Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Proper Villainy

Considering how many games exist for the promise of bringing you exciting action and adventure, it's a shame how few of them have memorable villains. Like a good story in general, a proper villain can help motivate a player to push his way through a game, past the difficulty spikes and through the inevitable rough patches, by adding meaning and context to the game mechanics as well as the promise of more variety and surprises. There are a few reasons why villains are hard to do in games, but games like Portal, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Final Fantasy VII, System Shock II, or even Super Mario Bros. and Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! are evidence of why investing in a proper villain is worth it.

One reason there are so few proper villains in games is implied by the word itself: The concept of villainy is kind of dumb. It's not how the world works. In reality, what happens is that when two people want opposite and mutually-exclusive things, they enter into an antagonistic relationship. Villainy is just an extreme form of antagonism where, most often, either the antagonist's motives are not rational or simply not well-developed. Videogames' misguided attempts at villains usually hinge on grandiose schemes such as destroying the world or other sadistic, evil acts. They're bad guys who overcompensate for their flat desires with huge lifebars. But it's impossible to relate to their motivations so these villains are doomed to obscurity. Instead, a proper antagonist gets under your skin and makes things personal in a way you could understand, even appreciate. Portal's GlaDos, despite being a machine, has the attitude of a spurned lover taking passive-aggressive revenge on a relationship that's slipped from her grasp. In Super Mario Bros., Bowser wants the Princess just as much as you. It's ironic that inhuman characters such as these turn out to be much easier to empathize with than the dime-a-dozen megalomaniacs waiting for you at the end of most games. But that's the key -- if the antagonist is impossible to empathize with, then he's just another villain, and more than likely doesn't have the substance to be memorable as a character.

There's a more-practical reason why it's tough to have a proper antagonist in a game, which is that most games in the action or action adventure genres are designed around kill-or-be-killed scenarios, leaving little room for character development. When they present you with an antagonist character and a combat situation, one of you needs to be defeated and it's not going to be you if you keep trying. So then, either the antagonist is knocked out of the game or you get the cliché of the antagonist escaping just in the nick of time, or even worse, the one where he beats you up in a cutscene after you kick his ass in-game. What many games do to counteract this is they present you with a hodgepodge of disposable antagonists, in the form of different boss characters and such. But the narrative consequence is that the forces of antagonism in the game are diluted. Unless it's Metal Gear Solid, the story likely doesn't make time to develop most of these characters, and the artists and combat designers have to carry the burden of making them interesting when the fiction should be holding up its end of the bargain.

Conversely, the reason why games like Portal, System Shock II, BioShock, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and even Punch-Out!! succeed with their antagonists is that their stories are structured around an ever-present-but-physically-inaccessible antagonist, someone you're always aware of but can't get to until the climax of the game.

If a gameworld cannot support the idea of an ever-present but physically-inaccessible antagonist, then the burden is on the enemy faction to be empathetic, assuming this is compatible with the aesthetic of the gameworld. The enemy faction or factions you're fighting -- the various goons that populate the gameworld and are the predicates of the gameplay -- might as well be interesting. There's really no downside. And giving them empathetic qualities is a good way to make them interesting in most cases. In Geometry Wars, the evasive little green shapes are the best, most memorable enemies in the game because they have an empathetic sense of self-preservation. In Halo, the little Grunts freak out when you kill one of the Elites leading them into battle. In Panzer Dragoon Orta, the hordes of enemies forcing you to dodge a hailstorm of bullets panic as you gun them down, making you think about what it must be like to be on the bad guys' side in a shoot-'em-up. In Plants vs. Zombies, the zombies are sincerely hungry for brains -- you'd want to give them your brains if you didn't need them. Since most traditional games revolve around violent conflict, in these games, the forces of antagonism ought to express empathetic behaviors, even in the strict confines of a combat encounter. It's totally doable and relatively inexpensive in many cases, just the cost of writing and audio in many cases (plus a high premium in scripting, animation, and artificial intelligence for all the shooters out there). Even F.E.A.R.'s genetically cloned supersoldiers in their full body armor show a shred of humanity in their final moments simply by saying "Oh, shit...!" as you strafe around the corner in slow motion with your shotgun drawn.

