What we can learn from: ‘Half-Life 2: Breen’s Redemption’

 

 

 

 

Valve’s 2004 game, ‘Half-Life 2’ is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest first person shooters ever released, featuring (for its time) unparalleled physics, a gripping story, and one of the most oppressive atmospheres ever encountered in a video game.  Playing as silent scientist Gordon Freeman, the player fights to free humanity from the Combine, an inter-dimensional alien empire that has conquered Earth (instead of, as you might think, a race of sentient grain harvesters).

Throughout the game, the player often hears from Wallace Breen, a human who has allied himself with the Combine as humanity’s ‘administrator’. Though he presents a friendly, almost grandfatherly face to the public, complete with speeches explaining why humanity should work with the Combine, it eventually becomes clear that Breen is not a nice guy. But is he truly a villain?

In-game, we’re told that, during humanity’s hopeless, seven-hour war against the Combine, Breen intervened and managed to negotiate a surrender, where, in exchange for not being wiped out by the Combine, humanity is allowed to exist, but as a subservient race who has to endure a life of nonstop oppression and helplessness. But did Breen do this to save the human race, or to gain power for himself? We’re never told, leaving it up to the player to come to their own conclusions. I like to think that Breen did want to save humanity, and hates the Combine, but he also wants power, and realized that working with the Combine was the way to get it. But in the end, it was all for naught, and he met his end falling to his death from the top of the Combine tower.

But what if he had lived?

‘Half-Life 2: Breen’s Redemption’, by Youtube user Crunchy Soap, examines what might have happened had Breen survived the events of Half-Life 2. The result is a  hauntingly beautiful look at a man who realizes the misery his actions has caused, and a prime example on how to redemption a villain:

How to redeem a villain

1. Have the villain lose everything they gained from becoming evil:

Breen loses his position of power with the Combine and becomes an ordinary person with nothing to his name.

2. Have the villain reach their lowest point:

Breen is injured and alone, and knows that he’ll probably be shot on sight by the Resistance, or any member of humanity with a gun.

3. Have the villain face the consequences of what he/she has done

Unlike other stories, Breen doesn’t face imprisonment or execution for his actions: instead, he comes face to face with the suffering his alliance with the Combine has caused, regardless of any good intentions he might have had when he made said alliance.

4. Have the villain turn against the organization he/she created

Even though he’s an older man and past his physical prime, Breen takes on the Combine elite with nothing but a pipe to save the lives of two Resistance members, and later, three of them with only a submachine gun. In doing so, he reaches a point of no return: by killing members of his organization, he cements his decision to change sides, for good or ill.

5. Have the villain help his former enemies/work to restore what he/she has destroyed

Breen saves the lives of two Resistance members, then a child, and then becomes a full-fledged member of the Resistance, joining their fight to save Earth from the Combine. By doing so, he now does what he can to undo the damage he caused on behalf of the Combine.

While there are deeper villain redemption stories out there, ‘Breen’s Redemption’ is a short, effective tale that’s told without any dialogue(outside of the opening). While he probably would not be given a chance of redemption based on how much the in-game characters despise him, I like seeing him get a chance to turn back, making this video a personal favorite… but if you’d rather see Breen get his comeuppance in hilarious ways, this should help scratch that itch:

 

 

 

 

What we can learn from ‘Sharknado 5: Global Swarming’

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Last week, we took a look at… You know what, you know the drill by now.

1. Consider making the backstory behind your monster something your audience won’t expect

For the first four films, the Sharknado series has stuck with the idea that the sharknadoes are an entirely natural phenomenon. ‘Global Swarming’ bucks that trend by revealing that sharknadoes are actually a supernatural phenomenon caused by a shark god that humanity has fought in the past, and defeated. In as serious series, this would be pretty far-fetched, but the dopey nature of the Sharknado series makes this a plausible twist that retroactively paints the series as humanity’s latest fight against a supernatural menace trying to wipe us out, giving the series a bigger feel, in that there’s more going on beyond what we see in the films.

2. Give your character/s a good reason to chase after the monster.

One of the hardest hurtles to overcome in monster movie sequels is giving the hero a valid reason to chase after a monster that any sane person would run away from. ‘Global Swarming’ is one of the few monster sequels I’ve seen that gives the leads a legitimate and logical reason to do so: Finn and April’s son have been sucked by a sharknado that can teleport around the globe, forcing them to give chase in order to save him. Thus, they’re not motivated by greed, revenge, or wanting to destroy the menace once and for all, but to save a loved one, a motive that everyone can relate to and understand.

3. Take advantage of exotic locations, but make sure they advance the story

Where the four previous Sharknado films took place entirely within the United States (and outer space), ‘Global Swarming’ finally takes the toothy menace across the globe, including England, Switzerland, Italy, Australia, Japan, and Egypt. Predictably, this allows the film to poke fun at the various attractions at each location, the most enjoyable of which is Finn leading the charge to save the Queen at Buckingham Palace, a brief sojourn in Africa where we have lions vs sharks, and the statue of Christ the Redeemer literally giving Finn and April a hand as they continue to try and save their son.

However, when your characters go to exotic locations, make sure their adventures advance the story: ‘Global Swarming’s sequence in Switzerland, which features a steampunk zeppelin and lots of skiing and dog mushing, feels like padding. While an action sequence may have plenty of cool-looking action, if it doesn’t advance the story or characters, it will ultimately be padding. Cool-looking padding, but padding nonetheless.

