I knew I had reached the breaking point when, for the first time while gaming, I skipped a piece of dialogue before I’d heard it. This happened during open world FPS, Dying Light, when you’re “conversing” with the main villain, Reis.
He is a cliché wrapped in B-movie motivations, dipped in Captain Planet villain believability and cooked on a slow flame of loud masculinity. He monologues about “being a man” and the joys of “chaos” and other nonsense you’ve heard a thousand times. He’s not interesting or terrifying, failing at what should be key elements to an opponent. He’s boring, he’s loud, he’s irritating—none of his motivations make sense beyond “being a bad guy”. Even your final battle is eroded to a bland quick time event. Joy.
Games suffer more than most mediums from the disease of cartoon villains, even when they’re made to be gritty or mature.
Indeed, the otherwise excellent Dragon Age: Inquisition, known for it’s brilliant characterization, feels like it’s written by someone else when we encounter the main villain: he’s big, he’s scary, he talks about controlling things. There’s little reason to care or wonder.
The main problem with villains in games is they’re essentially no different to NPCs who give you missions. These NPCs don’t need to be interesting in themselves to be serviceable to the game or the game’s plot. These characters are there to give some background as to why you need to do quests: fetch this goat, three berries or kill this number of men. You don’t usually care who these mission givers are and, once you’ve done the mission, you don’t wonder about them any further.
Game villains tend to be a glorified version of these NPC mission-givers, except they hang like a boring shadow over the whole game. They also are there to give background to your deeds throughout. They serve as anchor for various quests: why you’re fighting this dragon, why you’re picking berries and, well, killing these men. And, just like the boring quest givers, you don’t care about them once the mission—i.e. the game’s entire plot—is done.
This is a missed opportunity for creating depth and meaning, in a medium that can do what others cannot. Consider GLaDOS, from the Portal series: She is the main villain, though she is also the background for humor, intrigue, story. The further you journey into the game, the more you discover about the world and about her—it’s not just a journey through puzzles, but a journey through the dark, twisted and terrifying history of what led to her creation.
The Portal games are still enjoyable without GLaDOS: they’re amazing, lovely puzzle platformers. You are motivated through increasing levels of difficulty. But the game is made whole and has reached its divine status because of GLaDOS.
The last two Far Cry games have had villains who are also barely recognizable as motivated persons—yet they at least are interesting to watch, instill fear and can be entertaining. Indeed, when I was in the presence of Michael Mando’s Vaas, I felt genuine terror as to not knowing what this awful person would do.
But two recent games truly outline what makes a good villain.
The main one that comes to mind is, indeed, titled after it’s central villain. Alien: Isolation, Creative Assembly’s critically acclaimed FPS survival horror, rests so heavily on the mythos, the mystery, and the might of its main villain, his absence swings between two poles: utter terror, due to being unaware of his location and boredom, as the game plays through as a standard FPS shootfest without him. Many think the game is about avoiding the alien, when in fact, it’s about surviving him. The entire thrust of the game was the adaptation of the creature, as he learns your habits and you learn his. You learn to recognize what his snarls mean, what his breathing indicates: you indeed use him to your advantage to clear rooms of villains. It’s a deadly dance that causes enormous levels of stress over the game unnecessarily long run time. I won’t lie: When I seemed to have satisfactorily disposed of him, but the game continued, I felt loss and concern. Loss of a poison companion, but concern of what the game would do without him. My concerns were justified, as anyone who’s played the game knows.
The overarching point isn’t to make Alien: Isolation’s creature the template for a good villain or Dying Light’s Reis emblematic of poorly written one. What we must realize is main villains shouldn’t be relegated to the same boring domains other NPCs already occupy: villains have a story of their own, a background to their motivations that could, in the right light, be understood.
Properly handled, the line between villain and hero shouldn’t be drawn in crayon but dust; what we should see is a dark reflection, not an inverted one.
Yet, constantly, villains are just levers in the plot to be pulled—bigger than most, but levers nonetheless. Creators pull on them to push the plot forward, instead of providing some kind of human motivation that makes sense.
What makes interactions fascinating is opposing goals—but the point of talented writers and creators is to try and make those goals as sympathetic as possible. A great example of this was in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: 400 Days.
In this short game, taking place between Season 1 and 2 of the main game, you play as various people during the zombie apocalypse. The segments are short, but it allows you some time to know the characters, their companions and the group dynamics. With each segment, you are forced to make one or two hard moral choices, which—as is typical of Telltale’s series—have ongoing ramifications. What’s fascinating about 400 Days however is that the ramifications usually affect other people, not the character who makes the original choice. You play as one group who finds themselves without food and looking after kids; then suddenly you’re playing a group in a farm being attacked. You realize, in this second segment, the group hunting you was the group you played in before.
Each person’s and group’s motivations make sense—they’re not cartoon villains, but desperate people, distrusting of everyone and for good reason. And yet, when the player is blindly put in another group’s shoes, our conflicting goals no longer conflict: we simply play as we always would but now realize we’re opposing the very people we just spent a few minutes defending.
This is what main villains should flirt with more often—not mutate into boring levers, into banal currents, to shift the plot. They can be the very fabric of plot that stitches together a wonderful whole: you don’t need deep character writing, but we can at least avoid cartoon clichés. Save the cartoon villains for Saturday mornings; leave out the “edgy” villains who yearn for chaos.
I no longer judge a game by the love it gives its main character, but by the respect it gives its villains. Respect doesn’t mean sympathy but an understanding that somewhere beneath the rotten core of horror and opposition beats a heart not so different from the digital one we’re meant to keep alive.
Tauriq Moosa writes on ethics and digital culture for The Daily Beast, Guardian and elsewhere. His hatred for comment sections made it into the New York Times. He can be found yelling at men on his Twitter and links to his other work can be found here. He is excellent at writing in the third person.