Let’s talk about Overlord.
Well, more specifically, let’s talk about Overlord II, which is what I’ve been playing lately. It’s the sequel to the original, one which improves upon its progenitor in numerous ways, sharing enough of the original’s DNA to be What We Liked, but containing sufficient nuances in play to be But Different, which is pretty much what sequels are supposed to be. For those unfamiliar, the protagonist of the Overlord series is, well, an Overlord, one in a series of Overlords who rule over hives of Minions–small, gremlin-like creatures with vague elemental attunements–and in so doing amass evil empires. Yes, evil. Intensely, parodically, self-aware evil. It’s a game about being evil, which is right up my alley. And the most important thing is that… oh wait, let’s me put this in traditional Game Mechanic of the Week bold italics, the rule from the manual itself:
To Send an individual Minion, use [the left mouse button].
You see, you are always surrounded by minions. Well, not always, there are a few plot points where the poor Overlord is alone, and you can lose all your little friends through severe mismanagement but the BASE state of being an overlord is being surrounded by twenty to fifty little monsters. And when you face a thing, and you press the Button, and one shoots off and goes to interact with the thing. If you hold the Button, then minions will flow off of you, toward the thing you want to interact with. You can send them all off into a frenzy of destruction, if you want.
Why is this interesting? Well, for one thing, I can never get over the primacy of the Button; I’ve yammered about it before, and the way that keying a particular action to the left mouse button (on a PC) or a trigger or the bottommost face button (on a controller) is an effective way to tell the player that THIS is the most important interaction of the game. Whatever the player will be most naturally inclined to do, whatever the most convenient point of interaction is, that’s the Button. When you pull the trigger to shoot the gun, then this is a game in which shooting guns is your most important skill. When the Button jumps, then it’s a game about jumping. Certainly, there is a hierarchy here… on a PC, I would say that the second most important action is whatever is bound to space, for instance (in this case, that is bound to swinging your weapon, because this is just That Sort of Game). But there’s a Button, and for the Overlord, that means your primary way of interacting with the world is by making something else interact with it for you.
This, coupled with the fact that the minions move much, much faster than the Overlord, has an interesting side effect. See, Overlord is far from the only game in which there are crates to break and chests to open because they contain potions and loot. That’s… that’s like an entire genre: games with loot in crates. But your speed is slow, and trundling over to crates takes a while, and since minions will break open crates and grab their goodies for you, if you send them forth, the player is less-inclined to have the Overlord walk over and grab the loot himself, and more likely to stand in a central place in this loot-filled room and direct minions to get to work.
This is great. Unlike in battles, where using minions is essential (they do piddling damage individually, but can gang up on enemies and succeed by being to numerous to effectively attack, or by sweeping around and getting enemies from behind), this isn’t a necessity, but it is a natural reaction; it’s easier, and players will tend to do things the easy way unless they have a good reason not to. And that’s fine and dandy.
But why do I love it? Because it means that my Overlord strides imperiously into a room, raises his arms, and sends minions to destroy everything! That’s what the game is about, not just being evil but being in command of a force! A force–and this is the important distinction between Overlord and, say, an RTS where I send tanks against my enemies–a force which I use for entirely petty ends as well. It sells you on your power as an Overlord, as a leader of these creatures: they do anything and everything for you, and you take advantage of that. Without thinking, it becomes nature to make the minions do it, not just when it’s necessary, but when it’s convenient. It’s a game, in other words, which mechanically encourages you to take advantage of those in your command for entirely selfish reasons, which, given that being an imperious and evil ruler is rather the point, is absolutely perfect.
Plus, there’s something wonderfully evil about being so evil that you don’t even smash things anymore, you just have people to smash things, while you stride forth, calm as the breeze. It makes for a beautiful moment.