Richard Cobbett on RPG Villains
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The latest of Richard Cobbett's RPG Scrollbars columns talks in detail about the intricate process of creating fun, memorable, and satisfying video game antagonists. We get to read about a variety of villain archetypes and their nefarious tricks, and learn which of them manage to create a lasting impact and which merely annoy people. A few snippets:
It’s particularly relevant because the RPGs with great villains offer some of the best and most iconic that the industry has to offer. SHODAN. The Guardian. Darth Traya. Kefka. The Transcendent One. Irenicus. Ironically, RPGs both have a huge advantage over other genres and a massive disadvantage – their length. Used properly, a villain can dip in and out of the action with an excellent rhythm, presenting not just an evil plan that has to be stopped, but building up a relationship with both the player and the main characters that makes it personal. That makes their final defeat satisfying.
Prince LaCroix of Bloodlines, for instance, is a fantastic character – an eminently punchable smooth talker who can’t conceal the fact that his control over Los Angeles is shaky at best, who spends most of the game trying to kill you with impossible tasks since he didn’t have the political clout to actually order your execution during the intro, and who the player character is ultimately (if somewhat awkwardly given Vampire: The Masquerade generation rules) able to overpower and put in his place by outright no-selling his Domination ability and telling him where to stick his authority.
The catch is that a villain who keeps showing up to win, destroying your recent achievements, quickly gets incredibly annoying, while one who just loses all the time rarely maintains much gravitas. Even beating them repeatedly gets annoying, as the makers of Bioshock 2 – not an RPG, but stick with me – found with the character of the Big Sister. This was originally one entity, but having her always zipping off before the final blow just proved annoying, resulting in the developers turning her into a whole class of enemies instead. Also, when a villain does get a major success, it has to be incredibly well handled to make it feel dramatic rather than simply frustrating.
Compare, say, Baldur’s Gate 2 and Knights of the Old Republic. Baldur’s Gate 2 starts, more or less, with the villain kidnapping your childhood friend Imoen by proxy in order to make you come after her. He does this first with his magic, and then essentially setting the local magic cops on her in a way that you as the player have no chance whatsoever of fighting back against, even if you try. The game however quickly gives you another character who is basically Imoen 2.0, Imoen wasn’t around long enough to have seen favouritism that would affect the others, the game gives her back before too long, and the whole thing comes across as the villain being canny rather than the designer of that section being a bastard.
Knights of the Old Republic meanwhile features a hilariously easy mid-game battle with the final boss, Darth Malak, in which he gets his ass completely kicked, before your partner/party member Bastilla goes “Don’t worry, I’ve got this!”, takes over, and is promptly kidnapped. This is having just spoiled your chance to save the galaxy in one easy battle, saving nobody, and not even having the stats that would make sense for a one-on-one battle, regardless of the fact that pride has repeatedly been shown to be her downfall. The idea is to put her into Malak’s clutches while showing off his power. The result is closer to “Just keep the silly bint.”
One of the classic rules for writing villains is that they should usually be the heroes of their own tales. Personally, I’ve never liked things so cut and dry. There are fantastic villains who are well aware of their status, carrying out their acts because they feel that they must. Kreia/Darth Traya of Knights of the Old Republic 2 is under no illusions about who and what she is. Her Sith name even marks her as a professional betrayer. Likewise, The Transcendent One of Planescape Torment shows no interest in anything except silent immortality, and its meddling with The Nameless One is entirely a matter of frustration for them both. Then of course you get cases like Kefka of Final Fantasy VI, who has all the depth of a paddling pool but caught peoples’ attention for being crazier than your average villain, and Sephiroth of Final Fantasy VII, who… well, I won’t say there’s nothing to him, but let’s face it, the hair, the sword, and the orchestra screaming his name really didn’t hurt his credibility.
Of course, if Sephiroth is remembered for anything except his style… and I’m fairly sure he is… it’s That Moment, killing Aerith mid-way through Final Fantasy VII. That opens up a whole can of worms for the genre. Specifically, when is it okay for villains to have that level of success? It’s one thing to burn the player’s hometown that they don’t know or care about, or whole locations like Highpool and Ag Centre in Wasteland 2 to prove that they’re serious. What matters to the character though has to be made to matter to the player, and simply saying ‘you feel really sad about this’ doesn’t cut it.
Few games though are willing to let them outright get a kill that sticks and has a mechanical impact. Mass Effect features a section where the player must choose between two party members and others later on where diplomacy fails or is very difficult. Not many though have the guts to ‘pull an Aerith’, despite the potential power of it, and those that do almost inevitably make the actual moment that happens into the player’s call, with the promise that something else could have been done. Dogs excepted, of course. From Dogmeat to the pup in Fable 2, a happy dog bounding at your feet has a worse chance than most NPCs of making it to the credits.
The reasons are many, starting with the fact that characters die so often in RPGs that making one of them stick is a hard pill to swallow, even in a world without easy access to resurrection, and that a company trying to create memorable IP would rather keep them around rather than losing someone popular. Where would Mass Effect be if instead of a choice between Ashley and Kaidan, the player had been forced to choose between Tali and Garrus? Pity the Tumblr community…
If there’s one big thing that basically all of these great villains has in common that other games can learn from though, it’s presence. It doesn’t matter how much power someone supposedly has, or how many hit-points they mechanically have in their final encounter, if they’re just another obstacle. The nemesis is at least as important as the hero in most games and requires suitable screen-time, character depth, and the time to make a proper impression. Facing off with them can be many things. Cathartic. Satisfying. Bittersweet. But what it should never be is simply business as usual.
A good villain deserves better than that. And a great game deserves a great villain.