What makes a good videogame villain?

How do you make a villain that gamers love to hate? The creative minds behind Tokyo Dark and Forgotten Anne share their thoughts…
By Duncan Heaney

So far over the course of Villains Week, we’ve looked at under-appreciated FINAL FANTASY villains, times games made US the bad guy and those times that we torture video game characters for our own amusement. In short, we’ve talked about the bad guys a lot.

But one question lingers in the back of our minds - what exactly makes a great villain? What gives the classic videogame villains that certain… je ne sais quois that makes them stand out? How do you make an antagonist you love to hate?

Well, we’ve looked at the impressive roster of Square Enix’s greatest baddies, chatted with a few developers, and here are some thoughts…

Warning: Spoilers for FINAL FANTASY III, FINAL FANTASY VI, FINAL FANTASY VII, Forgotten Anne, Sleeping Dogs and Life is Strange.

Motivation matters

Speaking to writers and developers one point becomes abundantly clear - it’s not enough to show what the villain does, as players, we also need to know why they’re doing it.

Jon Williams, Creative Director at Cherrymochi (the studio behind the excellent adventure game Tokyo Dark) explains it rather well:

“The most important element for me in a villain is motivation. What drives the BIG-BAD to be big and bad? When this motivation is at least somewhat understandable or relatable the villain begins to feel authentic.”

These thoughts are echoed by Ingvi Snædal, Associate Producer for ThroughLine Games, and co-creator of Forgotten Anne. He says: “The best villains are motivated by a relatable cause that makes us empathize with them, although they tend to take that cause to an extreme we’d consider dishonorable.”

Forgotten Anne offers a perfect example. The primary villain in the adventure has a close personal connection to Anne - she’s aware of his intentions and motivations from the beginning. Those aren’t the problem - it’s how he sets about achieving them that makes him a villain.

Snædal says: “His cause is honorable and shared by most in the Forgotten Lands (getting back home to the real world) and you empathize with this struggle. Learning the extent to which he goes to accomplish his goals, however, reveals truths that most would find immoral”

The FINAL FANTASY games also take great pains to get this right. Take FINAL FANTASY VII, for example. The backstory of Sephiroth is marked by lies, betrayal and tragedy, so when he goes down a dark path, you recognize how he got to that point. You may even have some degree of sympathy for him.

Of course, not every villain we face in games needs to be a complex, tragic figure. Jon Williams says: “Lovecraftian terrors from the deep don’t need external motivation to be evil critters! But the more understandable motivation a villain has, the more memorable they tend to be.”

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They also motivate the player…. with emotional stakes

The villains that tend to stand out from the crowd also tend to have some personal connection to the heroes. You can go as epic as you like, but the best conflicts always affect the protagonists on an emotional level.

The obvious example of this is any videogame where either the villain murders the hero’s family, or captures a loved one. Familiar it may be, but when done well, it can still be effective.

But emotional stakes can extend far beyond the dead relatives trope - I turn to Sleeping Dogs as a great example of this. Throughout the game, undercover cop Wei Shen is torn between two worlds - the family of the Triad, and the responsibilities of his true job.

It’s a difficult line to toe, but although he’s drawn deeper and deeper into the underworld, Wei - and us through him - still remain (largely) committed to law and order.

So when Wei, after going through hell both physically and emotionally, is sabotaged and abandoned by his police superiors, it’s the most brutal betrayal possible. Suddenly, Wei changes - the story becomes intensely personal, and the villain emerges as a stand-out character.

The villain defines the hero

That also highlights one of Williams’ points - a strong villain helps define the hero him or herself. Williams explains: “a villain should show the hero (or player) in a new light. How they react to the difficulties laid down by the villain establishes their personality.”

It’s a philosophy that’s starkly apparent in Cherrymochi’s Tokyo Dark, where the way the player approaches the challenges laid ahead of them has a massive impact on protagonist Ito’s personality and mental state.

And yet another example of this point can be seen in FINAL FANTASY VI’s Kefka - a character often cited as one of the most memorable videogame villains of all time.

That may seem odd because he seemingly breaks the rules we’ve discussed. He doesn’t have a deep, meaningful relationship with most of the characters.

In fact, he doesn’t contain any of the hallmarks of a particularly memorable villain - and that’s clearly intentional, because it means that many players don’t see him as a major threat until it’s too late.

It’s only when Kefka finally plays his hand, that he comes into focus as a character. The emotional stakes are about as high as you can get, but more interestingly, Kefka’s actions change the heroes in dramatic ways. Some are traumatized, others spurred into heroism, but all of them develop in a meaningful way.

Villainous visibility

FINAL FANTASY VI and Sleeping Dogs’ villains both have another thing in common - they demonstrate the importance of visibility. According to Snædal:

“Visibility is not only about whether or not you can see the villain, but how much you know about them and when.

“Some are clearly defined as the villain from the start but their power and influence is a mystery until later. Getting to know about the villain and discovering their identity or the details of their operation is extremely satisfying.”

They have the power

One final element to a good villain is power. They must represent a genuine threat to the player though, according to Snædal, it’s possible to go to far with this.

“Power is a balancing act,” he says. “How powerful should a villain be? Make them too powerful and not only will your cause feel hopeless, but your eventual victory will feel unrealistic. Make them too weak and the opposite rings true and the story lacks drama.”

Snædal adds that power isn’t about physical strength:

“A good villain is not necessarily the character you meet in the final boss fight. They may be lurking in the background, pulling the strings, and defeating them is more about foiling their plans than taking them on physically.”

If there’s a game that proves these words, it’s DONTNOD’s Life is Strange. While the main villain in the first season is physically stronger than Max, that’s not what makes them a threat.

Instead their power lies in status and society. They have more respect, more connections and more credibility. How does Max - a mere 18-year old art student - stand a chance?

Punching down

That said, if you do make your villain a physical threat, it’s important to do it right. Videogames are unique to other mediums in that when the hero meets the villain, the player interacts directly. So a threat to the player character is a threat to the gamer him or herself.

When you first face the Cloud of Darkness in FINAL FANTASY III, it’s quickly clear that the Warriors of Light - and by extension you - are no match for the tentacled monstrosity. You can fight as hard and as smart as you like, but when she whips out her particle beam, it’s lights out for the warriors.

You must, of course, fight her again, and even though this time she’s vulnerable, the rematch is still a hard as nails fight. It’s this daunting strength that makes her remembered as a great villain.

She’s much easier to beat in DISSIDIA FINAL FANTASY NT though!

So those are some thoughts on what makes memorable videogame villains. That said, there’s no simple formula for creating a brilliant baddie - if it was that simple, every game would have one, right?

Still, perhaps it’s a good place to start. But what do you think? What, in your opinion, separates a great villain from an also-ran? Share your thoughts in the comments and on social media: