Retrogamer: Video Game Villains
Michael B. Tager
I don’t consider many video games “lovely” though, to be fair, there’s a lot in the real world that falls short of lovely as well. On any given day, I have to look a little closer to see joy through the veil of everyday existence. But sometimes I’m surprised, and, when I find loveliness in the face of a video game, I have to take a little notice. Especially when life itself disappoints me so greatly.
Valkyria Chronicles, despite wholly taking place in an RPG-version of World War II, full of mortars and death and trench warfare, is, at its core, an oddly gentle game. The world is lovingly, stylistically drawn to resemble pastoral watercolors, the humor is ever-present, the story simple and engaging, and death, while possible (and in some cases, scripted), is avoided easily enough. Good and evil are defined, the hearty peasants are revered and given meaning, and the virtuous are rewarded for their efforts. Even racism, while pervasive, is confronted, exposed and diminished. It’s an image of what the world could be, even accepting ugliness and hate.
Valkyria Chronicles wants to be a better world, with clearer sides and loftier heights than the one we live in. The real world is complicated, with demagogues that are often left undefeated, or even challenged. Maximilian, the antagonist, is a sounding board of evil and narcissism. He’s privileged, blonde, supercilious, callous, ambitious and entitled. He’s not unrecognizable, if one goes looking for real-life surrogates.
First off: I don’t dislike Donald Trump. For those who (somehow) are unaware who he is, he is a businessman who inherited his wealth, essentially develops real estate, has a famous daughter and has made a name for himself by being mildly outrageous, and is currently winning the Republican nomination for President of the United States. And I don’t dislike him.
But, while I don’t dislike him, it’s necessary to explain that I don’t dislike the real Donald Trump, because I don’t know who the man is or if we’ve ever seen the “real” him. All I know is the caricature of terrifying ideologies that are encased in the walking, talking embodiment of Democracy’s fear. I don’t necessarily believe that he actually holds the views that he espouses. Instead, I think that he (and those behind him) has simply found hot trigger words that he uses, liberally, to stir reaction and garner attention. Polls flagging? Bring in anti-Mexican rhetoric! Suffer a minor defeat? Muslims are all terrorists and should be on a list!
Homeboy is basically animated clickbait, the equivalent of those articles that exclaim, Watch this chick get utterly destroy in two tweets. He signifies a horrifying dystopian reality. Because it’s not what he’s saying that is frightening, it’s the millions of disenfranchised people that respond by pledging their allegiance. It’s the sucker punches launched in the middle of police escorts. It’s the eerie parallels to dark eras in the world.
To be clear, I don’t think that the end of days is nigh, but it is disconcerting. And besides attempting to convince others of what (I think) is right, there isn’t much I can think to do. There aren’t any Trump supporters in my circle that are willing to wave their flag high enough for me to engage with and I’m not starstruck enough by the opposition to stump myself. Instead, I sit in my office and play video games that give a much-preferable black-and-white world.
There’s no question of right and wrong in the world of Valkyria Chronicles. When my friend Brian first suggested I play it back in 2011, he said, “It’s a simple story, but really engaging. It’s like someone took World War II and stripped out all the ambiguity and complex psychology of war.” He said this as if it were a selling point. Part of the delay in playing was distrust that it would actually engage me.
(Of course, Brian was right. We’ve been friends since the ‘90s, and at some point, I’ve learned to trust him implicitly. Trusting friends is a part of Valkyria Chronicles, in that any war game is about loving your teammates more than family and anything else.)
What Valkyria Chronicles did well, of course, was humanizing the protagonists. The hero, Welkin, is obsessed with flowers. The co-hero/love interest, Alicia, is a de-sexualized girl next door with a secret (and a rocking bod that is displayed in anime-esque conventions). They meet cute before war strikes and the entire story hinges on their burgeoning romance amidst shrapnel. They’re kind, diligent, amusing, attractively drawn and total Mary Sues. There is nothing the two of them can’t do together. And, through the 20 chapters of the game, we follow them.
