There are very few great villains in videogames.
There are lots of great boss battles, sure, but a boss battle and a villain aren’t the same thing. The blurry nature of this distinction, and the consistent confusion of one for the other that often results, is a root cause of videogames’ struggle to create enduring, resonant narratives.
Simply put, there are certain things a great villain does within the course of a narrative that are A) structural in nature and B) counter to the core ambitions of great gameplay. To cater to one is, in many cases, to shortchange the other, and vice versa. Consider the stuff a great villain has to do in order to earn his villainous stripes:
Be Onscreen – Villains get problematic right here. Ask most players what their reaction is to seeing an enemy – let alone the enemy – onscreen, and their reaction is almost invariably “shoot it.” If your villain gets attacked as soon as he appears onscreen, then he doesn’t have a lot of time to establish his villainy. If the player can’t shoot him or otherwise has their interaction with the villain hamstrung (Hello, forced failure conditions!), then they’re going to be frustrated, and hate the game designer instead of the villain. Conversely, if you keep your villain offscreen so that he doesn’t get his giblets pierced with a rocket-propelled grenade, then there’s minimal chance for the player to build a (negative) emotional bond to the character. A villain who’s offscreen until the final act isn’t a villain, he’s a plot device, and beating him resonates technically but not emotionally.
Do Villainous Things – A villain must establish his villainy. Generally, villains do this by doing villainous things where the player can see them (and please, enough with the “shooting his own henchman to show how evil he is” – it’s been done), but that presents logistical problems to game designers. If the villain is being villainous where the player can see him, odds are that the player is going to try to stop him. If the player succeeds, your villain’s evil cred has been reduced. If the player fails, it’s probably because of a forced failure scenario, which raises player frustration. And if the villainy is cut scene only, then you’ve neatly snipped the interactivity that drives gameplay out of the equation. Too much of that (Japanese RPGs excepted, for obvious reasons) and you end up with a movie, not a game, and an unsatisfying player experience.
Be A Character – A good villain isn’t just a disposable opponent for the protagonist. To be truly memorable, a villain has to have a personality and legitimate motivations that lend heft and credence to their evil plan. Consider Magneto: Yeah, he wants to wipe all of us normal human types off the face of the planet, but, hey, he’s got a reason and you have to admire the guy’s persistence. He’s a genuine personality that the protagonists and audience can engage with on a level deeper than just punch combos, and that’s why he has endured as a villain for nearly half a century. Unfortunately, building a villain as a character often requires exposition, and poorly handled exposition is the death of gameplay. James Bond may have to listen while the villain explains his master plan, but that’s because he’s been duct-taped to a crocodile that’s suspended over a pit full of angry piranha-Boston Terrier hybrids. The player, however, is under no such constraints, and can simply switch games to escape the expository peril.
Beating the Villain Has to Feel Good – Here’s where the confusion with the boss battle comes in. Defeating a villain has to feel satisfying – it’s the culmination of the player’s journey thus far. However, to be emotionally satisfying, the triumph needs to be appropriate. Taking the villain in a Tom Clancy game and suddenly giving him bat wings and the ability to shoot fireballs may make for interesting gameplay variety and a tough encounter, one that a player can feel justifiably proud of winning, but it’s not appropriate for the franchise or context, and it turns the villain into a skill challenge.
I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a tough boss fight. The final encounter with a villain should be difficult, should be satisfying to win, and should require all of the player’s skill. However, the player should want to beat the villain for reasons other than “it’s the boss battle.” A well-constructed villain should inspire feelings of antipathy, of wanting to take this guy down personally, of it feeling right to do so. As numerous observers have noted, it would take Superman about twelve seconds to take down the Joker, but nobody wants to see that. We want to see Batman do it, however, because of the emotions involved – the shared history and the sense of intertwined destinies.
That’s four key issues. With all of this against the creation of a memorable villain in videogames, how can it be done?
Fortunately, there are several techniques and rules of thumb that can assist in the creation of good videogame villains that don’t handicap gameplay. They’re not always direct, they’re not always easy, and sometimes they require an investment in additional assets, but, if done right, the end result is a memorable villain.
Make Your Cut Scenes Count – Whether or not you take control away from the player is up to you, but, if you do, you have to make it count. If you’re taking the time to establish your villain in a cut scene (or on a monitor that the protagonist is forced to watch, or an in-game news broadcast, or, well, you get the idea), don’t pussyfoot around. Hit the villainy, hard. If it’s large-scale wickedness, show the carnage and don’t pull punches. If it’s small-scale, show the murder or torture so that it reinforces the notion that the character doing this is a bad, bad person whom the protagonist – and player – should hate.
