Food for Thought: Villains Done Right
Warning: There may be spoilers for some games in this article. However, because many of the games mentioned are old, you may already know what happens in the stories. Games included in this article are Bioshock, Fallout: New Vegas, and Final Fantasy VII.
It’s no secret that when some people watch a movie or play a game, they usually find the villain to be one of the most memorable parts. Speaking personally, bosses are my favorite parts of video games because facing down these evil rogues is supposed to be one of the pivotal moments in the story. But sometimes we see a developer make a wrong move somewhere in the process, and we’re stuck with some villains who are just one-note or completely forgettable, like Waluigi. Still, with the amount of gaming classics we have seen come out over the years, we have also seen our fair share of some amazing antagonists. In 1985, Nintendo introduced the evil King Bowser to the world, and he’s become one of the most beloved characters in the entertainment industry alongside his pudgy nemesis (even being voted as the greatest villain in gaming in the 2013 Gamer Edition of the Guiness Book of World Records). In 2007, Valve also won the hearts of millions with the introduction of the most devious and demented AI ever, GLaDOS (who IGN crowned as the Greatest Video Game Villain of All Time).
But what makes a good villain? What do the greats of the industry do to create endearing villains who will be fondly remembered? Many publications or video series have tried to come up with the perfect formula for devious greatness. This article, for example, says that a villain needs to have a relationship to the gamer that makes the player hate them or love them. But not everybody has as clear a concept for what makes a compelling antagonist. This list, as another example, reasons that a villain’s voice acting or mental illness makes them compelling. However, there isn’t really a tried-and-true method to creating the best villains ever, and there are a combination of factors that storytellers and developers have to consider. With that said, this article isn’t for the purpose of telling people how to make a villain with a single formula, but instead discuss the numerous possible reasons for why a villain may be compelling.
A Compelling Villain Is Made With Multiple Defining Characteristics
As I was researching this article, I wasn’t exactly sure on where to start. While I found endless debates on Kefka or Sephiroth being the greatest Final Fantasy villain for the millionth time, I came across a disturbing trend that made me notice something; using the Sephiroth and Kefka debates as an example (because I can), most of the time people will usually boil their arguments down to only one defining characteristic that one of these villains have that automatically means they are better than the other. I find this to be intrinsically unfair because good antagonists, like good protagonists, are usually more than one-dimensional characters; a truly memorable antagonist is multi-faceted, and has a number of things that make them stick in people’s minds. As Jim Sterling said in his video series The Jimquisition, a good character has to be well-rounded and relatable, like an actual human being, in order to be compelling; if a character has a single personality trait, then that is, simply put, not a very good character. Sephiroth is a good example of a three-dimensional antagonist because he used to be a hero, but has fallen from grace when he discovers he is an experiment as a result of Shinra injecting him with the cells of the alien life-form JENOVA when he was a fetus. As a result, Sephiroth attempts to fulfill what he thinks is his destiny by trying to become a living god and take control of the planet. While Sephiroth has a compelling motivation and a good backstory, he is also one of the most feared villains in the gaming community due to his hand in murdering one of the pivotal characters in the game. While numerous fans may cite only one characteristic that makes Sephiroth their favorite villain, this is doing him and the writers of Final Fantasy VII a disservice because that would be ignoring the other equally compelling factors that make Sephiroth one of the best villains in gaming.
In contrast with that, a good example of a villain from the same series that is not as well-known due to being one-dimensional is Exdeath from Final Fantasy V. While Exdeath is one of my favorite baddies, I have to concede that he is just not very deep as a character. Exdeath’s character can be summed up in a single phrase: “I’m evil, muahahaha!” Now while this may sound like I’m contradicting my own point in the paragraph above by seemingly reducing a character into a single characteristic, I have to emphasize that this is not the case; while Exdeath’s appearance is really intimidating (and he kills a main protagonist in the game, like Sephiroth), the main problem with Exdeath is that he is the stereotypical “great evil” that heroes are destined to destroy. These kinds of villains are very tricky to write for because unless you dedicate a good amount of time fleshing out the character and making them more three-dimensional, they are little more than an obstacle, a thing that the player has to kill to win the game. While these kinds of antagonists worked in NES games where there was not as much of an emphasis on story, as the gaming medium developed developers have been working more and more on making their characters compelling enough for you to care. This is why Exdeath, for as cool as he is, is not a very well-written antagonist: his backstory is essentially that “a great evil that has awakened for the heroes to defeat,” and his in-game portrayal is very flat because he is just generically evil without any actual depth. If you want to read more on Exdeath (since he is a more obscure villain), then you can always check this article out.
