Why It Matters: The Art of Villainy

Where have all the good bad guys gone?

Like basket weaving and towel origami, video game villainy is becoming a lost art form. There is no shortage of villains, but there is certainly a shortage of memorable ones in recent memory. In even the simplest narrative, the hero needs an obstacle to overcome, and that obstacle is most frequently provided by an individual (or individuals) who seeks to impede the hero. For every thesis, there is an antithesis; for every action, there is reaction. It's classic storytelling: The protagonist contends with an opposing individual or force, and the struggle leads to ultimate triumph or tragedy.

Even the simplest video games represent this classic arc. The Space Invaders are descending to earth, so you must destroy them. Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde are tailing you, so you must gobble them up before they gobble you. Now, we've reached an age in which the medium can offer a more intricate tale. Why is it, then, that so many modern games spend so much time telling a story when that story is completely expendable? Most good stories stem from having good characters and we usually need a hero to identify with, but it's often the villain that provides the pungent moments that stay with us long after we've left the game behind. Actually, this is true in almost any narrative art form. Where would Luke be without Darth Vader? How would we see Cinderella without her wicked stepsisters? What would drive Hamlet if not the rage inspired by his murderous uncle Claudius? Oftentimes, good heroes are only worth rooting for because of the villains that draw out their most interesting or extraordinary characteristics. Without Vader, Luke might still just be bull's-eyeing some womp rats. (Of course, he also wouldn't have been born, but that's beside the point!)

What, then, makes for a good villain? And, what makes some games succeed at delivering a great antagonist while others fail? I think good villains usually possess four characteristics that make them leap off the screen and wriggle into your psyche. That isn't to say that every great bad guy possesses all of these characteristics nor do they possess them in equal measure. But these fundamental attributes are common to the villains we remember most--and the villains that lack them are tacky, boring, or cliche. Let's take a look at these attributes and at some examples of games that use them to proper effect, as well as games that had a lot of opportunity to grow. Caution: Spoilers

Humanity

Sephiroth (Final Fantasy VII)
Sephiroth isn't just evil for evil's sake: He's the result of a genetic experiment using Jenova's alien cells. Discovering that he is a biological horror, he burns Nibelheim to the ground and attempts to steal Jenova with the hope of finding it a planet where it can thrive. Like many great villains from literature, Sephiroth is a great warrior driven to darkness by a life-altering betrayal.

Nene (Blue Dragon)
Nene seeks world domination. Why does he attack Shu's village? In his own words: "I wanted to hear your screams." Nene's lone personality attribute is that he is evil. And in a game in which every character can be boiled down to a single overblown trait, a grand villain is needed all the more. Alas, developer Mistwalker didn't understand that great antagonists are more than just mean.

Motive

Kane (Command & Conquer 3: Kane's Wrath)
While a good villain doesn't reveal his deepest desires in a monologue the moment he appears (see: Mystery, below), we still get a sense of his ambitions. And if lines like "Comrade Chairman: I am the future," weren't enough, certainly the biblical subtext to his name and Seth's evolving jealousy in the original Command & Conquer would provide plenty of metaphorical context to Kane's motives.

Reapers (Mass Effect 2)
Here's what we know: The Reapers are coming. These highly advanced aliens indulge in galactic purging every now and again. Perhaps they come to gather our technology; perhaps they bask in the thrill. But after two games, the Reapers are no more interesting than the aliens in Independence Day, and we know even less about them. Surely, the developer that created Jon Irenicus can do better than this.

Mystery

The Conqueror (The Last Remnant)
Mystery comes from more than just a creepy stare, though it certainly helps. In The Last Remnant, The Conqueror seeks to, well, conquer. We know he collects remnants, presumably to harness their power. But the story continually points to a link between him and leading man Rush, and each time The Conqueror appears onscreen, your desire to uncover the truth rises. This is the most interesting character in the game because, in part, we want to discover what makes this man tick, but also because we want to discover what shampoo keeps his hair so luxurious.

General Sarrano (Bulletstorm)
Every character in Bulletstorm is an obnoxious potty-mouthed meathead, but none is more grating than its profane villain. He is clearly deranged, irrational, and psychopathic. How is this guy in charge of anything, with such insanity on constant display? As they say, it's better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt. Profanity is Bulletstorm's shtick, but it makes for a villain with all the intrigue of a whoopee cushion.

Presence

Andrew Ryan (BioShock)
You only meet Andrew Ryan in person once, but his presence is felt in every moment of the game. Rapture is Andrew Ryan, so even when his voice isn't heard, Ryan is always there with you; his creed and architectural masterwork a constant reminder of his philosophy and aspirations. You can't forget an antagonist when his creation surrounds you.