Get Your Hate On Early – Slow builds on villains are useful for 19th century Russian novels and serialized media. In a game, you want to establish the villain as the opposing presence early and with authority. Start the villain off with a bang – killing a friend of the protagonist, blowing up her hometown, or killing his puppy – so that the player isn’t left wondering who this guy is or why they’re going after him. You can fill in the blanks later – why, for example, the villain hated that particular puppy – but if the player knows that they’re supposed to hate the villain right off the bat and has a good reason to do so, then you’ve gone a long way toward building an emotional connection.
Remind The Player – The player’s got a lot of stuff to do: buttons to press, triggers to pull, achievements to grind hunt, you name it. As such, it makes sense to remind them who the bad guy is on a regular basis. There are plenty of techniques for this: henchmen talking about the evil son of a bitch that they’re working for, sub-bosses referencing their leader’s badassery or role in their own schemes, voice or video drop-ins from the villain to taunt the protagonist, or in-game artifacts like news broadcasts reporting on the villain’s progress. All of these serve to remind the player that yes, the bad guy is out there and is responsible for a whole lot of bad things. Handled with good pacing and appropriate tone – heavy-handed praise of a villain by mooks tends to backfire, for example – and this constantly ratchets up the player’s hatred of the villain.
Henchmen Are Your Friend – Henchmen are an extension of your villain. When they do evil things, by extension, the villain does evil things. Make the player dislike the henchmen viscerally, and you’ve reinforced their dislike for the main villain. Also, henchmen can do villainous things onscreen without worrying about their demise. They’re mooks; there’s a thousand more where they came from.
Don’t Just Take Them Out of the Plastic – A villain who exists strictly for the sake of a particular game narrative often feels like it. They don’t have any roots or any depth, and the player knows that they’re going to be discarded as soon as the game is over. Take advantage of other possibilities to grow your villain, both inside and outside of the game. Write up a backstory with a connection to the hero or someone in the protagonist’s life, and get it out there. Use web content, novelizations, comics, teaser trailers, or whatever to get your villain out there in front of the public in a way that reinforces them as an interesting, enduring character instead of just a plot device. For example, Splinter Cell: Conviction featured a pre-release trailer starring the game’s villain, one Tom Reed, soliloquizing over game footage and beauty shots of Washington, D.C. about his motivations and his thoughts about the game’s hero. Doing that primed the game’s audience for Reed’s actions in the game, and made it that much easier for them to work up a good hate for the guy.
All of these are useful for building a villain’s role. But what about the villain him (or her)self?
That goes back to character. Regardless of medium, a villain has to be interesting, appropriate, and rewarding to defeat. On a base level, that means giving the villain a strong personality, an engrossing motivation, and a unique hook. Build a green-haired homicidal maniac with all of these elements and you’ve got The Joker; do it wrong and you’ve got Zaniac.
Who’s Zaniac, you ask? I rest my case. (If you must know, he was a minor Thor villain with bad grammar, a worse beard, and an origin that combined the Manhattan Project and bad slasher movies. Now, aren’t you sorry you asked?)
So figure out who your villain is. What does she want? Why does she want it, and how far is she willing to go to get it? The villain who commits murder to further his plans isn’t always willing to commit genocide, and knowing where your villain draws the line is important. What makes them unique, and no, that doesn’t automatically translate to “what’s their wacky Batman villain shtick?” It can be something as simple as a unique speech pattern or word choice that makes the character stand out. It can be a signature weapon or killing style, a modus operandi that is instantly identifiable. It must be distinctive, not needlessly flashy for the sake of flashiness.
What is an appropriate villain? It doesn’t mean one that’s well behaved and knows which fork to use for fish and which one is for salad. It means the villain is appropriate for the protagonist to confront and ultimately defeat, providing the player with a genuine feeling of well-earned triumph. A villain who’s out of scale in either direction is a failure. Too small and the player gets no buzz from beating them; too big and the victory feels like a fluke or a deus ex machina. The same goes for the villain’s style – make sure it matches the game’s idiom and tone. If the game is realistic, the villain’s approach shouldn’t rely on blood, thunder and magic. If it’s historical, keep the alien cyborg under wraps. If it’s sci-fi, take advantage of that and come up with a villain who uses what your setting has to offer in terms of technology and alien races.
Ultimately, making a game villain is as much about structure and narrative design technique as it is about the villain itself. The best villain in the world won’t play if the support mechanisms aren’t in place to show off that villain to the best (worst?) advantage, and a hackneyed bad guy can get a tremendous boost from a supporting cast and good storytelling techniques. The one given is that you can’t take a good villain for granted – or rely on your elaborate boss fight to fix everything. Instead, you need to do everything you can to make sure that your villain engages the player as a nemesis consistently and from the onset, doesn’t frustrate the player in the process, and is around for a satisfying butt-kicking at the end.
Oh, and don’t forget the “acting villainous” part. It helps.
Richard Dansky is the Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft, the author of the novel Firefly Rain, and possibly the only person working in the videogame industry who has been published in Lovecraft Studies. His most recent game credit is Splinter Cell: Conviction. You can find him online at http://www.richarddansky.com.