Bowser. Ganondorf. Kefka. Andross. We’ve grown to love and/or hate these iconic villains who tend toward the puppy-kicking end of the How Evil Am I? spectrum. They’ve all got that genocidal je ne sais quoi—that spark for the sinister—that we’ve enjoyed extinguishing over and over again, but these kinds of villains are one-dimensional and represent a lost opportunity to bring out some major complexity and staying power to your game’s story.
The Big Bad
Often labeled as The Forces of Darkness or The Empire, The Big Bad is the epitome of evil, the no-questions-asked bad guy/army/organization that must be stopped at all costs. These are the raid bosses, the invaders from another planet, whose only goal is to plant their flags on top of our corpses.
The Big Bad, whether they’re kidnapping princess, conquering kingdoms/planets/galaxies, or straight up murdering people as easily as I polish off a pint of ice cream on a Friday night: they all do one thing incredibly well. They motivate the hero to get off his ass and save the day; and when the day is saved, peace is restored. This is all well and good, but such fairy tale endings rarely happen in real life. Defeating the Big Bad requires a stretch in the suspension of disbelief, first that an entity that immoral can exist, and second that things return to their rightful order once that entity is no more. Victory almost feels hollow because we as players have done it so many times before.
The Human Element: The Struggle Is Real
So then what’s the big to-do about a relatable villain? Why should any player want to empathize with the antagonist? For starters, the antagonist/villain is the reason the player gets to go on their adventure in the first place. I think we owe it as game developers to create the best dang reason for adventuring possible, and an extremely effective way to do that is to make the villain relatable and human. Arguably, the human condition is about struggle. The hero struggles against all odds in the name of their cause, but just as well, the villain should do so.
Instead of pitting black against white, we can instead write a story about two shades of gray, even if one is darker than the other. When we look at Big Bads, they tend toward the tippy top of Maslowe’s Hierarchy of Needs; they want the ultimate in self-esteem boosts: Supreme Rule of Everything. But what happens if the villain, instead, has the goal of food, a safe place to call home, or maybe even someone to love (not to be confused the the grief-stricken villain who’s lost a loved one and subsequently has gone insane).
Maybe You’re Not a Hero. Maybe You’re an Asshole
When your villains’ goals don’t involve creating internment camps for kittens and forcing them to kick puppies, there is a wonderful opportunity for doubt. Instead of taking the hero’s quest for granted, the characters and players must wrestle with complex themes, emotions, and motivations. The player struggles moralistically as both the hero and villain struggle physically through the story.
For example, maybe the Evil Technological Empire isn’t exactly evil. Maybe the Empire consists of people who have spent their entire lives being discriminated against and looked down on by the magic users of the world. With the power of steam and gunpowder, they desire to reshape the world into a place where mage and muggle are equal. Maybe the main antagonist is someone who lost their family to persecution by mages and is just trying to create a world where other non-magic families don’t have to suffer like theirs did. Kind of puts the firebombing of the hero’s village and destruction of their sacred crystal into perspective now, doesn’t it? I think it’s worth noting that we often see the relatable villain crop up as a high-ranking underling to the Big Bad. Perhaps they were loyal to the former leader or perhaps they follow their own ethical code, but regardless, they become doubtful of the Big Bad’s methods at some point and often meet with an untimely death because of it.
Everything Has Its Price
I will caution that creating a relatable villain does not come without its own set of risks. The writing becomes exponentially more important, the pitfalls more dire. Sometimes, it is safer to write simple characters. But if you have faith in the writer(s) on your team, then I encourage you to let them have at it. Create a story with rich and complex characters that stay in the players’ heads long after they’ve exited from the main menu.
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