While memorable antagonists are rare, antagonists are some of the most memorable characters in games. That's because they often present far greater opportunities for character development than protagonists do. Look at games like BioShock and Portal, whose protagonists primarily serve as vessels for the player to immerse themselves into the experience, yet whose antagonists are extremely well-crafted, remarkable characters. Part of why the combination of invisible-protagonist and ever-present-antagonist works so well in these games is that, when the climactic moments of the story crop up, the antagonists' escalating actions feel very personal. And when these highly motivating personal affronts are coming from characters whose own motives you can empathize with on some level -- characters for whom the old "we're not so different, you and I" speech goes without saying -- you're more likely to be playing a game that's going to stick with you after you're finished playing it. Which are the kinds of games I most like and most want to make.


  1. Great post, very interesting.

    The relatable - almost sympathetic - villain is absolutely the easiest fix when looking to create a memorable, interesting antagonist in a narrative driven context, but as you say, games haven't traditionally been particularly story focused.

    That's not to say there hasn't been a narrative, there usually is one even in the most abstract circumstances which is why I especially gravitate towards your point about the green GeoWars enemies.

    I think that while GeoWars makes for a great comparison thanks to its outright abstract nature, iconic villains are just as prevailent in other, more concrete game worlds. What makes Ganon a great villain arguably has more to do with visual, aureal and context buildup than actually understanding him or his motives. The same goes for Dracula in the earlier Castlevania games. The game itself has a ladder type progression and a sense of actual place through which the significance of the boss' lair is communicated to you throughout the experience.

    Those games were played by a younger version of myself though, and perhaps in the eyes of a child, something impressionistic is more powerful than complex character building, but I also feel that games have painted themselves into a corner by becoming more realistic. The near surrealistic approach to a boss or a villain is all but gone, and with it, that trippy, impossibly huge to-the-point-of-being-part-of-the-decor approach to bosses. Mostly it's just a dude nowadays, and a dude is governed by the same conventional rules as a character in any other storytelling medium.

    I think there exists a unique language in games, and you touch on it with the GeoWars reference, and I think that's tapped far too seldom nowadays. A bajillion reasons exist to why games are made with more conventional storytelling means though, as trailers work their way into cinemas and commercial breaks. I wouldn't really know how to trailer Rez.

    Sorry for the huge reply, but yeah, really enjoyed this post and it's great to have you writing again!

  2. @SimonM7, thanks, and I agree with what you're saying. In my post I was mostly referring to the sorts of action / action adventure games that are common today, and as you said, those tend to be grounded in realism for better and for worse. I think you're right that having iconic, representational antagonists can be very moving in certain kinds of games, and it's something that feels more a part of older games than newer ones. You can go way back to stuff like the ghost monsters from Pac-Man -- these were just a handful of pixels and packed in them more personality and depth than most of today's enemy goons, in part because older games like that were completely focused around your interactions with those characters.

    I think a game like Shadow of the Colossus may be the closest thing to a modern throwback to those games. The enemies in it are deeply empathetic though it's not like you ever communicate with them or understand their motives -- it's just something about their lifelike nature that comes through in spite of how abstract some of them are.

    With classic villains like Dracula from Castlevania, it's the anticipation of that encounter that builds up the character so much. In that sense, it's not so different from working your way up to the Joker in a modern game like Arkham Asylum.

  3. Simon's mention of Ganon reminded me of the final fight in Wind Waker, which completely blew me away. Here was a villain who I'd always taken for granted as a sort of generic fantasy dark lord type, pure evil through and through, and not terribly interesting. But you approach him here, and he gives you this speech, about how the winds had devastated his homeland, and how they brought something else to Hyrule.

    "I (pause) coveted that wind, I suppose."


    Suddenly my entire concept of this character, established across games I'd been playing for over 15 years, was obliterated and reconstructed in an instant, and it really changed how I felt about all the events in the game that had led up to that moment. Just incredible.

