Does anyone, other than politicians and teenagers, have real-life true enemies? It takes so much energy and effort to constantly hate someone. But in games it’s a different matter. They serve as narrative cocaine: keeping you focused and singularly determined to do whatever it takes – it doesn’t matter how many countless goons get slaughtered along the way to victory, a good villain, a true nemesis, makes it all about them.
And for good reason. Nemesis was originally an Ancient Greek goddess who redistributed fortune to make everyone equal. As a ‘balancer of life and daughter of Justice’ her role grew from enforcing equality to punishing hubris and avenged crime. Really, she was really just a keeper of balance, but to the proud or arrogant, and the criminal, she would obviously appear as an threat. The roots of the word she inspired are reflected in what ‘nemesis’ means today: someone who is opposite to you in such an offensively equal way as to become your enemy. They are the yin to your yang, the anti-matter to your matter, the peanut butter to your jelly.
This is what Portal villain GLaDOS is to Chell. Everything that Chell is, so is GLaDOS – determined, intelligent, logical and even willing to destroy life to further their goal, with GLaDOS destroying her test subjects and Chell destroying the Companion Cube to progress. We can argue over whether or not the Cube is ‘life’, but you’ll be wrong.
But what sets them in opposition is that they are using these traits for opposite purposes. To beat GLaDOS, you have to be as good as GLaDOS; you have to outsmart her at her own game, turn her machines against her, do what she doesn’t expect you to do – and even then, as revealed in the end credits song, maybe that was what she wanted all along. After all, it was a triumph.
GLaDOS’ evil and manipulative tactics against specifically you are what drive you on. If Portal were nothing but a puzzle game, even one with an overlay of narrative about people getting trapped, it would be nowhere near as compelling, memorable and infuriating as it is with Ellen McLain’s taunting robotic sneers at the start of each level. GLaDOS is not merely an enemy, she’s a personal reason to beat the damn game so that you can rip out her stupid voice module and stuff it down whatever computers have for throats.
But GLaDOS’s punishment for us is our imprisonment. Other game nemeses go further – they take it out on our loved ones, instead. Fable 2’s Lord Lucien killed my sister, and that was sad, but when he killed my dog, that’s when shit hit the fan. Thank god there wasn’t much game left by that point or I might have gone full John Wick, ignoring the minigames and property ladder, no longer amused by farting in front of crowds, but instead beating down minions until Lord Lucien’s stupid head was on top of a pike.
It would, of course, be neglectful to not mention perhaps the most obvious nemesis in recent history, the Nemesis System itself in Shadow Of Mordor. No game makes it more personal than this one, specifically because your nemesis in the game is no one’s but your own, generated from a list of names and titles that ranges from ‘Thakrak the Storm Bringer’ to ‘Pugrish the Gentle’. Imagine telling your children about avenging the Uruk-Hai savage who made your life hell and his name is ‘PUGRISH THE GENTLE’.
The Nemesis System allowed you to create and nurture your own nemesis, helping him get promotions and reach the top of his career as a guy who rips heads off for a living, almost like a child or a mentee. You begin to care about your nemesis like an old friend, someone who yells your name across a battlefield as if he’s excited to see you. You are responsible for each other’s success, and it’s sad when you have to kill the poor chap – he’s as much a part of you as the ghost guy who’s actually living inside you.
A nemesis is your other half, the fuel that keeps you going forward, the reason you’re pumping that XP into getting better at everything. In fact, the only thing that separates them from the love of your life is that they probably murdered… well, the love of your life.
This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.