The first time I wanted revenge in Elden Ring was against that bastard Tree Sentinel. Anyone who’s visited the Lands Between over the last year will know what I’m talking about, assuming you’ve gotten through the tutorial. This big, brutal, heavily armored knight on horseback with the magically reflective Erdree greatshield, golden halberd, and fetid stance. The one that’s waiting for you once you get out of the Cave of Knowledge, patrolling the grassy thoroughfare between the First Step Grace Sight and the Church of Elleh. The one who will keep killing you for being big and mean and OP. You could Memorize their moveset to win. And you could Get the help of a player-controlled summon. But I prefer revenge.
Sweet, cold blooded, let me ascend somewhere else before I come back and bravely kick your ass for revenge. Which, bang for my buck, is the best tactic in any video game – be it bashing Elden Ring Tree Sentinels, slaughtering Skyrim giants, destroying Fallout: New Vegas Deathclaws, or bringing an emotionally charged narrative to a conclusion in The Last of Us 2 . I love revenge in video games and always have. But something I’ve always wondered is: Why?
“Justice violations are a common theme in many video games where you are the hero. And of course, if there is a hero, there must also be a non-hero. Whether that’s an enemy or not is another question, but that’s the thirst. Violations are common in video games,” says Fade Eadeh, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Seattle University. Eadeh’s 2016 research paper, “The Bittersweet Taste of Vengeance: On the Negative and Positive Consequences of Retribution (opens in new tab)‘, examines our appetite as human beings for vengeance – an innate desire that Eadeh believes easily extends to virtual worlds. “In everything from Grand Theft Auto to Ratchet and Clank to The Last of Us, we have so many video game stories that are rooted in revenge and where we as players seek to right wrongs.”
The last word
Clearly, the perceived violation of justice in the Elden Ring scenario above is that I’m getting my ass kicked by a bully. Righting this injustice takes the form of me boosting my stats outside of that particular battleground and then coming back like Popeye a few hours later after stealing a can of spinach. The boss in question is optional, but giving in to the urge to get my own back isn’t – a situation I’ve found myself in countless open-world games over the years. In narrative games, however, the idea of revenge tends to be more focused and linear; where action X leads to reaction Y, all of which conclude with resolution Z as planned.
*Warning: The Last of Us 2 spoilers ahead*
To that end, Eadeh says, “There is a lot of research showing that what people do when they think of revenge is what makes them brood, or even brood, over the original offense that pleaded for revenge in the first place. In the case of The Last of Us 2, that could be Abby thinking about her father getting killed, or Ellie thinking about how Joel got killed, up to the end of the game where Dina goes and that fight on Catalina Iceland. This is the negative side of revenge. On the other hand, the positive thing is that you can correct an injustice.”
Eadeh says that The Last of Us 2’s two-armed story structure is a mirror of our actions, essentially seeing things through the eyes of two evildoers – each feeling justified in their actions against the other. In doing so, Eadeh says, players are more likely to question their actions and consider the morality of the act of vengeance itself, which speaks to the beauty of The Last of Us 2’s narrative design.
“I think the team at Naughty Dog did the best job I’ve ever seen in terms of how we conceptualize and think about the act of revenge, looking at it from multiple perspectives and seeing and understanding what the motives were at play why these injustices took place and what was the motivation behind each of the groups seeking revenge,” Eadeh says. “When games take us by the hand, they often don’t do a good job of imagining what the experience of revenge is like. In a lot of games you get to the end of Act 3, you win, the birds are singing in the trees and you get this wonderful high, but The Last of Us questions those motives and whether or not they’re appropriate.”
To me, the freedom of choice in open-world games makes this process of self-examination even clearer. Take the Elden Ring Tree Sentinel mentioned above, for example. All but one of these enemies in The Lands Between are optional bosses, meaning you can complete the entire game without bothering with them. Speak with this specifically Tree Sentinel: Once you get to the save point behind it – that is, after you’ve bypassed the horseback villain – there’s really no need to ever revisit that particular section of the map. Which means my own return to these parts was specifically to exact revenge.
And suddenly I have a kind of introspective crisis. How am I the bastard who wanted revenge in the first place? Should I leave sleeping dogs lying around? Do I even feel better about getting my own back? The answer to these questions is yes, no, and yes in that order because I’m clearly a bit of an asshole at video games. But asking yourself these questions is part of what makes us human, according to Eadeh.
“These moments [in games], hopefully we’ll ask ourselves some questions,” he says. “Should we take revenge, for example? Is this necessarily the best outcome or the best alternative? Because you see what happens. In The Last of Us 2, the characters are persistent, they think [revenge], they ponder. I mean it broke and destroyed the relationship between Ellie and Dina at the end of the game. And whether that’s necessarily healthy or not, I think that’s a good question. I hope it offers a long-term solution to the law, but of course I have my doubts. Anyway, I hope it gives people pause to engage in such actions – although I’m a revenge researcher. And of course I find that fascinating.”
Pausing, pondering your motives and still wanting revenge? Look for it in the The best FPS games now outside