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Article - 'A Guide to Evil' by Mateui

An item about Game Design posted on Sep 16, 2005

Blurb

GW's 666th article is highly appropriate given the number. Villains and monsters are discussed as well as their degrees, motives, and actions. It's a wicked read.

Body

A Guide to Evil
Written by: Mateui

GW's 666th article. How fitting.

Villains and monsters roam the RPG world, and are usually at the centre of the game’s conflict. They are an integral part of the story, and many are often remembered by the player long after the game is finished. Thus, their creation and development in a design aspect is highly crucial to the overall success of the game.

In this lengthy article, we’ll discuss the function that evil plays in design, in both villains and monsters. The villain will be discussed both physically and more importantly, psychologically, as will the monsters. Motivation will be emphasized, as will the action, and finally the outcome or result of their exploits will be considered.

Let’s get to it.

The Purpose of Evil:

A happy, joyful, conflict-less world is a generally boring one. Without any conflict, your heroes would typically be drab and oh so dull. Conflict provides excitement, spontaneity, and is used as a plot device – something that villains provide in good measure.

The heroes, or protagonists, are the stars of the game. However, villains, or antagonists, who are opponents to the protagonists, should be sharing the spotlight. Antagonists and protagonists are basically the same, except that they are inverses of each other in many aspects. There is a tendency in the amateur game making community to neglect the villains, or to view them as lesser, secondary characters. Once you’ve adopted this viewpoint the effectiveness and purpose of your villain(s) is diminished. They are extremely important, and should be treated in the same fashion as your main character throughout the design process.


Definitions:

Before I continue with this article, let me clarify what I mean when I refer to villains and monsters.

Villain: A character in direct opposition with the protagonist(s). Comes in many degrees of villainy. I classify villains in three main degrees.

Degree Classification Description Redemption Factor Example FFIX Example
1 The Major Villain Directly attributed to causing the main conflict of the game. Low A man seeks power over the world by assassinating an influential ruler, and then takes his place. He begins to use indoctrination to control the world and its citizens, putting the protagonist in prison due to his uprising. Kuja
2 The Secondary Villain Either an accomplice to the major villain, or working alone to cause lesser, immediate and short-term conflicts. Moderate The prison guard of the king harasses the protagonist in prison, torturing him, and making his life miserable day by day. Brahne, Thorn & Zorn
3 The Minor Villain Not related to the major conflict of the game, but creates minor conflicts either willingly or without the knowledge of doing so. High A citizen of a city prevents the protagonist from escaping the city, and calls out to the guards because he truly believes that the hero is evil, and a threat to society. Beatrix

Monster: An entity that is not integral to the story but provides immediate conflict. In most RPGs, these are the random encounters the party faces, or the occasional boss that attacks the party due to trespassing, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or some other minor superficial reason.
*NOTE: ‘Monsters’ can also be villains, such as a goblin that is in direct opposition to the protagonist, and humans can also act as monsters. Villains don’t always refer to humanoids; I just want to make that clear. Also, my descriptions for villains are not inclusive. There are many unique villains that don’t fit into my classifications. The table is just supposed to be a starting point for you to get ideas from.

Since villains are dynamic characters, they can change from being a major villain to a minor one, and vice versa. This potential can lead to unexpected plot twists, and is a good means of character development. (Or should I say villain development..? ^_^)*


Physical Attributes:

Appearance is important because it determines the player’s and heroes’ first impression of a villain or monster.

Monster Appearance:
Since monsters are not very important to the story, most often the only thing that will stand out among each of them is their individual appearance. This appearance is directly related to the monster’s environment and abilities.

Monsters live in environments that are suited for them. You should only encounter aquatic-based monsters in water environments, not someplace like a desert. This is obviously common sense, but occasionally you come across games that neglect this, and as a result you get some bizarre encounters.

Abilities/techniques also factor into appearance. If a monster has an attack that shoots needles for example, the something on his body needs to reflect this fact. He either needs a tail, arm, etc. that is spiked, or something that shows that he uses spikes. Most monsters abilities should not come as a complete surprise to the player. The player should not question the monster’s abilities, calling them unrealistic, illogical or invalid. For example, a tree monster should not be able to use a fire breath attack.

Villain Appearance:
A villain’s appearance tells the player and the hero(es) a lot about them. The appearance should reflect the villain’s past, emotion, or physical state. If they suffered from abuse when they were younger, something on their face/body should reflect this.