A Villain’s Relationship to the Gamer Is Important – Actions Define A Villain
Another tried-and-true theory that developers have tried when they create their antagonists is to devise a relationship that the villain has to the heroes, and consequentially the player, in the game’s story. In the Extra Credits episode discussing horror protagonists, an interesting point that they bring up is that horror antagonists, in order to be effective, have to make the protagonist seem absolutely helpless. The less helpless the protagonist in the game is compared with the monsters, the less effective the monsters are. Silent Hill is a great example of this because Harry Mason has no combat experience, he is just a writer and a father trying to save his daughter. Thus, Harry, in relation to the countless monsters in Silent Hill, is helpless, which implies that to have a good horror antagonist is to create a good dynamic or relationship with the player that makes the player feel helpless. What Extra Credits discusses can also be applied to antagonists in other genres because a lot of what the villain does acts as a catalyst to the story, and how it develops. The relationship between the hero and the villain lies in how the latter impacts the former’s life which, as a result, motivates the actions that the player has to take in order to progress in the game.
In order for a villain to be effective in this respect, their actions need to have significant impact on the player where they care about what the villain is doing. Alternatively, if a villain does something that has an emotional impact on the player, then you can say that the writers accomplished what they needed to do in crafting a good antagonist. An example I already mentioned above is when Sephiroth murders Aerith in Final Fantasy VII. This moment came as a huge shock to a lot of players back in the day because it came out of nowhere, and the impact that this brutally senseless action had is still felt to this day. In a lot of ways, this moment made Sephiroth infamous, and the emotional impact that scene had was tremendous. The emotional impact was so huge that it is even rumored that a lot of players tried to find ways to bring Aerith back to life, but to no avail. The same can be said of when Golbez, the antagonist of Final Fantasy IV, battles the wizened mage Tellah, who wants to defeat the dark wizard to avenge his daughter. Instead, Tellah dies when he uses Meteor in an effort to defeat Golbez. A villain killing a major character is sometimes (but not always) an effective way to make the player hate the baddie because we always think that the protagonists are immune from dying. Since the player builds a special relationship with the protagonists, the villain killing a main character and severing that bond will have an even greater emotional impact on the player. As a result, the villain’s actions only compel the player to hate them even more. If the villain can effectively establish this kind of connection with the player with his actions, then the game’s writers have done their job.
Of course, killing a main character is not the only example to show that a villain can establish a relationship with the player through their actions. For example, a great way for game developers to establish that the villain of their game is a menace is to show his impact on the world where the story takes place. Foreshadowing has always been an effective tool to use in storytelling, and one of the best examples in games is Fallout: New Vegas. Over a year ago I talked about Fallout: New Vegas in length but I remember only really brushing over the villains in the main game: Ceasar’s Legion, Mr. House, and the N.C.R. While some may consider only Ceasar’s Legion to be the true antagonists to this game, Obsidian did a very good job in actually giving the player a choice on which faction to join, so the player gets to determine who the true antagonist really is. For those of you unfamiliar with Fallout: New Vegas, the player gets to explore the Mojave Wastelands, running into the multiple factions vying for control over the Hoover Dam. The presence of these factions are felt everywhere, and this as a result helps the player have a better understanding of who they see as the protagonist, and who they see as the antagonist. Ceasar’s Legion will leave behind crucified wastelanders who violated Ceasar’s will; Mr. House controls New Vegas with an iron fist through employing armed Security Bots; many of the NPCs the player can speak to complain of the NCR taking away their basic freedoms. Since the developers made these three factions’ presence felt throughout the Wasteland, the player can grasp who they feel is the overarching antagonist before even battling them at the conclusion of the game. As a result, an antagonists’ presence can be felt if they have a significant impact on the world where the story takes place, thus immersing the player and allowing them to grasp not only the villain’s intentions, but understand that these villains need to be stopped at any cost.
