The RPG Scrollbars: The Many Faces Of Villainy

Not only does a great hero need a great villain, villains are usually just so much more fun. Whether it’s the tortured lost soul who can only find peace by destroying the universe or the cheery psychopath looking to see the world burn, it’s no wonder that many of the greatest films of all time have been defined at least as much by the baddie as any individual scene. Darth Vader, the Terminator, Norman Bates, Dracula… villains get people excited. A great villain lives forever, death be damned.

It’s particularly relevant because the RPGs with great villains offer some of the best and most iconic that the industry has to offer. SHODAN. The Guardian. Darth Traya. Kefka. The Transcendent One. Irenicus. Ironically, RPGs both have a huge advantage over other genres and a massive disadvantage – their length. Used properly, a villain can dip in and out of the action with an excellent rhythm, presenting not just an evil plan that has to be stopped, but building up a relationship with both the player and the main characters that makes it personal. That makes their final defeat satisfying.

Prince LaCroix of Bloodlines, for instance, is a fantastic character – an eminently punchable smooth talker who can’t conceal the fact that his control over Los Angeles is shaky at best, who spends most of the game trying to kill you with impossible tasks since he didn’t have the political clout to actually order your execution during the intro, and who the player character is ultimately (if somewhat awkwardly given Vampire: The Masquerade generation rules) able to overpower and put in his place by outright no-selling his Domination ability and telling him where to stick his authority.

The catch is that a villain who keeps showing up to win, destroying your recent achievements, quickly gets incredibly annoying, while one who just loses all the time rarely maintains much gravitas. Even beating them repeatedly gets annoying, as the makers of BioShock 2 – not an RPG, but stick with me – found with the character of the Big Sister. This was originally one entity, but having her always zipping off before the final blow just proved annoying, resulting in the developers turning her into a whole class of enemies instead. Also, when a villain does get a major success, it has to be incredibly well handled to make it feel dramatic rather than simply frustrating.

Compare, say, Baldur’s Gate 2 and Knights of the Old Republic. Baldur’s Gate 2 starts, more or less, with the villain kidnapping your childhood friend Imoen by proxy in order to make you come after her. He does this first with his magic, and then essentially setting the local magic cops on her in a way that you as the player have no chance whatsoever of fighting back against, even if you try. The game however quickly gives you another character who is basically Imoen 2.0, Imoen wasn’t around long enough to have seen favouritism that would affect the others, the game gives her back before too long, and the whole thing comes across as the villain being canny rather than the designer of that section being a bastard.

Knights of the Old Republic meanwhile features a hilariously easy mid-game battle with the final boss, Darth Malak, in which he gets his ass completely kicked, before your partner/party member Bastilla goes “Don’t worry, I’ve got this!”, takes over, and is promptly kidnapped. This is having just spoiled your chance to save the galaxy in one easy battle, saving nobody, and not even having the stats that would make sense for a one-on-one battle, regardless of the fact that pride has repeatedly been shown to be her downfall. The idea is to put her into Malak’s clutches while showing off his power. The result is closer to “Just keep the silly bint.”

Most enemies though don’t get anything like this kind of screentime. They tend to suffer from what TV Tropes refers to as Orcus On His Throne; specifically that they’re big and tough and totally ready to conquer the world, only for some reason they seem to have been superglued to their chair. This can still work. The Lich King of World of Warcraft spends most of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion popping up psychically to taunt the heroes, and putting them into dark situations, with the plot also resting on the (retcon) that the Lich King himself is in the middle of something of a civil war between his human side, Arthas, and demon side, Ner’zhul, that’s preventing him from unleashing the full world-crushing power of his zombie army. (There’s also some bullshit about planning to turn players into his new generals, though as has been pointed out many times, when it takes up to 25 of them at the appropriate level to kill just one of his previous guys in a fair fight, he should probably stick with what he’s got. Especially when they include dragons. Dragons are awesome.)