  4. You know what makes an antagonist memorable? How difficult he or she is to defeat. Mike Tyson isn't memorable because his "story is structured around an ever-present-but-physically-inaccessible antagonist, someone you're always aware of but can't get to until the climax of the game." How is he ever present other than being on the box cover, and you knowing he's the last fight in the game? He's memorable because he's hard as hell and he requires you to use every skill you've gained from the previous fights to the Nth degree.

    I just find it strange that you devote an entire blog entry to what makes a great antagonist without mentioning, oh, the actual fight against the antagonist(s) itself.

    You could build up the antagonist in the best way possible, make an incredible villain, yadda yadda. But if the fight itself sucks, or it's too easy, then there goes your memorable villain.

  5. I'm not sure that I'd necessarily agree with that, GamingLifer- look at the example Caro gives regarding Ganondorf at the end of The Wind Waker. An easy game, overall, finishing with a fairly easy to dispatch boss, but still an extremely satisfying encounter. Indeed, I think that if an end boss is too difficult, it can detract from the overall experience. Viewing the same cut-scenes again and again, after dying to a particularly brutal end-boss, can negatively affect one's overall enjoyment of a game. Only certain games, such as Demon's Souls or Punch-Out, can pull off making their end-bosses tough as nails without making the player become overly frustrated.

  6. @ John: It boils down to what you like in a game. For me, challenge is #1. I really disliked Wind Waker on almost every level, foremost the lack of challenge. You call the encounter satisfying, and that's fine, I respect that. But an easy encounter is inherently not satisfying to me. It makes about as much sense as when people say a game is "boring but fun."

    The cinematic thing is just semantics--if you're forced to watch a cinematic every time you fight a boss, that's just annoying game design. But even so, I don't see that too often.

  7. Certainly I can respect that there are people for whom challenge is the most important thing in games, for whom story is essentially pointless. I know people on that end of the spectrum, and I know others who don't touch games that they don't feel offer a compelling story, and who feel that challenge just interferes with an otherwise pleasant experience with an engaging narrative. I fall somewhere in between. I'm currently obsessed with arcade games like Asteroids Deluxe and Jungler in Game Room, so I certainly don't need a narrative to get me invested in any action, but a great story and memorable characters can also make a game far more compelling to me.

    This all reminds me of another one of my favorite game villians: Jesper, that tough-as-nails Swedish ping-pong robot! The game has no narrative to speak of, but something about Jesper's facial expressions made him feel like a fleshed-out character, and made my championship match against him feel personal. I loved to hate him. And when I finally won, there was a sense of exultation to my victory that rivaled that of the climax of a Rocky movie.

  8. @GamingLifer: I completely agree with your original point. I still remember fighting Jacquio in Ninja Gaiden for the NES, as one of the hardest bosses I've ever fought. I remember a bunch of bosses from Shinobi for the PS2, Agni & Rudra from Devil May Cry 3, the samurai horseman in Ninja Gaiden's second level, and so on just because those fights were so grueling and awesome and satisfying to finally finish. It's just not what I was writing about here.

    I'm not ignoring the importance of encounter design and combat design because I don't think it's important -- it's the most important thing to games about combat.

    I'm just choosing to write specifically about game narrative in this blog, as it relates to other (generally more important) disciplines of game design.

  9. @Caro: Thanks for the link and memories of that Ganondorf battle at the end of Wind Waker. I loved that whole sequence (even if it was too easy, to GamingLifer's point).

  10. Sorry to add to the comments. I wish I could edit my previous one. It bugs me that I said that Rockstar Presents Table Tennis has no narrative. Of course, I know that it does. One definition of narrative is "a framework of events arranged in some kind of order (eg, temporal, causal), involving a set of "characters" and relationships between those characters." Very nearly every game has a narrative, even if it doesn't spend any time developing a traditional story.

    And since I'm commenting anyway, let me add: F*** Jacquio.

