I think it's fair to say videogames are fundamentally selfish exercises. And I mean that in a broad, all-encompassing sense: whether you're watching your gnocchi-shaped Mii squat its way into bikini season or conquering some remote alien backwater in the guise of a faceless space-bobby, the focus is on you, the player, and how absolutely amazing and sexy and important you are.
I suspect I'm investing a little too much faith in the altruistic predilections of the average game developer, but I like to think all this digital empowerment serves a societal purpose: you know, that even though we're gradually devolving into pseudo-annelids as a result of screen-worship, our wills are being steeled daily by all those dings and gamerpoints and congratulatory sex scenes.
The upshot of all of this feelgood back-patting and bicep-groping, though, is that we have very little time for adversity. Because most games spend so much time glorifying the almighty player, there isn't much left over for the villain.
Which is a tragedy, of course, because villains are crucial to stories. In some ways, they're the axis of any decent one. And whilst games aren't stories in the strictest sense, they tend to either generate them, or at least be interwoven with them.
Certain types of games address these concerns by forcing the player to adopt the dual role of protagonist and antagonist - see Wii Fit, where your vanity does battle with your indolence, or Guitar Hero, where your primary challenge is to train your useless pie-fingers into dexterous shred-machines - but others, such as RPGs, modern shooters, and anything that falls in the "action-adventure" catchall, rely on old-fashioned tricks such as writing, voice-acting, and clever game design to deliver their villains.
By the way: before we go on, please note that I'm not discussing boss monsters. Bosses are a design crutch only held atop the universally-derided likes of QTEs and overlong cut-scenes because so many people who play videogames are mad. Bosses have, in fact, frequently polluted the videogame-villain gene pool. Consider Atlas-slash-Fontaine in BioShock, whose appearance in the game's penultimate chapter has him transforming from a well-written and intricately-paced villain into an embarrassingly unsubtle and literal representation of the Greek titan.
Anyway. Last week, two things happened. First, I clicked and strafed my way through Modern Warfare 2, primarily so I could make snide comments about it to my clearly bored significant other. (This is my final recourse when I realise absolutely no one is going to pay me to talk about something.) Second, I beat the mustard out of Risen, judging it a thoroughly competent and detailed albeit rather staid mix of modern popcorn RPG and old-school slow-burn.
Having completed these two vastly different videogames, something occurred to me: both had awful villains, and for entirely distinct reasons, too. Modern Warfare 2's bad guy is actually quite nicely done in a Robert Ludlum kind of way. Problem is, his entire story arc develops without any player input whatsoever. It's cinema floss hastily stuck to chunky shooting set-pieces.
Risen has the opposite problem. The player is given numerous opportunities to interact with and explore his primary antagonist - who develops in a similar fashion to Modern Warfare 2's villain, actually - but he's so unbelievably dull that there's no real point in doing so. Want to know his soul-consuming reason for going rogue, guys? He's wearing a magic monocle. No, really. Dr. Willy has better characterisation.
This needs to stop. A proper videogame villain, as in literature, theatre and film, needs to be a consistent, compelling, and at least vaguely sympathetic entity; they arguably have to be the most fascinating character in any given story, because it is through their actions that the hero's journey is necessitated. And in videogames, designers have to go a step further: the villain's relationship with the player should ideally be interactive and dynamic.
If developers can achieve this in their villain, the entire experience is lifted - there's a reason Double Dragon's finest moment is when testosterone compels your best brutha to turn on you, after all. On the other hand, if Axerazor Interactive has been taking notes from The Hottie and the Nottie, it can not only ruin a decent game-narrative, but the game itself, too.
Richard Garriott realised this back in 1983, having just completed Ultima III: Exodus. He noted the moral absurdity present in the vast majority of games of the day (including his own), where players were heroes because the instruction manual said they were, and villains were villains because that's who the players were told to kill. And in order to reach that "villain", players would murder, pillage, and plunder everything in punching range, while their enemy meanwhile did nothing particularly reprehensible other than maybe leer at a handmaiden or two while listening to Tears for Fears.
Garriott's first step in a multi-tiered solution was Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, which stripped the Ultima formula of any discernible villain, and instead focused on monitoring the player's adherence to Garriott's moral code, also known as the eight virtues of Honesty, Compassion, Valour, Justice, Honour, Sacrifice, Spirituality and Humility.
Subsequent Ultima games reintroduced proper villains, but this time Garriott strove to make them actively subvert and flout the virtue system introduced in Quest of the Avatar. In doing so, he was able to craft the series' most engaging storylines.
Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny explored themes of absolutism (where the virtues were legally implemented with fascistic rigour), Ultima VI: The False Prophet touched on racism and intolerance, and Garriott's finest achievement thus far, Ultima VII: The Black Gate, was an unabashed, open-ended account of his feelings about The Church of Scientology and the Devil in Sonny Bono. (Sad footnote: the final two Ultimas are probably more instructive of the perils of aligning oneself with a corporate meganaut who doesn't understand your work schedule than anything more life-changing.)