Even in this case though, the Lich King isn’t afraid to get involved – to get his hands dirty. In many a classic RPG, you don’t even know who or what the villain is for much of the action, or it’s just some spiky-shouldered person who pops up in the intro movie and a couple of times to snarl. The Guardian of Ultima VII certainly wasn’t the first to get more involved, with the Shadowlords of Ultima V being a wonderfully corruptive and intimidating force, but he was one of the earliest cases of a villain being pushed right to the foreground and harnessing new technology to create something memorable. Within the world of Britannia, his only real power is his ability to speak. This was mirrored in our world by him being one of the first major talking RPG characters – not just going ‘ouch’ or similar, but delivering long speeches about his evil plan in the intro. You never actually meet him in the game, with the ending being to blow up a magic Black Gate before he can come through and become godlike, but he’s a constant presence throughout. He talks to you in your sleep. He laughs when you come across his evil plans. He screams at you to turn around when you approach his evil.

Played now, admittedly, things aren’t quite as effective. Those speeches are incredibly camp, the guy looks like a Muppet and villains who literally go ‘mwah-ha-ha-ha’ are so old fashioned, he might as well be tying Penelope the schoolma’am to train tracks and twirling his moustache. Even so, he largely set the pattern for many a successful villain to come – be passionate, be ambitious, but above all else, be there. Say what you will about Ultima VII’s campiness, the player never forgets who the villain is.

And it’s at least a little more subtle than, say, Clouds of Xeen.

The Guardian, of course, led more or less directly to SHODAN of System Shock fame, who is a very similar character in many ways – and certainly execution. The big difference is that while the Guardian talked a big game, he didn’t have many real tricks up his sleeve. SHODAN meanwhile controls an entire space station, with the whole game playing out as a glorified game of cat-and-mouse where the cat is happy to lock the mouse in the nuclear reactor or devote big chunks of a floor to creating a death machine gauntlet out of a former corridor.

Again though, it’s not just raw power that makes SHODAN interesting. As with Ultima VII, the raw dialogue is… somewhat campy. System Shock 2 would greatly improve the writing quality. Even so, there’s subtlety to it, like the fact that her dialogue to her robots (who as far as we can tell really aren’t smart enough to care) is all self-glorification and fancy speeches as befits her self-proclaimed goddess status, while most of her comments to the player are pointed and irritable, as if annoyed at having to waste time. Likewise, because she’s the computer system and therefore hooked directly into every single part of the station, pretty much every player act feels like chip-chip-chipping away at her specifically. Knock out a camera and you blind her. Hack a door and you crawl through her fingers. SHODAN makes the entire environment feel like a living creature, even when in raw script terms it’s relatively simple.

Part of the issue with many villains is that their goals simply aren’t sympathetic. It’s not hard to write one who wants to conquer the world for funsies, or who just happens to have an invading army or believes that it’s their job to save the world by destroying most of it. Very few RPGs, however, have managed to create a set-up where the villain claims they were only doing what was right, and for the response to be “And I get that.” As an example, Fable 3 fails miserably here. The concept is that your brother, the king, is secretly preparing Albion for an invasion that nobody else knows about, with his deep-seated douchery actually just about saving money and preparing the land. Unfortunately, the threat turns out to be hilariously unimpressive, with the player easily able to personally afford the necessary army out of the equivalent of petty-cash.

The most successful case I can think of is Loghain, the villain of Dragon Age: Origins. He looks like the villain and he spends most of the game up to his gauntlets in dodgy dealings when he should be helping you and your fellow Grey Wardens handle the Blight. Indeed, it’s easy to play through the game and see him as just another would-be conquerer, who abandoned his king to steal his throne.

Pay more attention though, especially if you follow the path where he joins the party and gets to have his say more directly, and a much more rounded figure emerges – one who has excellent reason to doubt the upcoming disaster and suspect the heroes as being merely part of a scheme from another empire. He’s also shown to be ruthless, yes, but with a strong sense of honour, with abandoning the King not a particularly dreadful idea given his dreadful tactics. Once he discovers that only a blood sacrifice will be enough to save his kingdom, he’s also the first to volunteer, having realised his mistakes and started looking for a way to atone. At every point though, his actions – even if ill-informed or morally questionable – are firmly focused on what’s best for his country. That doesn’t necessarily make him a hero. After all, many bad things have been done for patriotism. However, nor does it make him a moustache-twirler.

