Articles

Creating a Likable Video Game Villain

October 4, 2019


When it comes to characters in video games,
I find myself more interested in companions and villains than any other kinds of characters. A while back, I even made a video where I
explored what goes into creating a likable companion, and now I want to look at the other
side of the coin and discuss what makes a likable villain. Before I go too deep into things, I want to
make a distinction between a good villain and a likable one. A good villain creates external and internal
conflict for the protagonist, heightening the stakes of the story. What makes a good villain is entirely dependent
on how they push a narrative forward, and it has little to do with whether or not the
player likes them. Characters like Andrew Ryan from Bioshock,
Rafe Adler from Uncharted 4, and even Badeline from Celeste all do an incredible job of motivating
the protagonist and player by irritating them. They are so easy to dislike and be angry with,
further magnifying the narrative’s conflict. Likable villains however are ones that players
grow a strange attachment to and, in some cases, are even rooting for despite them being
generally pretty horrible. So, when I say likable villains, this is what
I am referring to: characters you should probably hate, but actually enjoy having around. This of course leads to the question: What
goes into making a likable video game villain? And to answer that it’s important to look
out how villains from games differ from ones from other kinds of media. Creating a likable villain in a video game
is a difficult task because of how games typically approach point of view. Where games often just stick to the perspective
of the protagonist, TV shows, films, and books are more likely to jump between characters. Shows like Daredevil, Justified, and Game
of Thrones spend a lot of time developing their villains, allowing the audience to better
understand and relate to them while also raising the stakes for their inevitable confrontations
they’ll have with the good guys. One of my favorite recent examples of this
is from the BBC show Killing Eve. Each episode is split between the protagonist,
Eve, an MI6 operative and, Villanelle, the serial murderer Eve is trying to track down. This setup of focusing on both Eve and Villanelle
gives viewers the chance to see Villanelle through a lens not tinted by fear. In most media, scenes with serial killers
in them are tense and terrifying, but the majority of the scenes with Villanelle and
her victims are surprisingly playful. Her sick sense of humor and various quirks
are always on display, subverting the viewers expectations of what a killer should be, and,
in a twisted way, it makes her fun to watch. While I rooted for Eve, I also wanted Villanelle
to keep getting away with her crimes so that the fun of the show could continue. And I think that feeling is at the core of
most likable villains: the knowledge that they need to be stopped, but also a nagging
sense that them losing would almost be as sad as the protagonist losing. With games, it is jarring to pull away from
the point of view of the character one is playing as, so the majority of interactions
a player ends up having with a villain are in situations where the two characters are
in the same place and in direct opposition with each other. While there are obviously exceptions, it is
difficult to connect with a villain when every interaction with them leads to conflict. Some titles try to solve this by showing cutscenes
of what the villain is up to elsewhere, but even then, developers are limited on how much
they can show because when most people decide to play a game, they want to play a game and
not watch a movie’s worth of cutscenes, usually, meaning games need to limit how often
they jump away from the player and to the villain. Games like Final Fantasy 7 had some success
doing something similar by having playable flashbacks of a time when the protagonist
was aligned with the villain, showing how things came to be, but this method can also
grind the pace of the primary narrative to a halt. A different solution is letting the player
play as both the protagonist and the villain, but that obviously creates a whole different
set of things to balance, like how evil to make the villain and how to still make it
clear that they are actually the bad guy. The most common way games get around this
is by having the villain in constant communication with the protagonist and player from afar. This idea was popularized with the radios
in Bioshock, and a many big games have followed its example since. Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2 and Pagan
Min from Far Cry 4 are both solid examples of characters who benefit from being able
to communicate directly to the player, giving a chance to learn about them in a context
devoid of conflict. It allows players to appreciate their eccentric
personalities without having to worry about the tension of being murdered by them. Arguably, the most popular example of this
is GLaDos from Portal. She is in control of Aperture Science’s
Enrichment Center, but this control only allows her to have limited interactions with the
protagonist and player. GLaDOS also is not openly hostile to the main
character at the start of the first game. She is introduced as the guide and proctor
for the various tests, and it isn’t until later that she unceremoniously tries to murder
the protagonist. By portraying GLaDOS as an ally, and then
a foe, players get to appreciate her humorous dialogue without worry, and then later think
back on how they probably should have seen her love for murdering humans coming. While the way a character is portrayed to
the player is important, they also need to have likable qualities about them. There are many reasons we end up gravitating
towards others, but a major one is that people tend to like those who have something to offer
them. With companions in games, this comes in the
form of assistance whether it be through gameplay mechanics or events within the story, both
leading to forming a clear bond between player and companion. Villians on the other hand have far less options
