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
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.
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.
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.
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!