  11. Hi Greg! We met in Berlin :) Fantastic read, and I totally agree. Nice seeing you reference Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. I was soooo looking forward to that fight with Kain at the end. Yet Soul Reaver 2 changed my whole opinion on him, how he wasn't this two dimensional villian, that there were other forces at work. It feels oddly pleasant when your opinion is spun around like that, and you wonder how you ever viewed them as anything else.

    Just to throw it in here am currently going through Final Fantasy XIII, one of the most melodramatic games I've ever played. It introduces characters at a whim, and people who you might never see again. I have no idea who the baddies are, and at this point don't seem to care. Not to say that every story should have a villian, but it really does help.

  12. Greg, great post. Creating a compelling antagonist to shape the conflict is so important for any good story, but especially in games. It's interesting that some of the major antagonists you allude to - GlaDos, the Joker, Andrew Ryan - work so well because the narrative encourages the player to get inside their heads (or circuits, I guess). I think the mark of a great antagonist is that the audience really wants to dig deep into his/her motivations; in a sense, to see themselves as the villain, not just the hero.

    In Half-Life 2, I found Dr. Breen - another inaccessible but omnipresent antagonist - much more interesting than Gordon, or even Alyx. The guy is clearly a megalomaniac, but he's also clearly a pawn of a force much larger than him. There's this weird tension there; he orchestrated Earth's surrender to the Combine, yet did he actually prevent our extinction by doing so? Does he know how much he's being manipulated? Is he so emotionally deadened by the everyday atrocities around him that his obsession with Gordon is the only thing that gives him meaning? Much more interesting than a mute guy with a crowbar.

  13. I know everyone hates Manhunt these days, but I really think it did "ever-present-but-physically-inaccessible antagonist" perfectly.

  14. I agree with pretty much everything you said, especially that villains need to be empathetic and that they're not often done well.

    It occurred to me that the exception that seems to prove the rule is the case of the reapers in Mass Effect. They're so completely unknowable, their endless cycle of systematic genocide so completely ineffable, that they become a very potent and memorable villain. I think this is mostly achieved by never actually getting to fight one in the game, as you literally would not be able to win.

    My theory is that the strength of the emotions conveyed to the player is key to the villain's memorability and value, achieved through empathy in most cases, but here through the fear and hopelessness stirred up in the face of an unstoppable force.

  15. Great read as always, Greg.

    Reading your post reminded me why Blizzard got it so right with Wrath of the Lich King. Arthas was a compelling antagonist even in the Warcraft 3 and it's expansion. But the character become more personal in the WoW expansion. He was ever present, from the moment players landed on Northrend right until his sad end in Patch 3.3.

    It's quite an achievement because it's usually very hard to tell great stories within the grind heavy MMO structure.

  16. This was a joy to read. It's rare that I come across video game articles that encourage self reflection on the experiences of the games mentioned. That being said, I whole heartedly agree with what you say.

    Reading the words "ever-present-but-physically-inaccessible antagonist" eloquently sums up the reasons why I love SHODAN from System Shock, Andrew Ryan from Bioshock, and GLaDOS from Portal. That, and because of their personality. They each represent a part of the human condition: GLaDOS's passive aggressive infatuation with you, Ryan's unwavering faith in individualism, SHODAN's desire to reshape humanity in her own eye. Not only does their presence permeate the game experience, but what they represent does as well.

    As for antagonists that aren't always present, I found Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2 as an interesting case. Again, it was what he symbolized was what made me terrified and drawn to his character. He is the physical embodiment of the protagonist's repressed hatred and sexual desires - a part of his psyche.

    In that way, I understand why I felt no connection to Modern Warfare 2's Makarov. Even though the game crudely used a controversial scene in an attempt to characterize him, there's almost nothing human about him. I felt they did a much better job with the antagonist in the original Modern Warfare, with the way the game opened with Zakhaev's words: "Our so-called leaders... prostituted us to the West."

    The most exciting aspect of all of this is how it's only the tip of the iceberg. How will these insights affect game mechanics?

