It’s time video games let us play as the villain

Always having to play a knight in shining armour is boring. We want to lie, cheat and steal

I’ve just completed Someday You’ll Return. While I apparently enjoyed it a little more than Jason Coles did (read his three-star NME review here) – it’s one of the strangest, yet compelling, games I’ve picked up this year – there’s one thing he and I are in complete agreement about: the protagonist, Daniel, is a total prick.

It’s the small things at first, of course. The way Daniel talks to his ex-wife. The way he mutters to himself about his missing daughter, seemingly more inconvenienced than he is concerned. He’s condescending and petty with a persecution complex a mile wide. At no point does he wonder what his missing daughter might be going through. He’s incapable of empathy or compassion, yet wildly indulgent of his own smug and selfish impulses. Each time his ex-wife calls for an update – a wholly reasonable thing to do, given the circumstances – he’s curt to the point of contempt.

Halfway through my time as Daniel, I begin to realise how unusual this is. I can’t recall the last time I was so engrossed in a game’s story while simultaneously despising the person I was forced to play as. This isn’t a typical video game staple, is it? In fact, the more I thought about it, the more unusual Someday You’ll Return’s storytelling is.

Someday You'll Return
Someday You’ll Return. Credit: CBE Software

We play as warriors. Loveable rogues. Stoic soldiers. Mourning revengers. Mute but malleable heroes. Even anti-heroes and everymen. There are plenty of unreliable narrators, too – guys we think are righteous, at least to begin with. But it’s rare indeed to play as a thoroughly unlikeable shithead who’s an unlikeable shithead from the off.

It’s curious, then, that given the infinite possibilities games offer to expand the scope and scale of the types of people we can inhabit, so many games repeatedly cast us as the same kind of protagonist. Yes, the industry is getting better at deviating from the white, straight, male gaze, but as much as we love a villain, we so rarely get to play as one.

The chief outlier that springs to mind is Joel from The Last Of Us. We all know what he did at the end of the original game – those were not the actions of a man who cared for the greater good – but even he had a devastating backstory that made us sympathetic to his plight. Joel was flawed, yes, but understandably so. Daniel? Not so much.

Mass Effect 3. Credit: BioWare

Role-playing games, of course, offer the chance to flex our moral compass. BioWare’s Mass Effect series is a supreme example of this. It lets us choose from a number of options that award us with Paragon points for good behaviour or Renegade points for – you guessed it – being a prick. Many of us, myself included, may play through by taking the high road and clocking up those Paragon points, at least initially, but it’s in the second or third playthrough that we’d choose to revel in delicious immorality.

Someday You’ll Return doesn’t give you this choice. Like The Last Of Us, there’s no way to come good in the end, just as there’s no way to change the outcome of this story by a final, binary decision. That’s why playing, and living, as Daniel is so refreshing. Much like the true-crime documentaries I’ve been binge-watching on Netflix, it offers a glimpse into a psyche that’s otherwise alien to me. It’s fascinating, enough that I’m wondering now why we’re not given the opportunity more often.

Far Cry 5
Far Cry 5. Credit: Ubisoft

Far Cry 5, for instance, was a flawed but fun experience – not least because we were forced to traipse through Hope County as the mute and highly forgettable Dep – but my god, how different might it have been to have experienced some of that game as Joseph Seed or one of his siblings? How might we have felt about the Seeds’ unyielding grip on Hope County if we’d played from their personal, warped perspectives?

It goes deeper. Listening to Daniel’s pathetic self-justifications and excuses enabled me to empathise with his daughter’s persistent absconding. We only ever see flashbacks from his perspective – the fights in the family kitchen, the punishments dispensed to his child – but despite Daniel’s unwavering self-preservation, they make it easier to sympathise with the plights of the unfortunate few closest to him. Rooting us in a flawed, biased perspective paradoxically makes it easier to understand the views of others.

That said, I couldn’t imagine Uncharted without Drake’s incalculable charisma, or Metal Gear Solid without Snake’s preternatural calmness. But given games are unfettered by real-world rules, surely it’s time to push past the male power fantasies so entrenched in gaming and explore what other points of view these stories could be told from?

I, for one, am ready for a new adventure that roots me firmly in the shoes of another unlikeable shithead.

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