The perfection of revenge as a narrative hook lies in its simplicity. According to the Oxford Dictionary, revenge is: “the action of hurting or harming someone in return for an injury or wrong suffered at their hands.” All the greatest storytellers in history have used revenge as their cut-and-thrust.
While great leaps have been made in how video games approach narrative, the all-too-common revenge story is often devoid of its most important aspect: its futility. By and large, mainstream developers of triple-A titles are only interested in revenge as a catalyst for gameplay; this is the case with most video game narratives, unfortunately, with story often being inserted into games rather than dictating them. While the technical direction of the presentation of video game narrative is more impressive (aping blockbuster films); with motion capture and a cinematic approach to editing and cinematography, video games often struggle with nuance.
Part of the pleasure of enacting revenge is in the idea of an equilibrium being restored, of odds being evened. Of course, this is never the case, as usually, the path to revenge is lopsided and uneven. How many other people suffer as a result of this revenge? The bit-part players in someone else’s revenge are left with their own reasons for revenge and the cycle of violence devours everyone it touches. The best fictional works that use revenge as a narrative device are those that focus on the human cost of the enactment of revenge. I use the term ‘human cost’ because it’s vague enough to encompass anything, whether that’s a literal numerical value of lives lost or ruined, or a more abstract, emotional price that is paid; when a character truly loses something of themselves.
Despite the constraints of killing a hundred for so people in a 12-hour game, it is possible to explore revenge beyond simply using to make us hate the bad guy and drive us to the inevitable showdown with them. A good way that video games can achieve this is through using the interactivity of the gameplay metatextually. A game that managed to accomplish this was 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line. Beginning as a generic military shooter, Spec Ops becomes more than the sum of its parts as it starts to ask the player if what they are doing is right. Spec Ops isn’t a subtle game, and every element of the game mutates as you travel through it. Initially, the game portrays the protagonist Captain Walker as the typical, American saviour of the oppressed ‘other people’ or ‘natives’, but Walker’s moral compass only has one point and he’s in the wrong game. When the choices he thought were black and white become grey, Walker and vicariously the player are corrupted by Walker’s quest. This quest begins as a search-and-rescue but soon becomes all about Walker ego as he seeks revenge on the man at the top of the tower, only to realise that revenge has destroyed him, as well as everyone around him, and that the subject of his revenge is phantom.
Spec Ops: The Line presents us with a moral high ground, a well-meaning hero, a people in need of saving, and a bad guy at the centre of it all. The game has all the ingredients it needs to function but its ideas transcend what we might call a typical video game narrative.
By luring us into Walker’s revenge and then pulling the carpet from under us, Spec Ops: The Line shows how video games can use the revenge story in conjunction with the interactivity of gameplay to convey the futility of revenge in a meaningful and potent way.
Perhaps one of the most well-known revenge stories in video games is that of Max Payne. Filtered through a pulpy, noir pastiche, Max Payne used the death of the titular character’s family as the facilitator for its third-person shooter gameplay. The opening level of Max Payne 2 involves a sequence in which Max rushes to the aid of another woman in distress. Just as in the first game, Max arrives too late and is unable to save the woman. Following this, in his almost ever-present voice-over, Max remarks: “Like all the bad things in my life, it started with the death of woman. I couldn’t save her.”
Intentionally or not, Max is hitting the nail on the head of one of the biggest issues that occurs with the revenge story. This issue is the interchangeability and relative worthlessness of the person whose name the revenge is honour of. With his remark, Max is equating the loss of wife with a woman he doesn’t know, linked by the fact that they are both women. When Max Payne’s family are murdered, there is an unspoken agreement between us as gamers and the storyteller that this cause justifies the means. We aren’t seeking revenge in Michelle Payne’s name because we know nothing about her. She is less developed than someone we just ran over in GTA V. Female characters dying in order to give the protagonist something to fight for is nothing new, and it’s not exclusive to video games; while the answer to this is usually to develop her in flashbacks, at best she is a character of the periphery. The underdevelopment of female characters is a symptom of the revenge story, and before long, they are forgotten or abstracted, not a person but a cause.
In the third game in the series, we find Max as a broken man. Despite getting his revenge, he is still emotionally crippled by his wife’s death and addicted to alcohol and painkillers. This depiction of how revenge itself has betrayed Max makes a welcome change. Instead of representing Max as killing in service to vulnerable women, the game portrays Max’s own mental weakness; he fetishizes saving women, and whether he is actually saving them becomes irrelevant. He is pulled into a conspiracy that he doesn’t understand by a woman he doesn’t know and the game makes us very aware of Max’s own ignorance and stupidity. He saves one female character and fails to save another in a scene that is almost a repeat from the previously discussed scene in the second game.
The evolution of the Max Payne series from first to third has grown up in its portrayal of Max and the concept of revenge, but has repeatedly fallen into the trap of providing us with thinly drawn female characters. While we are able to see Max’s revenge for what it really is, this is at the expense of female characters.
While you could point the finger at the earlier example of Spec Ops: The Line, which doesn’t have any female characters, the responsibility isn’t simply to have a female presence in your game, but to fully realise it when it’s there. Spec Ops has no place for women in its story whereas all of Max Payne’s stories are driven by women.
While Spec Ops: The Line and the Max Payne series are two examples of video games that explore and ask questions of the revenge plot, many games use revenge in trite and unimaginative ways. The sophistication of games from a technological viewpoint will always be tempered by how they tell their stories. In the context of mainstream triple-A video games, revenge is an easy solution to a narrative problem. That’s where the issue lies; the problem is with perceiving narrative as a problem. The simplicity at the core of revenge will stretch far enough to form the backbone of any game, be it Watch_Dogs or God of War. However, if the complexity of revenge and other narrative tropes are rarely fully explored then how can a video game go beyond entertainment and become a genuine piece of art?
Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but I think we’ve waited long enough.