Caesar from Fallout: New Vegas operates in a similar way, but with an important twist. He’s the head of the ‘baddie’ faction, Caesar’s Legion, and most of your encounters with them are hostile or deeply awful, despite some attempts to justify the cruelties as paying evil unto evil and making a point in order to prevent other, worse atrocities. You meet him, and what quickly becomes clear is that far from a crazed madman, he’s a scholar, he’s thought all of this out extremely carefully, and he has a very structured, careful plan. The twist is that having made a man out of the monster, New Vegas has no compunction about showing that under that is a hypocrite, a poor tactician, and a whole other layer of monsterdom that’s arguably worse than the show he puts on. It’s something of a flaw in the game in that there is literally no good reason to support his faction except for doing an Evil Run, but a great character study that subverts expectations by revealing that there isn’t actually a clever writing twist on the way.

(Naturally, this kind of thing is fairly common in Fallout, not least with the ability to talk the Master of the mutants in Fallout 1 out of his plan on the grounds that it won’t work, leading to him blowing up his own base and saving you the hassle of it.)

One of the classic rules for writing villains is that they should usually be the heroes of their own tales. Personally, I’ve never liked things so cut and dry. There are fantastic villains who are well aware of their status, carrying out their acts because they feel that they must. Kreia/Darth Traya of Knights of the Old Republic 2 is under no illusions about who and what she is. Her Sith name even marks her as a professional betrayer. Likewise, The Transcendent One of Planescape Torment shows no interest in anything except silent immortality, and its meddling with The Nameless One is entirely a matter of frustration for them both. Then of course you get cases like Kefka of Final Fantasy VI, who has all the depth of a paddling pool but caught peoples’ attention for being crazier than your average villain, and Sephiroth of Final Fantasy VII, who… well, I won’t say there’s nothing to him, but let’s face it, the hair, the sword, and the orchestra screaming his name really didn’t hurt his credibility.

Of course, if Sephiroth is remembered for anything except his style… and I’m fairly sure he is… it’s That Moment, killing Aerith mid-way through Final Fantasy VII. That opens up a whole can of worms for the genre. Specifically, when is it okay for villains to have that level of success? It’s one thing to burn the player’s hometown that they don’t know or care about, or whole locations like Highpool and Ag Centre in Wasteland 2 to prove that they’re serious. What matters to the character though has to be made to matter to the player, and simply saying ‘you feel really sad about this’ doesn’t cut it.

Few games though are willing to let them outright get a kill that sticks and has a mechanical impact. Mass Effect features a section where the player must choose between two party members and others later on where diplomacy fails or is very difficult. Not many though have the guts to ‘pull an Aerith’, despite the potential power of it, and those that do almost inevitably make the actual moment that happens into the player’s call, with the promise that something else could have been done. Dogs excepted, of course. From Dogmeat to the pup in Fable 2, a happy dog bounding at your feet has a worse chance than most NPCs of making it to the credits.

The reasons are many, starting with the fact that characters die so often in RPGs that making one of them stick is a hard pill to swallow, even in a world without easy access to resurrection, and that a company trying to create memorable IP would rather keep them around rather than losing someone popular. Where would Mass Effect be if instead of a choice between Ashley and Kaidan, the player had been forced to choose between Tali and Garrus? Pity the Tumblr community…

Mostly though, it comes down to the fact that it’s about 50/50 odds that the player’s annoyance will be aimed at the company/designer of the sequence rather than the villain who supposedly did it. That’s quite a hefty risk to take, especially if it’s a case like the Bastila example of KOTOR where there was clearly no need for it. Things get worse if going back, it really was a forced situation, like watching a magician’s volunteer pick the three of clubs for the second time. (The Walking Dead: 300 Days features a section in a cornfield where a character’s identity changes based on your decision to ensure that whatever you do, you mess up the scene – either being shot by a villain and dying, or whacking a friendly character. That’s not just a problem for that scene. You get caught doing that, and the player won’t trust the game again.)

