Every adventure requires an antagonist, someone or something corrupting the world you're in. It's a basic need. Yet why do so many games serve up foes whose evildoing provides more of a chore to be undone than a memorable struggle?
Writing on his personal blog, Greg Kasavin, a producer for 2K Games (and the former editor-in-chief of GameSpot) ruminates on the concept of villainy, which is essential to the basic conflict structure of a video game but rarely presented artfully.
Kasavian points out that as many games revolve around kill-or-be-killed scenarios, it's difficult to present the main villain in any context other than a climactic meeting. Many games compensate with disposable boss characters who represent an extension of the final villain. But these characters are rarely developed properly, diluting the overall effect of the narrative's antagonism.
The best villains, Kasavian argues, are ones who impose their will on the game while remaining inaccessible until all but the end. The antagonists of BioShock and Batman: Arkham Asylum, and even Mike Tyson himself neatly fulfill this ideal role.
Proper Villainy [Truth, Love, and Courage: Games as Stories, April 6, 2010]
One reason there are so few proper villains in games is implied by the word itself: The concept of villainy is kind of dumb. It's not how the world works. In reality, what happens is that when two people want opposite and mutually-exclusive things, they enter into an antagonistic relationship. Villainy is just an extreme form of antagonism where, most often, either the antagonist's motives are not rational or simply not well-developed. Videogames' misguided attempts at villains usually hinge on grandiose schemes such as destroying the world or other sadistic, evil acts. They're bad guys who overcompensate for their flat desires with huge lifebars. But it's impossible to relate to their motivations so these villains are doomed to obscurity. Instead, a proper antagonist gets under your skin and makes things personal in a way you could understand, even appreciate. Portal's GlaDos, despite being a machine, has the attitude of a spurned lover taking passive-aggressive revenge on a relationship that's slipped from her grasp. In Super Mario Bros., Bowser wants the Princess just as much as you. It's ironic that inhuman characters such as these turn out to be much easier to empathize with than the dime-a-dozen megalomaniacs waiting for you at the end of most games. But that's the key — if the antagonist is impossible to empathize with, then he's just another villain, and more than likely doesn't have the substance to be memorable as a character.
There's a more-practical reason why it's tough to have a proper antagonist in a game, which is that most games in the action or action adventure genres are designed around kill-or-be-killed scenarios, leaving little room for character development. When they present you with an antagonist character and a combat situation, one of you needs to be defeated and it's not going to be you if you keep trying. So then, either the antagonist is knocked out of the game or you get the cliché of the antagonist escaping just in the nick of time, or even worse, the one where he beats you up in a cutscene after you kick his ass in-game. What many games do to counteract this is they present you with a hodgepodge of disposable antagonists, in the form of different boss characters and such. But the narrative consequence is that the forces of antagonism in the game are diluted. Unless it's Metal Gear Solid, the story likely doesn't make time to develop most of these characters, and the artists and combat designers have to carry the burden of making them interesting when the fiction should be holding up its end of the bargain.
Conversely, the reason why games like Portal, System Shock II, BioShock, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and even Punch-Out!! succeed with their antagonists is that their stories are structured around an ever-present-but-physically-inaccessible antagonist, someone you're always aware of but can't get to until the climax of the game.
If a gameworld cannot support the idea of an ever-present but physically-inaccessible antagonist, then the burden is on the enemy faction to be empathetic, assuming this is compatible with the aesthetic of the gameworld. The enemy faction or factions you're fighting — the various goons that populate the gameworld and are the predicates of the gameplay — might as well be interesting. There's really no downside. And giving them empathetic qualities is a good way to make them interesting in most cases. [...] Since most traditional games revolve around violent conflict, in these games, the forces of antagonism ought to express empathetic behaviors, even in the strict confines of a combat encounter. It's totally doable and relatively inexpensive in many cases, just the cost of writing and audio in many cases (plus a high premium in scripting, animation, and artificial intelligence for all the shooters out there). [...]
While memorable antagonists are rare, antagonists are some of the most memorable characters in games. That's because they often present far greater opportunities for character development than protagonists do. Look at games like BioShock and Portal, whose protagonists primarily serve as vessels for the player to immerse themselves into the experience, yet whose antagonists are extremely well-crafted, remarkable characters. Part of why the combination of invisible-protagonist and ever-present-antagonist works so well in these games is that, when the climactic moments of the story crop up, the antagonists' escalating actions feel very personal. And when these highly motivating personal affronts are coming from characters whose own motives you can empathize with on some level — characters for whom the old "we're not so different, you and I" speech goes without saying — you're more likely to be playing a game that's going to stick with you after you're finished playing it.
Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Sundays at 11 a.m. Mountain time. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.