At the end of the day, why do we play most games? I ask you this very simple question, which is admittedly quite a broad and situational one, to get you to back up from your immediate thoughts; ignore the specific genre you have in mind, maybe even the game you just put down in favor of the internet, and think very broadly for a moment. I believe that the root of the purpose for playing an overwhelming majority of games lies in the fact that we merely wish to rectify conflict, which is a natural human tendency (consciously, anyway). In any given FPS, are you not fighting for against a rival faction as a means to the end of whatever conflict you may be caught in (this includes multiplayer)? In any given puzzle game, are you not attempting to solve the riddles presented to you in order to attain "victory" by solving the final problem?
Albeit perhaps FarmVille or the "Tycoon" (Roller Coaster, Mall, Zoo, etc.) series, this truth applies to thousands upon thousands of titles new and old. More specifically now, to the level of the big names of games, what drives the player to accomplish his goal; moreover, what's to blame for the existence of this goal in the first place? The answer, of course, is the villain. Whether it be the Lotust of Gears of War, Portal's psychotic GLaDOS, or the ever-present King Bowser of the Mario franchise, there's got to be someone or something causing a problem to be rectified by the protagonist. Recently, though, I was confronted with a strange and confusing villain that, ultimately, had me questioning why I really wanted to bring him down. And honestly, "Well, he's evil... so he has to die." was the only thing that I could come up with. I'll get to who this was later.
If a game is only as good as its plot, then I propose the plot is only as good as its main villain. After all, the villain is the one responsible for the plot in the first place; no bad guy, no conflict, no story. I'll start with a shining example of a perfect villain-to-plot-to-game quality ratio: Ganondorf, from the famed Legend of Zelda franchise. Specifically, let's look at "Ocarina of Time". The first time you actually see the "Gerudo King of Thieves", as he's lovingly referred to, is a mere few minutes into the game, in your character's nightmare. Being the stuff of nightmares, that gives the player something to relate Ganondorf to right off the bat: already he's associated with fear. As for his actual end goal, "power over the whole Kingdom!" is more than a bit overused, but this doesn't bog Ganondorf down as any less menacing in the least; it's his methods that really get you white-knuckled at his every appearance.
Not only does the man utilize political tact by masquerading as a loyal subject to the King of Hyrule while secretly threatening and hurting the neighboring nations affiliated with the kingdom, but it turns out that he uses the protagonist to gather the keys he needs to carry out his plot (Roughly the first 12 hours of the game spent helping the villain! What a waste.). By these two acts, we learn something vitally important to Ganondorf's role as a villain: he's downright cunning. Ever find yourself wondering how your main antagonist could possibly have gotten into such a position of power? That's just not the case with Ganondorf, because you know from personal experience how he got his power. Dude worked for it, plain and simple.
This brings me to the final note on this legend: I just wrote that he got his power. He got his power. Not only are you fighting to topple an established leader, adding to the threat, but you, as the main character, personally witnessed the man's rise to power. That kind of dynamism in a villain's career path really adds to his character, and adds the sense that you "could have done something about it". This is unique to most games that follow a Zelda-like formula, in which you're often found proceeding from element-themed dungeon to element-themed dungeon and fighting the villain's weakest, and second weakest, and third weakest henchmen in suspiciously appropriate order.
The villain you may have in mind after that last sentence is most likely either Bowser of Dr. Wily, I know that's how it was for me. Those two are excusable, however, because when you think about it, do you play Mario's games in order to take down Bowser, or so that you can jump on disgruntled shitake mushrooms and shoot fireballs at turtles? The same goes for the Megaman series, just with robots instead of fungi. The series I'd like to talk about next that really abuses the above Zelda-like formula is, in fact, Castlevania.
Now this one may be a bit more opinionated, but not by much when you really think about it; in every game, the world is thrown into jeopardy because some unholy event (a full moon 666 years after Dracula's death) or demonic cleric is attempting to revive Dracula. As Simon, Alucard, Soma, or whatever other androgynous vampire-hunter they've got in the Konami vault, it's your mission to stop whoever or whatever is trying to bring back the King of Vampires and, if necessary, kill the beast himself. Now I've determined that the series follows to possible paths from here: the natural resurrection and the human resurrection. If Dracula is being brought back by some unholy date or planetary alignment, then he's normally brought back to life just before you reach him and he begins to plot his reign of terror over the earth. If he's reborn through a ritual performed by some third party, then you normally have to kill them instead as they plan to achieve ultimate power from Dracula after they succeed.
Now, in both cases, the antagonist simply wants power. But to what end? To rule the world? Why is world domination so damn important? What motivates this obsession with power and territory in these villains? What bothers me and actually makes me feel cheated as a player is that we either never find out, or the reason is just too typical (normally revenge). After beating Dawn of Sorrow, my first game of the series, I played the original for the sake of my own gaming worldliness. Since then, I've picked up one or two Castlevanias, but have never really found myself dying to find out what happens, much less purchase the game.
A recent speaker at my college told us that a truly great villain has to believe that his or her ideals are the best, the purest, and the truth. Really, I've got to agree; a villain really has a lasting effect as a menacing character when the above criterion are met, one recent (as well as a personal favorite) example being Lord Lucien, from Lionhead's "Fable II". Now if you've played the game, you know that there are actually multiple villains of various plot significance, but behind all of it, seemingly the cause of all of Albion's problems, is Lord Lucien. His attempts to harness the power of "The Spire", a physical manifestation of the world's magical energy, seemed to me at first to be beyond passé: a man who had power and wanted more, your run of the mill power-hungry tyrant.
