They are brutal mercenaries, Russian ultra-nationalists, invading aliens, brain-craving zombies, genocidal Nazis, suicidal terrorists, sadistic demons, or any mixture of these examples among countless others.
They are your bullet receptacles, the foes who make the shooter genre and all its permutations possible.
Think back to all the first and third person shooters you have played and all the bad guys you have mercilessly slaughtered for the sake of your entertainment. Sure, you probably reassure yourself that they all deserved it; after all, why else would the game be telling you to shoot them?
Maybe these foes invaded your virtual home, murdered your virtual loved ones, threatened your virtual way of life, or just looked at you funny… virtually. Regardless, you feel justified in your quest to eradicate everything the world of gaming has deemed evil. In reality though, you are a monster; because there are two sides to every story, and life is not easy as a generic bad guy.
When it comes to low level henchmen, you simply know they have to have a damn good reason for serving the big, bad, bosses. This isn’t new to video games. Look at all the James Bond villains: few had any qualms about offing their own people for the slightest indiscretion, and even when Bond was about to blow up the secret underwater/volcano/space station base, the henchmen continued fighting, even though they were certainly doomed. To risk such deplorable treatment and almost certain death, they had to be motivated by more than just a desire to do evil.
Don’t cry for me. I’m already dead… several dozen times.
Look at Goldeneye for both N64 and Wii. Do you think all those Russian soldiers were sitting around, salivating at the thought of killing capitalist pigdogs? Of course they weren’t. They were hard working men just trying to make a living in a place and time where few other opportunities were available. Now guess where all those soldiers without any other skills ended up following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the massive downsizing of the Russian army? They probably had little choice but to join criminal armies and mercenary groups like those who worked for Trevelyan and other Bond villains. I’m willing to bet there are hundreds of henchman who have been trapped in endless cycles of having to do battle with super soldier-like action heroes who keep destroying their employers. Maybe if the Bonds of the world occasionally let their foes achieve their evil plans, the henchmen would have stable enough employment so they could save up, leave the mercenary life, and open up that coffee shop they’ve always dreamed of.
“But we’ve never had brains in a cowboy hat before!”
Another group of unfortunate foes are the zombies and blood thirsty monsters and demons that have occupied classics like Doom and Onechanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayer. We call these enemies evil, but can you really hold them accountable? After all, feasting upon the flesh of the innocent isn’t part of an evil plan, it is simply in their nature and the means by which they sustain themselves. All of those demons in Doom were just meandering about Hell one day, when all of a sudden some portals opened and being curious like all creatures, they walked on through into what just happened to be our world. If you unleashed a tiger into a crowd, who would be responsible for the ensuing carnage, you or the tiger? That’s right, all of those poor, misplaced hell spawn aren’t the bad guys; it’s those inconsiderate jerks who opened the portal. Considering the circumstances, I think it is okay to say the demons behaved appropriately considering the circumstances, and when the player’s badass space marine grabbed his BFG and took the fight to hell, well, then the battle became a matter of survival for these poor embattled monsters.
They’re just looking for a way home…
The worst part about this all is something much more disturbing because it reaches down to a deeper, more philosophical problem with these foes. Think about all those hours you spent gunning down your enemies in GoldenEye, Call of Duty or The Conduit. Now think about the faces of all your foes. You have, without a doubt, looked into the same eyes many times as you extinguished their life time and time again. Not only do you, as a supposed hero, destroy men, beasts, and robots because you disagree with their means of making a life, but you also trap them in a never-ending cycle of death and rebirth so that they may die at your hands again. Imagine the tortuous thoughts that swirl through their polygonal heads as they are forced to charge into battle knowing that the searing and ripping sensation caused by your bullets will once again bring about their end and another beginning that is bound to end the same way. These characters must feel tremendous relief when the player beats the game, unless of course if the developers decide to reuse the character models for a sequel.
“Take us to your food court!”
While the main villain is generally given the most dramatic and/or gruesome death and appears to have the most to lose in failing to overcome the hero, it really is the little guy who suffers most. The nameless foe with little health, poor AI, and a nasty penchant for respawning is always the real loser in the epic battle between good and evil. These guys don’t fight out of greed or avarice, they simply work for the pay check, benefits, and/or delicious brains they need to provide for themselves and their loved ones. For, you see, maybe that guard’s only marketable skill is to be cannon fodder for a evil military regime, and maybe that alien race is only invading earth because its own planet was eradicated in a supernova and as it approached our planet with peaceful intent, it just so happened to pick up a stray MTV broadcast and, as luck would have it, Lady GaGa looks awfully similar to its war god… or maybe it just finds her whole shtick annoying. As for the zombies– well, they’re zombies.
Just remember, when it comes to shooters, a villain dies but once, while his henchman die over and over again until you push past a predetermined point that stops their endless spawning. Think of the henchmen!