Friday, June 18, 2021

The Case for Polylithic Evil


Most stories keep things simple. There is the side of Good, represented by the protagonist. There is the side of Evil, represented by the antagonist and his minions. Postmodern fiction tries to spice it up, with gray versus gray or gray versus black morality. Having just two sides is the norm. If there are multiple factions, expect them all to have varying shades of darkness, in the name of ‘realism’ and ‘grittiness’.

Reality paints a different picture.

Take Los Angeles, the gang capital of America. On the forces of law and order, we have the police department, and the Feds whenever federal crimes are involved. On the other side, we have dozens of gangs, hundreds of cliques, and thousands of members—all of whom are in a state of constant conflict and occasional cooperation.

Mexico is in the throes of a vicious narco war that spanned 14 years and counting. There are ten active cartels with about a hundred thousand members, all of whom are in a constant state of low-level warfare with each other and the government. The official military and the police are also at war with every cartel—but they’ve also been heavily penetrated by the cartels and are riddled with corruption. Then there are the autodefensas, vigilante self-defense groups formed to defend local communities against the cartels, and have clashed with the federal forces.

South Africa reports among the highest rape, murder, kidnapping and carjacking rates in the world. Cape Town alone has between 90 to 130 active gangs, with a total estimated membership of a hundred thousand. Taxi operators engage in turf wars to control lucrative routes. The police are overwhelmed.

When crafting the Babylon series, I was guided by the cyberpunk principle of high tech, low life. The aesthetic is super high tech, but the world is populated by predators, criminals and eldritch horrors. Taking inspiration from Los Angeles, Mexico and South Africa, I created the New Gods: the villains of the series. All seven of them.

Seven is the number of conflict. I first discovered this while playing Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. A spin-off of the Civilization franchise, Alpha Centauri is a 4X game that places the player in charge of one of seven factions seeking to colonise an alien world. All seven factions have radically differing philosophies, from the humanitarianism of the United Nations to the collectivism of the Human Hive, the unbridled capitalism of Morgan Industries to the mad science of the University of Planet.

Conflict is a constant. Barely a few turns pass before intrigue and warfare breaks out between two (or more!) factions. In the standard map, this is exacerbated by the faction placement in the default maps, which places factions with diametrically opposed philosophies in proximity to each other. This drives an arms race among every faction, which takes advantage of the game’s unit design feature, lasting even into the endgame.

To create this environment of constant chaos and conflict in Babylon, I needed many factions, with differing ideologies and goals, all of which are in conflict with each other. Seven proved to be the minimum number required.

Two factions could be locked in a cold war, or collude with each other to rule the world. Three factions could form three powers, each balanced against each other. With four factions, it could easily split into two sides with two factions each. A five-faction set up would pit two sides of two factions each against each other, and the fifth playing kingmaker. With six factions, you’ll get either two alliances with three factions each, or three alliances of two powers, bringing us back to the problem of the two and three factions.

Seven factions present opportunities for constant chaos. The greater the number of players, the more heterogenous they must be, to differentiate themselves from each other. Such heterogeneity undermines the possibility of long-term alliances, especially if everyone is competing for the same limited resources. To gain a decisive advantage in a seven-way conflict, an especially skilled actor must weld four or five players together in an alliance and eliminate the possibility of defection.

The history of humanity shows how difficult this can be. The Onin War began as a struggle between two samurai clans to decide the next shogun, and descended into a free-for-all with every clan battling every other clan. The Shanghai International Settlement was a hotbed of crime, terrorism and political intrigue, ending only after the Japanese occupation of the city in 1941.

History tells us that the greater the number of players, the greater the possibility of constant conflict and defection. The major wars of the early twentieth century proved to be an exception to the norm. Without a common cause and superpowers to rally behind, anchor alliances and punish defectors, conflict descended into the historical norm of chaos and multiple factions. We see this in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, with many factions and shifting alliances struggling for control.

The seven factions of Babylon make conflict and chaos inevitable. They all have diametrically opposed goals, they are all competing over land, money and souls, and they are all willing to use violence to achieve their goals. They may form partnerships to pursue mutual goals, but such jagged alliances are doomed to failure.

The streets of Babylon are gripped in low-level warfare—and the temperature is steadily rising.

In addition to the New Gods, scores of lesser powers and factions dot the streets of Babylon. It is said that there is a god for every man in Babylon, and the truth is not too far off. These are the functional equivalent of street crews and small-time gangs, scrabbling for the scraps the New Gods leave behind. Most of them are beneath the notice of the New Gods, but they make prime cannon fodder and material for recruitment, a theme which will be further explored in Babylon Red.

With so many factions in play, complications arise. The New Gods are powerful, but none of them enjoy an absolute advantage. Their reach and resources, while extensive, are not unlimited. Each faction must spend most of their time, energy and treasure on checking the others. They can only dedicate so many resources to hunting those who oppose them, including the protagonists, before they compromise their own efforts.

The protagonists are rats nipping at the heels of elephants.  The elephant may be powerful, but it is slow and ponderous, and the rat is agile, and there’s a swarm of them scurrying around. It could try to squish a rat, but in doing so, it creates openings for other rats and more dangerous predators to strike. So long as the protagonists keep their heads down and avoid attracting too much attention, they can continue to strike at the New Gods unimpeded, wearing them down little by little.

The final benefit of having so many antagonist ties into my previous post on action horror: mystery and threat. The reader knows that the New Gods are powerful and threatening, but not the true scope of their capabilities. Just when you think you know what to expect from the New Gods, they pull out another trump card. Each story spotlights different factions, preventing any one group from receiving too much exposure, preserving their essential mystery.

Mystery is key. Once someone has the full measure of a player, he knows what to expect. By preserving the mystery, the reader is always uncertain about what will happen next. This keeps the New Gods a constant background threat. In a series that requires multiple encounters with a recurring antagonist, you can preserve the mystery by cycling between multiple antagonists to keep the reader—and the protagonist—from learning everything about them. It also keeps the plot feeling fresh.

Some stories are well-suited for having a single monolithic enemy. Others can use the monster of the week format, with every story focusing on a new and different kind of antagonist. For what I have in mind for Babylon, I chose a polylithic arrangement of enemies, creating an environment of constant conflict and chaos. One in which the heroes stand out for being on the side of law and order.

Do you dare challenge the New Gods? Back Babylon Red on IndieGoGo here!

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