From a staple enemy of fantasy RPG, to the visceral hordes of narrative-driven games, rats are frequently depicted as evil. But what does that evil amount to? Why are rats the perfect enemy? Or are they even enemies at all?
I remember my first encounter with video game rats – in 2001’s Max Payne there’s a subway level, where if you throw a grenade into a rathole, you will be granted an extra objective stating, ‘I have declared war on the rats’. The rodents will arm themselves with Desert Eagles, and proceed to enact their revenge on the gurning detective. It’s a weird Easter egg, but ‘killer rats’ is actually pretty on-point in reflecting the way we view rats in games. In the years that followed, I covered myself in rat blood in Dragon Age, farmed rats for humanity in Dark Souls, and committed single-handed genocide in Vermintide – all without ever really thinking about it.
That’s probably why rats are such great enemies – our cultural distaste for them runs so deep, that in our minds they easily occupy the position. We tell stories about rats doing evil things – in The Witcher 3, it’s a paralysed nobleman’s daughter being eaten alive, in Dishonored, a city of rat bites and body bags. But who’s to blame in those stories? What’s far more interesting about video game rats is their ability to be both an enemy, and somehow occupy a position of blamelessness. They only act according to their nature. But that begs the question: in human terms, is their nature evil?
One of our oldest negative associations of rats relates to the Black Death, the period of plague during Medieval Europe, which they were originally blamed for. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a game which seeks to exaggerate that story for the purpose of the in-game experience – creating a plague of rats more akin to folk-tale than a historically accurate depiction. As creative director on the game, David Dedeine says, “We have been warpers of history!” The result of this so-called warping is, however, pretty terrifying. To experience one of A Plague Tale’s rat-swarms is to witness a nightmare. “It speaks directly to the reptilian brain, your body actually reacts to it,” Dedeine jokes. “The brain can’t describe it, that’s what makes it scary.”
Staring into the writhing, red-eyed mass of rodent bodies, pouring from the walls, and through cracks in the floor, I’m inclined to agree with him. But part of what also makes them scary, is that they’re always present. “It’s like the shark in Jaws,” Dedeine explains. “When you’re on the surface of the sea, you don’t know where the shark is. Rats are the same.” We all know the urban myth, that in a city you’re never more than two metres away from a rat – A Plague Tale effectively creates the mechanical version of this. As Dedeine says: “Every single hole in the wall can begin to tell a story.”
Another reason A Plague Tale’s rats are terrifying is because they cease to be individuals – in their uncountable swarms, they represent only a unity of hunger. But is hunger evil? Smash a guard’s lantern with main character Amicia’s sling, and they’ll be eaten, but drop a ham into the swarm and the rats will devour it with the same glee. There is an equality to the rats’ unscrupulous hunger, which makes it hard to blame them. Especially when throughout the game you’ll witness such conscious evil acts – people being burned at the stake, battlefields littered with corpses, and more murders than you can count.
Rats feed on evil – it’s one of the main reasons our society hates them. They act as a mirror, their prevalence a directly linked reminder of our own evil acts. In A Plague Tale: Innocence, Amicia and her young brother Hugo are the innocent party traversing a brutal world; but I’m starting to think that perhaps rats too are innocent in their own way.
In the world of Warhammer Fantasy, another interesting depiction can be found – the Skaven, a race of villainous sentient rats modelled almost directly upon our negative cultural associations. All you need do is look at their clans to realise this – Clan Pestilens, based on our association between rats and plague; Clan Eshin, on the idea that rats are sneaky and treacherous; Clan Skryre, twisting our idea of lab-rats; and Clan Moulder, playing on our disgust at rat survivability.
The Skaven are essentially cartoon villains, caricatures, and their society, a hierarchical, self-cannibalising monster, that just won’t stop growing – in many ways they’re the perfect antagonist. The Vermintide games sought to take advantage of this – four heroes facing off against tides of ratmen, slashing and bludgeoning in a horde-killing frenzy. But the majority of the rats you kill in the game are Skavenslaves, the lowest strata of rat society – ignorant creatures, riled into a frenzy and let loose. You rarely kill the masters, the Warlords and Grey Seers pulling the strings. So it begs the question, are Skaven evil by nature? Or are they merely victims of their society?
Anders De Geer, game director on Vermintide, knows the answer. “A Skavenslave is just a Warlord that hasn’t found a way to climb or back-stab his way to the top yet. They are egocentric, greedy, envious, unloving, cowardly, power-hungry, ruthless creatures.” The anthropomorphic quality of the Skaven is one of their most interesting aspects – it’s in the name: ratmen. But which part is rat? Which part is man? De Geer insists that what is worst in them comes from us. “Skaven are not supposed to be rats acting like humans, but rather humans acting like rats.” Just as in A Plague Tale, we see how rats can act as a mirror for “mankind’s worst characteristics”, as De Geer phrases it.
While it’s absurd to compare Skaven to humanity, it does draw some uncomfortable parallels. As De Geer says: “I think the main reason Skaven commit their worst atrocities against themselves, is that they live among other Skaven.”
Dishonored has always been a game series about victimisation – its protagonists stripped of their finery and cast into the gutter, alongside the rats and plague victims. It fosters an almost sympathetic alignment with rats, which – while dangerous – become circumstantial allies. Through its Chaos system, Dishonored shows an awareness that rats merely feed upon evil – the more bodies you leave in your wake, the more rats will appear, and the more the plague will spread. It’s easy to see Dishonored’s rats as evil at first, but in revealing that the Lord Regent displaced them and brought them to the city, we realise they’re merely an unsuspecting aspect of his evil schemes.