Sunday, May 3, 2009

Analysis: On Overlord and Enabling Bad Behavior

"It's just a game."

That has to be my single most hated line in video game discussion. It mutes further discussion, it invalidates video games as art and therefore capable and worthy of further discussion, it's a blanket statement that can be made independent of any thought that will turn the tide of most any argument.

Saying "it's just a game" is a cop-out. It means that you aren't thinking about the games you play. Video games aren't necessarily meant to be wide, thought-provoking seminal works of art you wittily try to bring up first at the country club or the next black-tie charity fund raiser; however, some games have you playing for 20, 30, 50, 100 or more hours - what is your brain doing all that time? Just reacting and enjoying the release of endorphins? The medium is the message, and so there's always content within this message.

Video games aren't "just a game" - let's agree, and at the same time let's never use that oft-mentioned phrase again. However, while they are more than a game, video games aren't often simply celebrated as the games they are - a device for entertainment purposes that allows us to experience different views and perspectives we may not normally get to experience. It seems video gamers often gaze far into the future to bring them the happiness and fulfilment the present does not offer them. High profile games like the Halo series and Super Smash Bros: Brawl are heralded by die-hard fans as a near religious transcendent experience. Video gamers commonly compare new played games to the best game experiences of their lives, pithily describing the new game as "good, but not as good as Ocarina of Time".

Here - and really, only here - does the phrase "it's just a game" suitably apply because all video games are games, and games are fun, so every video game has the ability to be fun. Let's celebrate video games for the fun they can be.

That said, some games' idea of fun don't necessarily comply to normal community standards. Grand Theft Auto's concept of missions are in fact the commission of crimes required to advance the story of a low level thug in his bid to take over the city/game and become a crime kingpin. Midnight Club and Midtown Madness both feature racing in populated cities with streets crowded with other automobiles and pedestrians. Conan puts you in the soft leather moccasins of a lusty barbarian as he pillages and razes villages and "liberates" awaiting maidens who have never ever heard of bras with underwire.

None of these games comply with community standards, but that's the point: to offer an experience that video gamers would not under normal, legal circumstances get to sample. Such a contrasting perspective into the underbelly of society only adds to the fun that video games offer.

And that's what "Overlord" (2007) offers - fun, but at the expense of crossing over community standards. Developed by Triumph Studios and published by Codemasters Software, Overlord is a game that allows you to be the quintessensial "bad guy" of video games. A basic way to describe this game is what would happen if Sauron from "Lord of the Rings" came back to life to regain his power and dominance.

And even though this game has "good" and "evil" branches that give you the choice to be a benevolent or malevolent overlord (eg. return the food to the starving villagers or not, decide the fate of the endangered elf species), Overlord is at heart a game that lets you be as bad as you want to be. This game is the evil enabler that you've been awaiting all your life; this is the game that kicks the mumbling little angel off your shoulder and allows you to wallow in your basest desires.

All of them: pillaging, razing, pilfering, looting, wanton destruction, murdering innocents, the destruction of you enemies. Even the capture of female "servants" to cart back to your evil lair and live in servitude is a very loose metaphor for rape. Yes, you can do just about everything bad in this game, and the most intoxicating aspect of this embracing of evil is the fact that all of this is accomplished through the dominance of your minions who carry out your every evil wish for you.

Think about that: your power over your minions acts as the construct that outlines their role as your enablers. These enablers perform your every wish and thus make any evil act so much more easier to commit. A wave of your hand is all that is required for a wave of destruction and death to be unleashed. The result is a game that massages your ego and pride to no end, and provides so much more "hero-worship" than "Fable" (2004) ever could. This game endorses the megalomaniac in every person to gratify the dark id suppressed within. It goes without saying that this game fun - forbidden, rapturous evil fun.

Games that enjoy such wickedness and vice usually have paper-thin devices to explain themselves. In "Manhunt" (2004) protagonist James Earl Cash had to murder people and contribute to director Starkweather's snuff film or be killed himself. "Grand Theft Auto III" (2001) was a story of revenge borne of betrayal, though the unnamed protagonist committed many crimes unrelated to his quest to right himself. Similarily, "God of War" (2005) featured a protagonist Kratos so driven to vengeance that he will harm innocents to get his way (eg. sacrificing the Centurion in the cage as a means to progress to the next area - a linear, vital component of the game, in fact).

