The most interesting villains are those who think they’re heroes. Considering video games primarily are about casting the player as the hero – or on the side of the hero – games, sometimes more than other mediums, can tell a “villain” story powerfully. But, first, we must recognize what we need to get rid of, in order to keep and develop what’s necessary.
The stereotypical villain cackles, while twirling his mustache.
Stereotype dictates he be male, control a horde of minions, and have a fortress somewhere lit by flashes of thunder. His plans are some unfathomably weird concoction of revenge and pure malice, directed at something unachievable and vague – like “world domination” – and born from some dark deed or horrid wrong done to him or a loved one. He probably is talented at creating weird gadgets and weapons which, without fail, will fail.
Such a person has never existed nor ever will. This Saturday morning cartoon villain is often – but not always – just the creation of the lazy writer, not our complicated world and its even more complicated inhabitants. He is a reason to act, a reason to defend, a reason to show off our hero, to get us to care: he is not a character in a meaningful sense, he has no motives that we question – since that would mean questioning the hero – and he is written to be the dark to our hero’s light.
Do you even wonder why Bowser keeps taking Princess Peach? Does he actually deserve destruction? Does anyone really care about the villains’ motives during a Call of Duty game (a franchise whose laughable single-player story (!) campaign has long been recognized as a mere, offhand add-on to its multiplayer)? In the Lord of the Rings films, does anyone know Sauron’s motivations, aside from “cover the lands in shadow” – or whatever?
I’m sure the reasoning exists. It must. But it’s clearly not translating into something we care about as an audience.
It’s just bad guys doing bad things because they’re bad or for badness’ sake: call it “banal badness”.
Even “rooting for” the villain is largely done with a smile: In the Overlord franchise, for example, clubbing (verb) seals and destroying innocent villages is a fun, often hilarious experience. Villagers’ big-eyed, dopey innocence and heroes’ 110% all-natural, organic goodness are pumped to extreme levels, such that they’re nauseating – anyone would want to destroy such horrid things. Dungeon Keeper found you often destroying (corrupt) leaders – but here, too, heroes embodied nothing but goodness to the power of repulsion divided by minion’s sword.
We can and do enjoy playing the bad guy. We can enjoy “playing at” evil, especially when “good” is carbo-loaded, diabetes-inducing idiocy. But too often this is the only treatment we get and it’s an imbalance.
Why do we get “conflicted” heroes, whose actions are coated in the grey of moral dilemmas – such as Mass Effect’s Shepard or The Walking Dead’s Lee – but, rarely, conflicted villains? Of course, since we’re playing a game from the perspective of one character, we don’t see the other side: but that’s not a reason to keep up the pretense of obviously bad versus obviously good.
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