As with so much, games have a unique advantage when it comes to villains in that they can make things personal. As in the above examples, there’s almost endless ways to play them and subvert the expected rules. Undertale is a fun recent example, where everyone talks about the presumed final boss, King Asgore, like he’s a giant lump of marshmallow rather than your actual nemesis, with the big twist being… he basically is. He fights purely because he knows a fight is inevitable, doing everything he can to put it off not because he’s afraid of losing, but because he doesn’t want to win. Dark Souls 2 sets up King Vendrick as its big bad, only to reveal him as a stumbling zombie no longer able to prevent you just walking up and taking his ring. I’m sure you can think of many other examples of cool villains, and as ever, comments thread below.

If there’s one big thing that basically all of these great villains has in common that other games can learn from though, it’s presence. It doesn’t matter how much power someone supposedly has, or how many hit-points they mechanically have in their final encounter, if they’re just another obstacle. The nemesis is at least as important as the hero in most games and requires suitable screen-time, character depth, and the time to make a proper impression. Facing off with them can be many things. Cathartic. Satisfying. Bittersweet. But what it should never be is simply business as usual.

A good villain deserves better than that. And a great game deserves a great villain.

50 Comments

  1. Shazbut says:

    Seduce me with System Shock will ya?

    Well, fine. It’s a good article. Thanks

  2. CmdrCrunchy says:

    The KOTOR scene you describe really had no excuse. Why not simply make it a sequence where Malak has all his stats from the final boss fight, and so slaps seven shades of (poop) out of you and instead of the usual death sequence, Bastila comes to save your sorry backside. Better in every way.

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    phuzz says:

    Ahh, If only Mass Effect hadn’t given you the choice between Ashley and Kaidan, but had also given you the option of saying “sod the pair of them”, allowing you to leave both of the annoying humies behind to roast in a nuclear fireball.
    Certainly if the choice had involved pretty much any of my other team members it would have been tougher (although ‘which do I hate the least’ was quite tough for me).

    • Jay Load says:

      Or in the second game where that drab slab of military meat, Jacob Taylor, was being repeatedly presented to me as the one who would win the prize to get into Shepherd’s girl-parts. I had to fight off dialogue options for him for ages before the game gave up trying (which probably gave me something of an insight into what actual women go through….) All the while, my Shepherd had been romancing the wee map-secretary girl, who was instantly more likeable and fun to hang around with than the so-called “companion”.

      ME games really struggled to present likeable human companions, saving all the quirks and fun stuff for the aliens. Although Miranda was fairly cool.

    • brucethemoose says:

      If anyone in Mass Effect needs a optional death scene, it’s Liam in Andromeda.

      I was full pargon (if that’s even applicable), and I STILL would’ve tossed him out an airlock.

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    goodpoints says:

    Caesar is by far the best villain ( I hesitant to use the term now) since he makes everyone actually pronounce his nominis bellum correctly.

  5. mattevansc3 says:

    Trails in the Sky made a good attempt at an antagonist. He’s a relatively nice guy who strongly believes the successor to the throne will be seen as weak giving the neighbouring countries an invite to invade. So he starts a coup to prevent a war.

    • Sly-Lupin says:

      Attempt? What’s that supposed to mean?

      Anyway, I was seriously worried about what you were going to say there… thanks for not talking about that thing. Trails in the Sky is one game I’d *hate* to spoil for anyone.

      That said, I think you’re assessment of the character in question is… a bit generous. The guy is a misogynist dick (who is literally named dick) who hates the idea of women having power, views the current (female) ruler as weak, and is terrified of what might happen when her (also female) heir eventually takes over. To the point where he tries to put literally the single most incompetent, idiotic nobleman in the entire setting on the throne instead.

      Yes, he eventually gets some Character Development, but that’s only *after* he has his ass handed to him by the Best JRPG Hero Ever… who *also* happens to be a young woman. I don’t think that was an accident.

      And with *that* said, yes, I understand that the guy did what he did because SPOILER exacerbated certain aspects of his personality and manipulated his mind to an extent….

