On Villains

"Round up the usual suspects!"

What makes for a good villain?

Storytelling 101: stories almost exclusively follow the three-act structure of beginning, middle, and end, and feature both a protagonist and an antagonist. The antagonist is generally either man, nature, or self. These three situations, “man against man,” “man against nature,” and “man against himself” establishes what we call conflict, which is a necessary element of drama. For example, Casablanca is “man against man,” Old Yeller is “man versus nature,” and Citizen Kane is “man against himself.” In Casablanca, the protagonists are allied against the Nazis and the Vichy Regime. In Old Yeller, the story comes to a head when the eponymous dog contracts rabies. In Citizen Kane, the central theme of the story is the character’s internal struggle. Above all else, a good villain must provide some form of conflict.

Before we look deeper at what makes a good villain, let’s look at what makes a great character… by looking at what makes a bad one. We accept that Mary Sues are bad characters. Why? They’re unrealistic and unbelievable. What makes them so? Generally, Mary Sues are written as flawless characters, or characters with flaws that aren’t excessively negative. A Mary Sue flaw would be clumsiness–a good character’s flaw is more likely to be, say, perfectionism or sexism (halloo, Reed Richards!). This personality flawlessness has a tendency to make Mary Sues very bland, lacking in any sort of complexity or contradiction. Good characters are almost always defined by how human they are, and humans tend to be quite complex and often contradictory. That complexity brings us to motive. In the case of nature, which has no motive, this does not apply, but in the case of self and others, it most definitely does. What motivated Captain Renault to do what he did in Casablanca? Why did he join the Vichy Regime? Why did he choose to betray them at the movie’s end? A good character is one who makes choices not because the plot demands it, but because those are the choices that they, as a character, would make.

A plot hole is an element of the story that makes no sense in context. This can be extended to characters–poorly written characters often make their choices because the story needs to do certain things. In some cases, this is called the idiot ball. In others, it’s just because they’re a poorly written character. A bad guy who does nothing but, say, shoot his own men, hurt innocent people, and seek power is not a particularly good antagonist because he’s only doing what he’s doing because the plot dictates that he’s bad.

He's Nimoy with a Robot Moustache! OF COURSE HE'S A VILLAIN

One of the chief complaints about the Transformers movies is that the audience don’t actually care about the characters. The movie never provides us with a reason to care about what Shia LeBoeuf wants. Why should we care what happens to Megan Fox? Because she’s hot? Why should we care about saving the world? It’s not ours. Simply saying that the Earth is in danger doesn’t mean that the audience has any reason to want Shia to win, because, after all, he’s annoying and ungrateful for all the cool things that have happened to him. He’s just saving the world because he has to.

When plots dictate characters, we definitionally get bad stories.

Before I continue, I want to make a point that I’ll come back to later: in a game, you are the protagonist, not some other guy. I could get into a discussion about how this means that a game where the character has fundamentally different motivations than the player is a bad game (because no good game should be anti-player), but that could take a while. Instead, I’d just like to point out that simply being the protagonist does not somehow magically make the story better. Just because The Fallen has personally stolen your MacGuffin does not somehow mean that Revenge of The Fallen is any better than it was when The Fallen stole Shia’s MacGuffin.

This is all, as I’ve said, Storytelling 101. If (as in a discussion I had on Friday) you feel inclined to disagree, then you’ve got to prove wrong thousands of years of accumulated storytelling knowledge to do so, or, perhaps more easily, prove that my understanding of storytelling is flawed. There would be no point in me writing about villains if I didn’t believe I knew what I was talking about, however, so, for the rest of the article, we’ll assume the following:

A good villain is like any good character, having the same complexities that any character should have, making decisions (and thus guiding the plot) based on who they are, not what the writer feels they should be doing. It’s particularly prodigious when what the villain does lines up nicely with where the plot is going.

You can tell he's evil because he's bald and ugly.

This brings me to some of the best and worst villains that video gaming has offered us in the past half decade or so: SHODAN, Zoran Lazarevic, Sofia Lamb, The Combine, The Prophet of Truth, and The Reapers.

