tldrHere’s an interesting article discussing what makes a great game villain from a site called TechnoBuffalo. There’s three different opinions here so I think I’ll comment on each of them and then give my own opinion.
“Great villains must be menacing. They must dominate the gaming space whenever they’re featured. They have to present unique mechanics and interesting personalities. Villains have to be dynamic. Heroes? They do good based on a simple line of motivation. Villains? They need a more complex driving force.”
I think this over simplified the function of a villain and saying that a great villain must be a certain kind of villain. Joey Davidson argues that a villain needs to be complex, yet describes GlaDOS from Portal. The thing is, GLaDOS pretty much stopped being a villain in Portal 2 half-way through the game and became your reluctant ally. This is when we learn everything about her. Before that, in the original Portal, GLaDOS was unique for being the only speaking character. There was no motivation, no history or anything beyond her sarcastic personality that made it satisfying to kill her as opposed to kind of sad to watch her delete her human side (maybe). I don’t know if I would call GLaDOS a great villain albeit a fun and memorable one.
I think two great examples of villains to compare is Ganondorf from Wind Waker and Ganondorf from Twilight Princess. In Wind Waker, Ganondorf becomes more humanized, humbled from his time imprisoned. He is a great villain because by the end, he proves just as human as the player, given some motivation and ultimately serves as the final obstacle. A theme in Wind Waker was proving yourself as a hero, as you are constantly tested to be one. By the time you actually fight Ganondorf, his plan is already ruined thanks to the King wishing to flood Hyrule. He’s going to be trapped, but that was the King being a hero. Ganondorf acted as your final exam, because a hero not only saves the world but also saves the princess. It was a duel and defeating him was treated as such, and end to another warrior and proving that the player had the skills to be a hero.
Twilight Princess on the other hand had a completely different interpretation of Ganondorf. In that game he was the evil God that gave Zant his power and was not treated like a human opponent, but rather a force of nature. He was evil incarnate destined to fight against the light that was the chosen hero and because of that he was never given a reason why he did what he did. He was like the Joker from The Dark Knight, an idea of evil. When Ganondorf was finally defeated, the ending wasn’t met with the same kind of melancholy tone that Wind Waker had of his dream never being realized. It was met with stillness and then a bit of horror as he stood up to say his final threat before dying. Both games offer a very different interpretation of what is essentially the same character and I think kind of proves that a great villain does not need to have anything more complex than just wanting to watch the world burn.
”The villain that really stands the test of time for me is Silent Hill 2‘s Pyramid Head. A name that sounds silly at first quickly becomes the stuff of nightmares. Pyramid Head is perfect because he ties into the themes of the game so completely and is more than just someone to battle with and antagonize.”
Eric Frederiksen talks about Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head in kind of the same way I talked about Twilight Princess Ganondorf. Now I’ve never Silent Hill, so I could be totally wrong, but the only difference I can see is that Pyramid Head is a explicitly a symbol while the Ganondorf I mentioned was still a character in the sense that he had a personality and facial expressions and could otherwise be relatable to a human.
I think symbols make great villains, but personally I still like them to be somewhat human. Even non-humans like Alduin from Skyrim, a physical representation of the end of time, has some human qualities that make him villainous. It would be kind of like calling the tornados in Twister “the villain” where it becomes really fuzzy if they are or not.
“What is wrong with being evil for the sake of being evil? Much like heroes, leaning on the crutch of exposition can cripple even the greatest villains. The Star Wars prequels taught us that all too well…ugh…”
This third one, by Ron Duwell, fits my opinion of a great villain more than the others.
