Like much of America, I saw The Dark Knight Rises last weekend. Like much of America, I left the theater completely enamored with the vicious (and occasionally ridiculous) villain Bane.
My first thought: "Holy crap, Bane sounds exactly like Deckard Cain."
My second thought: "Why don't RPGs have villains this awesome?"
Okay. Maybe it's unfair to ask every role-playing game to be more like the $250 million blockbuster that everyone on the planet went to see last weekend. And it's absolutely unfair to expect polygonal enemies to exude the personality of a real human being on a thirty-foot screen. But can't RPG makers learn something from the chilling villains in Christopher Nolan's wonderful superhero trilogy? Can the Joker help tell better stories?
Right now, if you're a main villain in a Japanese role-playing game, you probably fall into one of four categories:
Head of some sort of corrupt organization: Like, say, an evil emperor. Or the leader of a morally shaky gang of thieves. Or Bowser.
Shadowy figure working behind the scenes: Maybe you're the personification of evil, mastering puppets from underneath the moon's crust. We probably won't see you until the last thirty minutes of the game.
Overpowered psychopath who wants to destroy the world/kill god/work out your mommy issues: Basically, Sephiroth.
A demon: A demon.
Supplementing these villains are other assorted enemies, including those mindless minions that we like to hack and slash and firaga and pummel on our journeys from city to city. Often there's a friend or ally who betrays you in some way. Sometimes there's a noble enemy who flips sides when everything seems at its worst.
These villains all have one thing in common: They never have a plan.
See, the rollercoaster ride of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies is a net result of the way he structures his stories. Nolan's villains don't just wreak havoc. They wreak havoc in cold, calculated fashion.
Ra's al Ghul plans to poison and vaporize Gotham's water supply. Bane transforms the city into a playground for the maniacal and disenfranchised. Even the nutty Joker, who scoffs at the idea that he'd ever do anything with a plan, has elaborate schemes involving cell phone bombs and hospitals and address swaps. You watch these movies wondering how the hell Bruce Wayne can possibly out-duel a criminal mastermind this smart, this terrifying, this coldblooded, this powerful.
In contrast, the villains in a JRPG just do things. Sure, they have goals: Sephiroth wants to reach the Promised Land. Kefka wants to blow things up. Lavos wants to destroy the world. So does Giygas. And Sin. And Dhoulmagus. And Dark Force. And Deus. And Thanatos. And Deathtoll.
But they don't do a lot of plotting. They might twirl their mustaches while planning out unique new ways to throw orcs at your face, and they might occasionally invite you to a dinner party that turns out to be a trap (surprise!), but they always figure their armies of skeleton zombies or high-powered cannons will be enough to kill you. JRPG villains don't do anything cool.
Maybe that's why Suikoden II is one of the best games this genre has to offer. Its two villains, Luca Blight and [SPOILER REDACTED] play off one another like actors in a buddy cop movie. One is a cold-blooded mass murderer; the other is a shrewd, calculating warrior. And as you watch [REDACTED] plot his way up the ranks, strategizing and scheming through wars and battles and covert assassinations, you're left wondering how the hell you'll beat the odds to take him down.
More Japanese role-playing games should take after that, subverting your expectations and building up villains who are as important as your hero is. A good villain needs to be smart. He needs to have a palpable presence throughout the whole game. And he needs to be one step ahead of your hero, carefully predicting and calculating exactly what you're going to do next.
This archetype might not fit for every RPG, but it sure should fit more of them. The best good vs. evil stories are like chess matches. Even when you're racing around the world to hunt for your father or flee from a group of draconic soldiers, the adventure needs to feel important. It needs to feel like the odds are against you. It needs to have high stakes. If it doesn't, why should we care?
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.