I shouldn’t need to tell you that SHODAN is, of course, from the former group. In case you don’t believe me, though, feel free to read Kieron Gillen’s take on the character, which remains, to this day, one of the best breakdowns of a video game character I’ve ever read. She is, in a way, an evolution of Durandal, the antagonist/best friend/antagonist/best friend from Marathon, or, more likely, they were both influenced by the same sources. Either way, singing SHODAN’s praises would take too long and Gillen’s already done it better, so there’s no real point in me saying anything more.

Half-Life 2, one of the most loved games in the world that I have a remarkable capacity for hating, stars the Earth-invading psychic worms known as the Combine. They’re pretty much generic, dystopic alien overlords. We don’t actually know much about them or what they want, and their influence is fairly cliché, unique aesthetics aside. Their human emissary, Doctor Breen, may be the single most boring enemy I have ever faced. Don’t get me wrong, he’s actually performed brilliantly, displaying a fantastic mix of arrogance and sympathy, but… meh? Half-Life 2 never really gives you a reason for doing anything you do beyond “go save Eli.” Exploring the “why” of Half-Life 2’s world or its characters doesn’t seem to be a priority for the game. The game seems to think you should just take it as a given that the overlords are bad and that the resistance is good, without ever doing much more than that. Funny that Rage got ticked for this and Half-Life 2 didn’t.

You can tell they're evil on account of them... um... being... I don't know.

The Reapers are basically the same. In fact, upon meeting them for the first time, they basically say “OUR METHODS ARE TOO AWESOME FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND,” which is, of course, code for “using plainer speech would have made us sound about as threatening as Dominic Greene.” To its credit, Mass Effect as a whole does a fairly nice job of portraying its universe, with characters like Admiral Kahoku or the Petrovsky’s providing us with reasons to want to save the universe. You’ve got people who are awesome and people who aren’t, which is really cool.

…then Mass Effect 2 comes along and ruins it. For one thing, there are no personal sidequests besides breaking up a fight between two assholes in the Citadel. Most everything is just a case of “go to small, remote location, do a task, shoot some dudes, get an email about it.” It becomes instantly less personal. That, right there, is less of a reason to want to fight. It’s not just that, though. Have you ever messed with the contrast on your monitor to the point where nothing is visible because it’s all one tone of grey? Well, Mass Effect 2 is the same way; turns everything into one shade of grey.

In the first game, you could come across a woman who just wants the best for her dead husband’s son, a politician who gets you to murder her pirate sister… it’s all over the place. Mass Effect 2 makes everyone grimdark. Cerberus is no longer a group of Space Gestapo. Instead, they’re just a bunch of dudes who sometimes do bad things to ensure humanity doesn’t get screwed over. The Geth are no longer crazy space robots who worship more crazy space robots–they’re a form of sentient life with feelings. AI isn’t exclusively bad any more (which kinda ruins the point of the entire first game, which is that yes, AI is exclusively bad all the time). Mass Effect 2 is a game that forgets the importance of contrast and never makes anything purely good or purely bad. It confuses moral ambiguity for storytelling maturity.

He's called the Prophet of Truth because he lies.

Speaking of contrast, Halo has some amazing villains. While you might not understand The Flood, they never attempt to obfuscate their motives in order to seem scarier. They are space zombies that get smarter as they spread, becoming more effective at zombifying things. In contrast, the Covenant are a conglomeration of various alien races, united by an unwavering belief in The Forerunners and the desire to meet them by undertaking “The Great Journey,” which is effectively a galactic mass suicide. You’ve got some great stuff going on there–The Prophet of Truth is forced to become a liar or admit that everything he believes is a lie, for instance. In choosing to give in to his pride, he sets in motion the events that lead to the Human/Covenant war. With Halo, Bungie contrasted a villain motivated by hubris, pride, and emotion with one motivated purely by instinct. It’s id versus ego, if you will.