Upon my second playthrough, though, I realized I'd forgotten something about Lucien that you learn in the very beginning: just before the events of the game's prologue begin, the man had lost both his wife and daughter mysteriously and suddenly, and had locked himself in his study, unseen by his subjects for weeks. I realized that Lucien actually sought the power of the spire, at first anyway, as a means to bring back the thing in his world that meant the most to him: his family. I have to admit, when this dawned on me I let my character sit in the snow idly for a good few minutes while I remembered all of my previous encounters with Lucien. It was as though I was looking at a completely different character, and thereby playing a completely different game! Who can blame Lucien for falling into depression, even insanity, over the loss of his family? Who's to say that his goals are truly "evil"? And would that make your character the villain if that was the case? I couldn't shake this thought throughout the rest of the game.
Instances of such lasting effect are, unfortunately, few and far between. The only other two examples I can think of (off the top of my head, anyway, probably due to their recentness) as far as games with antagonists that really make you think are Dead Space (Visceral Games) and Alan Wake (Remedy Entertainment). If you've yet to pick up either of these titles, I highly recommend checking them out. To be brief, Dead Space's villain gets points for originality, then for actual villainy. "The Marker", an alien artifact excavated from the surface of the uninhabited planet, Aegis VII, is nothing more than an aesthetically pleasing, red statue at first glance. You learn, however, that it's actually a failsafe for the reproduction of an extinct alien species, built to trick any sentient race that gets too close into building more markers, spreading the effect whilst turning the lesser-minded into grisly reproductions of the alien race meant to create more dead flesh, essentially working materials, to make even more aliens.
This disturbing process had me wondering constantly if what my character was doing was helping to destroy the markers or merely serving to spread them even further throughout humanity. The same second-guessing comes from the manipulative plot of the undead Barbara Jagger, from Alan Wake. With the ability to turn any creation of the mind, whether through painting, music, or even writing, into reality, Jagger essentially blackmails Alan, the main and title character, into writing a novel in which she escapes from her torturous existence and can be fully present in the real world, where she can extract her revenge on the world that had taken everything from her then dangled it just out of reach for years. As you only find out what you'd written for Barbara as you continue to fight your way to the truth of your situation, I was constantly and quite literally on the edge of my seat the whole time.
If you're still reading, you've finally reached the moment of truth: what villain had driven me into such a stupor that I could only recover by writing an article on villain analysis in popular games? Who beats Star Fox's Andross in nonspecific desires of power and Pokemon's Giovanni in unmentioned motive? The answer, my friends, is none other than Ansem, the main antagonist of Square Enix's first "Kingdom Hearts" game. Basically, the man was a researcher who had a fancy of dark arts. To that end, it sounds like the beginnings of a pretty cool villain. Here's the snag, though: as far as the player knows, he "mysteriously vanished" (the ultimate short cut plot device) while researching his darkness, and then "gave up his body for greater power".
First thing's first, there was no mention prior to this that the man wanted power; I thought he was just a scholar of sorts. Past that, though, we get to the real head-scratcher: Ansem ultimately ended up destroying his own world, for reasons unknown. He then gathered a council of famous Disney villains (after all, who else would you turn to?) and lent them each power to attain their own goals and take control of their respective worlds, which would vicariously then belong to him. But before you chalk this one up to power-hungry tyrant syndrome, the kicker comes in. He just wants to destroy these worlds by "drowning them in darkness." His goal is not to rule the universe, or even wipe it clean to start it anew as he saw fit, but simply to destroy it. If that's not bad enough, the explanation for everything concerning Ansem lies in darkness. He take his power from darkness, he worships and works for the darkness, he wants to turn "all hearts to darkness", and just generally envelop everything that isn't already pitch-black with darkness. It's never even really explained what exactly the darkness is; it's more of a vague, implied, all-encompassing force. Hell, he says the word "darkness" 12 times in his final speech. Literally every other sentence contains the word darkness.
So, let's recap briefly. What does make a great villain great, and thusly a conflict and game believable and addictive? Those that rise to the top are not the cookie-cutter power-seekers, but in fact the ones with motives relatable to human emotion, like Barbara Jagger's revenge or Lord Lucien's desire to bring his loved ones back. Realism also plays a major role; again, let's consider Bowser. What man or beast in his position, would send (in proper order) his weakest to strongest henchmen after the loan threat to his power before resorting to dealing with it himself? This only serves to let this threat become acclimated to the challenge, and prepare itself for the final confrontation. Ganondorf, on the other hand, put up minimal resistance to Link so that he, personally, could swoop in, take the hero's hard-earned achievement and use it to his ultimate success. Logically, this is how one would think and act if they were trying something as radical as ruling the world (or kingdom).
And there you have it, Gamasutra. It's not necessarily the epically powerful or fantastically intimidating villain that takes the cake, but rather those who catch us off guard with their down-to-earthedness and identifiability.
Credit where credit is due: Kingdom Hearts (for inspiring this analysis) & Spencer Curtis, fellow Game Art major (for helping me think of lackluster villains).