Our in-game antagonists love to shake things up and throw hurdles in our path. While we love to hate them, have you ever wondered why that is?
I went on a little journey when I asked myself that question, and I discovered a set of villains we hate because they mess with our expectations of the game. As I dug further, I found another type of villain- the kind who invariably led to our favorite levels in a game even if they weren’t always the first villains we thought of when questioned about a game franchise.
Forcing you to change how you use game mechanics
These are the villains who created waves by having a laugh at what you may have already learned in the game. They either change the world around you, removing familiarity, or you quickly find that what you know doesn’t work against them. In order to defeat them, you now have to rethink all the gameplay mechanics you learned.
Such villains are equal parts terrifying and impressive as they challenge you to reconsider, even redesign, your gameplay strategies.
Prince of Persia
The Prince of Persia games of the 2000s were amazing action-adventure titles. They required precise and complex platforming and some amount of puzzle-solving. When you weren’t leaping through the world, you had to fight enemies. It was free-flowing, fast, and challenging- an amazing game even if you ignored the amazing time powers you now had. There was even an attempt at historical relevance.
While I play a wider range of titles now, action-adventure platformers are my go-to games. They always seem to have a fun story with sassy characters and just enough of a challenge where I need to develop some proficiency with the mechanics. My go-to franchises Tomb Raider and Uncharted will also have a tiny thrill of horror that is exciting.
I mention this because you need to understand that I am a wuss. It took a long time for me to be comfortable around horror in any form that wasn’t a book. So if you are familiar with the Prince of Persia games, you can probably guess my reaction to Dahaka when he showed up in The Warrior Within. For those of you who haven’t had the misfortune of meeting him, he was this unstoppable demonic creature who absorbs anything in his path. And he wouldn’t stop following you.
Dahaka definitely wasn’t the first stalker enemy out there. I was aware of Nemesis and had peeked through my fingers as friends dealt with him. But to me, Dahaka was the most memorable. Not only because it was the first time I was facing one; I just didn’t expect a stalker enemy in the game. And I most definitely wasn’t equipped to deal with the panic I felt when he showed.
Dahaka’s arrival was always heralded by a visual change where the color leached out of the world and everything turned into sepia tones. That, with the changes in music, was only the beginning. I knew I couldn’t fight him, so all I could do was run. Between the sweaty palms and the growing feeling of dread, I went from flying through the game to struggling to make it to the end of the level. It’s a feeling that still sticks with me. And I am not the only person who feels like that- interesting proof below.
Dahaka worked as an antagonist because he changed the pace of the gameplay. He took everything you had learned about the game and threw it out of the window. Combat was no longer in the equation, and he multiplied the pressure with platforming. The platforming was already tricky, but now I knew that any misstep would result in my character being caught, which logically made no sense because we could still rewind time to get out of trouble.
Such was the impact of the Dahaka.
The Arkham games are a study in control. As Batman, I was always the most dangerous being in any room. Even when we were going into a Boss fight, I loved that the game gave us the ability to become masters of any scenario. My skill with the game mechanics only ever dictated the degree by which I would succeed, not if I would succeed. After all, I was the Batman, and all the enemies were right to fear me.
Everything in the game is designed to make us feel like a superhero- from the action sequences to the quiet investigative moments. Combat was incredibly fluid, but it still held enough weight through the animations, parrying system, and sound effects. We could track clues, even gas particles through the air as we solved mysteries. As I made my way through the game, I held all this power, competence, and confidence. I felt unshakable, UNTIL I fell into Scarecrow’s trap and got sucked into a nightmare.
The Scarecrow, by himself, has never been scary or difficult in any version of Batman. It is his ability to turn fears against you that is the hurdle. And unlike every other enemy, you couldn’t predict when you would suddenly walk through Fear Gas.
All of a sudden, I was no longer in control. Since Batman is trapped in a full-blown hallucination, I couldn’t tell what was real. I couldn’t differentiate between enemies and bystanders. None of the tricks I had learnt to understand or navigate the world worked anymore. All I could do was make it through the level. Scarecrow literally turned Batman into his victim; the Dark Knight was no longer a superhero.
The Scarecrow levels changed the whole dynamic of the game. They stripped this feeling of control that you always had, and it felt paralyzing! I never knew what to expect with a Scarecrow level and for that reason, they made me the most uncertain.
In terms of villainous impact, Joker is the king of this world, especially with Mark Hamill’s performance adding the much-appreciated nuance. But Scarecrow’s ability to stop the game in its tracks is what stays with me. It’s also what I look forward to when I replay the game (and if they ever make another Arkham game).
A new strategy
When I was playing these games, these villains gave me a hard time. At that moment, I would have probably told you that I hated those levels. In hindsight though, after I finished those games, I realized that those levels were my favorite bit. They were the levels I wanted to replay because they were what made the game really memorable. Even if the Dahaka gave me nightmares.