As an amateur writer of fantasy fiction and a gamer, I like to think a lot about the various tropes of fantasy and how are applied in RPGs. Or more rather, I like to rant about the problems I have with the genre. Todays self-important opinions is a piece about another staple of fantasy and fantasy games, the villains. More specifically, I want to talk about why I feel most of them are bad. This is yet another of those terrible habits that games developers have decided to continue. Be warned that the following may have spoilers for Morrowind, Final Fantasy IV, and Golden Sun.
The quality of villains is important in any story or game. Potentially, the antagonist is the second most important character of a story. Memorable villains from games outside this genre certainly get talked about a lot, examples including Vaas and Glados. Good villains can make us feel sympathy, morbid fascination, or burning hatred. Despite their attempts to be epic and grand, fantasy often falls short of providing such an experience.
To take a generous example I will turn to one of my favourite games, The Elders Scrolls III: Morrowind. The primary antagonist of this game is Dagoth Ur, the leader of his own cult seeking to rid Morrowind of its imperial occupiers. He is a very interesting character, especially in the grand scheme of fantasy RPGs. As much as I like him, he is a character still bound up in overused ideas. Now, I could prattle on about how the Red Mountain is basically Mount Doom, or how the Sixth House is full of typical “religion of evil” tropes. I feel that the core of the problem comes down to lack of actual presence in the story with a build up to a disappointing climax. For all the interesting history that exists for this character he is only introduced in person at the final confrontation. He exists a potential threat and a historical entity rather than a character who brings up any particular emotion. The confrontation was ultimately unable to satisfy. The build up from the main quest could not be met.
To give a less flattering example, I give you Zemus of Final Fantasy IV fame. Despite being the true villain of the game he is very much overshadowed by the far more prominent antagonist, Golbez. Where as Golbez was a dastardly braggart who appears around every corner to battle Cecil and his companions, Zemus is seen for all of one minute where he does not even fight the heroes before being killed off. What is worse is that the fact that Zemus does not even benefit from the vast amount of background lore that Dagoth Ur has. He is perhaps the most forgettable antagonist of the entire series, with even Garland from the first game getting more screen time.
It is understandable why these kind of villains happen. The creators go through the effort of making a large world full of detail, so they need an equally big threat to finish the package off. At this point however, it is predictable and the climax never fails to ruin the build up. The hero usually has to win in the end, so trying to build up the villain as invincible is destined to spoil the tension when the hero finds whatever just happens to be their weakness.
I move on of course to an example of villains I much adore. For this I go to one of my most beloved of games, Golden Sun JRPGs. The antagonists here are Saturos and Menardi. You know these two mean business when they hand you a whipping in person within the first five minutes of the game. They plunder and kidnap, creating personal reasons for the heroes, Isaac and Garet, to go after them. Rather than having minions, they work as part of their own party of four companions. While they both were indeed powerful, they never had that aura of invincibility that other games try to create for their villains. Saturos and Menardi did not win every battle perfectly – their first attempt at stealing the elemental stars failed catastrophically – and they had minor squabbles among their own party. Even their appearances were indicative of their differences to other RPG villains. Forgoing dark robes or flashiness, they dressed in armour and wielded normal looking weapons. The game mostly revolves around Isaac's party chasing them around the land while Saturos and Menardi did whatever they could to throw them off and obtain the the Mars Star which Isaac carried. I very much enjoyed this story of two parties of adventurers trying to catch each other.
I guess what I'm try to say is that I like villains who are not afraid to get their hands dirty, and I don't think fantasy has enough of them.
It is for the same reasons that I feel that in some ways Alduin was a step up from Dagoth Ur, despite his lack of enigma compared to Dagoth. Watching a giant black dragon burn down a village just has a greater lasting memory than all the hearsay we have for Dagoth. Maybe I just cannot appreciate the depth put into Dagoth, but a villain who does not even introduce himself seems like quite the bore fest.