Star Wars Tangent, skip if you don’t care: I don’t get it the Star Wars reference? Emperor Palpatine kind of looks like an idiot who doesn’t do anything in Return of the Jedi and in retrospect, he may have been the big bad, but I don’t know how the movie expected us to be afraid of him when he literally did nothing but make planning errors up until he shot Luke full of lightning. Even then he was so blind to see Darth Vader’s conflict (something Luke could sense) and didn’t even consider being betrayed. The prequel on the other hand gave us the reason why we should have been afraid of him the entire time. He orchestrated the invasion of Naboo, to gain power and become Supreme Chancellor which also planted the seeds of the Separatist movement and played both sides of the Clone Wars to expand the war and gain legitimate control of the galaxy. At any point in time he could have had the droids and clones turn on the Jedi to wipe them out, but first he needed to ensure that pesky Jedi prophecy never came true. So he turned Anakin, preying on his insecurities and his ego to make him think he was above the Jedi and once that was done, he had enough legal power to rebuild the Republic into an empire by making people think the he just saved the Galaxy. That’s what made Palpatine a great villain, because not only was he evil for the sake of evil, he corrupted the champion of good, he took ideals we hold on a pedestal like democracy and turned into something to pave the way to his dictatorship. Unless he was talking about Darth Vader, who before Return of the Jedi was a scary as shit villain who was then revealed to be the tragic hero. The prequels reinforce some pretty scary tropes when discussing human monsters. They can have normal human upbringings, they could have the best of intentions, in Anakin’s case to save his wife. People complain that Anakin was whiny and that’s because anything else wouldn’t have made sense for why he would turn to darkness. In the end, Anakin snapped. He killed Mace Windu because Palpatine had convinced him that the Jedi had planned to overthrow the Republic and because Palpatine knew how to save his wife, which he revealed he lied about about 2 seconds after Anakin became Darth Vader but Anakin no longer had a choice he could never come back. Personally, I think he knew what he did was totally stupid, especially since he kept switching between whether he was fighting for a Republic or an Empire at the end of Revenge of the Sith. In the end, he becomes trapped as Darth Vader forever and this has in fact, made him a much better villain in the context of the expanded universe. One of my favorite lines ever uttered by Darth Vader doesn’t actually come from the movie, but from a comic where he was fighting a hologram or clone (whatever) of Darth Maul. Maul, being a hate-fueled killing machine asked Vader one question “What could you hate enough to destroy me?” Vader’s answer: “Myself”. In the context of all six movies, Vader is like GLaDOS in that he is elevated from simply a great villain, to practically the main character. The Star Wars movies are about the rise, fall, and redemption of Darth Vader, which is arguably a better story for it.
tl;dr don’t bother.
Kingdom Hearts is a game where I think the original story and characters make up only about half the game’s narrative, but is still stupidly compelling. My favorite is Xemnas, the big bad of Kingdom Hearts II because he was pure evil. Unlike Ansem from the first game, who was more like a force bringing back the worlds to their natural state of darkness or Xehanort from Birth By Sleep who was somewhere between fixing all the world’s problems by balancing light and darkness and curiosity of wanting to see the Keyblade War and Kingdom Hearts first hand, Xemnas almost felt like a sympathetic villain at first, just wanting his heart back and speaking in an almost sad tone of voice. He is very misleading trying to trick his enemies into considering his rational, when in the end all he wanted was power.
What made Xemnas a great villain, and if wasn’t for the latest Kingdom Hearts game I would say one of the greatest villains, is that very fact that he tries to appear like a sane rational person when he’s really just trying to gain more power, a simple human emotion of greed combined with, as he put it, “anger and hate”.
Anyways, this was most of my thoughts on the matter. Ultimately, though, a lot of the stuff I mentioned are just general villain stuff and I think a lot of them reasons they mentioned were the same. A great game villain, as in specifically for a game, just needs to have emotional ties to the player and be satisfying to kill. A test, as all boss battles really are, that tests all of your knowledge. One example I use often is Henry from No More Heroes, because opposed to almost every other character in the game, he is the most like the player. He steals an entire boss fight from you, so that puts some tension between him and the player, and except for a few standard things like one-hit kills, he has no gimmicks but still proves to harder and trickier than any of other boss in the game. Basically, he’s strong and there is a history between him and the player, and that’s what makes a great game villain.