Friday, September 24, 2010

Epic Villains in Video Game Lore: Jade Empire

What will follow for this post and the next two posts are my assessments of three different villains in video games. What prompted me to do this was an ongoing fascination in how they approached their "villainy". Here are characters who are manipulative, incredibly intelligent, and are able to subtly guide events around them in ways that almost always work out in their favor. These are the best, villains that you often find yourself respecting more than despising, villains with powerful personalities with whom you can't help but be intrigued by. Rare in fiction, rare in film, and especially rare in video games. But given the increased interactivity within video games, it is hard to view these guys as anything other than the best. They are profound, dominating, confident, and astoundingly clever. And complex characters such as these help to fuel my interest in video gaming.

Master Li of Two Rivers
"It does my heart good to see that you remember the basics of what I taught... even the flaws..."

In Jade Empire, you come into the game training at a martial-arts school lying within a quiet village on the outskirts of an expansive, mythologized Asian empire (reminiscent of ancient China). Much of your early time in the game is spent mastering your combat skills, getting to know your fellow students, and receiving the teachings of one Master Li of Two Rivers.

Master Li serves as a bulwark in an unfamiliar world. He is an older man, caring yet disciplined, patient yet endlessly encouraging the player to try harder. By himself in a hostile and wondrous world, he brought you up from child to adult. Master Li has an unshakeable faith in you that is comforting; he urges you to trust yourself as you train towards the destiny that awaits you out in the limitless frontier. This is reassurring, particularly as you notice that other students are jealous of your rapport with Master Li. It becomes clear that you are the best among them, a status to be proud of, yet one that forces one to feel alone.

After a peaceful day of training and lecture, events begin to speed up, swinging swiftly out of control. Your master decides that you are done, ready to graduate. In a close and heartfelt discussion, Master Li confesses that he is Sun Li, brother of the Emperor Sun Hai, and that the Emperor, his empire, and his servants are not pleasant at all. In an event twenty years past, the Emperor sought the power of a goddess and, though Sun Li opposed this, succeeded in wresting the power away from the elder deity, destroying the temple and monks who served her.

Consequently, Master Li was nearly killed and fled to the edges of the empire, carrying with him the only survivor of the temple massacre; a baby. That baby was you, the last of the spirit monks. It becomes clear that the destiny Master Li referred to was the urgent need to defeat the corrupt Emperor and return his power to the Asian pantheon of gods and goddesses. And only a spirit monk can do it.

Master Li is soon captured by the Emperor's armies as a jealous student overhears this conversation and tips off the Emperor. The majority of the game involves finding a way to save Master Li, doing good along the way, and finding ancient remnants of an artifact designed to assist with your overthrow of the Empire. Along the way, many people notice that the martial style that you fight with as impossibly unique. It seems to have a flaw, but nobody is ever to figure out what it is. Thus you are able to defeat many, who end up viewing this oddity as a cunning trap, as it ends up distracting those who seek the opening but inevitably fail to find it.

Finally, you reach Emperor Sun Hai and strike him down with all the skills learned from Master Li, the spirit monk teachings you discovered along the way, and the artifact painstakingly crafted together over hours of searching and combat. Master Li, rescued at last, comes before you smiling with careworn wisdom. He then proceeds to beat you to death in a matter of seconds.

Sun Li the Glorious Strategist
"Sometimes all you will learn in defeat is that you have been defeated."

The truth is that Sun Li has been using you as a tool from the very beginning. In his own fight with the Emperor twenty years ago, he had sought to take the goddess' power for himself. When the Emperor defeated him and sent him running, Sun Li managed to discover the last surviving spirit monk; your character, as a baby. In a comprehensive plan that would span decades, Sun Li decided to train you to defeat his brother as no other could, as a fully trained spirit monk able to cancel out Sun Hai's godhood. Everything lead up to that crucial moment, and it is a testament to Master Li's cleverness, subtlety, and foresight that the entire plan worked perfectly, with nary a hiccup.

There are hints to this throughout the story, and it lends the game an extra layer of depth. For example, it is clearer as to why your fellow students at the martial-arts school were so jealous of you. Master Li's main objective was to train you, and only you. The other students were simply pawns; maintaining a school helped to avoid attention from the Emperor's eye. Keeping the students jealous also gave them incentive to tattle on Sun Li to the Emperor when the right moment came, setting the chain of events into motion. Sun Li knew that he would allow himself to be captured eventually, thus it was similarly in his interest to keep the rest of the students untrained, so that they would be certain to fall to the armies and give you additional motive for overthrowing the Emperor.

The uniqueness of your martial-arts style was another gambit. Others could not find the flaw, but Sun Li purposefully built it into the style so that he could exploit it at the crucial moment; at the precise moment that the Emperor fell. Thus it is that he was able to take you apart without a chance to defend yourself; Sun Li knew the answer to the enigma that was your combat style, and crushes you with it. He also counted on his skills as a teacher to make the flaw so incredibly subtle that, in the inevitable battles to come, others would be unable to capitalize on it. The opening would be his, and his alone, to take advantage of. He would let nobody else tamper with his plan decades in the making.

"You surprise me yet again. I'm a better teacher... than I thought..."

Master Li of Two Rivers, or Sun Li the Glorious Strategist, deserves respect and awe for pulling off a brilliant, multi-layered plan whose fruits would be gathered years down the road. Throughout most of the game he leads the player to believe that this is yet another quest to overcome an evil empire when, truly, it is nowhere near that simple. Thr truth is that Sun Li plays you from the beginning, and takes advantage of your every action in order to achieve the payoff that he desires. In the end, he is defeated by the one thing he is unable to anticipate, the actions of an inscrutable goddess who uses her last scraps of power to bring the player back to life who, in the end, unseats Sun Li and returns deific power back into the balance.

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