It’s the seventh generation of console-based video gaming and role-playing games haver never been prettier, more realistic, or more diverse. Their sheer quantity is mind boggling, with new mutations happening by the month and the genre becoming more and more difficult to pin down.
We have epic stories, well-rounded casts, sprawling worlds, and decidedly gorgeous art direction across the board. But something is missing. Where the hell have all the good villains gone? It seems as though the majority of RPGs focus solely on the heroic casts as of late.
Vayne Solidor in Final Fantasy XII was a conniving bastard, but he wasn’t a magnificent conniving bastard like Sephiroth or Kefka. Persona 3’s Strega were mildly interesting but can’t, for all their numbers, hold a candle to Persona 2’s crazed and demented Joker. Villains get very little in the way of exposition lately, it would seem. While a few RPGs, such as Ar tonelico, have had interesting antagonists, they’re the exception rather than the rule. Big-name franchises like Final Fantasy used to be exemplary for villainous archetypes played in fascinating ways, but ever since the days of Final Fantasy X, it seems Square Enix simply isn’t that interested in evil anymore.
Perhaps it’s due to an effort to present more sophisticated storytelling. Concepts of clear-cut good and evil are fairly difficult to sell these days, largely because the fanbase has not just grown out, it’s also grown up. We do want these complex narratives that are closer to reality than fiction most of the time. We demand moral ambiguity as a hallmark over “good versus evil.” But I feel strongly that we’ve also sacrificed a key element that made older RPGs so memorable: remarkable antagonists.
The classic example is Luca Blight (Suikoden II). A hate-filled monster of a human being, the most despicable being to ever live in that world, he was to be celebrated. RPG fans hadn’t seen his kind of villainy before, and it seems we haven’t since. This is a man who made a villager get on all fours and walk around, snorting like a pig for the promise of her life. A promise he mocked her for believing, before taking her life.
Luca burnt villages out of sheer enjoyment. Not only was Luca vile however, but powerful too! He had the brawn to back up his rotting, evil brain. You had to fight him three consecutive times, each round a grueling test of resourcefulness and strategic planning. Unlike your standard Square Enix villain, Luca didn’t change shape. He didn’t gain new powers. He was the same man in each round, yet uniquely terrifying like no other.
He wasn’t even the main villain. That dubious honour fell to someone else entirely. Yet his memory is seared into the minds of any who faced him. He was far worse than any of his peers, the kind of man who could bring a Sephiroth or Kefka to their knees. That’s the kind of antagonist an RPG needs.
Who since has been so memorable? While Luca was busy being the institution of human suffering, others before and around his time were consolidating just what a good villain was. Ghaleon had lived through two Lunar titles, once as an evil powermonger, and once more as a repentant saviour. Wieglaf, also known as Velius, was conspiring with church officials to ressurect a demon in Final Fantasy Tactics, providing RPG fans with one of the most difficult battles in SRPG history. There are, of course, issues with that era of gaming too. Things were more black-and-white, more straightforward.
For example, Bulzome in Shining Force III was a rather run of the mill villain. Yet even then, the story was fixated on the defeat of this evil presence, a trope many games today include, but without the menacing personality attached. It’s a vital element out of place which can leave the end result rather flavourless. I’m all for more sophisticated narrative. Persona 4, Valkyria Chronicles, Final Fantasy XII, and Xenosaga Episode III have all recently given us wonderful stories to experience. But their villains? Missing in action.
Even Margulis in Xenosaga was a rather tame figure compared with more compelled fanatics like Phantasy Star IV’s Zio, or Bulzome’s cult. And Xenosaga’s Albedo, though thoroughly interesting, turned out to be a redeemed character rather than true “villain” by the trilogy’s end. Narrative need not eschew personality. I for one would appreciate a strong, central villain in light of modern gaming’s more complex approach to exposition. They need not even be that vital to the final battle in the game.
Let’s face it: End bosses have generally been flavourless. It’s the antagonist in the midst of the game that we’re more interested in, the human with the heart of darkness, not the tentacle monster waiting for us at the end. Here’s to great RPG villains everywhere! May they rise again.