Video games are pretty heavily predicated on giving you some kind of opponent to clash with. Whether that’s another player, AI-controlled opponents, the game world itself, or the gameplay mechanics, games basically set you up with an opponent to see if you or they/it can achieve victory.
A discussion we had about The Division over the weekend got me thinking about enemies that appeal vs don’t. Ashgar mentioned that he didn’t like that the Division pitted you, a squishy human, against other squishy humans with realistic guns. We went into a bit of depth on the podcast this week, how The Division is an excellent game as long as you don’t think about what you’re actually doing too hard.
That being said, The Division offers me enemies I find compelling, far more than, say, Warframe or Destiny. I want to face opponents with motivations I can at least understand, who aren’t mustache-twirling evil for the sake of being evil. It’s a big part of the reason I don’t go in much for games about aliens or monsters; unless there’s some kind of sentience that can be communicated with, there’s not really much to understand other than “it’s trying to hurt me, I must stop it,” which feels shallow. I do wish that in The Division as well as other games, there were more nuanced ways of dealing with enemies– we talked about nonlethal takedowns and it’s one of my favorite parts of games like Deus Ex and Dishonored.
I remember playing Turok: Dinosaur Hunter quite a while back and finding it boring. Sure, the enemies were varied and behaved differently, but they were mostly dinosaurs and wild beasts. There didn’t feel like there was any depth there or any possible interaction other than “well, hope I don’t run into one of these because it’ll try to eat me”. Even when interactions have broken down to the point where the primary interaction is violence, I still like to know I’m dealing with opponents who are (presumably) making their own decisions, even if those decisions put us in conflict.
It’s why I don’t like the whole zombie craze. It’s just dinosaurs with a different skin, another mindless opponent that is little more than a strength and endurance test. I prefer to be tested on my agility or intellect– I have more fun when I’m proving I’m faster or smarter than my opponents, not bigger or tougher. Opponents that test neither agility nor intellect are boring to me, and a lot of games that pit you against non-human-equivalent enemies will have foes that are FAR more agile than you are, if they’re agile at all, or big, slow, lumbering bosses that aren’t so much an agility test as a timing test.
One of the reasons I like Warframe so much is because I play light, agile frames that move faster and more adeptly than my enemies. Even in big, tanky frames I’m more agile and more maneuverable than a majority of enemies, which is very satisfying.
At a narrative level, I like games that pit me against foes that make me think about my own motivations (and, ideally, let me act upon those thoughts). In Dishonored and Deus Ex, it quickly became apparent that the average guard or thug was just someone doing their job, not intrinsically tied to whatever awful thing I was trying to stop. They’re basically innocents, doing what they need to for a paycheck or because they’ve been misled into believing they’re right. Those games let me discover that, and then avoid harming innocents. Hitman, a game literally about assassination, actually puts a lot of focus and reward on being nonviolent, because you’re often in public places or otherwise surrounded by innocents who aren’t connected to your target; hurting them is unjustifiable.
I prefer to see my opponents in games as people, rather than just targets, but that comes with the additional demand that I be able to treat them in a way that feels sensible, even if that does mean open violence with the knowledge that the organization or ideology I represent is less harmful than the one they represent. If a game is going to make me question the group or philosophy I’m ostensibly linked to, I’d like to be able to act on that uncertainty. My biggest frustration with The Division is that it makes me question the group I’m a part of, but doesn’t give me any space to act on that.