Vile villainy and its many uses.
We love stories pretty much universally as a culture. We love stories that, personal or not, are full of conflict. We love to hear about them, we love to tell other people about them, and in video games we love to experience them firsthand. We see our own clashes mirrored in those of others and that mirror allows us the opportunity to sympathize with the experiences of others. It’s because, in one form or another, that clash of ideas, agendas, or personalities breeds growth and lends knowledge. It’s a struggle that provides insight into similar situations later on down the road and allows us to make better decisions the next time we are confronted with such adversity (in theory, although not always in practice). This culture of conflict is why it makes sense that we love villains so much.
They are the quintessential conflict-causers; demons, liars, cheats, ghosts, cosmic deities, wizards, mercenaries, dictators, and more often than not, regular people. However, I’m not planning on listing out who I think the most influential or most effective antagonists within games are. What I want to talk about is a matter of presence. When you play through most games sporting a narrative, it gives the feeling that you are at odds with the world or characters around you. There is usually some sort of strong opposing force that is preventing the character (you) from getting what they want (triforce, cake, to stop the alien invasion, etc.) What I would like to do is examine the differences between instances where that force has a face and where the opposition stays primarily in the shadows.
Charismatic villains are rad, we all know that, but what exactly do they do for the narrative? To answer that, I’ll ask back: Why does everybody loves the story in the Portal series? GLaDOS, of course. She’s rude, she’s dangerously intelligent, and she’s actually pretty hilarious. She’s an up-to-date version of HAL 9000 with integrated sass software turned up to eleven. She is a perfect example of a powerful character that not only is working against the protagonist, but is actively and personally setting themselves at odds with the player. Antagonists like GLaDOS challenge the player directly, often maliciously, and their personas tend to play on the player’s previously experienced conflicts as consumers of pop culture and story. These “Present Antagonists” are the final bosses, the “Big Bads” that dominates the entire game, in one way or another, until the player is smart enough or fast enough or strong enough or to take control back from them. They serve as a direct point for the player to work towards, they are a story related bar for the player to reach. Filling this role provides drive and in some occasions fuels vendetta towards the antagonist but I don’t believe that the main story function of a present villain is to provide a target for the player to hit.
It seems like for so long, video game villains were not taken seriously. Giant fire breathing turtles, evil vampires, campy supercomputers, and whatever this is, for the most part served as little more than placeholders for a finish line. A force that pushed the player back that taunted their efforts with pixelated dances and 8bit-maniacal laughter. This isn’t to say that I feel we should eschew simple antagonists or classic “pure evil” enemies, in fact I think they have both their place and importance within the spectrum of games. But since I’m speaking on the matter in terms of a more narrative-centric viewpoint for this post, I’m going to keep the focus more in the direction of more complicated enemies.
As the medium and the industry both grew, the antagonists in games began to become more complex and multidimensional. Soon enough we had antagonists like Andrew Ryan in Bioshock, who shook up our perception of what exactly an antagonist was and whether or not we could take a game’s word on how its world worked. Or like “The Boss” in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, one of the most complex and intense antagonists in a series infamous for its complexity. I mean, Gannondorf turned middle aged and somber in Wind Waker! How cool is that?! I feel like the true storytelling potential of a present antagonist lies not in their power over the player, but from the experiences that they draw their power and their weakness from. Complex and present villains set up a unique dynamic between the player and the game. By the end of a game there should be a relationship between the two elements, and the more complex a character is, the more strongly we can reject or relate to the ideals of that character.
On the other side of the spectrum, however, is a completely different type of antagonist: the impersonal antagonist. Not impersonal in the sense that the opposition doesn’t interact with the player or acknowledge them, these forces might even communicate directly with the player. They are impersonal in the sense that the antagonist is a force of some sort rather than a character. I’m talking about enemies like the Reapers, the combine, any zombie virus, the colossi, etc. Generally the opposing forces involved within this player/game dynamic are less charismatic and more faceless, which can make for a different sort of ‘character’ in of itself. With this style of antagonist, the game become a little more vast and a little less personal. “Villains” of this disposition tend to be integrated with the game world seamlessly, due to the fact that a large enough force within the game world ends up defining both itself and the world simply by existing. Instead of being locked in a struggle with an opposing character, the player now is in direct conflict with a vast element of the world they exist within, creating an entirely different set of emotions and experiences.
A great example of a successful antagonist in this vein of ‘faceless villains’ is the rebel fleet in FTL: Faster Than Light. FTL is an indie spaceship simulation game where you control the various systems and crew members aboard a federation ship carrying sensitive intelligence. In the game’s world, the federation has been defeated in an uprising, and the rebel fleet is mopping up the last remnants of the old regime. As you jump from system to system searching for supplies, the enemy fleet moves slowly towards you, always encroaching and making turning back difficult and extremely dangerous. You do encounter a rebel flagship near the end of the game, but it serves only as an avatar for the force you that has been have hounding you the entire game. This style of opposition makes for a very solid integration of world and narrative. The enemy is vast and inexorable, something that you can’t escape, understand, or reason with in any way. The world itself is actively trying to bring the player down, and that sort of hostile environment makes for some of the most harrowing and intense experiences that games can offer.
This all isn’t to say that there is a superior way of game-storytelling in terms of faceless or charismatic villains, in fact most games that have a solid narrative focus use a blending of these two elements. It is through recognizing the traits of both and being able to deconstruct their strengths and weaknesses that we are able to make them grow as narrative devices within the medium. We like game villains so much because when they affect the protagonist of their story they are affecting the player by proxy, and are giving us the freedom to play out a specific conflict with them. Because it’s fun or scary or sad to foil them, or sometimes to be foiled by them. So whether the villains are complex or simple, faceless or present, it’s worth remembering that antagonistic should in no manner or way be synonymous with boring.