  6. ElementalAlchemist says:

    Mareg in Grandia II is something akin to the Aerith/Aeris situation, although in this case sacrificing himself to save the rest of the party rather than being killed by the antagonist (although he does also get stabbed in the guts).

    link to youtube.com

    On seeing it again, I now have to wonder what purpose his death achieved exactly (other than dramatic effect). He was standing right there, he could have gone with them.

    • Haplo says:

      From the -narrative- perspective, the biggest part Mareg’s death plays is actually to advance Tio’s personal arc regarding her becoming a feeling person. Her feeling genuine grief basically finishes her transition into a fully emotional entity.

      • ElementalAlchemist says:

        I haven’t played it since its release on the Dreamcast pushing close to two decades ago, so my memory of it is pretty hazy. His death was one of the few things that stuck with me. Watching that video, it has aged very poorly from my vague recollections.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      Also has a great villain with a God-complex.

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    Drib says:

    I liked Caesar in FO:NV. Though he was obviously a bit of a jerk, and the legion was a mess in the NV area, I recall reading that where the legion rules firmly, caravans don’t even need guards. There’s security and peace, of a sort, even if that comes at the cost of some rights. Costs more rights for women, which is an obvious problem with siding with the guy.

    I mean it’s not optimal, but in a world like fallout’s, the alternative is NCR territory, full of raiders and mutants and death coming early and easily. Yeah, pure militant authoritarianism doesn’t mesh with current western values, but… it works. For that specific kind of world.

    • kraftcheese says:

      “Security and peace” but you might be conscripted as what is essentially a slave soldier into Caesar’s army (or killed by said army!), your culture will be forcibly stripped from you and you’ll be forced to do the same to other tribes of people…and that’s if you’re a guy!

      If you’re a woman, you’re either literally or in-all-but-name a slave with no rights so to speak, having to do backbreaking work or have kids (for the people that destroyed your way of life if you’re from a recently converted tribe).

      The NCR is bad because it’s rehashing the worst of America’s values from before the nuclear war (aggressive expansionism, crony capitalism, hawkishness, not much care for the people they invade) but The Legion is a bloodthirsty, sexist boot stamping on a human face forever (and one that most likely collapses without a smart demagogue like Caesar at the head of it).

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        subdog says:

        This pretty much nails it. The petty corruption of the NCR is in no way equivalent to the outright atrocities of the Legion.

        • kraftcheese says:

          I feel like the NCR also has the potential to be (and a track record of) doing some terrible things; the massacre they committed at Bitter Springs, the exploitation of the people and resources of Freeside and the Mojave, the unchecked greed of the cattle barons back East, an imperial attitude towards other groups that have things they want…but they’re absolutely the lesser evil out of the 3 main factions because there’s also the potential for the NCR to do good if they had less hawkish leadership, supported the Followers more, followed through with their acceptance of ghouls and mutants out West, etc.

          Mr. House is only in it for himself (and capitalism I guess?) and you know what I think of the Legion already but the NCR has the potential to redeem itself as a force for good, even if it isn’t doing very well right now.

          On topic, I do think Caesar is well written villain, as he genuinely believes what he’s preaching, and you can see why he’s come to his conclusion, even if he is wrong in it.

      • mattevansc3 says:

        That makes the Brotherhood sound a lot like Islamic State.

        • kraftcheese says:

          The Brotherhood? We’re talking about the Legion and the NCR, which are pretty good analogues for some of the horrible things ancient Rome and the colonial USA did throughout their history.

          Oddly, New Vegas has a lot of anarchist themes in quests about Vegas’ independance with some of the best endings for Freeside and Vegas being Wild Card endings if tou have good karma.

  8. jonahcutter says:

    King Allant in Demon’s Souls is another in the vein of Vendrick. The “villain” consumed by his villiany to the point that the final and true confrontation with him is primarily a mercy killing.

  9. jonahcutter says:

    A great villain is Leland/Jack from Hitman Blood Money. He’s a classic scheming and obsessed villain in the Bond mold, right down to his wheelchair and physical fraility. Formerly powerful in an official capacity but now scarred and disgraced and obsessively pursuing the protaganist.

