Revenge stories are hard to resist. Especially if a game is combat-oriented, revenge is an ideal catalyst to set the hero off on a raging quest to kill everyone who comes between them and violent retribution.
Shenmue is all about Ryo’s quest for revenge against his father’s murderer, the God of War games saw Kratos take vengeance against the entire Greek pantheon, and 2020’s The Last of Us Part II forced players on a divisive journey of two halves, both fuelled by revenge, ramming home the consequences of an unending cycle of violence.
Warning: This article includes both broad and specific spoilers for The Last of Us Part II, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Persona 5 and Persona 5 Strikers.
At the same time, it’s also easy to excuse games’ bloodlust as simply fantasy, letting us get away with what we can’t in real-life, hence why it’s fine to gun down random passers-by in GTA or why we can’t help but imagine real-life contracts we’d like Agent 47 to take care of in Hitman 3.
However, if you value video games as a genuinely mature medium for storytelling, simply indulging in the retribution you can exact on people you’re powerless against in real life is going to be detrimental in the long run. That’s ultimately the point of The Last of Us 2’s epic treatise on revenge, where instead of closure and justice, it only continues the cycle of hate and division. It’s just a shame that it had to wade us through so many awful casualties to get that message across, losing much of its effect as it chastises the player about the violence it’s forcing us to commit.
Of course, what you realise about Naughty Dog’s epic is that it’s not really about revenge but redemption, especially in Abby’s case, whose brutal murder of Joel is beyond forgivable before we finally end up playing her in the second half, understanding her justification and struggling to find a way to come to terms with this. The supposed villain suddenly becomes the protagonist and for the sake of Lev learns to let go of her hate.
Redemption arcs are popular too, as we can relate to flawed characters looking for a chance to make up for their mistakes – we’re human after all. Giving redemption for villains is rarer. Video game villains don’t typically turn over a new leaf – besides, what would that do for long-running series like Mario and Sonic if Bowser and Dr. Eggman decided to call it a day (not that they haven’t cooperated with their respective rivals against a greater threat in the past). However, in our own polarised society, we need a reminder that the world isn’t all black and white, good versus evil. At the end of the day we’re all capable of succumbing to flaws and just as capable of learning from our mistakes.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films have a recurring theme of depicting villains as people with good intentions whose flaws led down an evil destructive path, and to some extent that comes across in Insomniac’s games, especially in Miles Morales. The chief antagonist the Tinkerer is revealed to be Miles’ childhood friend Phin who has legitimate beef with the real corporate big bads Roxxon, not just for hiding the poisonous side effects of their new energy source but for murdering her brother Rick. The story has us fully sympathising with her grievances even though Miles still has to stop her plan for revenge that risks literally exploding out of control.
Ultimately, Phin does find redemption by helping Miles avert her plan, though it comes at sacrificing herself. Nonetheless, you get the sense she is at peace with her decision and when the campaign is over, we remember her for the person she was instead of the villain behind a mask. That said, you might still say that comes rather late, merely giving the antagonist a noble way to receive their comeuppance.
The Yakuza series, on the other hand, has a consistent ethos where you canonically never kill anyone, despite dealing out some ludicrously violent street justice. I partly believe this is a way of giving the hoodlums causing trouble another chance at life, as they offer money and items as a way of apology and learn their lesson to never bother you again.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is perhaps more interesting, as Ichiban’s set-up has all the hallmarks of a revenge story, as a low-level yakuza not only serving an 18-year prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit but then being shot and left for dead by the patriarch he always looked up to. Instead, he’s more interested in finding out the truth behind what led up to this. Even when things come back to an old-fashioned beat-down, he stubbornly insists on winning over those close to him despite their betrayals. It’s his innate decency and compassion that makes him such a compelling character.
Persona 5 Strikers really makes redemption for your enemies key. Although it follows a similar structure to Persona 5, the Phantom Thieves are up against antagonists who we discover have their own traumas, which are the root cause of what has led to enslave the desires of others in Jails.
On the surface, the outcome might be the same in that the defeated ‘Monarchs’ of these Jails come to their senses and own up to their crimes in the same way the Palace rulers of Persona 5 are filled with remorse and confess to the public. However, the key difference is that we have sympathy for Strikers’ antagonists. It doesn’t excuse their actions, but rather than meting out punishment and throwing away the proverbial key, they’re offered forgiveness and even encouraged to earn their place back in society. It doesn’t mean things can go back to the way they were – a disgraced pop idol may never work in the entertainment industry – but the game still offers up hope of rehabilitation and redemption once they have repaid their debt.
That kind of message is hard to find in games when so many are fixated on win states and most foes you vanquish are never heard from again. It’s arguably more difficult to relate to when justice feels so impossible in real life. In our divisive climate where the worst people get off scot free and those who are called out simply double down, it’s no surprise that few of us are in a forgiving mood. Besides, you can’t really forgive somebody who hasn’t acknowledged their wrongdoing in the first place, which is why any talk of healing, bipartisanship or moving on rings so hollow because the guilty parties refuse to own up to their guilt.
Even when people do face the consequences, such as being deplatformed or the rare case where someone accused of criminal abuse actually gets convicted and sentenced, there is still a distinct lack of remorse or admission of guilt. As fantastical as Strikers’ interdimensional vigilantes can seem, there really is something cathartic about seeing someone publicly own up to their crimes and bowing their head in shame, not just as a PR move of damage-control, but out of a genuine sense of remorse and atonement.
Yet it’s even more powerful when, like the Phantom Thieves, we also tell them to be better. It’s not enough to just be punished, which sounds too passive like it’s just something done to you; rather, what are you going to do to make it right? From a progressive stance, that’s the only way to move forward for everyone. That’s really what it means when you see someone calling someone out on Twitter, telling them to “do better”. It’s not an admonishment to shut someone down, it really is a plea to be a better person and contribute to be part of the change to make the world better. It’s something we can all learn from.