Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Video Villain

People are talking: video game bad guys are uninspiring and boring!


Everyone's got a theory. Welcome to mine. My theory is simpler than their theory. My theory is this:

Video games focus on the player.

The key step to making any character come alive is developing them. However, video games have a very focused "presence": your character. It is rare and disconcerting when a video game ships itself off to the other end of the universe to suddenly be from the bad guy's perspective.

Think about all the best villains in video game history. The game almost certainly went to absurd lengths to develop the villain, to give them screen time.

In System Shock 2, the ever-memorable SHODAN was an incessant voice in your head, doling out rewards and ad-ad-ad-adviiiiiiiiiiice, insect. In FFVI, Kefka was continually tromping up and down the world, and every time you saw him, he was packed with (A) world-changing goodness and (B) comedic dialogue. In FFVII, Sephiroth showed up in a huge number of cutscenes and flashbacks, making him more commonly present than many of the party members.

There are lots of ways to do it, but it takes effort. Games aren't movies: cutting away to a situation on the other side of the planet feels strange to us. However, that's far from the only way to develop a villain!

Perhaps I can talk about some of the ways, later. Fun times!


Patrick Dugan said...

I'm interested in villains from two perspectives, one that corresponds to Magic Circle, my commercial effort, and Pack Appeal, which is more of an art project with Storytron, respectively.

1) Making the cause of the conflict (i.e. the Villain) ambiguous, leaving potential for passionate characters to be construed as villains, even if they're mere pawns.

2) Making the player question the villainy of their own actions.

Jason "Botswana" Cox said...

Typically what happens in many games is that by the team the player gets to the final confrontation they are so powerful that the final battle is a cakewalk.

Either that or the villian is so stupendously powerful that is more frustration than fun to beat them.

Or we can split the middle, where the villian has some horribly contrived weak point the player must hit over and over in an exact sequence. Actually, that sounds a lot like my above point.

Regardless, look at memorable movie villians. In Star Wars, they spend a good deal of the trilogy running from Darth Vader. Every confrontation until the end goes badly. In Lord of the Rings, the Ringwraiths are to be feared, fighting them leads to a standstill at best. Still, at the end they must be faced, there is no choice.

That's just a couple of examples. The problem with many game villians is that they are not feared. In Morrowind, we don't even see the villian until the end of the game! Granted, Morrowind had one of my favorite end games of all time, but you never really feared the villian because he was this unseen thing in the game. Many games take a similar tact.

Then again, I think many game villians are so blaise for the same reasons evil in games is so poorly done. Developers simply have no point of reference to draw from.

Craig Perko said...

Hmm, that's a good point. There are ways to make a conflict interesting without making it either easy or hard, and there are ways to make it easy or hard depending on character power.

These methods should be used in addition to actually developing the villain. Can't forget it is a game!

Slartibartfast said...

Playing as the villian is also pretty neat; that's one of the things that hooked me on Sephiroth in FFVII: tromping around slaying dragons with the villain while the hero is still swatting flies gives him an air of .. uberness.

There was less of an effect with Ultimecia in FF8 because her powers weren't entirely out of line with the main characters.

And along Patrick's point of ambiguity; good call. I think of Les Miserables.. the convict is the good guy, the officer's the bad guy; they're both pursuing positive goals (freedom and justice), they both came from poverty (parallels to the hero.. another good device) And Javert's a hell of a lot more interesting then some shadowy figure bent on world domination.

Craig Perko said...

Playing as (or with) the villain is a very powerful way to introduce him, but it has to be done in an interesting way. As you said.

As for ambiguity, I tend to assume that. All the best villains are not simply evil for evil's sake.