Play/Write: What Videogames Teach Us About Henchmen

For someone who enjoys a great story, is there anything better than a narrative that engages you from the very start? Imagine a world so rich you can almost smell the scents in the air, a delivery so clever it forces you to think in a way you never thought you would. I’m Ryan J. Hodge, author, and I’d like to talk to you about…Video Games.

Yes, Video Games. Those series of ‘bloops’ and blinking lights that –at least a while ago- society had seemed to convince itself had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In this article series, I’m going to discuss how Donkey Kong, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and even Candy Crush can change the way we tell stories forever.

What Videogames Teach Us About Henchmen


AUTHOR’S NOTE: Some examples in this issue bear more than a passing resemblance to current political controversy. Such examples are coincidental in nature and were chosen only because they were germane to the themes at play. They are not meant to serve as commentary for issues of the day. Play/Write will always remain apolitical.

So the latest Resident Evil movie has been released, and I must confess that I get a certain perverse enjoyment out of this cinematic series. By no means would I characterize them as quality entertainment, but I would argue that most of them reserve a ‘so bad it’s good’ affect. One element of these movies has always stuck out to me –and it isn’t how often Mila Jovovich takes her pants off.

Resident Evil, Mila Jovovich, PlayWrite, Play Write, Play/Write,
Though that might make other things stick out. Ba dum tssh!

What bothers me is why anyone would work for the Umbrella Corporation; particularly after they’ve destroyed the world. What’s more, what stupid mook would dare go toe-to-toe with Jovovich’s Alice; who is basically a superhero in her own right?

Of course this question isn’t limited to the Resident Evil series, but to any work wherein the protagonist cleaves through grunts like a hot knife through butter. From Schwarzenegger’s Commando (1985 Film) to Lara Croft butchering of a battalion-strength cult in the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot; one cannot help but wonder at why none of these jokers seem to be able to figure out that they are simply outclassed.

Superman, PlayWrite, Play Write, Play/Write

Most of us are happy to dismiss the average goon as necessary plot obstacles whose absence would mean literally no adversity to the protagonist achieving their goals. However, it is not as if there haven’t been examples throughout history of real life goons who opposed the advancement of peace and egalitarianism even until their dying breath.

But how do we render such people in a fashion that speaks to truth? Can we make even the humble henchman a compelling, relatable character in his own right?

Well the only way to answer that question is to first ask why anyone would become a henchman. Now this column has already covered how one might be tricked into doing evil, or having their motivations subverted; but we won’t be discussing that in this issue. Instead, we shall focus on why would a thinking, empathetic human being serve despicable powers despite no opportunity for advancement or material wealth?

We just might find the answer in the 2013 Indie darling, Papers, Please. In Lucas Pope’s opus, Players are tasked with filling the shoes of a work-a-day border inspector for the fictional communist bloc nation of Arstotzka. Your mission: process passports and work visas, and turn away any unauthorized personnel. That’s it. But despite the simple conveyance, human drama unfolds as the game progresses.

Papers Please, PlayWrite, Play Write, Play/Write,
Trust me, everyone in this line wants to get high.

Early on, a hopeful immigrant with a valid visa asks you to let his wife through with him. She, however, does not have a visa. The game instructions are clear on this point, but this poses an ethical dilemma to the Player. If we turn this woman away, we will be fulfilling our purpose. If we don’t, we will be penalized and our lives (and our fictional family’s lives) made harder for it.

Similar questions are posed throughout, as one may choose to facilitate a rebellion against the regime, take bribes, even entertain solicitations; all told from a tiny office servicing an unending line of humanity. There is no karma meter in Papers, Please. One either does his job correctly or risks termination with each missed transit error (intentional or otherwise).

This title gives very particular insight into what it is to be a henchman, and perhaps paint a picture on how they might not be so obviously evil. Sure, it might be a jerk move not to let a man’s wife through the checkpoint, but the local Commissar has been breathing down your neck and if one thing’s for sure: you cannot afford another citation this month.

Papers Please, PlayWrite, Play Write, Play/Write
You’ve a family to think of too, after all.

Here, we are given valuable insight into the mindset of a henchman. Honestly speaking, it might just be easier to be a henchman than to struggle against a seemingly irresistible set of circumstances. Take the protagonist’s dilemma from the 2014 film, Collateral. Jaime Foxx’ character, Max, is a cabbie who unwittingly finds himself chauffeuring a hitman around L.A. When Max discovers the true nature of his passenger, he does everything he can think of to stop him (at great risk to Max’ own self), but what about another man? Is it so inconceivable that someone might think to make the offer to actually aid the contract killer as a discrete point of contact the next time he’s ‘in town’. Sure, there’s a good chance that the professional might kill you anyway, but chances of survival (and profit) would no doubt increase if you convinced him of your use.