Other noteworthy examples of villains whose actions impact the player are those who manipulate the protagonist to further his own goals; these types of villains are usually the best because they form a complex relationship with the player that will often lead to a huge, game changing twist. The most noteworthy example is of course in Bioshock; when the player first enters Rapture, they are greeted by the voice of a British/Irish gentleman named Atlas who is stuck in the city and wanting to help the protagonist escape. He also loves to use the term “Would you kindly?”, and at first this seems like a little quirk about Atlas. As the player advances in the plot and continues to help Atlas, however, you soon learn the history of the city and its warped inhabitants, including a crook named Frank Fontaine who mysteriously disappeared. Halfway through the game when the player encounters the creator of the city, Andrew Ryan, it is revealed that Atlas is actually the aforementioned crook Frank Fontaine, and the big twist is that he has been controlling the player’s actions the whole time through the phrase “Would you kindly?”, through mind control. Through this visceral scene, the player realizes that they have only been given the illusion of independent action, and it is honestly a chilling thought. Fontaine, through his actions, forces the player to carry out his deeds, and this creates a unique relationship with the player that forces them to come to terms with the question of if we are truly independent thinkers. In this respect, these kinds of villains, the kinds who manipulate the player, are some of the best because they force the player to face some pretty scary realizations.
A Villain Must Be Relative To The Stories They Inhabit
Finally, creating a good villain may be done when storytellers and developers realize that a boss needs to be relevant to the world or story they inhabit. What do I mean by this? This means that, as counter-intuitive as this may seem, fleshing out a villain may not always be best for a game. What I mean by this is that the villain has to match the world or story he inhabits; a complex villain has to fit in a complex narrative, and a simple villain has to fit a simple story. The most prominent examples I can think of are of course Bowser or Ganondorf, two of the best-known characters in gaming. Bowser and Ganon, compared with antagonists like, say, Golbez or GLaDOS, are relatively simple villains with simple ambitions. However, they both work as effective villains because they fit into their own worlds; the stories and protagonists of Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda are simplistic in their nature (the latter slightly more complex than the former), so these villains feel right at home. Bowser kidnaps the princess, Mario saves her. Ganondorf wants to get the triforce to rule the world, Link has to stop him and sometimes save Zelda. These narratives would not work if the antagonists were super complex and overshadowed everything, or if the stories were super complex but Bowser and Ganondorf were still simplistic. In this respect, the antagonists need to be relative to the stories they occupy, and sometimes if a developer is having problems with creating a villain, they need to simply take a look at the complexity of the story and go from there.
To provide some additional context, an example of a villain who is not relative to their story is Albert Wesker from the Resident Evil series. One of the biggest problems with Wesker is that while the Resident Evil story line is changing, Wesker and the Umbrella Corporation stay static and never develop. These antagonists have the same goal in every game, and that is to use a virus to do evil things because of reasons. While Wesker’s betrayal in the original Resident Evil was a big twist that established him as a prime villain back in the day, he lost his significance as the series progressed because while the overarching plot changed, Wesker, aside from becoming little more than a Matrix-inspired stereotype, has largely remained the same, as can be seen in Resident Evil 5. The same can be said for the Umbrella Corporation as a whole. In conclusion, Wesker and Umbrella are good examples of villains who are not relative to the story they inhabit because while the Resident Evil story becomes more complex and detailed, Albert Wesker and the Umbrella Corporation remain static and simplistic, which is a jarring juxtaposition that harms the story.
In conclusion, while there isn’t a surefire way to make a good villain in a video game, there are multiple approaches that game developers can take in order to pull this goal off. Without a good villain, a story would lose most of its punch because it would lose a core element; what would the hero be fighting for if there is no all-encompassing evil that needs to be defeated, or if there is no organization that needs to be defeated? Even games about something other than saving the world have a villain in some form (Team Rocket in Pokemon, for instance). Villains are important in the gaming medium because in a lot of instances, they help push the story forward and give the player something to fight for. If a game developer and storyteller can make a villain that is, at the end of the day, compelling and dynamic, then I think that the game creators have done their job right.