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RPG Villains

You know who was an awesome villain?  Van Grants.  Most people probably thought I was going to say Kefka, and he really is a good villain, but he’s also sort of Emperor Joker, but six years earlier.  No, Van is the bad guy in Tales of the Abyss, and I guess that’s spoilers for the first ten hours of a 12-year-old game that stretches for nearly ninety hours, but whatever, it’s my column, I can write whatever the Hell I want.  What makes Van really cool is that he’s a guy.  He’s a really strong guy, but he’s just sort of a guy, with hopes and dreams and aspirations.  He’s not a demon lord, he’s not some genetically engineered super soldier who wants to become a god, he’s not an emperor and he’s not just crazy.  He’s an asshole.  Worse, he’s got a damn good reason to be an asshole.

Like, aside for a paragraph?  Luke’s dad is like the worst person in video games.  Dude is an actual rapist and he gets off scott free.  Like, fuck that guy.

Characters like Van aren’t actually uncommon in video games, because they’re a pretty common character archetype.  A hero wronged, turns to evil.  It’s a good villain, and a good tool in the toolbelt of a writer, because such a villain can be used to act as a foil for the hero, can explore more dynamic themes and can tie in for stronger plot details.  It’s why you see so many fallen heroes as the main bad guy.  Find a noble character, give them a terrible flaw and make them evil.  It’s great.  Shakespeare made a career out of making plays about these guys, and as a player, it’s sometimes fun to be on the other side of a tragedy for once.  In RPGs, though, it’s rarely the case.  I mean, it makes sense, if the players were cutting down giant robotsancient planetary defense mechanisms or just giant goddamn dragons, it sort of makes sense that the only thing that can challenge the PCs at that point is a god.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t exactly lead to a very compelling villain.  Sure, it’s pretty cool to cut down a god, but it’s not the same if the characters aren’t attached to them.  There are exceptions, of course, Kefka becomes a god, but he’s still just a man who stole incredible power (which is why he goes from giggling, power obsessed mad man to a bored nihilist when he gets what he wants), he’s not a god to begin with.  Van never becomes a god.  Van is literally just a guy, and that’s what makes him work.  Because Van is a guy, he can show up, harry the players, talk with them, try to reason with them and become a part of their lives.  The characters get to become attached to him, and not just because his goal is vengeance and this is all personal for him (or that he’s Tear’s brother), but because he gets to interact with him.  From the first scene of the game to the final battle, the players get a chance to talk with, argue against, curse at, fight and get tricked by and lied to by Van.  This isn’t something you really get a chance to do if you fight a god or demon lord.  Even an emperor makes it difficult, because of the difference in social standing.

Consider Vayne Solidor as a contrast.  Vayne is one of my favorite villains in Final Fantasy because he’s right, but he’s also a Lawful Evil totalitarian who needs to be stopped yesterday.  He does get to interact with the PCs a little bit, and even then, much of that is couched through the interactions the PCs have with his younger brother Larsa.  Most of what we know about Vayne being compelling is through scenes the player sees that the PCs never know about.  There is a level of dramatic irony the game plays up a little bit, not as much as it could, which is interesting, but it does lessen the personal stakes.  Granted, Vayne’s lieutenant Gabranth gets to have a lot of the interactions with the PCs, and is very similar to Van in a lot of ways (although much less reason to be an asshole.  Seriously, Luke’s dad is the WORST you guys), but he’s not the one who gets a three stage boss fight before the credits, so he doesn’t get to count as the main bad guy.

I’m not saying the villain shouldn’t be powerful.  Magneto or Doctor Doom fit as the kind of characters I’m talking about, and they’re both incredibly powerful.  Also, Doom was God for awhile, and he still managed to be this while being actually God.  Kefka, too, is a great example and he was almost who I wrote about before I remembered Van, and there’s also Seymour and, kind of, Adyn.  All of them are compelling characters who have a connection to the party in a direct way, who interact with the PCs on a regular basis.  This is important.  The villain needs to be a part of the hero’s lives.

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