Heel: A bad guy or person contemptible person. They can lie, cheat, act superior and attack weaker enemies. A heel can be a cowardly heel or a monster heel.
Face: A good guy or hero, from the word “babyface.”
The “heel turn” (or alternative “face turn”) is a dramatic and powerful narrative tool when used correctly.
The technique was used and perfected by professional wrestling over the years, but it has existed for centuries on the pages of the best writers and playwrights.
The concept is simple: Turn a good guy into a bad guy for dramatic effect.
If done correctly, audiences love to hate it.
If done incorrectly, it’s still a useful narrative tool, but a bit of a wasted opportunity.
This article will focus on how to best use the heel turn or face turn technique in game narrative.
Professional Wrestling Origins
Professional wrestling obviously didn’t invent this narrative device. It’s been used by Shakespeare and the modern day version of Shakespeare: Soap operas.
In fact, WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) has hired soap opera writers over the years to ensure their storylines are as dramatic and compelling as possible. Ratings and revenue have proven that good storytelling works wonders, especially in a mass-market entertainment product like professional wrestling.
Pro wrestling is a successful business because audiences are invested in the characters and the storylines. Some of the absolute best storylines and rivalries originated from “heel turns,” where one wrestler unexpectedly turned from a good guy into a bad guy and then feuded with another character in their new role.
A well-remembered example is the turn made by Andre the Giant in 1987. Andre unexpectedly showed up with infamous heel manager Bobby Heenan to confront Hulk Hogan during a live interview. Andre demanded a title match at Wrestlemania and disrespectfully ripped off Hogan’s shirt and crucifix necklace. Hogan sold the story by convincingly pleading with Andre that they were friends and not to associate with his nemesis Heenan. It was an unusually “low violence” heel turn, but in that day and age, it was shocking and generated a ton of interest in the Hulk Hogan versus Andre the Giant storyline. If it had happened in a video game, players would have devoured the story like crazy to find out what happens next.
A more dynamic and violent heel turn example took place in the summer of 1996 in WCW (World Championship Wrestling), which was a rival wrestling organization to WWE. They needed a long-term ratings boost to become the top dog in wrestling. They took the step of turning Kevin Nash and Scott Hall into bad guys, which worked well, but they further teased a “third man” that was going to join them. This set up some sweet anticipation from fans until the third man was revealed during a pay-per-view telecast. During the event, perennial good-guy Hulk Hogan came out from the back and looked like he might confront the heels. Instead, Hogan leg-dropped a semi-conscious Macho Man Randy Savage (twice), and executed one of the most successful heel turns in modern wrestling history.
Based on that heel turn, WCW wrestling launched the most successful long-term wrestling narrative, dominating WWE in ratings for the next two years based on the ongoing NWO (New World Order) storyline.
Real Life Heel Turns
Tabloid media love to push “heel turn” storylines about celebrities. Taylor Swift is a face for a few years, then does something sketchy that allows the heel storyline to be pushed. That sells ad revenue until eventually her heel turn is forgotten and she becomes a face again.
Justin Bieber, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Miley Cyrus, Kanye West, and Simon Cowell are all celebrities who have benefitted from drama surrounding real world face and feel turns. They benefit from the publicity exposure and entertainment news organizations benefit from viewership.
The phenomenon materializes in more serious public life from time to time, a good example being FBI Director James Comey and his face and heels turns in 2016, depending on your perspective.
People love and hate the drama in all forms of media, whether it’s “real life” or gaming.
Heel turns are slightly more common, but face turns are also effective narrative tools.
Face turns (when a heel becomes a face) usually don’t generate as much heat as a heel turn, but they are often coupled with the heel turn of another character, creating a dramatic and fun “double turn.”
Temporary or involuntary face turns can happen when the good guys mind control a villain into helping them or reprogram a killer robot to fight for their side.
Face turns are best used in these situations:
- The narrative would benefit from a dramatic twist, particularly when a bad guy is expected to do something, but the story would benefit even more from something surprising happening and the bad guy helping the protagonist instead of acting against them.
- A bad guy becomes so well-liked that they are no longer effective as a bad guy and would “get over” with fans more as a good guy. This happened repeatedly in professional wrestling when bad guys were written to be so cool that crowds ending up loving them rather than hating them. Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker and The Rock are all examples, along with characters like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and Andre the Giant turning face against after previously successful heel turns.
Video game narratives have come along way since games like Q*bert and Pitfall.
Franchises like The Last of Us, Bioshock, Half-Life (and Portal), Mass Effect, Metal Gear, and many more, have made us care deeply about the story and characters within a game. Anyone who has ever completed Red Dead Redemption will remember the ending and anyone who played the original Bioshock will remember the twist that changed everything.