    The final mission is a gaming classic, and does the showdown situation as the reversal of power, where the arrogant schemer has been outschemed and lay fatally exposed. Walking after him as he ineffectually tries to escape the resurrected 47 by rolling away across a grassy field is about as operatically pathetic, and satisfying, as it gets. A classic ending to a great villain.

  10. InternetBatman says:

    I like it a great deal when antagonists use the same mechanics / powers as protagonists. Transistor, Vertical Drop Heroes, and Baldur’s Gate are good examples.

    • theblazeuk says:

      Sarevok, Irenicus and Bodhi were all non-playable classes tho.

    • Sly-Lupin says:

      Definitely. It’s always annoying when the Bad Guys get to play by different rules.

      I almost think Baldur’s Gate 2 would have been better if you got to explore a bit in Athkatla *before* Irenicus pulled that stunt with Imoen. Think about how much more compelling the that scene would have been if you, the player, casted magic on some random side quest, got your ass handed to you by one cowled wizard and told NO, only to see an hour or two later that Irenicus was subject to those *same* laws.

      It would also have made the power dynamic more visible. That early in the game, you would have no chance against *one* Cowled Wizard… going from that to seeing Irenicus take out a dozen or so before giving up would have been quite humbling.

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    goodpoints says:

    Ooooh, I missed the mention of Vendrick at first, but being serious I vote for him. It’s safe to praise Best Writing II / “the B Team” now right? I mean, it had Peter Serafinowicz as Pate! Though they really needed something without a wimpy non-rhotic accent to do Vendrick. (“SeekAH of fiAH”)

    I mean I suppose he’s not all that villainous but you’re pushed to believe he is for a majority of the game. When I first entered his crypt and saw him, yeah games don’t hit like that often. (certainly no single moment in the trilogy compares in pathos) Closest thing a video game character has come to King Lear. Nashandra was such an undeveloped letdown but I’ll choose to think of her as a composite substitute of Lear’s daughters. “Beneath [the girdle] is all the fiends, thers hell, thers darknesse, ther’s the sulphury pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumation…” indeed, in Nashandra’s case. [Qto. 1] I’m pretty sure his dialogue in Memory of the King pretty directly alludes to Lear (esp. the jester/fool bit) when he says:

    Seeker of fire, coveter of the throne.
    I’m no king, I’m more fit to be a jester.
    I was unaware of my own blindness.
    We are feeble vessels, with feeble souls.
    We will cast aside the prop of life, only to face greater hardship.
    Are you another such fool? Or something more?

    Also quite reminiscent of Lear’s “Thou know’st, the first time that we smell the Ayre / We wawle, and cry. I will preach to thee: Marke. / ( . . . ) When we are borne, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of Fooles. ( . . .) /” bit in Folio 1.

    Seeker of fire, conqueror of Dark.
    I, too, sought fire, once.
    With fire, they say, a true king can harness the curse.
    A lie. But I knew no better…
    Seeker of fire, you know not the depths of Dark within you.
    It grows deeper still, the more flame you covet.
    Flame, oh, flame… 2

    reminds me a bit of:

    Lear. You do me wrong to take me out ath grave,
    Thou art a soule in blisse, but I am bound
    Upon a wheele of fire, that mine owne teares
    Do scald like molten lead. [Qto. 1]

    Also just generally the pervasive themes of fire / shadow and life / death are similar, e.g. Vendrick’s “Shadow is not cast, but born of fire. And, the brighter the flame, the deeper the shadow.” is reminiscent of the ‘dark’ things throughout Lear only revealed in the ‘blinding lightning’ of the storm, for example:

    Lear. Do’s any heere know me?
    This is not Lear:
    Do’s Lear walke thus? Speake thus? Where are his eies?
    Either his Notion weakens, his Discernings
    Are Lethargied. Ha! Waking? ‘Tis not so?
    Who is it that can tell me who I am?
    Foole. Lears shadow. 1[Fol. 1]

    Everytime I think of him, I feel shot right through with a bolt of….Gwyn….

