The Big Bad: Basics of Videogame Villain Design

(Disclaimer: I don’t own any well known content that might appear)

How is a good videogame villain designed? This is the question that is going to be answered. Some of this is going to be very rudimentary stuff, and one can go a lot deeper if they really want to study this. Smart people have been making great villains for a long time. However, it is surprising how many games would benefit from applying some of the most surface level rules of villain design. Depending on the game being made, it is generally going to have one of two villain types. They are the mechanic villain and the narrative villain.

The mechanic villain is there to drive the action. They give the reason to use the game’s mechanics. These are characters like Bowser from Mario, Ganon from The Legend of Zelda, and Dr. Wily from Mega Man. These villains don’t need to be very complex. Functionally, they are more of a final boss then a character.

The important part of these guys is that the player feels good about challenging them. The player using all of their skill with the game’s mechanics should feel that, within the game’s narrative, what they just did could not be done by anybody with less skill than them. This is often why game designers resort to unknowable aliens or supernatural evils bent on humanity’s destruction.

These villains also need some justification other than their immense power as to why the player can not fight them right off the bat and be done with it. Maybe they have an army to throw at the player, have a fortress far away, or a labyrinth littered with traps. Something to overcome before the player can take the fight the the villain. Thus justifying the rest of the action in the game.

Overall, it seems safe to say the gaming industry has a good grasp on making mechanic villains. They are somewhat unique to games, and they have been made almost as long as videogames themselves have been.

What it is generally not as good at is making narrative villains. They have vastly different requirements. Unlike mechanic villains, narrative villains can’t just be a final boss or be there to throw an army at the player. However, the gaming industry tends to use mechanic villains where they need narrative villains.

The narrative villain is there to drive the plot. These are characters like Kefka from Final Fantasy VI, Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII, and the Reapers from the Mass Effect trilogy. They are there to provide drama and serve as the foil to the main character. This is where most games stumble because of the aforementioned tendency to use mechanic villains where narrative villains are needed. It hamstrings the story driven experience when the villain turns out to be a capital b bad guy that wants to destroy the world just because they are evil.

How can it be avoided? It is avoided by asking a few simple questions as the villain is being crafted. The first question is cliche sounding but important. What is the villain’s motive? What drives them to do the evil that they are doing? It has to be asked because no villain does stuff just because they are evil. Even the worst most evil villains have reasons for what they do. They do not do stuff just to worsen the world. Once their motive is established, look through every scenario involving the villain and check to make sure their actions line up with their motive.

This raises the next question. How is the motive communicated? If done right, the villain’s actions alone should say tons about their motive. They should not have to go through a forced villain monologue to communicate their motive. That is not to say that you can not have the villain talk about their goals. A villain never sees himself as one in another person’s story. All vilains see their actions as more than self serving. Which means there can be an occasion where the villain will want to explain their point of view to somebody.

If the villain has to come right out and state their motive, try making a character moment out of it. Try giving them a moment where they need to rally a potential ally to their cause, or a scene where they hope the hero might become more sympathetic to their cause if the hero understood their motive.

Some of the best narrative villains tend to be ones that cause a plot that allows the player to question whether they are completely in the right. One good way to develop sympathy for the villain is give them some fatal flaw. Something that makes their seemingly evil actions be the results of some horrible misunderstanding or of an aspect of their life that spiraled out of their control. It makes them feel like a real character and gives depth to them and the game’s world.

Another thing to consider is the protagonist and their interactions with the villain. Does the juxtaposition of the two characters strengthen the story being told? Do they push up against each other’s ideals and cause each other to question themselves? Does how they interact with each other deepen the player’s understanding of both of them? These three questions determine whether the villain is right for the story.

This has spent a lot of time in storytelling 101, so here is some focus on the realities of  game production. First, it is more important than ever that the villain and what they want is communicated through actions rather than words. Show, don’t tell applies to a lot of media nowadays, but even in large scale role playing games, there is a slim ratio of words per minute compared to a movie or TV show meaning that storytelling efficiency is a key part.

Second, a lot of the game’s work is probably going to be cut. This is not a movie or TV show. Anybody who has crafted a narrative for a game knows that only about one third of what they script out will get produced, so knowing how scenes tie together and which ones are essential for the plot and which ones are for characterization.

Lastly, it is important to know that not all games need a clear antagonist. A story’s drama comes from conflict, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be a good guy vs bad guy scenario. Maybe there is no villain, but some huge obstacle that the protagonist needs to overcome. Maybe there are two protagonists that have different goals, but get in each other’s way to achieve them. Maybe there is a character who, in their desperation to fulfil their goal, arguably ends up becoming a villain. Maybe the whole point of the story is for the player to determine who is the villain. The list of kinds of stories that don’t need a clear villain goes on and on. Just know that if a game’s story is going to have a clear villain, it should be that latter of the two.

Also, before I close, special thanks to the people on the Youtube channel Extra Credits. Their two part episode on what makes a good videogame villain got me really thinking about it.

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