One thing that I feel I need to press is to urge everyone to stop trying to make a villain that looks ‘cool’ just for the sake of looking ‘cool.’ It’s stupid and shallow. A cool-looking appearance won’t save an underdeveloped character. It’s a cheap tactic that is annoying. For instance, how many times have you seen a villain that has long, white hair, and wields a giant sword, for no reason other than try to look like a certain famous villain? (Don’t pay homage to a villain by attempting to replicate them. Learn from them, but don’t go out and create a mimicking character.)

The clothes a villain wears are equally important. People wear things they are most comfortable in, or they want to make a certain impression on everyone else. Clothes give a lot of subconscious indications to the player. For example, a villain who wears a lot of protective armor sends out the message that he is uncomfortable about the thought of being attacked, and that he is vulnerable in nature. In the opposite end of the spectrum, a villain dressed in plain clothes wielding a sword indicates that he is confident and wants to appear menacing. These indications are not spoken out loud in dialogue at first – they are perceived solely by the type of clothing that is worn.

The colours of the clothing are also an indicator. Each colour evokes a certain emotion/feelings in humans, and this can apply in an RPG as well.

Colour Emotion/Feeling Evoked
Black bold, dramatic, confident, sophisticated, mysterious.
White purity, peace, sacred, neutral, subdued.
Red energetic, passionate, powerful, fierce, angry.
Blue calm, melancholy, soothing, loving
Yellow cheerful, happy, bright, youthful.
Green stable, calming, serene, earthly.
Purple royal, elegant, sophisticated
Orange hurried, energetic, on-the-move


From observation, I’ve noticed that most villains wear black nowadays. This is fine, but we’ve all seen it a countless number of times. Why not try some warmer colours? They would contrast greatly with the darkened personality of the villain and create a sense of irony. Sephiroth (FF7) is an example of this, although I’m not talking about his clothes, but rather his white hair. White evokes purity and peace, something that he perceives himself to be in abundance of at points in the game, but in reality his actions reinforce the complete opposite.


Psychological Attributes:

We’ll now tackle the immense task of explaining the behaviour of both monsters and villains.

Monster Behaviour:
Monster behaviour is rather simple in an RPG sense, since they are perceived as mostly behaving on instinct. They don’t need a detailed explanation on why they are attacking the protagonist(s).

Generally, the reason why a monster attacks is:
- The protagonist has invaded the territory of the monster, and the monster, being threatened by this, lunges himself at the hero(es). (Threat factor)
- The monster is protecting something, such as his/her children. (Protection factor)
- The monster is hungry and sees the protagonist as his next meal. (Self-gain factor)

Usually, it’s one of those three reasons. Now, most RPGs don’t exactly go out of their way to tell you why the monsters are where they are, and why they are attacking. That’s neglect. Monsters shouldn’t be 2-dimensional obstacles that the player needs to hit the space bar for a few seconds to defeat, and then continue on with the story.

I guess as RPG players, we have gotten used to monsters being flat obstacles, but that shouldn’t stop you, as a designer, from improving upon. Here’s an idea: give every monster in your game a background, or reason as to why they are where they are, and what they are doing. If you find that this is an impossible task, that you likely are using too many monsters, all for the purpose of lengthening your game. (And that is a very cheap tactic <_<..)

Some ideas on explaining monster behaviour:
- Have NPCs talk about monsters and their experiences with them. This serves two purposes: It makes your generally life-less NPCs appear more life-like, and gives the monsters a reason for existing/doing whatever they are doing.
- Have certain monsters make noises, growl, or even speak during battle; anything that gives the player an indication of what the monster is feeling/doing. For example, having a monster group of two chicks and their mother, and have the mother protect her children. Make her only protect her children, and should any character attack her children, then she will become fierce and more powerful. It’s a simple method, and it really makes battles more dynamic.
- Make monsters not only interact with the party, but with other monsters. For example, an encounter of ants will have the ants working together as a collective to accomplish a common goal – not their own selfish goals. This makes the battles more interesting, and demonstrates the monsters’ behaviours and instincts.

Villain Behaviour:
Now this is one of the most important things concerning a villain, or any other character for that matter. Behaviour needs to be explained or motivated by some factor, it cannot be spontaneous, unless you have a mentally insane villain (but that can be overdone.)

Let me start off by saying that no villain is 100% evil. Pure evil rarely exists, and pure evil in a character makes them boring. (The same holds true for a protagonist who is purely good.) Every character in your game will be somewhere in-between being pure good and pure evil. Villains are obviously closer to the evil end, and protagonists are closer to the good end. However, since characters are dynamic, they should continually fluctuate in this spectrum.