    Before I end this bloated post, let me just say how much of a fan I am of your work. When I was younger, I always looked forward to reading and watching your reviews. You are the reason why I believe video games are a legitimate art form. While I'm no game designer - I'm actually studying Software Engineering at RIT - I do enjoy reading what you have to say about my beloved past time.

  17. I liked the post but I am a little confused. I feel like the "ever-present-but-physically-inaccessible antagonist" is the standard and have a hard time thinking of something else in video games. What would you all list as examples of BAD villians?

  18. Possibly coming in quite late to this discussion, but as a reply to GamingLifer... I very much agree with you, especially in the context of the bad guys mentioned in the article. However, we must not forget some of the truly great bad guys that you never even get to fight! Kane in C&C is my obvious #1. His extraordinary enthusiasm and delight in his (evil?) doings still thrill me when I play the games again. Another favourite of mine is G-Man from Half-Life (much more antagonistic than Breen in HL2).

    And in reply to Jordan, I can't think of many examples but there's also bad guys such as Dr Robotnik in the early Sonic games where you fight him every 2 levels or so.. pretty accessible! Also mention has been made of antagonists such as the ghosts in Pacman, Zombies in Plants vs Zombies etc.

  19. A reply to 'joe wright' ... warning ahead of time, if you haven't played Mass Effect 2, this might be a spoiler, but I'll start out talking about the Geth without any spoiler actions. In Mass Effect, your primary and immediate enemies are actually Saren and the Geth, both of whom are easy to relate to - the Geth's anger is/are justified by the attempt at genocide carried out by the Quarians against them for no other reason but that they were alive (becoming self-aware). Saren goes on to explain that he's actually working to save organic life as best he can with a resignation that the Reapers are completely unstoppable and cannot be fought - the only way to preserve any organic life would be to prove useful - to allow the Reapers to transform the various species of the galaxy (SPOILERS FOLLOW) into Collector-like servants... now getting on to Mass Effect 2 ... upon finishing Mass Effect 2 you find out that Reapers essentially require the destruction of organic life in order to reproduce, and, in fact, what you see of the production of Reapers actually begs the question as to whether or not any of the humans captured to use in that construction are actually destroyed - a Reaper is a unified "nation" of individual sentience points - consciousness - and is constructed of the organic goup/'essence' of countless captured organic beings... is it not possible that the consciousnesses which make up the Reaper are actually the people used in its construction? The very process of being used to manufacture Reapers is referred to by the collectors as "Ascension" ... with a little thought, the motivations have ambiguity, the question of whether or not what the Reapers do might actually be a good thing - a step forward into the next stage of human evolution - arises. And therein lies the complete reveal on the empathetic nature of all of the villains of the Mass Effect series thus far, heh.

  20. For an example of one of the most memorable and well-developed game villains ever, See: "Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn."

    His name is Jon Irenicus, and he puts almost every other game villain to shame.

  21. I think one of the most interesting things about Bioshock's Andrew Ryan was how you were both complete enigma's to each other. You knew as little about the Ryan as he did about you, and as you steadily got closer to him you learned more about him and his motivations, yet when you finally meet him he still has some surprises.

  22. System Shock 1 and 2, Bioshock's Ryan and Fontaine, Zelda's Ganondorf, yes. These are all fantastic examples.

    One of my favorites, not mentioned here, is Nemesis from Resident Evil 3. Giving the hero the opportunity to run into, fight, and run into a final boss that only gets stronger with each iteration is tension building. Do I fight him this time, knowing he'll be stronger next time? Or do I run?

    What about Malak from Kotor? Or Pokey from Earthbound? Alma from FEAR 1 and 2?

  23. Great article! I especially agree with the part about empathetic villains. The first pirates of the Caribbean comes strongly to my mind. I know it's a movie, and they have much more time to develop character and whatnot, but at the end, when Barbossa collapses to the ground and the apple falls from his hands, you almost wish it could have been any other way! That's some good villainous empathy there in my opinion. While I think it would be cliche for every villain to have that much empathy every single time, I think that that's something we should strive for at least some of the time in video games as well.

    /my two cents