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The Single Antagonist

Why don't more games capitalize on the power of the single antagonist? A look at how and why movies can show us a thing or two.

John Nelson Rose, Blogger

March 22, 2009

4 Min Read

Jaws. Alien. Predator. What do these three films have in common? They are obviously successful action/adventure stories that left their mark on the genre. They feature a group of protagonists who must team up to defeat a creature they've never seen before. But what's interesting is that the antagonists are singular beings. Whether we're dealing with residents of a beach town, the crew of a space freighter, or a squad of trained commandos, the enemy structure is the same.

Many movies are like this; we've seen a thousand stories wherein a lone villains tries to destroy of what our heroes hold dear. This staple of story building is powerful in establishing great characters and drama. It's a great way to unite protagonists and focus the story's events. The lone enemy is necessarily memorable and complex - two undeniably positive traits. But this method is conspicuously missing from video games. So why don't games do it?

There are many reasons. Unlike movies, games shoulder the burden of player reward. It's hard to express progress to players if they're not constantly vanquishing enemies. It's also hard to maintain a consistent game world if the enemy is constantly changing.

It's also just easier to design a bunch of enemies that compliment each other's abilities. Instead of one complex enemy, a number of simple enemies are used to fill the gap. Unfortunately, the consequence of these difficulties is almost always a set of forgettable antagonists to whom the player just can't relate.

But I believe we can and should create more games with single antagonists. There's no doubt that audiences connect with the terror of No Country For Old Men's Anton Chigurh. Dr. No, on the other hand, is less scary with all his henchmen.

The Rambo movies feature hordes of nameless enemy soldiers, and do it well, but the focus is on Rambo himself. In a game, it's much harder to develop the main character without breaking immersion, but we still use the same armies of unidentifiable villains.

But how do we, as game developers, go from Aliens to Alien? They're both great movies, but with different and equally valid configurations for their antagonists. Both would make good games, but only Aliens would make a good game chock full of killable bad guys. Alien makes for much better suspense.

The movie features a constantly changing antagonist that keeps the crew on their toes. We like how the monster's complexity is revealed as it changes; the first alien we see is very different from that in the final scene. The same happens in The Thing, another classic action movie. The creature evolves and stalks the men in their base, growing from a disgusting animal to a horrific behemoth.

Throughout these changes we see the protagonists learning and adapting, and so we connect with them. We see the villain's character build and become less one-dimensional, and so we connect with him. We have time to think about the enemy, and he therefore becomes more interesting and memorable.

The single antagonist of a game needs to change in ways that offer new challenges but reinforce previous gameplay. Story, level, and character progression have to be nailed down early. Players have to be able to hurt the antagonist, to make him fail, and sometimes see him succeed.

We can spend time searching for him, fighting him, outmaneuvering him, and eventually conquering him. This type of game involves much more time with the enemy, but we need to feel that we're making progress even when we can't yet finish the story. The antagonist doesn't have to be completely alone; he can manifest himself in other means, as long as we connect these secondary challenges with him.

Obviously I don't have any concrete answers or proof for how to make a singular antagonist really work in a game. However, I do see this as a direction and strength of future games. While games and film are not the same thing, we can learn some great lessons about connection from the movies. And that's what it's all about.

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About the Author(s)

John Nelson Rose


John Rose is currently a gameplay programmer at Nihilistic Software. He has worked on children’s titles, first-person shooters, and action/adventure games as both a designer and a programmer. He is a contributing author to the 2004 book Software Engineering for Game Developers.

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