The greatest examples of videogame villainy - and I continue to refer to the in-game rather than Stefan Eriksson variety - released since Ultima have predicated on its teachings. Consider Fallout: the Vault Dweller's arch-nemesis, The Master/Richard Moreau, is revealed to the player in tantalising snippets as the game's true main quest is gradually revealed. When you finally meet him beneath his cathedral - and be forewarned, Fallout virgins: his appearance and voice remain with you longer than you might wish - it never feels like pointless cheese included so you have a big monster to fight at the end. In fact, it's quite possible to convince Moreau to see the flaws in his own nefarious logic, thereby persuading him to destroy himself and his master plan.
It's an absolutely beautiful use of the full range of character stats available in an RPG, and, to my knowledge, it's only ever been repeated with such - forgive me - skill and class in Planescape: Torment.
If GURPS' only meaning to you is as the sound you might make after a few too many Slippery Nipples, perhaps you'd prefer to talk about Resident Evil: Nemesis. The titular Nemesis, Capcom's eyeball-shouldered mutant, wasn't exactly a work of majestic literary perspiacity, but you know what? He had the sense to actually chase Jill Valentine throughout her jaunt in Raccoon City, often appearing at the most inopportune (and genuinely unscripted) moments. As a result, the monster earned the player's fear and hatred almost entirely emergently.
As with the above examples, a videogame's villain should ideally become one with the game's mechanics, whatever they may be. One of my favourite uses of interactive villainy, the various "wolves" of Tale of Tales' The Path, made their presence known throughout your chosen character's forays into the woods outside grandma's house.
The Path, primarily, was a game about surrender - surrendering to the beauty in the forest, surrendering to the fact that meaning and context can only be fully understood after time and contemplation - so much so that in order to interact with anything, one had to stop moving completely and just bloody let it happen. And whenever the player attempted to subvert this - to try to find the "game" in The Path by running, looking for a way out, and so forth - they were punished: first with unbearably creepy music and atmospherics, and then, if they persisted, death. In The Path, the metaphorical beasts that punish and "kill" you and your type-A personality aren't villains in the way Richard Moreau is, but they're perfectly suited to the game in which they find themselves.
In my mind, however, the ultimate videogame villain - and the standard to which all virtual ne'er-do-wells should heretofore aspire; the truest representation of everything I've blathered on about above - is Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. KOTORII isn't a brilliant game by any stretch - it's buggy and sorely incomplete, even with the recent fan fixes - but Kreia is an unforgettable nemesis. In some ways, you'd think she deserved better.
If you've never played KOTORII, you probably aren't going to now, so let's do away with all this spoiler business. Kreia was, for all intents and purposes, KOTORII designer Chris Avellone's commentary on everything he found ridiculous not just about the Star Wars mythos, but the flaky heroism and morality present in post-Garriott videogames in general - in old lady form. In a game whose joys, frustrations, successes and failures were rooted entirely in dynamic storytelling and a light side/dark side morality system, coming to grips with Kreia's unusually multi-faced philosophical leanings was its ultimate challenge.
Initially presented as an ally and teacher, Kreia is fairly swiftly revealed to be a former Sith Lord - or Lady, I suppose. She isn't ashamed of this, though, and regards those halcyon days of mind-crushing and world-enslaving the way I might recall that night I painted my face red and walked my best friend around the city on a dog leash and fed him dog biscuits. All in good fun.
But she's not evil, though - not entirely, anyway. She holds equal disdain for both extremes of Light and Dark, and in her genuine, albeit twisted maternal love for you, the player, her student, she seeks to free you from such primitive, dualistic trappings.
She admires good deeds, but is scathing when your kindness and mercy leads you to, as my father would say, put a "negative investment" into someone. (To illustrate her point, she demonstrates how the beggar on Nar Shadaa whom you just helped becomes a target for bandits, and is quickly mugged and beaten.) In the end, she reveals that she hates the Force, the Jedi, and the Sith, and wishes that the galaxy were free to make its own decisions. Even when she turns on you at KOTORII's abrupt end - she wants you to kill her, as your "final lesson" - you can't help but see her as a flawed visionary.
Kreia is the perfect villain for her flawless dialogue (written by Avellone), intelligent and subtle voice-acting (by Sara Kestelman), and the fact that she forces you to make choices. She makes you think about your actual in-game decisions, if only just to please her and get another chance at finding a crack in her adamantine facade. She's a tutorial, an incentive to explore moral avenues you might have otherwise ignored, and she's a decent end-boss. What more could you want, really?
Actually, I think I've just discovered why the tree spirits told me to write this piece. It's for you, Chris. I know Alpha Protocol has been delayed, and I hope you're taking every minute of those extra few months to make a villain that blows Kreia - and Planescape's Transcendant One, for that matter - out of the water.
Villains define games more than any of us realise when playing them; it's through their innovative design that the journeys we undertake in their name become compelling and worthwhile. You know this. So go forth, and spread evil in the name of progressive games design! Or vice versa. Whichever flots your jetsam.