? (Dragon Age II)
Dragon Age II's story suffers in part because it doesn't have a villain at all. In some ways, its political factions allow you to create your own antagonists, and I suppose some may see a vital character that makes a shocking action toward the end of the game as a villain. But without giving you a true enemy, Dragon Age II feels aimless; there is nothing or no one over which to triumph.

Who are your favorite villains, and what games failed to capitalize on the possibilities of a big, bad presence? Let us know in the comments!

Written By

GameSpot senior editor Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play Rock Band because he always gets stuck pla

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1096 comments
Nicky_Wright
Nicky_Wright

Judas(or Leon)From Tales of Destiny or Chaos from Dissidia Final Fantasy.

Hizakii
Hizakii

Ultimecia from Final Fantasy 8, wishing to compress all of time and destroy then rule the future? thats one witch i dont wanna meet in some remote forest somewhere

blue_spike
blue_spike

What about... Dhaos, from Tales of Phantasia? He's the only villain I know that makes you think about who really is the villain, him or you. A very good article, good things to remember when making your own games ;)

amdreallyfast
amdreallyfast

I am glad that someone form a big game website like Gamespot cared enough to write about this. In addition to these qualities, I think that a single protagonist, and not a collective villain, is necessary because, although not realistic, it gives a face to our enemy and gives us a goal for which to strive ( I must beat this man). I think that Saren and Sovereign from Mass Effect could be added to this list. Both had presence, Saren had motive, and Sovereign had mystery. The collectors were a collective villain and thus not quite as cool for me. The Emperor from Star Wars Episode VI. He was evil, mysterious, had motive, and lots of presence. Favorite villain: Grahf from Xenogears, hands down. "My fist is the divine breath! Blossom, o fallen seed, and draw upon thy hidden powers!! Grant unto thee the power of the glorious 'Mother of Destruction'!"

spikerboiii538
spikerboiii538

I think that "Roger Bacon" and Rasputin from Shadow Hearts I and II were great villians. They had all of the characteristics mentioned above and always left you wanting to know more about them. Villians have always been, by far, my favorite characters in any game, movie, or story. I agree that the general ability to write a good villian hasn been disappearing, but never fear. There are still diamonds out there; they're just harder to find.

ShadowofSonic
ShadowofSonic

thumbs up if you think SEPEHIROTH is the BEST ONE!

DarkGothic
DarkGothic

Albedo from Xenosaga series was the last great villain in video games, it really gave emotion and kept the player quite concerned from first to last phrase spoken! Japanese were the real masters of this art of creating stories and villains, but it seems like a generation that has gone...

thetaaz
thetaaz

This article is SOOOO true!!! And it doesn't only apply to games, it applies to all creative forms where one must create characters. (literature, and even music)

god_killer65
god_killer65

A Villain I always loved was Pixy from Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War. I loved him because he's your wingman for most of the game then he just leaves and tries to kill you on a whim, he's such a great buddy through most of the game and in the cutscenes (Which are set after the game has finished) you see him talking about you as if you are best mates and then he Reveals himself to be the last boss. I just didn't want to attack him. I saw that he's just a good guy who's dis-allusioned with the world and the war he's been fighting. He just wants to end war. Like some-one else on here said "He's a good guy with a bad plan"

Neophyte555
Neophyte555

i always thought kefka was the best villain.

Dawian
Dawian

Oh I almost forgot Naraku & his 7 incarnations from Inuyasha.

Dawian
Dawian

Lord Recluse of City of Villains, and Alma of F.E.A.R. 1-2.

waZelda
waZelda

I'd say some good villains are Ganon for presence and GLaDOS for mystery (up to a point).

fededx
fededx

Ganondorf/Ganon - Legend of Zelda - Epicness

jjmonster2006
jjmonster2006

i've studied villains for a long time now coming to this one, simple conclusion. Villains don't make the game. The game makes the villains. Obviously, you can't have a stupid villain like Jack of Blades in Fable. He sounded like a aristocrat sipping tea all the time. his voice was so annoying. But there are never any awesome villains in bad games are there?

Haiidan
Haiidan

I agree about Liquid but also thought of Visari from Killzone - that's one guy that stands up with Kane as both having a mastery of propaganda language as well as making your skin crawl with his hate and ferocity despite the fact he's no warrior or a real physical danger.

silver3drago
silver3drago

To me, the greatest villian is Xehanort from Kingdom Hearts. He is TRUE darkness. His heartless became Ansem, the leader of all heartless, and final boss of KH 1. His nobody was Xemnas, the leader of Org. XIII, and final boss of KH II. Why is he not here?

Aravesque
Aravesque

Sephiroth as humanity? Please... Its more of "I just found out I'm a genetic experiment and I'm gonna listen blindly to whatever it that's inside me says". Play the game, Its exacly what it is, that little punk isn't a Villain, JENOVA is the true villain, sephiroth is just some fanboy trash that square conjured up for thier most overrated game ever.