3. Consider giving a long-running sidekick a less-than-honorable motivation (and then let them redeem themselves)

Nova’s role in the Sharknado series is to be the action girl unfettered by a family or loved ones beyond Finn, and ‘Global Swarming’ puts her in command of the Sharknado Sisters, a cavort group dedicated to wiping out sharknadoes. But then it’s revealed that what Nova wants is pure revenge: to kill every shark on earth, even if she has to give up on rescuing Finn’s son, Gil. Considering that sharks killed her grandfather and nearly ate her, it’s understandable that Nova would want to kill an entire species, but such a revelation retroactively makes her a darker character.

However, the movie does give her redemption and the chance to balance out her bloodlust: Nova is the reason Gil gets sucked into the sharknado, and she tries to save him in Tokyo, but fails and dies, but not before reconciling with Finn and April, proving that when it comes to redemption quests, the effort of just trying is just as important as if the character succeeds or not.

5. When all else fails, throw in an athlete using his/her skills to help save the day

Is your story sagging by the middle of the second act? Are you trying and failing to find a way to sustain your audience’s interest? Why not try throwing in a random cameo by an athlete using their skills to help save the day? In a film filled with sharks in tornadoes attacking multiple countries, the pope giving out laser-firing chainsaws, and ancient shark gods, the most random moment may be Tony Hawk appearing out of nowhere in Australia and using his skateboarding skills to help fully transform the Sidney Opera House into an anti-sharknado weapons platform. Does it make any sense? Not really. But it is memorable and amusing to see him use skateboarding to help fight a sharknado, similar to how Gymkata features an Olympic gymnast defeating bad guys with gymnastics and conveniently placed horizontal bars and pommel horses in city plazas and alleyways.

6. When introducing an evil organization/villain, give them some motivations and goals

When in Brazil, Finn and April learn more about the ancient artifact that can be used to control sharknadoes. But it isn’t long before a shady man sneaks in and steals it, prompting an inter-continental chase to Rome where Finn takes on the bad guy and gets the artifact back. However, this man’s appearance feels almost like an afterthought: he appears without any foreshadowing, and is dispatched quickly a few minutes later without having any real effect on the story, aside from getting Finn and April to Rome. I got the impression that he’s part of an evil organization that wants to control sharknadoes, but this story idea is never pursed or given any development.

While it’s acceptable to have antagonists appear suddenly in stories to accost and badger our protagonists, it’s important to give the reader some sense of who they are and what they want. Even if they have the coolest looks, the baddest weapons, and the most awesome equipment, it’s still important to give them a motivation, rather than being a random goon who leaves as quickly as he or she appears.

7. Dramatic moments have a heavier impact in comedy

‘Global Swarming’ starts off like all the previous Sharknado films, focusing on jokes, goofy and outlandish attacks, and the like. But when the film gets into its third act, it takes a sudden turn into the dramatic: Nova fails to save Gil from the sharknado and dies; Fin’s entire family is killed by sharknadoes, and then the film kills not only April, but everyone else on Earth, leaving Finn the world’s sole survivor. And there’s no comedy or jokes to any of these scenes: they’re all played straight, resulting in what may be the most emotionally effective moments in any Scyfi/Asylum film to date.

What makes these moments effective is how unexpected they are; we, the audience, watch comedies to laugh and feel good, which makes the sudden introduction of drama and death catches us off guard. It’s one thing to watch characters die in dramas and thrillers; we expect it. Having a dramatic moment in a comedy and not playing it for laughs will get people’s attention because of how unexpected it is.

8. When people lose their loved ones, make sure they grieve

While ‘Global Swarming’s dramatic moments are effective, I couldn’t help but feel that Finn and April don’t grieve enough when they learn that their entire family is dead, especially when Finn hears his older son die on the phone while talking to him. Such an event should drive them to their knees and crush their spirits, and the only reason they could even go on is fueled purely by wanting to get revenge on the sharks, with all thoughts of saving humanity thrown aside.

When your character’s loved ones die, make sure we see them grieve. The struggle of having to go on even when all they want to do is collapse makes us sorry for them, yet we can admire them for continuing on after going through what is arguably the most traumatic thing a human can ever experience.

9. When you have a downer ending, strongly consider having a ray of hope

‘Global Swarming’ ends with everyone on Earth dead except for Finn. Had the film ended there, it would have the most shocking ending in the series to date. However, there is a faint thread of hope as he meets – thanks to time travel shenanigans – his now grown son and heads back in time to save everyone else.

In fiction, downer endings are pretty much guaranteed to stay with people long after the story is over, for both good or ill. While they are memorable because they go against the expectation of having a happy ending, or, at least, a bittersweet one, there’s also no escaping the fact that they’re depressing, making it hard to come back to the story again and again. However, if the characters, and the reader, have the smallest thread of hope that things will get better, that can transform a terrible situation into one where the audience will remember your story even more fondly than if there is no hope.

The Takeaway:

When doing a sequel in your monster series, consider exploring an unexpected background behind the monsters while taking advantage of traveling to exotic locations in pursuit of the monster for a noble goal, while making sure those travels contribute to the plot; along the way, make sure villains get some motivations and goals when they appear, and have your characters react realistically to losing everyone they love, and if your story has a downer ending, leaving a thread of hope that things will get better will go a long way to satisfying your audience.

Note: Due to missing ‘Sharknado 6: It’s About Time’s broadcasts, and that the film is not yet available on DVD or streaming, my critique of the film will have to wait until it is available. Until then, the series-wide analysis is on hold.