The role of the Shadow self in games

There is an enemy archetype very common in games, one that mimics the player’s abilities and often shows itself as the main character double. Also named as a “dark” or “shadow” version, it usually lingers on players’ minds and generating rich

Recently a thought sparked in my mind, leaving it restless. There is an enemy archetype very common in games, one that mimics the player’s abilities and often shows itself as the main character double. Also named as a “dark” or “shadow” version, it usually lingers on players’ minds, generating some high elaborated theories and discussions.

I will name a few, even though it is a good exercise to identify them in other games: Dark Link from Zelda series, SA-X from Metroid Fusion, Metal Sonic from Sonic series, Part of Madeline from Celeste, and Black Knight from Shovel Knight. Even the channel has made a video titled “Top 10 Dastardly Doppelgangers in Video Games”!

Black Knight, from Shovel Knight

In this text, I won’t go deep into specific storylines or lore from the mentioned titles. The original thought left my mind eager for more macro answers from areas such as Psychology, Philosophy, Game Design, and Culture. So, stay with me while we journey through my ideas.

Concepts and Archetypes

The first time I read about this archetype, it was described in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous Manual under the name “Doppelganger”. Let’s check what Wikipedia knows about it:

A doppelgänger (/ˈdÉ’pÉ™lɡɛŋər, -É¡æÅ‹É™r/, literally “double-goer”) is a non-biologically related look-alike or double of a living person, sometimes portrayed as a ghostly or paranormal phenomenon and usually seen as a harbinger of bad luck. Other traditions and stories equate a doppelgänger with an evil twin. In modern times, the term twin stranger is occasionally used.[1][2] The word “doppelgänger” is often used in a more general and neutral sense, and in slang, to describe any person who physically or behaviorally resembles another person.

Doppelgangers are very common in literature, movies, and series. I bet you can name a bunch of great works that use the concept. But we are talking about videogames, and that description sounds a little basic for me.

Metal Sonic, from Sonic Series

This archetype usually is not the Villain. Villains themselves have a different creative conception, motivations, and goals, working opposite to the heroes. In games, a Villain also frequently represents the final challenge to the player. And the archetype isn’t an anti-hero too, because both have different roles in the player’s journey. While the first is build based on depreciating heroic characteristics and mining empathic connections, the latter is more of a symbolic test as a pre-requisite for plot development.

In Psychology, Carl Jung presents us the Shadow archetype, which represents all the suppressed feelings, desires and instincts one has inside the mind, locked in the Unconscious.

The sad truth is that man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites—day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail over the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been, and always will be.
Carl Jung, Approaching the Unconscious.

Another interesting concept for us is the Psychological Projection, which occurs when we attribute an unconscious element of our personality to another person or group, with a great tendency of projecting negative characteristics.

What does Philosophy have to say about this? We can work with the Identity and Personal Identity concepts, following the path the leads to Self-Knowledge. So, one of the aspects that makes you different from your Shadow is your conscience, which may guide your knowledge and virtues towards improvement as a human being.

Dark Link, from Zelda series.

The Role as Game Element

In game design, an enemy embodies both a lesson and a challenge. They are tools used to put the player’s skills under test, balanced and applied in level design. These same skills are earned or learned steadily as the player advances in the game. Mario bounces on Goombas for a good reason!

Shadow Mario, from Super Mario Sunshine

Later in the game, it is expected the player has mastered all the skills needed, based on the fact a good level design will require that. And then comes the unexpected challenge: the player faces someone with the same skill set. The same attacks, the same abilities, and even the same physical appearance.

Here the player is confronted with some important concepts. The first one is self-knowledge, indicating the presented conflict demands a level of mastery required to match the enemy’s skill, which very commonly uses the skill set in technical, improved or boosted ways.

Then comes the Improvement, when the player learns HOW to beat the enemy. Remember, we are talking about someone who has the same capacities and the hero character, but is controlled by an AI. Humans are awesome, and their brains work detecting patterns and learning how to use them. There is even the out-of-the-box mindset, which provides creative and practical solutions for challenges. So, whenever one bests another within the same ruleset and skill set, the winner was able to improve more than the loser.