The_Vivalis
The_Vivalis

I totally share your point of view. I believe what makes the so-called good bad hero is humanity. It makes a huge impact on my emotions when I know that "the guy" has to be killed but on the other hand I feel sorry for him. Sephiroth is a best example, but the same appears to be true with Dhaos from Tales of Phantasia, Jowy from Suikoden II and many more.

Charactraus
Charactraus

Humour makes a good villain. Makes them lovable and enjoyable. Kinda makes you really want to believe in their motives.

ErinTashmaric
ErinTashmaric

Andrew Ryan is an excellent villain. I thought of him as soon as I read the title of this article.

Chris_catch_em
Chris_catch_em

team rocket makes these villains look like petty criminals

nikolamat
nikolamat

@sora123455 Glados doesnt have these characteristics listed above she doesnt have humanity nor motive.And its pretty clear she just wants to kill you.But you fell her presence the entire game

nikolamat
nikolamat

@DarkAceZ- Vegeta isnt really a videogame character he is an anime character.Putting him is like putting Joker in here they have appeared in video games but their origins are somewhere else and Vegeta isnt a villan anyway he becomes good in dragon ball z

shAd0w_dAnc3r
shAd0w_dAnc3r

I'm a big fan of .hack GU, so what about Ovan! I mean, come on. When you first see him, you're like "What's underneath that lock?" He's shows up practically everywhere. SPOILER He's doing all that for his sister. END SPOILER I'm shocked that's he's not on here.

lujanr32
lujanr32

what happened to bowser? he was the classic video game villian

DarkAceZ-
DarkAceZ-

@ sora123455 Where's Vageta?

Divindragon415
Divindragon415

Sephiroth was one of the first grate game villains. He is still being used as the example of a new villain design.

sora123455
sora123455

Where is GLaDOS? She is the funniest villain I have ever seen in a video game.

thespider117
thespider117

MINE IS the gravemind from the halo series liquid ocelot/snake from the mgs series and Sarah keriggan from the starcraft series

Deritum
Deritum

one of my favorite villains has to be Mithos Yggdrasill from Tales of Symphonia. (SPOILERS) He has this God-like presence, he has a motive for being discriminated throught his whole life by humans and elfs 'cause his a half-elf and at the end when he reveals that all he wants is a world for him and his sister alone makes you think: "Imagine all that he should have gone through... To change from the Hero of the Worlds into Yggdrasill the leader of Cruxis and the Desians." Even though he's a "God" he shows such a human side of a life of pain and suffering. another of my others favorite villains is Genesis Rhapsodos from Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. he's just like sephiroth, but i like him more because he tells his story through a poem called LOVELESS. (SPOILER) and finally the "villains" from The World Ends With You, Megumi Kitaniji (being the Conductor) and Joshua (being the Composer) actually teach one or two things to you. Megumi who tries to save the town by controlling everyone with the Red Pins and Joshua who actually kills Neku in order to make the Reaper's Game more interesting.

kyleechols123
kyleechols123

Legacy of Kain: Kain is so evil yet his intentions to betray Raziel prove positive, yet still selfish and murderous. Raziel is definitely as evil as Kain too, because his revenge is so all-consuming, he is more often "eviller" (lol) than the antagonist Kain, who murdered him. You spend 3 games tracking him down, murdering all your brothers who were ordered by Kain to toss you into the watery abyss (water + vampire=dead) and then you finally realize why Kain did what he did...to save you. Soul reaver definitely is a game that has all evil around you, and you are "good" simply because the bad guy (kain) hurt you, which makes revenge ok?...not really. Raziel is so bent on murderous revenge. He murders all of his brothers according to their greatest weakness. He puts Malachi to death in a meat grinder (literally), torches Rahab in sunlight, sets Zepphon on fire, Raziel even murders himself as a human when he travels back in time because even as a human he was a vampire hunter, and Kain turned his human corpse into a vampire. The Lord of Vampire hunters was turned into a vampire, yes. Kain is that fu**ed up. Another brother is mutilated, Dumah is exploded into a gut-spewn hellfire, etc, and he inhales all of their souls! Raziel is only the good guy simply because he was mistreated, but his revenge is so dispicably evil that Kain spends three games running away. Kain is incredibly evil, but he manipulates everyone around him so flawlessly that he, in the end, becomes the hero.

