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Not Quite Evil

August 19th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · PTD Magazine, Review

I’m reviewing Overlord for PTD Magazine, and I’m struck by how thoroughly un-evil my Overlord is. Sure, my vizier keeps telling me that I’m a dark lord and I can set sheep on fire. Even torch homes.

But if evil can only exist when it is juxtaposed to good, my guy has no worries. I don’t want to spoil too much of the game, but most of the “heroes” you go up against are corrupted criminals. The halflings rely on slavery and extortion to keep their parties going and their grotesque king alive. The elves are so in love in with nature that they grow forests that will force out civilization and agriculture. Though you can “murder innocents” to increase your own power, the plot has you riding to the rescue of villagers and townspeople oppressed by fantasy archetypes. My Evil Kingdom, it seems, is a manifestation of Hobbes’ Leviathan – everyone surrenders their rights to a tyrant just to get some peace and quiet.

If you can’t kill Prince Charming, even in a satiric fantasy action game, where can you?

The old Bullfrog game Dungeon Keeper had sort of the same problem. You weren’t really an evil lich-king so much as you were Lord of the Tunnels. You could torture heroes and slap around your own minions but it’s not like you were capturing princesses or undermining empires.

There is a tendency to rewrite fairy tales. Gregory Maguire‘s best selling books Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister have none of the wit of Fractured Fairy Tales and none of the “face the consequences” truth of Sondheim’s Into the Woods. And, of course, Shrek has taught us the valuable lessons that ogres can be heroes and that Eddie Murphy stopped being funny fifteen years ago.

If the lesson of Overlord is that Sauron wasn’t such a bad guy, then it’s following a well-worn literary tradition. But, as great as the game is, this sort of moral cop-out isn’t that satisfying. It’s sort of like how Tropico offered you the chance to be Somoza or Batista or Castro but made this much more difficult (and precarious) than being the beloved President of a tourist paradise. The game even rewards you for doing “evil” but not becoming “corrupted.” Kill sheep and elves but don’t suck on the life force of the peasants you liberated. Destroy their pumpkin patches, but not their lives.

At least Evil Genius demonstrated that Goldfinger was a bureaucrat, a dark soulless creature obsessed with meeting targets and cutting costs.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • jonathanstrange

    You’re semi-evil. You’re quasi-evil. You’re the margarine of evil. You’re the Diet Coke of evil, just one calorie, not evil enough

  • Alan

    Sometimes I wonder what constitutes “evil” in a game setting. Not to get too philosophical about it, I think it’s more defined by the “absence of good” than by anything else.