By Matt Welwood / October 21st, 2014
Note: This article has some spoilers for Pokémon, Limbo and Watch_Dogs.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about villains. Not necessarily your bog standard twirly moustache dude holding a big dollar sign-emblazoned sack, but the ones that get under your skin and leave a lasting impression. They can frustrate and enrage. They can make you quiver in fear, they can inspire sympathy, and they are the backbone around which a lot of stories are built. The hero is important, yeah, but, without a good villain — an antagonist for them to face off against — your hero is really only half a character.
Take Pokémon as an example. You play as a silent child-sprite walking through grass. It may be a fun catch-’em-all romp, but, after a while, the thrill of that wears down. You need that constant antagonism that those games feed you to get through them. This was done to perfection in the second generation, Pokémon Silver and Gold. Who better to be your rival than a criminal? Your motivation is determined largely by interacting with this character. He’s a thief, whereas you, by contrast, were given your Pokémon legitimately. His quest for power is purely selfish, whereas you’re on a quest for science. The cruelty with which he treats his Pokémon is meant to mirror the love and friendship that you show yours. When the two of you fought, he inevitably always loses not because he’s weak, but because you and your Pokémon shared a bond that he and his could never have. You earned every victory, and he earned every loss because of that. The villain brought meaning to your journey in a way that pure completionism just couldn’t. That’s a fairly straightforward example of what I mean, though. The antagonist isn’t necessarily as clear as that, sometimes it’s something as simple as a hostile environment. Or a big spider.
Or both, in the case of Limbo. You play, essentially, a young boy with a big head in a bleak grayscale world. Nothing is friendly, nothing is out to help you and nothing is safe. Now, Limbo is a game so dependent on its world design and aesthetic that to try and separate the character from it would be pointless, but my point earlier remains valid. You’re a fairly uninteresting character. You can walk, you can jump, you can climb and you can pull things — not terribly impressive. But you are in a world made of pure malice, where the smallest puddle will drown you, every hill you slide down ends in a pit of spikes and the only other living beings you ever encounter all want you dead. You, as the player, can transfer the fear you feel when sliding down a hillside without knowing what’s waiting at the bottom on to the character. Suddenly, he’s not just a random, big-headed child, he’s a character we can sympathize with and start to relate to.
And then there’s the spider.
That spider is, and I say this without hyperbole, one of the most effective video game monsters ever created. It’s a living creature in a dead world and the embodiment of a major phobia, made of hairy spike ended legs with which it will attempt to skewer you. At the same time, it’s actually a shockingly sympathetic character. What starts off as a seemingly impassible enemy, stabbing at the ground every time you get close (and, likely, through you a few times) ends up delivering you the means to get by it. You use that to chop off three of its legs and then you run, but it chases you. You’ve crippled it, but it’s still intent on making you its meal. And, slowly, but surely, the more this incomprehensible nightmare-fuel hunts you down, the more you wound it. You’ve taken its legs, you’ve escaped its web, the small big headed boy in a scary, dark world has steadily worn this monster down until it can do nothing but lay in a pathetic heap. You don’t use traps to get it off of your trail, you don’t have an epic showdown with it. It crawls over to you, its only remaining leg reaching for you, pulling itself slowly closer in one last attempt to finally catch you, then you grab that one last leg and pull. And pull a bit harder. And then, finally…
There’s a beauty in that final moment. Obviously not in the traditional sense, but in a way that could be described as “beautifully bleak” (thanks for that one, Jim Sterling). You’ve become the spider’s tormentor, in a way. Out of necessity, you took something impossibly large, impossibly powerful and reduced it to nothing. You’re no stronger for the experience, the world doesn’t get any friendlier toward you, but you did what had to be done, and I consider that to be a very bleak, shockingly beautiful moment.
As you may have noticed, both of those examples were quite defined, very specific villains in their own way. There’s no question what both are meant for, and they filled their roles very well. You’re the protagonist. your villain is a clear, defined antagonist. It’s not always that simple, though. Let’s take a look at a much more recent game for this one.
Watch_Dogs is a good example of a few different things. First and foremost, Aiden Pierce isn’t exactly a good guy. He’s an anti-hero — a criminal and a vigilante. Second, the villain in this game isn’t a single well-defined bad guy. It’s not even a person; it’s a corporation. It’s less of a villain in the story as it is a villain for the sake of game mechanics. The third thing of which this game is a perfect example is what happens when you try to mix up the hero/villain relationship. Done well, this can be an excellent story telling device (just watch Breaking Bad for a great example of this). Handled as it was in Watch_Dogs, though, it makes for a bland hero, nebulously undefined villain, and a weaker overall story because of it.
Aiden is, let’s be completely honest here, a scumbag. The story kicks off with him attempting to rob a hotel. That goes wrong, so someone puts a hit on him. His niece ends up dead because of it, and the guilt has driven him to hunt down the people responsible and put a stop to it. Right here we have the makings of a pretty good, if a bit clichéd, anti-hero. He still commits crimes in pursuit of vengeance (some of them pretty heinous), but he’s got new motivation. Depending on how you play him, he can either be beloved by the residents of Chicago or hated by them. The problem, aside from the problems in the writing of his character, is that he’s just not consistent enough in his actions to be a terribly convincing anti-hero, though some of that can be blamed on the nature of open-world gameplay (but that’s a different article).
The “villain” of this story is ctOS and its creator, Blume Corporation. Blume is basically an all-powerful entity, in control of basically all electronics in the city. Throughout the course of the game, you uncover corruption in the company and attempt to bring ctOS and Blume itself to its knees. In reality, Blume is a plot device to justify the waves of enemies the game throws at you. It’s not particularly well defined — seeming to be more of a soldier factory and propaganda machine than an entity actively pushing back against your encroaching influence. Again, I think the problem with this is that, as an open-world game, they couldn’t really allow any aspect of the story to affect gameplay, since, at any time, any player might want to just drive off and find something cool to ramp off of. As a result, any narrative focus on the hero/villain relationship was weakened to the point that, even only having beaten the game a few weeks ago, I can’t recall anything nearly as specific as I can with Limbo; a game I haven’t played in at least two years.
The end result is a protagonist who comes across as flat, bland and clichéd, and an enemy we don’t care about. Because the game had to spread itself so far to cover everything it wanted to (and it was a very ambitious game. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed playing Watch_Dogs), it didn’t have enough substance left to flesh out the relationship between hero and villain, and both suffered because of that. Alternatively, with Limbo and Pokémon, I felt a deeper connection to the protagonist because of the villain. In all three games, the relationship between hero and villain went a long way to defining the impact that each game had on me. This isn’t to say that every game and every story must have a villain, but it sure does seem to help.