I have been doing some game design thinking lately and one topic that has been on my mine is villains. What makes memorable game villains? Can an otherwise great game become mediocre if the main antagonist is kind of lame or ordinary? And what traits make the best game villains?
So, I started trying to think of memorable villains from games I have played. I also looked at a bunch of top list on other sites. A lot of lists had the same villains so I started looking at them to see if I can find some common traits and themes. This is all theory in my head and I am sure some people will disagree on parts if not all but this is what I have come up with. These theories may also apply to other entertainment like books or films but I will be focusing on game design. Also before we start let me say spoiler alert! I will be talking about end game enemies and confrontations.
The most memorable game villains have a unique look or style
This is the first thing that stood out to me. The best villains in almost every game I can remember looked unique in some way. This helps them stand out in the player’s mind. Just think about it yourself. I almost guarantee the first few villains that come to your mind have some unique look to them.
Take for example Kerrigan from StarCraft. Imagine for a second if she just looked like another Terran or Zerg unit. Would anyone pay much attention to her? But she looks really cool and has popped up in fan art all over the internet.
What about Kuja from Final Fantasy IX. I have not played Final Fantasy IX in years and truth be told I did not remember a lot about Kuja but he stood out in my mind because of the way he looks. Imagine just for a second if we changed him to look like a normal person and kept everything else about him the same. Would it still be so easy to recall him?
Then there is Pyramid head from Silent Hill? Would we even know or remember who the main antagonist was in Silent Hill if he looked like a normal guy with a sword?
One last thing on looks that I have noticed. A lot of game characters including the villain can be identified by their silhouette alone. This seems to be used more for the hero and it is focused on more in 2D games but it is just another thing that can help a villain stand out.
The most memorable game villains have unique names
To go with the look most memorable game villains have an interesting name. Do you remember any epic antagonist planning world domination named Mike or Dave? I can’t think of any. I am not saying there are no common named villains but they definitely do not stand out in my mind. When I look at Final Fantasy games I have seen Kefka, Sephiroth, and Kuja. I know these games originated in Japan so I may be completely wrong here but I do not feel like they are common names you would give your kid. What about Darth Vader? I know he is not technically a game character but a name like that just shouts bad guy.
The best game villains have unique skills or abilities
This is another thing that came to me while driving home from work and thinking about the topic. Remember Psycho Mantis from Metal Gear Solid? He has one of the most unique abilities of all. He could read the players mind! Psycho Mantis would read the contents of the PlayStation memory card and comment on games you have played. Then he would make the controller vibrate and he made the screen go black so the player would think they changed the channel by mistake. Who could forget an encounter like that?
Another way I was looking at it would be to imagine you have 100 unique looking characters. When there are 100 of them and they are all unique then none of them stand out very well. But give one some cool abilities to transform or make copies of himself and all the sudden they stand out from the crowd.
Again not a game but anime seems to use this a lot. Just think of something like Dragon Ball Z. Every character seems to have some signature technique or two. Goku is not a villain but I can’t help but point out the Kamehameha. Even non-DBZ fans have heard about it. It may be the most well-known signature attack of all time.
Some villains truly think they are right or they really are right in the end
This reminds me of a quote from Socrates that says, “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.”. A lot of the times characters that we perceive as evil are only trying to do the right thing. Or maybe they are doing the right thing and you lack the knowledge to know better.
If you ever played a game with one of these plot twists then it probably stuck in your mind and maybe even caused some emotional response. This aspect of a bad guy can make them more relatable to the player thus helping them stand out in memory. If the player feels some sympathy or empathy for the bad guy, then that can help the villain stick in their memory.
One example of this kind of thing would be Revolver Ocelot. Ocelot was a double or triple agent the whole time with the end goal of freeing mankind from the control of the patriot system. He did a lot of evil along the way by his end goal was a noble one.
Then there is Kirby. The “bad guy” King Dedede steals the star rod to keep them safe from the real evil. Without knowing this Kirby goes on a murder spree and gets the rod back only to awaken the true evil.
Bravely Default has a ton of this. I spent the whole game thinking the good characters were bad and the bad characters were good. Then when I learned the truth it blew my mind. Now that is a memorable game villain that I will never forget. This is the very kind of thing that can take a normal villain and turn them into one of the best game villains.
Some villains are just crazy
Then you have some villains that are just crazy. If done right crazy can be a memorable quality. Kefka from Final Fantasy VI comes to mine. Then you have the Joker from Batman. You can do a lot or a little with a crazy antagonist. Do they need a reason to destroy the world? Maybe not maybe they just think it would be fun. Or maybe they have some deep backstory that explains why they are doing what they are doing?
The villain needs to be a real threat
There needs to be a challenge or it is no fun and there is no reason to remember it. But at the same time, there always needs to be hope for a way to win. Otherwise, you risk the player getting frustrated and quitting.
The threat could be from the villain himself. Some games have the villain in your face the whole way through. Always one step ahead of you until the final confrontation.
The threat could also come from the influence the villain has in the game. There are some games where you don’t even know much about the real villain until the end. It has been a long time but I think Chrono Trigger was like this. If I remember right you don’t really know much about Lavos until you get far into the game.
But it is also important that the bad guy is not a push over. That becomes boring and not very memorable.
There is more than just world domination
I just want to throw this in here. World domination or destruction is over used I think. Other things can be way more interesting. GLaDOS from Portal was not trying to take over the world or anything. She had an interesting backstory and just wanted a prisoner to do test for her. She even promised cake!
The best villains have theme music
The power of music can add an emotional response for any bad guy. I am not a music guy so I am not going to go into much detail here but just think back to games you played with cool bad guys. There is a good chance they had a sweet theme song to go with them.
Kills someone off
Last but not least have the villain kill off a beloved character. This is used all the time in movies and books but not so much in games. It can generate a very powerful emotional response from the player. Remember Sephiroth killing off Aerith? I have heard people tell me they almost cried when that happened in their game. That is why I think Sephiroth is one of the best and most memorable game villains today.
Unfortunately, this one may be hard to pull off in some games. First, you have to get the player attached to the character you are going to kill off. For RPGs, this is not so bad because they are long and you have time to build that connection. But for short games, I am not sure if that is possible. Maybe but I can’t think of any right now.
These are my game design thoughts on what makes a memorable game villain. I am sure there is a lot missing. I am even sure someone could spend weeks studying this kind of topic if they wanted to. But if you are making a game then my hope is that this can help you make one of the best game villains of all time! You may also like my post about the 4 Traits That Make a Game Fun! Thank you for reading!