The ensemble cast is well-fleshed out as well: barmaids and farmers, mechanics and commanders. Two in particular (Welkin’s adopted sister and a tank commander) are members of the Darcsen race, dark-haired and skinned and scapegoated for the crimes of the past. Are they unsubtle allegories for Jews? Valkyria Chronicles borrows liberally, key subplots revolve around ethnic and racial tension. The titular, now-extinct Valkyrur came from the north and brought technology and are revered as ethnic saviors. The Darcsen are blamed for murder and destruction and are catalogued by their features. Gallia, where the action takes place, is an analogue for Poland or France, both historically had large Jewish populations pre-WWII.
The game itself takes place on battlefields where the player manuevers ten soldiers at a time through gauntlets of enemy fire. Some battles feature cities, some deserts. There are tanks and checkpoints and orders to give. Battle is bloodless and death possibly impermanent, depending on gameplay. It’s personalized, well-orchestrated strategy.
Framing the battles is a war reporter, writing of the exploits of Squad 7 and the war itself. Most of Valkyria Chronicles is cutscenes and text; it’s is a past-tense story, the outcome determined. A history lesson. It’s a smart decision that puts the player in the role of historian and sleuth, all while navigating an open game board. The player feels like a participant and a voyeur all at once, much like how war reporters often get swept up in their comrades. By empathizing so strongly with the characters, the permanent death (some scripted, some not) of a teammate is a blow.
And, of course, looming over the background is Maximilian, the crown prince of the invading Empire, personally leading the war effort. He’s greedy, he’s ruthless and he’s willing to send minorities to work camps or steamroll an entire country for their precious resources. He’s an imperialist and a xenophobe. But at least he makes no apologies or qualifications for his inhumanity. He’s a caricature of reality. He’s what a video game needs so that the player can “kill” with impunity. He’s a villain.
I’m not sure what kind of villain Trump is. He suggests that he might have supported internment camps himself. He just can’t say. He suggests building a fence to keep an entire nation of people out and promises to ban others from even entering our country. He says a lot, spews plenty of rhetoric designed to inflame and pander. But I’m not suggesting he’s a video game villain.
Twice, the heroes of Valkyria Chronicles battle Maximilian’s comically oversized tanks: the multi-gunned Batomys and the land-dreadnaught, the Marmota. The size and shape of these enemies are, of course, part of the structure: they’re insane because everything in video games has to be over-the-top. We can’t have any doubt when we’re pretend murdering. There’s no margin in subtlety or moral ambiguity.
I’m not saying that Donald Trump is a video game villain. He doesn’t have comically sized vehicles. Or if he does, he at least doesn’t engage in battle with those beneath him. He doesn’t revel in the disposal of his inferiors, like Maximilian does when they fail him or are no longer of use. Or if he does, I’m sure he has his reasons. I’m sure his reasons are great.
Not much time is spent on reasons in Valkyrie Chronicles. It’s a given for the heroes (and a smart choice in development) that invasions must be fought by those that work the land. Americans have this idea of true patriots being from the land, independent and worthy. There are countless fantasies of Americans fighting the yoke of oppression on our soil. Valkyria Chronicles feels inexplicably American. We don’t need reasons.
Of course, America has been known to invade other countries in search of oil. We’ve been known to unseat foreign powers for bananas. We’ve made it a habit of invading country after country on the flimsiest of excuses. Is there anything more American than Maximilian’s reasons for war? He wants to prove himself to his family. He desires the natural resources of Gallia—ragnite, a magic oil, for all intents of purposes—for his Empire. Maximilian is the leader of the strongest country in this alternate world. And he uses it to bully the weak.
I wonder what would happen if Trump became president. Internment camps probably wouldn’t rise overnight and a 1,200-mile wall isn’t going to magically appear between Texas and Mexico. And the chances of an enormous land dreadnaught being used as a weapon of war? Unlikely at best. But there are other consequences.