No! One might say. A moral person would make every effort to alert the authorities, period! Well, even in that event; the best case scenario is that the contract killer is arrested. If, however, he was in the employ of a larger consortium –or if the skilled subject in question were to escape custody- they just might take exception to some upstart cab driver who couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

Of course, not all henchmen are desperate dregs trying to salvage what they can from a bad situation. In many cases, the most frightening of henchmen are those who truly believe in what they’re doing. For clarity: I’m not speaking about those who have been misled, but those who have been provided the facts and have settled on their present course as the best decision.

In Dragon Age II (Bioware, 2011), Players find themselves in the city of Kirkwall, a fractious environment bursting with refugees of the ‘Darkspawn Crisis’. Among these refugees are scores of ‘mages’ (magic users), whom the local Templar Order distrust with extreme prejudice. Their misgivings are well-founded, however, as mages have a preternatural connection to the ‘Fade’; a border dimension that boasts all manner of dangers –not least of which are literal demons. Under the right circumstances, a magister can (knowingly or unknowingly) avail upon the Fade and play host to one of these spirits.

Dragon Age, Dragon Age II, PlayWrite, Play Write, Play/Write
Though not everyone might complain.

If one can imagine that a mage with the ability to cast actual fireballs on his own is dangerous enough, imagine the threat posed by a mage possessed! As such, it is no great leap to conclude how even a reasonable person –one who is fully aware and appreciative of the humanity the average mage reserves as they try to eke out a living along with the rest of the refugees- would still single them out for sanction based on the inherent danger they pose and nothing else. In fact, the Player is given the option to align with the Templar and assist them in bringing the mages to heel.

We see such a predicament echoed in the 1993 Film adaptation of The Fugitive. Throughout the film, Harrison Ford’s character (Kimble) has been pursued by Tommy Lee Jones as U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard. At one point, Kimble gets the drop on Gerard and, at gunpoint, declares “I didn’t kill my wife”. This scene is very reminiscent of Jean Val Jean’s confrontation with Javert in Les Miserables (Victor Hugo, 1862) and might be where most audiences expect Gerard to have a change of heart as Javert did. However, Gerard instead replies “I don’t care”. In this case, this henchman of justice is not interested in making any moral judgment on the protagonist, whether Kimble is innocent or guilty is immaterial to the fact that, as a federal agent he simply cannot allow convicted felons to flee custody.

While these examples may provide interesting insight into what might motivate henchman, one critical element that is often overlooked in modern writing is that the work-a-day mooks are not just obstacles to be overcome, but are in fact minds to be won.

Battleship Potemkin, PlayWrite, Play Write, Play/Write

In Battleship Potemkin (1925, Film) the abused crew of the Russian battleship stage a munity against their officers when word of the 1905 revolution reaches them. When they put into the port of Odessa, they are greeted warmly by the locals but Imperialist reinforcements are on the way. When the naval squadron arrives, however, its sailors refuse to fire on the Potemkin and join the revolution instead.

Incredibly, this dramatization has more basis in fact than the average Soviet propaganda piece, as a mutinous Potemkin did, in fact, not only avoid overt hostilities with Tsarist vessels, but brought an estimated three hulls (including another battleship) under the Revolution’s flag. Conceivably, all the Imperial forces who might have opposed the crew of the Potemkin might have been considered ‘henchmen’, and hostilities against the navy would certainly be justified considering the actions of the Cossacks, but the ardent crew held fire and sought first to persuade.

In the Mass Effect series (Bioware, 2007-Present), Players are given several opportunities to diffuse equally hostile situations. From giving a few thugs a moment to reconsider their hostility to rallying entire alien nations to the Player’s cause, Mass Effect’s many alternatives to violence can yield far greater satisfaction in the overall game experience than simply mowing down the mindless minions of the opposition.

Mass Effect, Saren, PlayWrite, Play Write, Play/Write
Sometimes those minions will mow themselves down.

So spare a thought for the next mook who’s fitting to die in a blaze of glory. Who knows? It just might make you a better writer!

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2 thoughts on “Play/Write: What Videogames Teach Us About Henchmen

  1. Very interesting. I think you have really drilled into a subject where a lot of game devs give it little thought. When expanded to the real world though, personally I would say it becomes too complex to frame in the argument of just ‘henchmen’. I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. Thanks! Yeah, I don’t think it’s something anyone really considers.

    I remember going through the Tomb Raider reboot like ‘okay… I’ve killed like close to a hundred of these guys, and they all seem to think they’ve still got a shot at killing me. Shouldn’t they really be more afraid?”

    Then I saw this repeated in The Last of Us, Fist of the North Star, Resident Evil, and I went “Hmmm….”

    Thanks for reading!

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