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Born Under A Bad Sign

A history of good videogame villains.

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.

Frank Fontaine from BioShock.

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.

Vladimir Makarov from Modern Warfare 2. (According to Google anyway. Image-making man was too busy replaying Viva Pinata.)

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.