A protagonist should make mistakes, or perform actions that are evil in nature, and so should the antagonist in the opposite manner. The antagonist could perform good deeds, and show glimpses of righteousness. A villain is a human after all, and we too perform tasks that are good and sometimes actions that are bad, because it is in our nature to do so. We each also have our own set or ethics. Antagonists also have ethics, even if they may be skewed. They may exhibit signs of honour, integrity, show ambition, etc.

A villain, like every other character in your game, should have both physical and emotional strengths and weaknesses. No character should be happy all the time, or sad all the time, or angst-filled all the time, unless of course a mental disorder causes this. (See, mental disorders can be used to explain anything! :P)

A villain’s process of thought and behaviour should be directly attributed to the past actions that occurred to them. Two items that factor into behaviour are:

Nature: The hereditary factors of the individual. Genetic factors, or instinct.
Nurture: What an individual was taught to do so, how they were raised.

Now, this is a huge scientific debate about behaviour: Were we born a certain way, or were we taught to act by our parent’s upbringing of us? While there is no clear answer (it’s said to be somewhere in between, yet this is also debatable), this is not very important to us. What is important is to acknowledge that both can be used to explain something in the game, with Nature favouring that explanation of monster behaviour, while Nurture favouring the explanation of most humanoid behaviour.

In most cases, the way the villain was raised is what is important to us: in what environment they grew up, what they experienced in childhood, how they were treated by others, not their genetic information.

A past event that scarred the life of a character can cause him to begin showing signs of a villain. An abusive father, or ridicule from others can change how a character will behave when they grow up. Anything in the past can mould the mind of a character and influence what kind of person they will become.


Villain Actions:

There are many reasons why a villain acts the way they do as we have already discussed. But what are the basic actions that a villain performs because of those motives? I’ll outline a number of rudimentary ideas to get you started thinking about this.

Revenge - The villain seeks revenge against a certain person, people, religion, organization, etc. (Demonstrates: anger, jealous, envy.)
Racism: - The villain has been brought up believing that a certain race of people are inferior, evil, or cause malediction to befall those who do good. Thus, he lashes out at any member of that race and performs acts of violence upon them. (Demonstrates: hate, anger, pride.)
Rivalry – The villain is aware of the protagonist, and is in direct competition with him. He is almost equal to the protagonist, and seeks to be better than him. (Demonstrates: competitive spirit, pride, arrogance.)
Personal Gain – The villain is doing everything for his own personal gain. Whether it is for money, love, or power, his actions are purely selfish. (Demonstrates: selfishness, egoism, insensitivity.)
Perception – The villain perceptions are skewed in that he believes that he is doing the right thing. Perhaps he believes that he is saving the world by enslaving everyone and “protecting” them from themselves and corruption. (Demonstrates: naïveté, incomprehension, devotion, honor.)

There are many more categories that can define a villain and his actions. A villain doesn’t have to be acting based on one category either – he can have multiple motives, and his motives can change through time.


Outcomes for Evil:

There are basically three outcomes for a villain.

1) He is defeated by being placed in an area of confinement (prison), killed by the protagonist(s), or losses the means to achieve his goal.
2) He succeeds in his goal.
3) He stops being a villain either because he stops believing in his motives, or the protagonist(s) causes a redemption to occur either directly or indirectly.

Most RPGs end in the villain being defeated in death, but some allow the villain to redeem himself. A minor villain is more likely to be redeemed because they may be acting on false information, and once that information is proved false, they are likely to become good. Also, a major villain has a low chance of redemption, but if he is acting primarily because of his own perception that his actions will have a positive effect, then he has a way greater chance of being redeemed through the story.

A small number of games have the villain succeed by vanquishing the protagonist(s). This is usually an end-game plot-twist, and can have either a positive or negative effect on the player. He will be negatively affected if he truly believed that the protagonists had the means to win and deserved to succeed. However, sometimes a player will become more attached to the villain and respect his actions. He may even want the villain to succeed if the designer plays his cards right. The villain succeeding in this case may bring satisfaction to the player, but if it does, then the designer neglected the heroes’ developments as characters. It’s a fine line, and difficult to balance properly.


Conclusion:

Well, I hoped that you learned something from this article. To summarize, villains are as important as protagonists, in their development, motive, and actions. Monsters, while not as significant, still need reasons for being where they are and should show signs of instinct. Clothing and appearance is important, because it is the first impression that the player and protagonists get about the villain/monsters.

That’s it!


- Mat