Much of Valkyria Chronicles’ lore revolves around the mystery of the vanished Valkyrur, conquerors of Europa and the “Darcsen Calamity.” The Darcsen people, unlike the Valkyrur, still exist and are subjugated throughout the world. Their plight, who are generally put-upon peasants, is a thread that runs the length of the game. And the aggressors in the war, led in part by Maximilian, make sure to contribute to the oppression. There are even references to hunts: video game semantics for pogroms or ethnic cleanses.
Trump’s intolerance of Hispanics and Muslims, the intolerance of his followers to people of color, his refusal to denounce white supremacists as supporters all illuminate unpleasant truths. Demagoguery is frightening when it’s unleashed, all the more so because it’s not supposed to happen in the civilized world. It’s one step removed from pitchforks and lynch mobs, appealing to baser instincts and frenzy. It points a finger and proclaims “other.”
It’s terrifying that this man might become president.
We haven’t had a serious video game villain as a candidate for president. Someone who stands up and says words of terror and fear and who request oaths of fealty. Who stands for nothing but pride and self-aggrandizement and who just might be doing the whole shebang as a publicity stunt? Who uses coded buzzwords like, “Make our country great again,” to mean … well, I’m not sure what. Which is possibly the scariest of all.
It’s easy to know where we stand with real video game villains. They laugh and murder and give speeches with cold eyes. Maximilian isn’t frightening because he’s so obviously over-the-top and so clearly identified as villain. He talks of cold murder, of eugenics and slavery and no one sane would ever consider following such a creature. It simply couldn’t happen.
But in the not-so-recent past, even the present, monsters are followed. Video game monsters. In Central Africa and Iraq, in Cambodia and Bosnia. In Russia and Germany. Monsters get to roles of authority because they’re given power by the people. They promise power and a reversal of fortunes for whomever is weak enough to listen.
I’m not saying that Donald Trump is the most horrifyingly plausible candidate we’ve had in the history of our country. But he promises power to desperate Americans. He wants to build walls and separate countrymen as “other.” He says whatever it will take to make his case. He seems entitled and unmerciful. He thinks he deserves whatever is coming his way. He’s smart and cunning and entirely too unbelievable to be true. Maximilian in Valkyrie Chronicles is fiction; Trump is fact.
I did a thought experiment. I tried to imagine a young, handsome version of Donald Trump (he was good-looking once upon a time) and dressed him in gear befitting an arrogant prince. Then I proceeded to sub him in to every cut scene and enemy animation of Valkyrie Chronicles where Maximilian postured and ordered. I thought of Trump’s rhetoric and firebrand cries of “We will be great again.” I imagined him pounding his fist and his eyes glittering.
It wasn’t totally inappropriate. Not as much as it should have been. I’m still not saying Trump is more terrifying than any video game villain because he’s real, because he’s actually happening to the world and that it isn’t drama or a play or an oddly-prescient episode of The Simpsons, but rather real reality before my eyes, but maybe I’m also not saying he’s not. He’s more of a video game villain in real life than I ever expected to see running a serious campaign for leader of my country. I never really thought about it, but his brand of dystopian rhetoric is not what I expected.
No one expects the Spanish Inquisition. But the Spanish Inquisition came and stayed. So did McCarthyism. So have other reigns of terror. None of them were expected. I didn’t expect to play a video game and have it crystallize my fears of a Trump presidency. I’m still not sure how I feel about the man, but his presidency terrifies me. It’s like staring at the end of the world: I’m watching and I’m watching and I’m watching and he’s not going away.
This is why I like to dream about living in a world like Valkyrie Chronicles where the world is simple and lines are clearly understood. Where villains stand tall in their villainy and are punished. Where lines are drawn in waves and simple dreams of opening a bakery and teaching botany are ultimate goals. It’s why sometimes war games have gentle hearts and the real world that creates that gentleness is cold and dark.