One element that made The Covenant so frightening was their belief that, through genocide, they were making things better. There are few things scarier than those motivated by the belief that they’re doing the right thing, because those things have the absolute conviction that they are doing the right thing. They care. They are driven.

That’s why Sofia Lamb is one of the greatest video game villains I have ever had the pleasure of defeating, while Zoran Lazarevic is pretty bad.

See, Uncharted 2’s Lazarevic is just a dude who is evil and wants power. He has even less motivation than The Fallen or Sentinel Prime, both of whom are trying to save their respective races. He just wants, uh… power, I think? That’s really it. Compare this to Sofia Lamb, who, over the years, subtly turned the people against Andrew Ryan and his ideals. She relied on human laziness–the belief that we deserve things–to obtain her goals. She’s a brilliant counterpoint to Andrew Ryan, who was all about how we must stand on our own efforts. Taken together, both Bioshock and Bioshock 2 complement each other in a way few games can. Both of them present, effectively, an argument against rigid ideology, and it’s a point that’s well-made, but I’m getting sidetracked here.

Bioshock’s characters were human–motivated by a myriad of various desires. In Stanley Poole’s case, his greed had brought about the downfall of Lamb’s haven, resulting in a desperate desire to hide the evidence. Grace Hollaway desperately wanted a daughter, and Sofia provided that by making her Eleanor’s caretaker, investing Grace in the ideals of The Family. What is perhaps the most frightening thing about Sofia, however, is that she truly believes what she is saying. She is not manipulating lesser people because she enjoys manipulation–she manipulates them because she wholly believes she is doing what’s best for them. She believes, completely, in destroying everything it means to be human.

That’s why ultimately, beating her is so great.

Yeah, you don’t get to kill her. I get that. It saddens me, sure, that after everything she put me through, I didn’t get to put a bullet in her skull. Above all else, she deserved it.

But you know what? I think I my victory was greater than that. If I’d ventilated her brains, she would have become a martyr. She would have died with no remorse. Instead, I destroyed her ideology. I did not merely shake her faith–I annihilated it. When all was said and done, Sofia, stripped of her hubris and arrogance, had to admit that I was right. Ideas might be bulletproof, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot be defeated. As Bioshock 2 ended and Delta died, I watched as the choices I had made brought about a change in Eleanor. I watched her, the living embodiment of all that Rapture possessed, make the right decision. I gave her that. I showed her just how powerful choice could be.

Actually, the fact that she would kill you in front of a small child is evil in and of itself, but nobody ever said a great villain couldn't still kick the dog.

As I type this, I find myself wondering if a video game’s ever been written better.

I’m starting to think that maybe, just maybe, Bioshock 2 is the best video game I’ve ever played. Bioshock, for all the joy it seemed to take in telling us that our decisions didn’t matter, might have been a metacritical critique of the idea that games could ever offer us freedom, but Bioshock 2 was the perfect reply to that. I never was put into some silly, scripted event where I got to shoot some stupidly splicer-enhanced Sofia Lamb. Instead, the game demonstrated to me that yeah, we don’t make every choice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make choices. I wasn’t confronted at every turn with a button prompt or funneled down some rigidly designed fight tube–sometimes, I just had to make the choice to walk away.

Villains, the good ones, they choose.

If a writer chooses everything for the villain, saying that they ought to be bad just because they’re the antagonist, with no thought put into the choices and motivations of that character, then they’ve created a bad character. This isn’t just true of villains, actually–it’s true of anybody who’s ever been written. A good character is a truly human character, one makes decisions not based on some preordained plot, but on who they are. Asimov once said something about science fiction basically being a reflection of ourselves, but I think that’s true for all fiction. Bioshock 2, unlike most games, has that in spades. Its core moral is ultimately about the power of choice–the very thing that makes video games unique from every other story medium.

It deserves a lot more love than it gets.

Of course, we could just forget about villains and strong narratives and just go for living, breathing game worlds in which our only cares are how to survive the night. That sounds awesome, right? Yeah. It does. STALKER’s awesome. Let’s all go play that now.

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