There is something so interesting about portraying the "bad guy." Whether it is through the sometimes incomprehensible attraction of characters like Boba Fett or Aurra Sing in Star Wars, or in playing games where you get to take an active hand being bad - like in the classic game Dungeon Keeper, flipping the traditional role of heroic savior on its ear can be fun.
Overlord(1), a new anime series airing this summer, seems to like the concept of playing against type but delves into a bit of character study not about the mindset of evil, but in the impact of portraying an evil being has on a fundamentally "good" person. This series takes a more increasingly common premise - that of a game player stuck in a fantasy game world as we've seen repeated numerous times in Anime since the first .Hack series through current darling Sword Art Online and its clones - and twists it around to show not only the impact on the player, but the player's impact on the usually programmed and paper-thin non-player character (NPC) archetypes.
Everything in the series starts out as you might expect - its a show about a game, so the player - who appears to be a mousy salaryman in real life - is living out his fantasy of being the ultimate Bad Ass in the final moments before the shutdown/retirement of his favorite online world. This is an interesting idea - as in the world of online games we've seen players do exactly this over the last few years.(2) Most of the players in the world have moved on, and as one of the most powerful guilds on the server, the main character decides to ride out the faded glory and celebrate his own accomplishments. There is a twinge of loneliness and regret as he waits for the server to shut down in his virtual kingdom among the spoils of his guild.
When the final second comes and the world should end, something unique occurs... nothing in fact ends and the player is unable to raise the virtual game interface and log out. Immediately he sees a change in the world around him, and in the way the scripted NPC characters react. He indulges his ego and modifies one of the sexy servants created by one of his departed guild-mates to become a lover with very potentially Hentai consequences.
Luckily, the show also recognizes the power of fan service and the wish-fulfillment paradigm many of these sorts of characters represent - and it does an interesting job of showing how the player is immediately put off guard by the strong reaction - especially once he realizes it goes outside the programmed behavioral limits of the virtual characters. Once the manipulation is real he appears a bit taken back, but he recovers quickly so as not to "blow his cover."
After the initial shock of his predicament becomes clear, the main character realizes he is not just portraying this level 100 arch-lich character - he has become this character, and begins to see the changes that the reality has brought to all the servants and minions stationed in the castle. His response surprised me a bit. In most anime today I expect pretty transparent characters, and while this protagonist does not appear to be all that different and is not portrayed in a super realistic fashion, he does seem to be written with an understanding of the stakes. the first episode sets up the premise well - he, and his minions are now real, and in a new world - one where he is an invading evil of immense power.
This empowerment and his reaction to the emotive, living minions with all their surface stereotype archetypes makes up the bulk of the first few episodes as he gathers the troops and begins to try and figure out his role in the new world. One other area the show demonstrates some interesting narrative promise is in the portrayal of these minions, and the ability to tell their point of view when the player is off screen.
Being based upon teenage fiction the series has a very light, comedic overtone. It is fairly light on action in the first few episodes, instead spending a lot of time constructing the mythology of the world and setting up the rules of how the player interacts with his minions and his magical abilities. I found the premise sparked some interesting ideas in my thoughts, though I'm not a huge fan of the "Connecticut Yankee" concept as its feels almost as overused as the heroic amnesia plot.
I'm somewhat interested instead in seeing if there is a way to take the kernel of this story and make it 1. More adult and "real", and 2. Expand on the idea of the bad guy perspective without creating an unsympathetic character twirling his mustache or who has corrupted their internal moral code.
Regardless, I'm enjoying the light fare and may figure out how to dabble a bit in this form of storytelling in the near future.
1. This series has no relationship to the recent Overlord video game series published by Codemasters aside from sharing a concept of being an evil overlord. It is actually based upon a series of light novels by Japanese author Kugane Maruyama aimed at middle & high school kids.
2. There are some stories and YouTube channels dedicated to the end of some of the recently retired MMOs like Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes, etc.