What Makes a Good Video Game Villain?

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(This article contains spoilerific spoilers for Baldur’s Gate 2, Final Fantasy 7 and Dragon Age 2)

“The pain will only be passing,” we are informed. “You should survive the process.” Should.

With David Warner’s masterfully delivered opening lines we’re introduced to the coldly detached and ruthlessly calculating Jon Irenicus. It’s not long before circumstance carries you away from his underground lab, but his far-reaching influence is felt again and again as the game progresses.

Everyone who’s played Baldur’s Gate 2 remembers him. Everyone hates him. Actually, I should clarify that with a cliché. Everyone loves to hate him. He steals your immortal soul. He hurts those you love. He does it all with such a disinterested confidence that when you finally get to thwart him the taste of victory is so very, very sweet.

We’ve all seen the ten thousand lists run by just about every video game site on the web naming the top twenty or so bad-guys ever. There is some variation, but the same names keep cropping up time and time again. It does seem that we like to talk about them, argue about them and write about them. They’re clearly important.

Rather than asking what makes a good villain (a subject well covered by the literary analysis of the past two thousand years) I want to ask what makes a good video game villain. I also want to ask what sort of impact getting your villain right can have on a game.

Firstly, we’ve got to acknowledge that having a villain isn’t necessary to have a good game. Gran Turismo 5 is a decent racing game. There’s no bad guys there (unless you ascribe villainous motives to your fellow racers – a tempting reaction when they seem to be some kind of borg like collective hell bent on co-operating with one another while they force you off the track). Total War games are another example. They don’t have villains and I’ve sunk hundreds of hours in to those titles.

“Ah,” I hear you say, “but those games don’t need villains because they don’t have strict storytelling narratives.” You’re entirely correct. Many games don’t need villains. In fact, try to shoe-horn a villain in to something like Total War and you’d most likely end up cheapening the experience and wrecking the grand-strategy feel. Not all games need them, granted.

I’d also argue that a game doesn’t need to have a good villain to be a good game. Let’s take Max Payne, for example. Can you remember the villain in that? No, don’t go to Wikipedia. Think about it for a moment. If we’ve played Max Payne we remember what a great game it was, how fun it was to jump around in bullet time and how good those comic book cut-scenes that broke the fourth wall were. There was something about the flesh of fallen angels, blood trails floating in blackness… there was a helicopter or something, right? Right?

Okay, so now you’ve gone to Wikipedia and you’ve found out that the antagonist of Max Payne was Nicole Horne. Fair enough. But do we see her up there with the likes of Jon Irenicus, Sarah Kerrigan and Albert Wesker? No. She’s forgettable even though her game certainly isn’t.

So if villains don’t really matter then why bother with them at all? Wouldn’t it be better to spend time making sure that your video game is a good video game, with an optimised engine, excellent game-play and an addictive multiplayer?

Not, I’d argue, if you want it to be truly excellent. I’ll illustrate this with a story.

It was, for me, the moment when Final Fantasy VII transitioned from being an interesting techno-magic world with a well crafted RPG combat system to being an experience I was truly immersed in. I just didn’t see it coming. There she was, the enigmatic Aeris, looking as pretty and mysterious as ever, the water casting reflections on the nearby stonework. A peaceful scene. Then, suddenly, shattered. Sephiroth kills her. Not just in a glossed-over let’s-get-this-over-with kind of way, but by falling on to her from a great height and impaling her, right through her chest. Not only that, but he then lets her body fall limply forward, and while it’s flopping from his blade he smirks at you.

He smirks. He knows he’s hurt you. His eyes are telling you that there are no reloads, extra lives or continues here. This isn’t just a dream sequence and she won’t come miraculously back to life when you use the resurrect Aeris cheat. It’s done. She’s gone. For good. It was a brave choice by the writers and I’m so glad they had the courage to stick with it because it made Sephiroth in to a credible threat. It made him someone you were personally invested in. It made you hate him.

It wasn’t for everyone. My wife cites the death of Aeris as the moment she began to dislike Final Fantasy VII. There are better ways, she’d argue, of making a good villain than having him or her kill off a character you’d spent time getting invested in. It’s not going to work for everyone, but it clearly had something of an impact because Sephiroth appears on virtually every video game villain list, and he’s even beat out heavyweights such as Gannondorf in the vaunted GameFAQ character battles.

What I’m saying, then, is that in a game where the story is so central to the experience as a whole, having a villain that works can elevate you from ‘good’ to ‘unforgettable’.

Equally, when the villain isn’t quite right it can bring the experience down. Let’s take the example of Meridith and Orsino, the final bosses of Dragon Age 2. Regardless of the problems you may or may not have with the game itself, this pair of irascible authority figures hardly do anything to elevate the experience. The conflict between their ideologies is central to the game, even referenced in the title screen, yet they make a poor foil for the likeable Hawke and, as a result, the entire finale seems to me to fall rather flat. Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t matter who you side with since you must fight them both anyway. The result is a massively squandered storytelling resource.

A video game has a unique opportunity in it’s villains. Unlike in books and in films the video game villain can be shaped by our choices and can react to us in our guise as the player. If the role of the villain in a narrative is to hold up a mirror and expose all the baser elements of our nature then the video game villain can do that in a way no other antagonist can. They aren’t just holding that mirror up to humanity at large, they’re holding it up to you. You’re in the story. You’re making the choices, and that villain is showing you just how far you could fall.

I think digital evildoers have got a bright future ahead of them, because I don’t think we’ve even begun to scratch the surface of just how personally reflexive they could be. Even the mighty Sephiroth is only following a strict script. No matter what you do in FF7, he’ll behave in the same way. What about a game like Mass Effect, which places so much emphasis on player choice, having those very choices shape the nature of the game’s antagonist? I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

It is time for more… experiments…

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[ 2 comments to read... submit another ]

  1. Off-topic: I’m excited about the HD remix or whatever of BG coming out soon.

    I never played Tales of The Sword Coast, so I’m looking forward to that.

    Also, super plus is that it’s coming out for the Mac. Well, super plus for me anyway.

  2. Agreed. I am super, super excited for the Enhanced Edition of both games. I was getting nostalgic as I was taking the screenshots and thinking “I really need to revisit these games” so the enhanced editions will be the perfect excuse.

    As for the first games expansion, I used to call it “Traps of the Sword Coast” because they are absolutely everywhere. Everywhere, Dave. At first I overworked poor Imoen disarming everything but then I got so bored of that I just stacked potions on my high HP Paladin and ran him through them all with my fingers crossed…

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