    Maybe I’ll go watch Ran, which wasn’t even originally a Lear adaptation, but is still better than all the horrible film/TV and stage versions. (though someone finally did an Original Pronunciation staging last year called The King Lear Project but no filming of it) The worst Lear movie is the one with Actually-Speaks-RP Ian McKellan set in the Crimean War or something, why does anyone still give The Wiz (I’m the Wiz.) roles? Kurosawa initially was inspired by a folktale about Mouri Motonari teaching his 3 sons to keep the clan united by using the fasces type metaphor of 3 arrows together being unbreakable, which Kurosawa found pretty implausible as noble familicide was as common in Japan as anywhere else. (indeed one of the heirs later became a retainer of Hideyoshi, who subjugated the Mouri) Only later did he read King Lear and discover the similarities.

    ahem, Vendricks Hollow [back]
    hadn’t noticed the similarities with McDuff’s dialogue before [back]

    • Guy Montag says:

      Amen. I didn’t feel DS2 much at all, so I was fine to stop playing after the Vendrick fight, because I knew I wasn’t going to get a better ‘moment’ out of any of the games, much less that one.

      Loved all the characters from Mirrah, though. Maybe if DS ever comes back we’ll get more about that place.

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        goodpoints says:

        oh man

        Lucatiel was so outstanding. To have one of the very few truly sympathetic characters in the series with such a tragic plotline, but have the restraint to keep her appearances as brief and sparse as they were…so well written. And the reverb/echo effect of the voiceover to simulate her metal mask….

        DSII really had way more consistently excellent minor characters than the rest of the series. Besides Lucatiel there was Vengarl, Pate & Creighton, Gavlan, Tark, Licia, Aldia…

        Even less interesting characters had great moments like Chloanne, the armorsmith guy, and Cale all forgetting where they came from and why they were inexplicably drawn to Drangleic.

        DS1 obviously had great characters and NPC plots like Solaire (obv), Anastacia, Crestfallen Warrior, Oswald, the 3 Izalith sisters, Sif & Artorias, Siegmeyer, etc.

        But DS3’s whole NPC cast is pretty unmemorable beyond like…Irina and Greirat. Maybe Yoel…

        Remember how people complained about DSII bosses being samey? At least they were consistently decent mechanically and had some interesting design concepts. (though stuff like Mirror Knight really needed to be developed further) Pretty much every DS3 boss is among the least mechanically and thematically interesting in the series. Judex Gundyr and the Dancer are pretty much the only ones that tick those boxes as well being challenging, and not based around a gimmick. (DLC bosses were challenging but boring) DS3 has the distinction of having the only 2 bosses since Pinwheel that were so broken where their musical theme didn’t even have time to finish a single loop for me: Abyss Watchers and Deacons. At least Pinwheel had the potential to be passable if he had like 10x more HP, but the DS3 examples were just mobs of normal enemies. That and other shit like Yhorm and all the DS/DSII reskin bosses are inexcusable and just reek of laziness.

        Fume Knight and Aava are still the most mechanically interesting and challenging in the series.

        • Guy Montag says:

          Lucatiel is definitely my favorite character of any DS game, and I did love most of the characters in 2, but they were able to build stronger characters by just presenting more of their stories in general through their exposition, which you have to admit was pretty antithetical to the thrust of DS. You know, the haziness of a character’s presentation letting you fill out the story as you take it.

          But then that let the DS2 writers really get into the idea of being hollow and the pain of loss and present that far more clearly and effectively, which led straight to that amazing Vendrick presentation. So… it’s not a great DS game by the series-generated metrics, but it’s still a pretty great game.

  12. piesmagicos says:

    ” Where would Mass Effect be if instead of a choice between Ashley and Kaidan, the player had been forced to choose between Tali and Garrus?”

    Take it back! TAKE IT BACK RIGHT NOW!
    Also…Irenicus is not the villain in BG2…that is absolutely reserved for Yoshimo. :(

  13. karthink says:

    Big spoilers for Dragon Age: Inquisition

    Inquisition blew its chance for a truly great villain by focusing on The Ancient One (AKA Corypheus, discount darkspawn from a Dragon Age 2 DLC) when the true instigator was hiding in your party and gently manipulating you all along.