The games listed above don’t necessarily have the most polished shooter mechanics or the most impressive graphics, but their stories and characters left permanent impressions with players.
Some of those games used the heel turn or face turn device to add to the story. Bioshock’s reveal changed the perspective of the entire story and and made an already good game into a great game.
Starcraft did a solid job with its face-heel-face story for Kerrigan, making the story essentially an epic and tragic love story between Sarah Kerrigan and Jim Raynor.
Following are some things to keep in mind when executing a heel or face turn within a video game narrative.
Always Bad or Broke Bad
Consider which state the character started in before their heel turn:
Always Bad: A character was always secretly a bad guy, but revealed it suddenly in a dramatic heel turn. Using this method, you don’t have to show any kind of progression, since the twist is enough drama.
There are two audience states to consider with regards to an Always Bad character:
- The audience doesn’t know about the secret.
- The audience knows about the secret, but the other characters don’t. This method is sometimes used in film and television. It still offers a dramatic reveal when the other characters find out the true intentions of the villain, and it offers dramatic moments when they bad guy is interacting with the other characters who don’t know the secret. This is much harder to execute in video games since you are usually interacting in first-person perspective as opposed to third-person perspective.
Broke Bad: A character becomes a bad guy over time through exposure to stressful conflict, experience with personal loss or some other narrative element.
This can also include the involuntary heel turn, usually using a trick like mind control or magic. Hawkeye in The Avengers movie is a shamefully executed example of this. This type of possession-based heel turn happened repeatedly in the Diablo franchise.
Planned or Unplanned
Heel / face turns can be planned or unplanned when creating the initial narrative for a game.
Planned: When developing the narrative for your game, you preplan a heel turn or face turn for a major character. This is generally how you want to set up your turns so you can develop the characters involved ahead of time.
Unplanned: Even if the above steps weren’t followed when a game narrative was initially created, it’s not too late. If you identify a situation and character that would make for a compelling heel turn, think it through and make it work if you can do it without losing credibility with your audience.
Tips for Heel Turns
- Before executing a heel turn, take the time to build up the character of the heel. Nobody will care about the heel turn if they don’t care about the heel. Have them perform some heroic or noble deeds during their career. Have them perform some kind of sacrifice or suffer some kind of intense defeat while acting as a good guy.
- If you plant seeds for the heel turn, don’t be too obvious and give everything away too early. The benefit of planting a few narrative clues is to allow the audience to feel smart and engaged in the story, but you don’t want to ruin the heel turn by giving away too much. It’s also perfectly acceptable to give zero hints that a heel turn is coming. Many of the best heel turns have no significant warning.
- Build up the relationship between the heel and the character who they will portray. You want the heel turn to be as bittersweet and impactful as possible. Two heroes who shared legitimate bonding moments together are going to create a much more dramatic situation when one of them turns heel.
- Make the actual mechanics of the heel turn appropriately dramatic and impactful. Carefully consider this part of the story because it’s going to be remembered. Think about the dialogue and the actions associated with this scene very thoroughly and iterate until it’s perfect.
- Make the impact of the heel turn significant. A permanent character death, a loss in an important wrestling match, or the escape of a key villain because of interference by the heel.
- Follow through with storyline after the heel turn. What are the repercussions for the characters directly involved in the heel turn?
- If you can, have other game characters react to the heel turn and show how it affects their lives. They are observers in the world and having them react in some way will sell it and make the world feel more immersive.
- Ensure that the character doing the heel turn doesn’t suddenly lose sight of everything that made the character compelling. They don’t have to don scary makeup or completing change their way of acting just because they are a bad guy. They should still keep some of their trademark characteristics, even as a bad guy.
- Plan ahead on how heel turn storyline is resolved. Is the heel eventually defeated and brought to justice like Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi? Does the heel eventually turn back into a face and find redemption like Darth Vader in the same film?
- Don’t use heel or face turns too frequently, otherwise they will lose their dramatic impact. Ideally, once or twice in a game narrative across the entire history of the franchise.
Bonus Thought: Playable Bad Guys
Thinking about Kerrigan from Starcraft reminds me of how fun it can be to have a playable “bad guy” occasionally.
Shooters have had playable bad guys for a long time, but Left 4 Dead took it to the next level with unique mechanics, aesthetics and win conditions for those playing the infected.
How fun would it be to have a mission in Destiny based on reprogramming a Vex Minotaur and allowing you to control that Minotaur, teleportation powers and all?
You could tie the idea of playable bad guys into your heel turn or face turn narrative, or it could be a feature that’s independent of storyline considerations. Either way, think about how fun and fresh it is for players.