I was playing Axiom Verge recently since I have yet to complete it and that bothers me. I just reached what I believe is the halfway point, where a boss just sort of... sits there. You can let it die slowly or help it along. Anyway, it was because of this I started thinking about aspects of a good game, and typing that up with be rather long, so I'm starting up a mini-series that I may or may not post to regularly. 

First off: What makes a villain good, or bad? Let's start the examination!


Monsters? Beasts? Humans? 

The first villain I encountered in a game was Gnasty Gnorc in Spyro. Now, there's nothing outstanding about Gnasty in particular aside from him being an orc in a world full of dragons. He really does get mad about being called ugly and just sort of goes on a rampage, turning every dragon aside from the titular hero into crystal statues(you know you've played this game too much when you remember the whole plot). Your driving point the whole game is getting to Gnasty to... kill him? I'm mean, he poofs away like all the other enemies so, he dead, son.

But Gnasty isn't a particularly compelling villain, obviously. He's simple, and good for kids. When making a villain in a big game, though, they better be compelling. Motivate me to get there and murder them, please. That's what makes Persona 5's villains so good. They're all unique and have different aspects that make them evil. One is a sexual predator and abuser, one is a swindler, and one is a thief of art from his hard working students. By themselves these aren't particularly interesting traits, but the characters and their personalities make them really good villains.

That and they are definitely a lot prettier.

Example: Kamoshida is an Olympic medalist in volleyball who gets away with his rampant abuse by blackmailing everyone who stands in his way. Ryuji is turned into a social outcast because of him, and has permanent damage to his leg as a bonus. Shiho has something so bad happen to her, she tries to commit suicide. The response from Kamoshida? All the kids are idiots who deserved their punishment and consequences. If Ann just spread her legs, this wouldn't have happened is basically his reasoning. And damn if you aren't ready to send him halfway to the moon from that.

So a villain can be a monster, or a really not nice human, but there's one really important aspect to villainy that we need to talk about: making them three-dimensional.


Character and Development

Sephiroth was a terrible villain. There I said it. That is, until I played Crisis Core. The weird thing about this game is suddenly you're hanging out with this supposed bad guy, but he seems pretty normal. He's quiet, has friends who he genuinely cares for, and even acknowledges you as a soldier. You watch him break down when his friends turn on their country and you're the only one left, and only then did I realize that maybe things would have turned out better for him if he had a better support. But, whatever, he's the villain. Villains don't have support.

See, characters are people, or at least you have to convince me they're people. People aren't two-dimensional. They have personalities, motives, emotions, and actions that all mesh together and can be destructive. Setting a town on fire isn't a good way to establish a villain. Building them up as a buddy and trusted mentor and having them turn on you? That's a pretty good way to get it going. Think of it this way: there's a difference when you're playing a game and say, "What a turd, he burned down Cloud's village," and "You turd! You're burning down the village we spent so much time in and tried to kill me, Zack, your friend!"

Also, my sword is much bigger, so why exactly am I still alive?

Betrayals and sympathetic villains are well and good, but I can't talk about wonderful characters without bringing up one of my favorite villains ever: Handsome Jack. This guy is amazing. Disregarding the pre-sequel to Borderlands 2, Jack is the type of villain most writers should strive for. His mantra says it all: "I'm the goddang hero."

Jack isn't insane. He's annoying and hilarious, but not insane. Jack has a large weapons and tech company with a lot of power, and fairly innocent motive when broken down. His goal is to bring peace to Pandora by way of giving it a governing force and civilizing it. Unfortunately, there are bandits and homicidal maniacs everywhere, so he's chosen to purge the place. Innocent civilians included. However, he's not super wrong about the whole dangerous bandits and maniacs everywhere. You certainly find them all over the place, and it's clear that not everyone you're friends with are good people. Dr. Zed isn't even a doctor, Lilith has a clear falling out with Brick and Roland(who are the sort of good guys), and Salvador is known to be a bit of a problem. Let's... let's not even bring up whatever Krieg is.

No matter what you say, this guy shreds people. And a part of him really, really likes it.

So in a way, Jack is a hero. He'd be a hero if he pulled off his idea to bring peace to Pandora. His method is the problem. However, this isn't the only aspect of Jack we see. We know he has a daughter, who is a siren which means she's got some cool and frightening powers, whom he loves quite a lot. Again, though, we see a conflict in him imprisoning her in a computer. Why did he do this, and what does this have to do with him possibly being a hero? Again, he says it himself. Mordecai brings up what he did to Angel, and the response is, "I know you think I'm a monster. You think I enslaved Angel. But you didn't see what she did to her mother. I had to restrain her. I had to."

There's an implication here in tone. Angel may have killed her mother during childbirth, or because she's a Siren maybe she lost control of her power and killed her by accident. Either way, grief makes you do stupid things, and it's clear that once Angel is in the computer there's no going back. I'm not saying grief forgives his actions, but the implication is maybe Angel did something she can never take back which would give her a pretty sweet backstory.

To me, this is what makes Jack a compelling villain and someone who I want to fight against. Not only is he the worst kind of person, he has his own views. He's a person, and in a different game he would be the conflicted good guy. Imagine it.

Handsome Jack: The man who tried, and ultimately failed, to be the hero. So he became a villain.

Making A Bad Villain

However, conflict isn't the only thing that makes a villain worth fighting and compelling. I will use my favorite example again, but it isn't Jack. It's someone who people almost universally hate: Joffrey Baratheon.

I mean, look at him. That's not even how you wear a crown.

This kid is whiny, spoiled, psychotic, sadistic, and just a little brat with too much power. The backstory of his parentage is nothing more than fuel to a volcano: it's so irrelevant to him as a character that he could be the dog's child for all we care(or perhaps The Hound's is a better metaphor?). By the time Season 2 aired, everyone was itching for someone to swoop down and give this kid his comeuppance GOT-style. And we didn't get it.

We watched him be king, executing children and slowly going mad. He turns against all he has and even makes it clear that everyone but him is expendable. The audience hated him. I hated him. The world of GOT hated him. So they did what, historically, any society would do. They killed him. Gloriously.

I don't think a TV show death was more celebrated. And that's all the evidence I need to say he was a great villain. He did terrible things and definitely made an ass of himself. He hurt some of the most kind characters, destroyed the foundations of his very people, and even went so far as to ask why it mattered to him. And every time he did this, the audience collectively wished him to go away.

Joffrey isn't like Jack. He isn't conflicted. He doesn't care. He's a dictator with no heart, no soul, nothing we can associate with. We can't even feel sympathy for his situation of knowing he's a product of incest. We just want him dead because he's a terrible person. That's what makes him a great villain.

In other words, if someone is evil enough, but believably evil(i.e. not stupid or somehow pulling unknown powers out of their butt), they can and will be a great villain to your story.


I'm really curious: who are your favorite villains? Comics, shows, movies, games, you name it. I love Handsome Jack as a villain if that wasn't obvious, but I also really liked Saren from Mass Effect. In the end, I actually felt bad for the guy. I also really enjoy a good silly villain, but that's a different write up for another day.