Game Philosophy: Rivals and Foils

Welcome to yet another:


Today’s topic:
Rivals and Foils

Everybody has their personal biases as to what is needed in a good story.
It’s not required in any way for the general public, but there is a certain appeal that goes for specific people.
In my case, it’s rival characters.

Rival characters are characters who are opposite one another and, depending on the story, are total opposites themselves or in fact are so alike they just HAVE to kill eachother.

My appeal in Rivals is in the side-effects to having them, they bring out a strengthened side of the characters themselves. Usually giving both of them more depth in the process.
One could be a rebel and the other a law enforcer. Usually the rebel wouldn’t care about the rules and go for what he believes in, while the law enforcer is all about the law.
They’d just be basic characters by themselves, but then suddenly they are put opposite one another. The opposites suddenly are compelled to show their side of the argument much more clearly than usual.

But what I usually look forward to the most is when the rivals team up. And here is where rivals shine.


This is the big contrast of rival characters. They are the worst of enemies when they fight eachother. But when they work together, they are the best partners you can have.
Either they are total opposites thus they strengthen eachother’s weaknesses, or they are so alike that the teamwork is unrivaled by any other team.

However these effects aren’t exclusive to rivals. Who says they HAVE to be against eachother?
(Besides so they can have a fight scene which would be the best one in the whole game/movie)
Enter the foils.


Foils are kinda like rivals, except they usually are on the same side, unlike Rivals.
Sure, Rivals can be on the same side too, but they compete against eachother none the less.
Foils on the other hand work together from the start. And like with Rivals teaming up, usually they compliment one another.

There is a certain writing style you do whenever you have a duo or a team in general where characters work well together because of their differences.
I always much rather have a team with differences than a team that has the closest of bonds, usually because when you have a team with characters practically so in love with eachother, that’s pretty much as deep as you can get in terms of characters. A team with differences on the other hand, they have to compromise, and they all develop their characters thanks to their team mates. If they DON’T develop their characters, you instead get interesting character study either way.


With games, a rival and/or foil usually is the highlight of the game to me. Because games can do something movies and books can’t: interaction.
As you play with your character, you learn how he works, you KNOW what he’s capable of because you put those skills into practice.
Usually you’d be unrivaled in gameplay, and other bosses are just a more challenging fight where you demonstrate the skills you learned.

But then comes the boss fight against the rival.
For every move you do, he’ll have a similar move.
For every attack you do, he has a defense.
For every defense you have, he has something to bypass it.

Well in theory of course, but this is my favorite kind of boss. The boss that fights against you on the SAME level instead of trying to outdo you in size.
I get a much more accomplished feeling after fighting this boss than even the final boss which usually is just a giant something or another.
There are exceptions of course. There is Ninja Gaiden Black, Devil May Cry 3 and Yakuza. Hey, notice how those three are in my favorite series?

However, Rivals and Foils can, of course, be done wrong. That’s logical, everything can go wrong.
But this can actually kill a game for me.

For one, think about it. Who is supposed to win out of the two?
Well obviously the player character, but put that aside for just a minute.

Imagine this. Let’s go back to that Rebel and Law Enforcer as rivals.
Who is the main character out of the two?
Well it could be either one. Usually that answers who will have to win. But let’s say there is NO main character.
There is no story bias. Both of them are as important as the other.

Now who would win out of the two? SOMEONE has to be a victor.
And here is where things can go wrong.

These characters are written to be equals. Having one suddenly beating the other without effort usually kills that.
This is a problem that can happen when the creator of the story has too much favoritism over his own main character.
When that happens, they just put in a rival character simply for the claim that there is a rival character in the story.

I’m sorry, but writing a story isn’t just going through a checklist. They need to have an effect.
I like Rival characters because of the EFFECT they give to the opposing characters, not simply because they are rivals in themselves.
Same for foils. What is the point of having a serious character and a funny character, if the story is all about the serious character and the funny character is just there for cheap laughs from the audience? The funny character should be there to AFFECT the serious character, LEAD him to the story. Just because he is not the main character doesn’t mean he should be useless. If a character has a foil, then whenever said foil is on screen, he needs to almost be JUST as important to the plot as the main character. Whether if it’s just during that scene, or even the whole story through.

But back to who should win. Well again, either one should win, but there should be a good reason for why one wins over the other. The winner needs to have gotten an edge over the other, usually from an outside source.

Be it a higher motivation at the time, or they got help from someone else. Or hell, maybe one unlocked his hidden power before the other did, thus giving him the advantage. You have to take them in consideration before making one beat the other, or the whole “equal” thing just gets thrown out the window.

The cool thing you can do with the characters being equal is in how when they work together, the game doesn’t need to have either of them as a nuisance. They can take care of themselves, because if YOU can take care of yourself, so can he.

And yet again, that is why I love Rival characters. They are the perfect contrast to work with in a story and especially in a game.
Just keep thinking that IF you decide to put Rival and/or Foil characters in your game, keep this in mind, and don’t just put them in there for the sake of putting them in there. The effect is what makes it work.

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

2 thoughts on “Game Philosophy: Rivals and Foils

  1. Yeah, I have to admit I like the rival/foil thing too. I think it gets done decently enough, but not to an excellent level. Sonic and Shadow got pretty close though.


    1. Sonic and Shadow got close, but they have the problem of the writers not exactly knowing what to do with the rivalry anymore. While it’s nice to see that they made peace with themselves in Sonic 06, it was Sonic Chronicles’ depiction of Sonic and Shadow’s rivalry that I liked the most due to how the writers knew how to make the rivalry interesting again.

      I’d say try out Devil May Cry 3 some time. The rivalry in that game fuels the whole story line and it’s probably my biggest reference points when it comes to rival characters. It’s a prequel to all the other Devil May Cry games so you wouldn’t have too much trouble figuring out the plot from there :P


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