As we said, madness is a very generic term which includes very disparate illnesses or attitudes. This is why it is complicated to put together an exhaustive list of all the characters, whether from video games but also from comics, books and other films, which one could describe as crazy. Nevertheless, we can see three very specific patterns stand out.
Hard to be a bad guy
Most video games are based on a principle as old as the world: that of the good and the bad. And who better than a villain to be mad, the term carrying, in the collective unconscious, a negative connotation? Not to mention that madness gives villains that limitless, scary, interesting and complex side: in short, all the characteristics of a good villain. And that Ubisoft understood it well with its Far Cry license. The antagonists are often unstable, driven mad by outbursts of anger, drugs or the traumas they have experienced. If we can note the sociopathic side of Pagan Min, the intoxicated madness of Faith or even the blind fanaticism of Joseph, one of these antagonists stands out more than the others when we talk about madness: Vaas. One of these outstanding villains who himself recognizes his madness:
I already gave you … the definition … that I have of the word … “madness”, eh? Madness is doing over and over again exactly the same bullshit that we repeat over and over, hoping that it will change. That’s … what … Madness. But the first time a guy told me that, I don’t know, I thought he was kidding me so boom, I shot him.
Vaas is of all excess. His appearances are often jerky with tantrums, between cries, blows and acts devoid of any reason. Sadistic, brutal, unpredictable, paranoid and inconsistent, Vaas Montenegro has nothing to do with the previous antagonists of the saga. George Krieger and the Jackal were indeed mean, just mean. With these elements of madness, it is therefore a different approach that Ubisoft has adopted, and which gives more consistency to the villain, makes him more striking, and thus more appreciated. This is why Vaas is quite regularly cited when it comes to listing the best video game villains, and has been placed at the heart of communication on Far Cry 3.
A nasty loan of madness, that’s a formula that works! It is therefore natural that Ubisoft followed this path for the next installments in the series. And they are not alone. In the most striking antagonists of video games, we find in particular Sephiroth from FF7. From the rank of hero to that of villain, there is sometimes only a step, which Sephiroth took by sinking into madness. Learning his origins, he changes dramatically, becoming sadistic, revengeful and ruthless. He even develops a Messiah Complex, a belief that is not categorized as a disease in itself, but that is often found in people suffering from different mental disorders.
Difficult to speak of madness, without mentioning the case of the Joker. Although taken from the comics, the way it is represented in the game remains interesting to analyze. If the LEGO Batman games or the first Batman games did not really try to make the madness of the Joker on the screen, the Batman Arkhams have rectified the situation and this from the first opus: Batman Arkham Asylum. The game, as the name suggests, takes place in an asylum, a perfect place to deal with insanity, isn’t it? And the title starts strong, with a long scene throughout which one is obliged to follow the Joker, attached to a kind of stretcher, and to witness his outbursts of madness, between laughter and sarcastic lunar remarks.
But the Joker’s craziness isn’t limited to Asylum. Batman Arkham Origins in particular has its share of scenes of madness, during which we can see the antagonist pointing a gun at his temple, reacting in an inconsistent and disproportionate way, or even put yourself in your skin through a series of hallucinatory scenes sometimes bordering on delirium. An emphasis which, through the prism of video games and thanks to its specificities, is only reinforced. The staging of the different games also puts the emphasis on this madness with a close-up on the disturbed smile of the Joker or by presenting two Jokers, in such a way that one could believe in a duplication of the personality.
Less emblematic but just as crazy, we find Sander Cohen and Dr Steinman (Bioshock) or even Isaac’s mother in The Binding of Isaac, and many other antagonists, whose madness is matched only by wickedness. Because after all, “It only takes one bad day for the sane man to go mad.” Therefore, other types of characters are not spared by this state.
Everyone is crazy here
The bad guys aren’t the only ones to be cradled by this sweet condition. Many characters know how to bring a grain of madness to the games they bring to life. But the motivations are not always the same. In What Remains of Edith Finch, for example, everyone is more or less crazy. All the disorders pass there, of the depression to the addiction, while passing by the aggravated egocentrism and the sick obsession. An approach consistent with the goal of the game which aims to draw up a sort of genealogical tree, portrait after portrait, of the neuroses and other disorders that inhabit the Finch family.
This is also the case in Sanitarium, where we can meet throughout our adventure a slew of characters all crazier than each other. From the start of the game, we see a man banging his head against a wall repeatedly, another looking like he’s doing the duck dance for no apparent reason, and a last, schizophrenic, assailed by the voices in his head. After all, how do you deal with madness without having crazy characters, you will say? But there is no need to speak of madness to integrate some suspicion of it into his game.
In a game like Skyrim, for example, with a multitude of characters, it is necessary to find small peculiarities so that they are distinguished from each other. If Mercer Frey stands out for his story or Saphir for his arrogant little air, Ciceron, him, shines by his madness. It is materialized by his strange looks and mimicry, as well as the fact that he speaks to the remains of the Night Mother, as if the latter can answer him.
However, it is not with acolyte, NPC or other secondary character that madness lives its best days. The interest is less there, less striking compared to a Vaas, or compared to a protagonist embodied by the player.
I am sick
Where video games reach their full potential when it comes to talking about madness is when the gamer goes mad. It must be said that a video game involves a great immersion which objectively surpasses any other medium. No matter how caught up in the Joker movie you may have been, the few passages where you can play the big villain of Arkham Origins are much more immersive and therefore more impactful. Taking place in fuzzy and changing environments, where nothing is stable or predictable, the player’s experience is thus closer to what goes on in the head of a mad person. The series continues its momentum with its latest installment Batman Arkham Knight, in which Batman, infected with the blood of the Joker, finds himself with a false perception of reality, between hallucinations and appearances. Although dead, the Joker has never been so present. But it is not only on the side of Batman Arkham that madness takes a preponderant place.
And there’s something for everyone … Trevor, a playable character in Grand Theft Auto V, seems crazy in many ways. Completely on the margins of society, he does not care much about conventions and other social norms. Violent, unable to feel empathy or guilt, and cannot tolerate frustration, Trevor is what is commonly referred to as a sociopath. Sociopathy is often used over and over again. This is one of the possible manifestations of antisocial personality disorder, and the characteristics of Trevor listed above are the main symptoms.
Max Payne, he suffers from an illness that is difficult to determine. Between sickly desire for revenge, depression, paranoid nightmares, traumas and crises bordering on schizophrenia, her life is not easy.
Some games go even further, offering special gameplay mechanics. In Don’t Starve, for example, you not only have to survive by eating and drinking, but also avoid going into insanity at all costs. A gauge allows you to monitor your mental health. If it is necessary to wait until it drops below 15% to go crazy, the effects are felt well before this threshold. Apparitions, whispers, distorted screen, saturated light …The descent into madness does not go unnoticed in Don’t Starve and this is what makes it striking and relevant.
In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice also, the fact of playing a mad person is felt in play, especially through the Furies, these voices that assault the minds of Senua and the player. If they are sometimes useful, providing information during combat for example, they can also prove to be misleading, giving false information that may cause the player to doubt. The voice of the narrator is lost among these Furies, accentuating this feeling of having no reliable benchmark.
Most of the games mentioned so far use madness as a simple mechanic or to spice things up a bit. Madness, in their hands, is just a simple feature, an easily replaceable element that is unrelated to the essence of the game it spices up. This is not the case with Hellblade, horror games and a lot of other games that revolve around madness and sometimes exist only through it. A relationship not always easy, as we will try to show in the next pages of this file.