However, Overlord is rather special this way, because it has a very subversive subtext: evil is necessary. The game postulates that evil is necessary because without evil there is no good.

Yow. Serial killers and child molesters define saints and heroes? My conscience spins in tandem with my stomach churning. Evil is necessary?

Overlord suggests this in a story that goes out of its way to provide a happy ending, should that be your prerogative. The premise of Overlord is that you, Mr. Evil Overlord, have been vanquished by heroes who had banded together for the common good to destroy you. However, in the absence of you, evil incarnate, each of these "good" heroes have lapsed in morality and have corrupted to be that which they once fought against.

The heroes fallen into immorality as as follows: Melvin Underbelly, the hobbit, was corrupted by gluttony and through the overconsumption of food has ballooned to monstrous size; Oberon, the elf, has lapsed into conplacency and has fallen into a deep sleep, nestled within a large tree whose giant, overgrown roots symbolize his lack of vigilance to upholding good and order. Sir William is the paladin who has been corrupted by his own pride and vanity and maintains an order of worshippers in his name. Jewel is the thief who becomes corrupted by the greed of valuable material object, same as Goldo, the dwarf. Kahn is the barbarian who is blinded by his lust for Jewel, who now goes about destroying Heaven's Peak without care or mercy.

The end boss of the game, the Wizard, reveals a plot of exchanged identities that is pretty much on par with most video game plot twists, only this one tries to give the aforementioned "happy ending". Nonetheless, the Wizard's plan to corrupt the heroes still point out the same thing: in the absence of the evil that they had vanquished, the heroes all became evil in its place. What this means is that the heroes needed the evil they were fighting against to define them as heroes. There is no good if there is no evil.

And so, this premise neatly explains that all the havoc and evil you wreak upon innocents is necessary. You, the Overlord, must commit evil and become stronger (read: more evil) to combat the evil that the "good" heroes have become. By being evil, you are doing a "good" deed and righting the inbalance of the world. In a word, insidious.

And in another word that describes this game, fun. Overlord is a sleeper hit of a video game that houses a surreptitious subtext that is as contoversial as any headshot or nipple. Overlord suggests we need evil as part of society lest we all become evil.

Review: Overlord


+ innovative premise: "Dungeon Keeper" gets out into a third-person adventure via "Pikmin"
+ black humor matches the black heart that beats within: the game doesn't take itself seriously and thus becomes lightheartedly enjoyable by all, meddling do-gooders included
+ story fits the game play well; one hand washes the other, and so that nagging conscience doesn't get in the way of fun
+ customizable to fit your evil personality; tower can be upgraded as per your preference for skulls or flames, as can your weapons and armor. The gladiator pit is a nice touch where you can battle vanquished enemies.


- not very challenging game play; puzzles and challenges are usually solved by waving your hand, or not
- buggy and some poor design; being evil, it appears, is not as smooth as gangster movies would have you believe

Finished story and achieved something around 70% corruption on the Xbox 360.

Rated two out of 3 stars. Recommended, but evil behavior everywhere not condoned.

1 comment:

  1. I think "Dungeon Keeper" is more stylystically coherent, and the its premise more thought out. I mean I don't want to be evil just to smash pumpkins all the time, or do third person combos. Can you imagine Sauron smashing pumpkins? And we all know what happened when he decided to actively participate in a battle for once.

    DK plays on the fantasy tropes in a much better way. You have your own dungeon and have pesky heroes and saviours coming to YOU, while Overlord insisted that my evilness must run around the villages without a drop evil dignity - and perform quests for little folk! Oh, the insolence!

    So, the genre isn't exactly fit for the premise. The worst fantasy villains were always a bit managerial at heart, manipulating lesser willed creatures into doing their dirty work for them and thus games like "DK" or "Evil Genius" are doing it better and more convincingly.