How to Design an Alpha Antagonist
Capcom’s Mr. X from Resident Evil 2 is a great case study
Capcom’s masterful remake of Resident Evil 2 has already become a celebrated hit among both fans and newcomers of the legendary survival-horror franchise. One character that really stands head-and-shoulders above the rest is Mr. X, who makes his return from the original game in a terrifying new form. In this piece, I’m going to discuss some of the key design principles behind Mr. X and why he’s so effective as a terrorizing force throughout the game. But before I go any further, I want to take a moment to explain what I mean by “alpha antagonist”.
This term — alpha antagonist — is one that I coined way back when discussing Alien Isolation. My intention was to find a shorthand way of articulating the importance — and impact — of the singular xenomorph, who stalks the player throughout the entire game. The relationship between xenomorph and player was unusual (at least when compared to most enemies in games), in the sense that it was so deeply asymmetrical; the player could never permanently deal with the xenomorph. Rather, the player was locked in a never ending cat-and-mouse game. Of course, many games over the years have contained more powerful boss-type characters, but that’s not quite the same thing.
Tiers of terror
When I think about traditional horror games, I believe it makes sense to categorize enemies into tiers. Common enemies — or, those belonging to tier 1 — tend to be found liberally throughout the game world. In the Dead Space series, for example, the player frequently found themselves in an arena-style fight where they were surrounded by such enemies.
The second tier contains enemies that usually exist in fewer numbers, but present more challenging combat encounters (for example, the lickers and hunters in the Resident Evil games).
And then finally there are the tier 3 enemies (or, alpha antagonists). These baddies tend to cross paths with the player in the context of unique encounters. Bosses aren’t included in this group; they differ from alpha antagonists because they involve one-time encounters. Often, survival horror games include boss fights where conventional weapons are ineffective — these battles tend to feel more like puzzles than direct battles.
It’s worth noting, too, that the more enemies the player has to fight, the less frightening these encounters tend to become; the player becomes accustomed to them. This is one ever-present issue when it comes to longer-lasting horror games; it can be challenging for designers to genuinely scare the player after 15 hours of play, and especially if they have acquired enough of an arsenal to feel relatively powerful.
So, given this, it’s worth considering the conditions that make the alpha antagonist most effective.
Fight or flight
The first point that eliminates many contenders for the alpha antagonist title by default is that there has to be some form of combat involved; or, at least a way of directly interacting with the antagonist. Many indie games have gone down the route of including named or unique enemies that chase after the player (Outlast and Amnesia are two popular examples of this approach). But these cases don’t incorporate combat; the player must simply hide or die.
What makes the alpha antagonists of Resident Evil 2 and Alien Isolation work so well is that weapons can be used as a temporary stopgap measure. Instead of encountering a black-and-white situation where you either need to hide or die, you can decide whether or not it’s worth using precious resources to stop the antagonist in its tracks and buy some precious time, or whether it makes sense to conserve these resources and run away. Mr. X can be downed with a player’s weapons, but the effect is temporary; he’ll get up after about a minute or two and resume his patrol.
The added challenge here arises from the fact that if the player chooses to use more powerful weapons to stop the alpha antagonist, they may be limiting their options when it comes to fighting other powerful enemies that can be killed. This tension — making progress while the alpha antagonist is sniffing around — is an important and fundamental element of the design.
Ever present danger
Perhaps the biggest challenge for designers when it comes to creating alpha antagonist scenarios is that the encounters must feel dynamic — that is, the antagonist can show up at any time. In many horror games, major encounters with the scariest enemies are often locked to fixed points throughout the game. Once the player knows that a particular enemy only shows up at specific points, a great deal of their fear is likely to fade away.
However, once they’re introduced, both Mr. X and the xenomorph actively hunt the player. As a player, the knowledge that you could be attacked at any time by something that can’t be stopped is a powerful motivator — and a powerful source of genuine fear.
It’s not a perfect formula though; there are times where this design approach can be more frustrating than frightening. For example, when significant puzzle solving is required, it can be annoying to try to solve a puzzle while swatting away continual attacks by an unstoppable enemy.
Speaking of which, the alpha antagonist is supposed to feel unstoppable — but there are cases where even the most powerful antagonist has to obey the game’s rules of play. For instance, if the antagonist stops outside safe rooms, this might break the immersion; there are in-context and in-universe ways of explaining it away, but that’s another topic.
Either way, it’s a challenging design to successfully execute. On the one hand, the enemy needs to track and hunt the player. At the same time, they can’t simply go wandering off to some corner of the map never to be seen again. In this design piece, the AI behind the xenomorph was broken down and studied. Essentially, you have two AI systems at play: A director AI that knows where the player is and sends the xenomorph to a general location near them, and the alien AI that takes over and tries to find the player locally.
Mr. X gon’ give it to ya
Resident Evil 2’s use of Mr. X, as well as Alien Isolation’s use of the xenomorph, are both great designs that other developers should take notes on. With rumors of a Resident Evil 3 remake in the works, I’d absolutely love to see Capcom design nemesis further along the lines of the xenomorph — creating that ever-present danger that will keep coming back to haunt the player.
I think the best horror game experiences are about fighting an overwhelming enemy that can’t easily be stopped, not just hiding for minutes at a time or fighting through waves of disposable monsters. It’ll be interesting to see where Capcom will go with the formula in the future, and if other developers will create their own versions of Mr. X.