With so much attention being normally placed on the protagonist of just about every game, Daily Reaction discusses the need for a true villain to be driving the story forward and why fans love them.
Dan: Looking throughout the history of some the world’s most popular narratives, there is generally a common theme that’s found and that’s good versus evil. What this requires is not only a protagonist that will go above and beyond what can be expected from any single individual, and that is usually why they are greeted with such reverence that they are called heroes. But every good hero requires an equally strong, if not stronger, antagonist to truly set the stage for the story.
Whether it’s in Captain Ahab or Batman, no character would be much if it wasn’t for the magnitude of their counterparts. This is something I think fans are starting to grasp onto more and more, as admiration for characters like The Joker only grows. The games industry is also starting to see more and more of a shift towards this as well, as antagonists are becoming more and more well defined. Just by looking at the Call of Duty series, we can easily see an evolution of personified villainy that has progressed into even casting the title’s biggest name into the role of the bad guy in Advanced Warfare.
Given that by the very nature of gaming, the protagonist is usually a character that the player has to connect with, which is why they are given the most personality, or left as a blank slate for them to be colored in by the user’s decisions. But this leaves the antagonist to paint the rest of the story for the character, the one responsible for setting the stage for your grand adventure. In general this is the whole concept in which pushes a character forward, and is what becomes the ultimate goal.
With all of that laid out, the question of who’s more important becomes a blurred line, as the person walking the path is only the person who is actually sitting inside another character’s narrative. In some cases there will be some characters who will obviously fall outside of the normal good vs. evil structure, but in some cases the need for a likable bad guy can be even stronger than the need for a great lead.
Sony’s Killzone franchise has always had fairly mundane leading characters, but has always had a very strong emphasis on their villains, the Helghast. Most likely this is due to the fact that the game is a first-person shooter, which in reality forces the player to spend the majority of their time looking at the opposing force, making them the center of the stage beyond the character you are playing. So, as much as I love some characters, I do think that some games are going to need to do a better job of establishing who is paving the road forward for us to walk on.
Chandler: Villains absolutely make the heroes. Batman is one side of the coin, and not only The Joker, but many of the other storied villains to the Dark Knight help to better define the story and characterization of the heroes. Cloud is who he is because of Sephiroth, and the silver haired antagonist had a critical role to play in many pivotal moments in the game. It’s hard to say that villains are the star of the show, but rather complete the picture. Cloud needs Sephiroth. Sephiroth needs Cloud. Two halves of a whole.
Dan, you talk about the characters that are constantly dogging our heroes’ heels, but I also want to talk about the environmental villains. Sometimes that antagonist isn’t obvious, but the hero needs something to drive them forward and give them purpose. A game like Journey may not have an obvious adversary, but when you dig deeper, you can see that the distance between you and the mountain is the true foe. Many games offer this kind of opposition, and while they may not have the obvious Sephiroth or Joker, they show that the environment, emotions, and mystery can be just as powerful of a driving force for our lead characters.
It may seem kind of obvious, but just to prove this point, imagine any game without its antagonist. The coming Until Dawn would just be a game about a bunch of young adults making poor decisions at a trip to a remote cabin. Throw a killer in the mix? Suddenly motivations shift, and your villain changes your primary characters, completes the picture, and creates the experience. A game series like Borderlands creates an entire planet and hostile environment that becomes the villain, with a number of stellar characterized foes thrown in the mix as well.
Any good narrative is built on a foundation of something entirely ordinary facing a kind of opposition. That opposition is the catalyst that gives purpose to our lead characters and opens up the possibilities of the experience. Sometimes, it’s an obvious black and white comparison of hero and villain, but often we find a mix of grey, and we must dig deeper to find out what is driving our hero characters. Don’t forget that grey can’t be made without black or white, and there’s not always a clear line for where the heroics end and the villainy begins.
Without a villain, there’s a huge missing part of the picture. We rely so much on our heroes and these characters that we can often overlook the burdens that created them in the first place. There’s the obvious side of opposing characters, such as without The Joker, or bevy of other villains, Batman is just a rich guy wearing a ridiculously expensive Halloween outfit. Then there’s the not so obvious side of things. There’s the villainy within our lead characters. There’s the oppression and struggles that they face, and these villains are just as real, because they make them who they are.