SA-X, from Metroid Fusion

And the last concept is Evolution. When you overcome who you are, someone new arises, leaving behind a less skilled and capable version of the self. You literally defeated your virtual copy! For most of the games that use this Archetype, it means that now you are ready to face the main, harder challenges.

Player Agency

Only games can demand your improvement as a player as a requirement for going further. Other media, such as books and movies, have their content set, the story is there, word by word or scene by scene. Whoever is experiencing it may have insights or other subjective reactions, but the relationship between the story and the individual is passive in a sense, even virtual (hey there, Pierre Lévy!).

Back to games, when a person plays, inputs are sent to the machine, processed, and the output is displayed as feedback to the player. With no input, the game may even come to an end, a game over. Or in a different scenario, the game lingers there, forever, at the same state until an action is taken or outer forces close it. So, consider the player is learning, improving, and advancing. The end of a game is a reward that makes players invest time and dedication. As a result, we can consider the relationship between a player and a game as active, in which both sides provide feedbacks. This is player agency.

When two people discuss a movie, they use verbs such as “to understand”, “to see”, “to interpret”, “to feel” and “to notice”. But when the subject is a game, we are able to collect verbs such as “to do”, “to make”, “to win”, “to lose”, “to build”, “to destroy”, and the list goes on.

Nega Scott, from Scott Pilgrim.

We can check media approaches for the character Nega Scott, from Scott Pilgrim vs The World. In the comic book and movie, you read or watch Scott and Nega reasoning to solve their conflict. The audience has no impact on the results.

But you, as a player, can battle Nega Scott in the game Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game, and face yourself as a challenge:

In other words, player agency is what differs games from other media, and is the only media that allows us to self-evaluate, improve and evolve within its bounds, considering a skill set under a ruleset.

Mirror Matches

Ok, we were talking about environments where the player battles against an AI-controlled enemy, but what happens when it is controlled by another person?

In fighting games, whenever a match has the same character on both sides, it is called a Mirror Match.

Now, you have a neutral environment, same ruleset, the same character’s skill set, and two human brains using different decision-making processes.

And I can tell you, it is awesome and terrible at the same time. It is a situation where a character is a tool used with technique and style, which absolutely may not match how the opponent uses the same tool! In a personal example, once I had a mirror match in Marvel Super Heroes, Spiderman versus Spiderman, that the winning condition for my opponent was breaking my air offensive with a masterful use of an air medium punch. Even though most of the combos and playstyle were the same, he outplayed me.

Or you can watch two top Street Fighter players, Daigo Umehara and Tokido, playing a mirror match using Ryu:

Some other games can offer mirror matches too, such as Overwatch. It is interesting to mention it, because players who play characters such Tracer, Reinhardt, Widowmaker, and Pharah instinctively want to best their opponents, sometimes really focusing on duels instead of being oriented to the team objectives.

In 2019, a trailer for Samurai Shodown presented an A.I. feature that learns the player style and behaviors called Ghost, that “moves and fights just like you”. It allows you to play against yourself to discover weaknesses, and even battle other player’s ghosts that were uploaded to the Cloud. And this is excelent because technology is providing more contexts to explore all the ideas I present in this article.


From all the games and shadow characters that I was able to study for this text, there is a favorite one for me, the Soul Mirror from the original Prince of Persia (1989). The reason is very simple.

By sheathing the sword and avoiding the battle, you are able to be one with your Mirror again. This is a powerful message, philosophically separating instincts and reasoning, poising the virtues we would hone after supposedly conflicting with our Shadow self. Celeste presents the same approach when teaches the player that Madeline must accept “part of Madeline” as a way to reach her goal.

Part of Madeline, from Celeste.

The next time you face a Shadow enemy, remember everything that it represents, and what is expected from you as a winner. Or if you are a game developer, I hope the ideas discussed here can provide some conceptual meanings for your game, affecting players in a way only games can do.

Cool References

This video is a great analysis of two amazing movies. Focus on the Black Swan part and the Lily character.

This one is about Villains, an essay based on the Joker character from The Dark Knight.

A very good analysis of Metroid Fusion, to understand how the SA-X character induces fear.

This one is in Portuguese, but explores Celeste and the Psychological approach.


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