Video games are not a medium known for excellent storytelling. They really don’t have to be. Since the days of Atari and the Commodore 64, there have been games about nothing more than simple tasks. Bounce a pixel past your friend, get a frog across a road, stack as many blocks as possible to set a high score. Eventually, games became more linear, and some kind of context was added. Whether this meant rescuing someone or obtaining some kind of treasure, games now had an ultimate goal. And now, since there was an ultimate goal, there had to be an ultimate obstacle. A villain.
For these past 30 years, games have had a lot of terrible villains. Not the good kind of terrible either.
That said, all villains can’t be judged in the same light. Props to Extra Credits for this distinction, but I’ll re-iterate it here. In video games, you have your mechanical villains, your narrative villains, and your force-of-nature villains.
Mechanical villains are more stereotypical, put there to stand in your way, without much development beyond their design and animations. Basically your platformer bosses, dungeon keepers, and the villain in any game without cutscenes.
Narrative villains are typically used for narrative games, made to develop along with other characters. They propel the drama and prompt the player to go through a longer experience for a more climactic payoff. Take Sephiroth from FFVII, or Frank Fontaine from BioShock. They often run the game world and manipulate the protagonist, creating a moral obstacle along with a physical one.
Force-of-nature villains are a kind of hybrid. These are villains of overwhelming power, or which represent a concept. They are the embodiments of chaos, greed, or suffering. They’re also used in the wrong places a lot of the time, because it’s hard to give them character. Ideally, they have to be used to elicit some kind of reflection from the player, to make the characters consider their role in the story and world. They’re like Kefka from FFVI or several throwaway antagonists from Sonic the Hedgehog like Mephiles the Dark, or Infinite. Without compelling protagonists, these villains tend to flop.
When I started thinking about this topic, I thought of my two favorite virtual villains: Ganondorf from The Legend of Zelda and Sephiroth from FFVII. However these two fill very different niches: Ganondorf has no distinct qualities beyond overwhelming evil, whereas Sephiroth is the sinister other half of Cloud, a deadly shadow of the protagonist. But I love each of them in their respective roles. Neither one is necessarily a “worse” villain. Ganondorf is probably less memorable, but Sephiroth couldn’t fill his shoes. He certainly couldn’t be the final boss of Mario either. The key is, as usual, context. A villain should fit the game as well as possible. And I think there are some general guidelines for this.
First, I’d say make sure you’re using a narrative villain when you need one. Too many games have rich worlds and backstories with cardboard villains that ruin the experience. If you do know you need a narrative villain, make sure that all of their dialogue and screen time isn’t dedicated to cliched motivations or monologues we’ve all heard before. The best kinds of villains are ones with variety, or who subvert expectations. Maybe then you have to fight someone dealing with childhood trauma, who with values you partially agree with. Even with the many flaws Skyrim has, I enjoyed the civil war quest because of the many gray areas it made me confront. I didn’t want to kill the “villain” at the end myself, because I didn’t really think he was guilty. In many ways, I thought this story was better than the actual main quest as a result.
Secondly, even if your villain is mostly narrative, don’t be afraid to make them part of the mechanics of the game. Another one of my absolute favorite villains is GLaDOS from Portal. Her twisted-yet-lovable autotuned voice reads quirky lines as you progress through the game and temporarily fail at solving a puzzle. By playing the game, you’re basically fighting GLaDOS directly, like an omnipresent villain. I see the same thing with what JonTron called, the “Gruntilda Effect.” Gruntilda, the villainess of Banjo-Kazooie, taunts you ceaselessly. When you die, she pokes fun at you. When you reach a new area, she says you’ll never make it. Once you finally defeat her, it’s like overcoming self-doubt. Or an annoying witch. Or both.
To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that Metal Gear Solid and BioShock also do a great job of mixing compelling villains into the entirety of a game. They have great plot twists that got me really invested.
I wrote all this because Halloween is a time of year when we love to examine fears and monsters. The best monsters tell us something about ourselves. They thrust us into the unknown, make us crave revenge or feel sympathy. A great monster, a great villain, is something unforgettable to conquer. I think it’s a shame that a lot of the character-building moments for villains is cut in game production. With the talent and tools in the modern game industry, I think there’s room for some amazing storytelling. Just as long as the will is there.