“In brightest day, in blackest night,
no evil shall escape my sight.
Let those who worship evil’s might
beware my power–Green Lantern’s light!”
Evil is one of the most recurrent themes in human history. Since the beginning of time, mankind has always been depicting the forces and things that could harm it. I wanted to deviate a little from gamedev and write about that, so here’s this post.
If there’s something as old as Humanity, it is evil. Most (if not all) religions rest over the premise that there’s good and bad in life, and that the ultimate goal is to achieve goodness. Pick any story or fiction book and (most of the times) you’ll find characters that do bad things because… reasons.
We are taught that we must be good and that there’s bad people in the world. This belief is woven and often reinforced by the media we consume; Disney movies are a clear example of that.
Disney did a very simple thing: it took classic stories and music (no royalties to be paid!) and adjusted them to make them appealing to their target. Take any classic Disney movie and read about the original story. Those tales and myths, that have been around society for a long time, are often very crude and with no happy endings (at least not as we are accustomed to); those are stories that keep alive the roots and culture of its people. For those interested on the tales of the Grimm brothers and other classical stories, check out the course Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World in Coursera; highly recommended.
The point is that Disney had to change those stories for marketing purposes and to be aligned to social/religious standards. And its formula consists of a clear pattern. Every story is about good guys overcoming and/or vanquishing the bad guys. This is just as awful as the Women in Refrigerators trope.
And Disney is not the only one; pretty much all western culture is built around the idea that good must overcome bad.
In Star Wars, for example, we get this idea of Light (good) and Dark (bad) sides of the Force. Like many other stories, it has a very well-known archetype: the antihero. This type of character is supposed to portray traits from both sides, but most of the times ends up being a cool badass version of the hero; there’s no further exploration of being caught up between mixed beliefs.
Luckily, viewing things from a different perspective is not so farfetched. I love the movies from Studio Ghibli, at the hand of Hayao Miyasaki, and a while ago I stumbled upon his philosophy:
In a typical american animated film, there will be a good character and an evil character. The movie will then focus on telling the story of how the good character struggles against, and eventually defeats the evil character. My films, however, do not adhere to this plot structure.
I do no think that heroes should be portrayed as strapping young men that save the day by fighting against and overpowering the evil beast. Children need not grow up believing that they need physical strength to be considered strong.
When I say hero, do not picture someone with the strength to fight and conquer evil – because evil is not something that can ever be conquered or defeated. Evil is natural – it is innate in all humans. But while it can’t be defeated, it can be controlled. In order to control it, and live the life of a true hero, you must learn to see with eyes unclouded by hate. See the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two.
Here we have a completely different approach. Evil, by those standards, is something that’s part of life; not something to be defeated and eradicated, something alien.
The canon of western stories is perhaps a consequence of religion and society. The result is that we end growing up pointing someone to blame. The current model of society is the result of literally interpreting this approach, while tagging other beliefs as non-sensical or heretic. That’s how wars start. And videogames have followed this pattern as well, maybe because stories tend to copy the Hollywood format.
Now, I’m not saying that paradigm is completely wrong, at all. Separating our goodness and badness enables some kind of introspection. Star Wars, for example, is the tragedy of how Anakin radically went from being someone with good values to the exact opposite, being blind and controlled by his fears instead of his virtues. The problem is when that paradigm becomes a cliché and keeps being used as a template.
This dichotomy works best to reinforce the idea of struggle, the quintessential theme of almost every story. But hey, if Studio Ghibli can make it happen working with the middle ground, so can everybody else.
Could it be possible that modern-day children stories are good-vs-evil themed because it’s easier (more accessible) to explain a concept like that? I mean, can a child understand a film noir or even concepts like grey morality?
The truth is that while there’s certainly evil, many times it’s nothing more than a different point of view. Anyone trying to strictly stick with black-and-white lenses will be short-sighted.
Almost every story is a metaphor created by someone trying to understand life, even your favorite superhero comic book. I like western media. I may not completely agree with its stereotypical portrayal of good and evil, but I do enjoy it as I do for any other kind of media.
We could improve not only the storytelling but, as a direct result, ourselves as well.
It’s all about balance and, perhaps, acceptance.