Benji453
Benji453

Ape Escape's Spectre was my favourite, all because of the talking, caused by those funny hats. I also liked Abraxas from TRON: Evolution, because he had a tonne of mystery until the end of the game. My least favourite villain is that little guy from Spyro: Gateway to Glimmer, just because he kinda didn't live up to the standards of an interesting villain.

kerimblue13
kerimblue13

Definitely Sephiroth. He is a great villain because he could be the one of the protagonists of the story if he was not driven by the darkness around him. Also GLaDOS Smart, funny, and very tricky. Her presence is everywhere because she guides you through the whole game.

aBaK
aBaK

Favority Villains: Sephiroth and Kefka Parenthesis: Who's a better villain? - Kefka or The Joker (They both lack of humanity, but are strong in Motive and Mystery... Their shocking image stays present in your mind throughout the game. Insane Clownish style and masterminds) Games that failed with Villains: FFVIII (Failed in every possible way -stopped playing it after I saw the school moving around-)

Edea20
Edea20

SPOILERS!!! SPOILERS!!! SPOILERS!!! My favorite Villains: Final Fantasy VIII - Sorceress Edea Yes, I know she was being controlled by Ultimecia, but Edea is just bad ass. Xenosaga Episode I, II, III - Albedo He's insane, what's not to love? Final Fantasy IX - Kuja Truly one of a kind, and he destroyed a planet. Then he destroyed all of existence (temporarily at least). Bayonetta - Jubileus She's the equivalent of god and you have to destroy her, it doesn't get more epic than that.

blueliquidplus
blueliquidplus

Well, my personal favorite villains are from way back... Golbez from FFIV (FFII SNES), I hated him from the beginning and although he [Spoiler Alert] ended up becoming a good guy [/Spoiler Alert] he was still the main antagonist for over half the game. My top villain is Kefka FFVI (FFIII SNES), that dude was straight psycho, not to mention he looked like a clown (I hate clowns...) with his face paint he poisoned an entire cities water supply to kill everyone inside, moved the statues to destroy the world and remake it as he saw fit, and was generally an ***hat for the entirety of the game. I agree with Sephiroth, Andrew Ryan (Although I was disappointed when he died), Kane (WestWood Era only, EA can blow it out their...), and the Reapers from ME are still up in the air... although evil in thier own sense as they purge the galaxy [Spoiler Alert] to create more of themselves, using technology that indoctrinates people into their bidding and uses Husks as shock troopers [/Spoiler Alert] I'd say they're pretty evil although the jury is still out on them as we still have Mass Effect 3 to play. @Dark_December - Psycho Mantis, Agreed. He was a beast... and the HIDEO display pop up in the fight was like OMG! lol

Manafiend718
Manafiend718

Top antagonists for me were Sepiroth from Final Fantasy 7, Seifer from Final Fantasy 8, and probably Tyrant and Nemesis from the Resident Evil series. Sepiroth was classic, and the back story that FF7 chronicles makes the gamer understand his hatred and how his villainy manifested. Bonus points for the end game battle with Sepiroth being one of the best battles in gaming history (IMO). Seifer was cool because he had been rivals with Squall from Balamb Gardens towards the last boss encounter. The ominous music that would play right before Nemesis or Tyrant would bust through a wall used to scare the crap out of me.

Marscaleb
Marscaleb

Hmm, the examples used here all are taken from games I have not played, save for one which I revere as an example of bad storytelling. Honestly I'm shocked to think that there might be good villains out there, because I haven't seen a video game have one for like fifteen years. I guess maybe I have just missed all the games that have something worthwhile.

Gargaglio5tatus
Gargaglio5tatus

Andrew Ryan was just amazing, but after I killed him, I barely felt any need to continue the game; I was just like "Why did they kill him off in the middle and make him seem so insignificant?" he should've been the last boss and put up an actual fight.

BirdofTokyo
BirdofTokyo

Ganandorf from The Legend of Zelda is a classic. And for a more recent villian, I'd say Corvus from Dragon Quest IX. A villian who should of capitalised? Meta Knight from Kirby, and more recently, N from Pokemon Black & White.

First_Karman
First_Karman

Xenogears had some powerful villain personae. Deus- Indiscriminate Ambition Grahf- Identical motives to the protagonist, but corrupted by hundreds of years of failure and spite. Krelian- A poisoned religous devotion and inner peace transformed into immoral scientific pursuit.

blazin640
blazin640

The joker . He could easily kill batman if he wanted to.

townsenda1
townsenda1

See I was a huge fan of the villian Kessler in the INfamous game. It's something about a villian that has lessons to teach you and actually makes you stronger so that when you battle him your at your best. Even though if he attacked earlier you were done for it. I'm also a big fan of the villian that your not sure about. Like the way Darth Vader was to Starkiller in the first game. I couldn't tell if he was working with you or just setting you up for a fall. They don't make villian like that anymore.

heroesfan261
heroesfan261

They haven't gone anywhere. Or did you guys at gamespot just completely forget Zoran Lazarevic from UC2