    How amazing would the story have been if you ended up fighting a partially restored Dread Wolf at the end, winning the battle but losing the war? You would quest and adventure with Solus through the game, understand his character and motivations perfectly, and experience a true sense of betrayal by a friend (or frenemy).

    End spoilers

    I’m a big fan of companion-driven plot in RPGs, with personal conflict magnifying into big central ones. This solves the problem of investing the player in the story, and raises the personal stakes.

    Besides KOTOR 2, Dragon Age 2 is the only game I’ve played that runs with this idea, with most of your companions involved in or directly responsible for triggering the big clashes, but it needed more work. And the final boss could have been Fenris, .

    • karthink says:

      “…could have been Fenris, or Anders, or any of your companions with a slightly modified plot”.

    • poliovaccine says:

      If you like companion-driven RPG plots, you owe it to yourself to try Fallout New Vegas if you havent already. That’s one where the companion quests are really juicy, storywise, and do a lot to flesh out, if not necessarily dramatically alter, the main plot. They dont need to, anyway, to be affecting and powerful stories each in their own right, and each fully utilizes and thereby enriches the world. Absolutely the best companion quests I’ve ever played.

  14. Philopoemen says:

    Adrian Vauclair in Shadowrun Dragonfall is a decent villain. He’s doing things for what he believes are the right reasons, he laments the means he has to use, and can use a convincing argument to win the player to his side.

    On this note, I just watched the new Spiderman:Homecoming movie, and Michael Keaton’s Vulture is probably the best Marvel villain we’ve seen so far in terms of not just being a cartoon cutout.

  15. MikoSquiz says:

    Ooh. I never did finish KotOR II (I tend to get bogged down in things with sidequests and/or lose interest in things that are longer than 20 hours) but I always had the distinct feeling that Kreia was a particularly ‘orrible wrong ‘un.

  16. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Two words:

    Handsome Jack.

    • Premium User Badge

      KRVeale says:

      Handsome Jack is a fantastic example because his villainy is thematic in so many interesting, complex and subversive ways.

      The game encourages you to find killing bandits hilarious… and then every time you get complacent about that framework, you get confronted with someone who thinks of you and your friends in exactly the same way.

  17. Premium User Badge

    coogee78 says:

    Kai Leng is a terrible villain in Mass Effect 3. He doesn’t fit the universe and cheats by cut scene and regenerating his shields in plane sight whenever you get the upper hand. Its almost as though you are having to watch Bioware play their character in the scenes where he is present.

    • malkav11 says:

      Moreover, he comes out of nowhere unless you’ve read the spinoff fiction.

    • vorador says:

      Agreed that Kai Leng was annoying and cheap ( basic mechanics are being a bullet sponge and same moveset that regular Cerberus Assasins ) but it has at least a very satisfying final scene if you hit the in-game prompt.

      That felt good.

  18. malkav11 says:

    I really liked Jeyne Kassynder from Obsidian’s Dungeon Siege 3. Not only is that a great name, but although she is a ruthless and persistent antagonist it’s not because she is a cackling villain or despot. She is leading a popular and religious revolution against what she sees as usurpers currently holding the throne and waging personal revenge against the organization your characters’ families belong to because she believes they murdered her father, the proper king. And while her perspective on the history is a bit skewed, she’s not wrong per se.

  19. Sly-Lupin says:

    Lovely article. Though I’m a bit disappointed to see no real examination of Dragon Quest VII. Marcelo is one of games best villains, period. To the point where he may as well have been the hero of the setting if not for his somewhat ruthless tactics, much of which can be handwaved by Nefarious Influence.

    It’s almost a problem how well Marcelo’s ambitions and attitudes align with the principal themes of the game. Dragon Quest VIII goes to great pains to demonstrate how detrimental the class system is (all the nobility ever does is Ruin Everything) so it’s a bit of a double gut-punch when the secret ending (spoiler) reveals that your commoner hero is actually a secret princeling.

  20. vorador says:

    No mentions of GlaDOS nor Weathley?

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