Unless you’re born as some kind of storytelling prodigy, creating a complex, interesting villain is not something you can do on your first try. As kids, we’re not taught a whole lot about how different perspectives can change the way you view everything. The stories we get simplify good and evil to an absolute degree, hoping to instill some moral responsibility into our young souls. The first time you tell a story of your own with your own heroes and villains, chances are they won’t be the most layered of characters. It’s a process that you go through as you get older and discover different types of stories. Still, maybe I can lend some of my own experience to speed up the process a little bit…although if you’re even interested in making a complex villain, you’re probably pretty close already.
A note about scale before we start getting really into this: The kind of layered antagonist we’ll be discussing isn’t appropriate for every game. It’s not like Bowser needs a tragic backstory (although I am curious as to who the mother of his children is). A good rule to apply is that the more screen time your villain has, the more fleshed out he should be by the time the player reaches the final battle. Most of the advice here is best suited to longer, more plot-focused games. However, there are various tips that should be useful for less involved games as well!
The “Heavy” Villain – Complex and Tragic
So I’m going to do something a little unorthodox here. Rather than listing general characterization tips about villains, I’m going to go into detail about a villain that appeared in one of my old RPG Maker games. The thought process and revisions that I experienced while working with this character turned out to be a textbook example of learning from storytelling mistakes and emerging with a better villain.
The game was Clean Slate, a project I made in RPG Maker 2000 that I started way back in 2001. The game is unreleased, although I did a Let’s Play of it with plenty of commentary if you want to know a LOT about it. In that game, the world of Solest was menaced by the Gallian Empire, a nation with the goal of wiping every non-human off the face of the earth, justifying it with twisted religious rhetoric. It was meant to convey my immense disgust for religious fundamentalism (Islamic or Christian), particularly when it begins to influence governments that are meant to look out for everyone. Lysander (named after a Spartan general who fought in the Peloponnesian Wars) was a vicious warrior who led devastating massacres all over the world and became a hero of the Empire.
I figured anyone who would do these things had to be the most callous scumbag in the history of life. That’s exactly how I portrayed him at first. In his early scenes, he’s making maniacal comments, lashing out indiscriminately, and even makes a joke about cheating on his wife. It seemed to work at first, but as the game moved along something came to me. This wasn’t honest.
I was young when that game started, only 18. At that age, I was sure I knew it all. I knew what made a good person and what made an evil person. I had little consideration for viewpoints that were different than my own. Four years is a long time to make a game, however, and it’s a long time in a young person’s life. I matured somewhat and realized that even a murderous fundamentalist is still a person, a person with feelings, dreams, ambitions and motivations. There were important questions I had to ask about Lysander. Why was he willing to fight so hard for these ideals? What made him believe what he believed? How did he manage to stave off guilt about those he had killed?
Tough questions, but over time I came up with a story for him. Raised in a family with a long military history, the ideals of the empire were instilled in Lysander from a young age. There was one key flashback that depicted Lysander as a teen who cried upon witnessing the murder of an elf. His father berates him for his empathy and we’re given the impression that this isn’t a mistake he will make a second time.
Keep in mind, none of this meant to be an excuse for Lysander’s behavior. It’s not like the atrocities he committed are suddenly no big deal because he had a harsh childhood. He’s still a villain, but now there’s some kind of explanation as to why he became one.
Another thing I realized that someone with such a rigid set of “traditional” values would probably place a lot of importance on family loyalty. In other words, he would never cheat on his wife. As soon as I realized this, that dialogue I had thrown in just to increase his evilness went the way of the dodo. In fact, that loyalty to his wife and son added another side to him; a side that was almost gentle. That particular insight was one that still serves me well today. Most villains in games spend all of their screen time talking about nothing but their evil schemes. What happens when they talk about something more down to Earth, something that we can relate to? Well, they become just a little more human.
So what happened to Lysander? Near the end of the game, when the Gallian Empire was on the verge of defeat, he was given a chance to leave and try and start a new life for him and his son or to stay and defend Gallia. He chose the latter, despite knowing that it would almost certainly mean his death. Taken out of the context of the story as a whole, this scene would make Lysander look like a stalwart hero! Sure enough, he did die in the final battle against the player characters. While it was ostensibly a happy ending, some people who played Clean Slate told me that it came at a heavy price. They had felt sorry for Lysander. The pride I felt when I first heard this is something all of us storytellers deserve to experience. To think, I was just going to make him a stereotypical jerk.
The “Fun” Villain: Love to Hate…or Hate to Love
Of course, there is another side to all this. Not every game is serious or heavy and sometimes the villains don’t need to be quite as complex, but they can still be memorable and in my experience, it comes down to two possible paths.
When it comes to less serious stories, we remember villains for one of two reasons: We love to hate them or we hate to love them. I’m going to briefly go outside the video game world for a bit to grab some examples.
“Game of Thrones” has King Joffrey, the psychotic young monarch who is responsible for the shocking death of a major character early in the story. Watching the show or reading George R.R. Martin’s novels, you can’t wait for this little bastard to get his comeuppance. I heard someone say that they would be willing to watch the show for 20 years if they knew Joffrey would die at some point. GIFs of Joffrey getting slapped spread all over the internet. People love to hate him.
In games, you actually have more ways to create this kind of villain because players experience the story in a way that viewers of a television show don’t. You could have a villain constantly derailing your quest or causing inconveniences. They drain all your MP with one of their attacks! They keep blocking the easiest path to your next destination! They stole that great item you just found! Now the villain is not just a menace to the characters, he is a thorn in your side because he is actively inconveniencing you. With a dynamic like that, the players will be desperate for a chance to teach your villain a lesson.
Now think about Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. He’s scary in the first film, but as the series goes on, something interesting happens. He becomes your pal. After all, he’s really the only consistent character! You eventually start to root for him, which feels a little odd since he’s still slicing up teenagers. The fact remains, however, that you start to enjoy having him around.
Dealing with a villain doesn’t always have to be an unpleasant experience. If their dialogue is funny or if battling them relies on a mechanic that you really enjoy, then you find yourself looking forward to dealing with villains. I always liked bosses in the Zelda games that forced you to hit their own projectiles back at them, so I looked forward to meetings with those antagonists.
Another way to create a fun villain is to go against type. Instead of the typical evil demon, what about an evil elf? We have such a reinforced image of Tolkein elves who talk about destiny and live in the forest that a villain who goes against all those tropes can be delightful. What if a harmless-looking old lady is actually a calculating evil genius? The surprise is part of the fun.
No matter if your villain is complex, sociopathic or funny, or all of the above, there is one overriding truth that will serve you well. Everyone has some kind of motivation. Everyone has a reason for why they do what they do, and it’s not just to be evil. Only a certain type of villain in a certain type of story deserves the full-on flashbacks and monologues treatment. With smaller-scale antagonists, just make sure that at least some clues are given to their feelings and motivations. That touch of humanity makes a big difference and it makes for a compelling villain.