when it comes to having something to offer the player as they, more often than not, are
actively trying to thwart them. Some games frame the villain as a sort of
mentor to the protagonist, providing useful lessons and seeming to genuinely care about
them despite also maybe wanting to kill them. Others put the protagonist and villain in
a situation where they need to overcome a common obstacle, allowing players to get a
better understanding of them before going back to their old ways. From what I’ve seen, the most common approach
to making a villain more endearing, especially in games, is through humor. While a villain may not have any help to offer,
if they can get a player to laugh or smile at joke, it shifts how they player views them. As it turns out, people like funny stuff,
so it is natural that they gravitate toward characters who provide that. As dumb as it is, the funnier I find a villain,
the longer I hope they stick around. GLaDOS spends an exorbitant amount of time
trying to torment and kill the player character, but her dry humor and perfect comedic timing
made me always want her around. It made me care about her character to the
point where in Portal 2 when more information is given about her backstory, I was entirely
invested in how she came to be. Handsome Jack is another example of a villain
who uses comedy to disarm the player, creating a playful, yet still dangerous rivalry. This set up leads to a surprising shift in
Jack after he loses someone important to him, which completely changes how he interacts
with the player from that moment on. A sense of somberness replaces the bombastic
nature the player has grown used to, which made me feel a tinge of sadness for him and
his life, even though, like, everything bad that happened to him was all his fault. The game used comedy to lower my walls, and
it used tragedy to get me to understand him better. There is a subset of likable villains that
I don’t fully understand as they kind of go against everything that should make a character
likable but a lot of people gravitate toward villains who have an unpredictable and cruel
nature. The Joker has endured as one of the most beloved
villains for so long partially because he is genuinely funny, but mostly because he
never ceases to shock audiences. Villains like this who can best be described
as charismatic psychopaths are fascinating to watch because of the uncertainty that comes
with every scene they are in. Their motivations typically come from a place
of wanting to see the beauty of chaos. While they may amass power, their goal more
often than not isn’t to rule or destroy the world, but rather to see how far they
can push the limits of humanity. For this reason, these kinds of characters
are often the least redeemable and in a real world context they would be beyond terrifying,
but within fiction, their lack of inhibition and empathy makes them an extremely intriguing,
leaving the audience wanting to see more. Vaas from Far Cry 3 and Sander Cohen from
Bioshock are both examples of characters who command the player’s attention while they
are on screen, and their warped sense of reality is so unbelievable and unrelatable that it
is hard not to have a morbid sense of curiosity about them and what it was that brought them
to where they are now. However, the thing that seems to draw people
to villains the most is when they are relatable in some profound way. Villains are most likeable when it is easy
to imagine oneself in their position and understand why they do the things they do, even though
the audience most likely will not agree with them. Unless, I guess, the audience is the villain. It can be argued that these tragic villains
show a side of humanity that protagonists rarely do. They are the ones who make hard choices in
an effort to fix the problems they see in themselves and the world around them; what
sets them apart from others is the lengths they are willing to go to do so. However, this is where I think video games
often fall short compared to other forms of media, and it comes back to how games typically
don’t spend enough time with the villain to fully develop them. Players don’t often get to see villains
interacting with characters aside from the protagonist, which makes it harder to understand
who they are on a broader scale. It is also rare for games to show how the
villain grew into the person they’ve become. While learning about a villains progression
through radio conversations is better than nothing, it ends up being less effective than
seeing the transformation firsthand. This isn’t to say it’s impossible to have
a villain players feel empathy for; there are plenty of interesting tragic villains
out there, I just think that games haven’t found the optimal way to present them yet,
which is fair as games are a relatively new medium that’s still exploring the different
ways it can tell a story. All in all, a villain being likable is obviously
subjective. The things I talk about in this video are
some of the common trends I’ve noticed, but it isn’t a science. Everyone views the actions of a character
differently. Also, when it comes to villains, it is tough
to strike the right balance between being likable enough where the audience wants them
to stick around longer and a little too likable where the audience starts excusing their terrible
behavior. However, villains that aren’t easily defined
as pure evil are more realistic to our world, and serve to teach us so much more than villains
that are clearly all bad. With that said, while I am interested in this
particular brand of villain, likable ones aren’t well-suited for every kind of story. There are a ton of incredible villains who
I genuinely despise, and that is a huge reason why they are so effective. If you are a writer, whether it be for games
or anything else, always consider what kind of story you want to tell. What are you going for in terms of tone? What major ideas do you want to explore? Figuring these things out will help you decide
what kind of villain is best for your story whether that be an unforgivable son-of-a-bitch,
a sympathetic monster, or a charismatic psychopath.

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