big epic quest. Oh, woe is us! The dark lord, Slapdick the Tormentor, ruler over these lands for the past 86 years, is now letting loose his last gasps of life on his deathbed! Normally, this would be cause for celebration, but in an effort to make sure nobody in the world outlives him, he’s engaged an ancient global-destruction magic! The mages of old, foreseeing this would come to pass, instilled a holy bloodline with the power to cancel that magic, but only by activating magic stones hidden in the most monster-infested dungeons around the world. Unfortunately, members of that bloodline were universally bad with women, and so you, Hammercles von Chunkmeier, are the only descendant left! You must save us! You’re our only hope!

And so, noble Hammercles sets off on his great and fearsome quest to activate the stones and save the world. Well, almost. First he has to tend his livestock, make sure they’ll be alright while they’re away. Then he has to write a farewell letter to his mother. Then, on his way out of town, the local cleric asks for his help collecting herbs for healing poultices, and what kind of hero would he be if he left his healer poorly stocked? And so on, for hours and hours of screentime or chapters and chapters of pages.

That’d be a pretty miserable story, wouldn’t it? The author would be completely ruining the experience there. It wouldn’t matter how epic the quest was, you’re just sitting through the granular experiences of this guy you’ve yet to find reason to care about. The pacing’s all ruined, the tension so masterfully built up by the intro is all gone, and your time is being wasted. Readers will experience a story as they well, through their own individual lens, but even so, it’s up to the author to craft it, to build things towards the story they’re really trying to tell. What was the author thinking?

I had that experience recently. I was in for an epic story, yet ended up just grinding through a huge amount of mostly-meaningless minutia. Save for one major difference. In that case, it wasn’t the author who had failed in crafting a good experience. It was all on me.

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Dragon Age: Inquisition opens up with some really massive stakes. The sky itself has torn in twain and is pumping demons out into the world. You’re the only survivor of the massive strike that caused it all, and the world can’t decide whether to worship you or blame you for it. What quickly becomes clear, though, is that you’re the only one with the power to close that tear and stop the demons from coming through. A really powerful opening, all in all.

Then, once you’ve gone through the starting mission, it dumps you out into the Hinterlands, a sprawling, expansive area with much to explore and lots to do, with no more direction than “Hey, go talk to this lady, then, you know, whatever.” It essentially leaves you at the mercy of the many, many sidequests in the region. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the developers intended you to just hang out there until you got bored and come back later on for another round of sidequests, what with part of the area being blocked off until later in the game, the few enemies too strong for you in the first round, and the fact that new sidequests keep being added as you progress. Thing is, they don’t really give you much in the way of guidance as to what you should or shouldn’t do. And I’ve been trained by hundreds of other games to always do all the sidequests, for they shall give you POWER. And so, while the world was reeling from the loss of its lady warpope, I was hunting rams to feed some refugees. While the populace lay in fear as to what would come out of the massive rift in the sky next, I was collecting herbs for some medicine. While the harbinger of the end of days moved his pawns around the land, I was racing my new horse. I was really good at it, too. Beat all three courses on my first try.

Anyways, by the time I was done in the Hinterlands, I had done pretty much everything they had to offer there. I was twelve hours in without doing much of substance, way overleveled, and bored with the game. Luckily, it picks up strongly afterwards, but the point remains that staying there for so long was really harmful to my experience.

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It reminds me a lot of Xenoblade Chronicles. That’s an excellent game, one of my favorite of last gen, in fact, providing a really transcendent experience… so long as you ignore sidequests. Each area is filled with stuff to do, packed to the brim with small sidequests, that, if you try and complete it all, will totally choke out all the plot, the new characters, the action, the areas, with just their sheer mass. The sidequests in Xenoblade Chronicles are like an invasive kudzu to a tree, you, the player, have to carefully keep them in check or they’re going to smother everything else. And yet, just like in Dragon Age: Inquisition, that stuff is only there as an option for me. Even though I have the urge to do everything doesn’t mean the game is making me do so.

If I had made a story where the side plots and minutia so completely got in the way of my pacing, flow, and main plot, my readers would have rightfully blamed me for ruining my work. It was my responsibility to craft the experience, after all. But I’m not a game developer. The types of stories we’ve been talking about here are told in partnership between the author and the player. And maybe this time, it’s the player who’s been messing it up.

When playing games, I have a strong impulse to try and finish up any side content I can as soon as it becomes available. It feels shameful to me to move on with something left undone. But that’s not always the right way to experience the game. It’s not wrong of the developer to choose not to carefully craft the experience, instead leaving a great mass of content strewn over a wide area for me to enjoy at my leisure. It’s not even wrong for them to refrain from giving me direction and letting me make my own way through the great fog of content. A lot of great video game experiences have been built that way. For me, there’s a bit of a learning curve in being able to let things go, but in these games, I have the power to craft some of my own experience. As the player, I need to learn to use it.