In the first of our new permanent feature we’re calling Tap vs. Tap, Mat C and Lewis B have decided that their finest conversational moments are during the day when they’re idling away at their keyboards. Recording them sounded like a good idea. This could be very random, but sometimes the best things are. Our first topic? VILLAINS! Pow!
Disclaimer: The following article contains plot details to Batman: Arkham Asylum and talks loosely of the first 2 or 3 hours of Batman: Arkham City. If you are sensitive to spoilers in either of these games, please be warned.
Lewis:I’m a fan of just one villain. Two at a push or preferably one elaborate villain with a slithering henchman. I think that is what mainly put me off Arkham Asylum, everything was just so diluted because villains were falling out of the woodwork and it made the Joker and Harley Quinn, as well as all the rest, forgettable.
Mat: Arkham Asylum is an interesting example because the Batman universe is packed to the Gargoyles with brilliant villains. Rocksteady were pretty selective about who and why they chose the characters they settled on, and the result was one of the most finely paced and tightly worked single player stories I’ve played in years. I thought their angle of keeping The Joker as the main overarching nemesis while drip feeding you the likes of Bane, Poison Ivy and Scarecrow worked pretty well, especially as clues and character profiles to Gotham’s other super criminals littered the Asylum in the form of The Riddler challenges.
My only complaint was that retrospectively, the Bane fight became utterly forgettable thanks to the abundance of other Titan fuelled inmates as the game progressed, but in terms of screen time I thought Arkham Asylum balanced it’s rogues gallery quite well.
Lewis: I do and don’t agree, really. The Joker was fantastic as the orchestrator of the main plot but, as you point out, it isn’t just Bane that lost out as a result but many of the other villains felt like they were simply added just for the sake of it.
Technically, Bane added absolutely nothing of value to the game, whilst the rest I felt just lacked any punch. They weren’t fleshed out in any way besides being thrust into the spotlight of a boss fight or as a minor part in a cutscene. Scarecrow is a prime example of one of my favourite villains being tragically underused. His boss battles were entirely repetitive, but there were some moments of brilliance when you began to question where you were after being exposed to his toxins (the morgue especially). I felt a little let down that he played such a minor part when he had so much potential. Surely it would have been a better idea to drop half the roster and place greater focus on refining what is being played?
Mat: I must admit I was a lot more cold towards Poison Ivy than I was to Bane, despite his short time on screen. Bane served as Batman’s introduction to the Titan formula and the dangers of that, and I thought taken as a stand alone boss encounter it was fairly strong. For me, it was only the repetition of the Titan encounters later in the game that soiled the relatively early duel with Bane and made me long for a little more interaction with him.
Regarding Scarecrow, I thought his role went deeper than to serve as a mere boss encounter. I must admit I absolutely loved the dream sequences in Arkham Asylum. Witnessing the formidable Batman reduced to an infant Bruce Wayne mourning the death of his parents as the Asylum walls fall away around you was incredibly striking, and the fake “glitch” later in the game genuinely made me check whether my PS3 had suffered the dreaded yellow light of death. In terms of catching you off guard and real “head fuck” moments, they are perhaps the most memorable scenes I’ve seen in a game since the Psycho Mantis battle from Metal Gear Solid.
But I do agree with your basic principle. Less is often more. I’m playing Arkham City at the moment and the balance that I thought Arkham Asylum got so right occasionally threatens to tip in the wrong direction.
Lewis: But they’ve upped the anti again haven’t they with Akrham City? There are like, what, 15 villains? Rocksteady have even managed to squeeze in Calendar Man. CALENDAR MAN.
It reminds me a bit of Spider Man 3. You had the Sandman, New goblin and Venom. It just didn’t work with them all vying for screen time. Sandman, possibly one of Marvels greatest villains was entirely overshadowed by the fact the studio forced Sam Raimi to somehow implement Venom and all we ended up with was a emo Peter Parker.
Mat: They certainly have, although I’m yet to meet him. Arkham City is a pretty big place and according to the game’s plot it houses almost all of Gotham’s super criminals. Arkham City is utterly dripping with Batman lore and packed with characters, but not all of these are central to the story. You’ll come across plenty of incidental characters, some of which even open up side quests and extra plot lines, but they’re not all integral to the core game. They’re not all supposed to be, much in the same way that it didn’t matter if you solved the Riddler puzzle that allowed you to find Calender Man’s cell in Arkham Asylum.
I honestly think one of Rocksteady’s problems is that they’re incredibly good at what they do. They know how to craft a villain. Even Penguin, much maligned in the Dark Knight’s cinema outings, is an incredibly convincing character in Arkham City. A really nasty piece of work and a formidable foe. But the problem with Arkham City is that it has no problem with pushing along the story to the next villain. I’m just a handful of hours into Arkham City so far but have already got my hands on two playable characters and met 5 or 6 villains. None of them are weak characters or a chore to interact with, but that makes it harder to leave them when the game whisks you off to the next part of the plot. My first thought whenever I leave a particular villain is that I wonder if and hope they’ll appear again later in the story. Right now I don’t know the answer to that regarding some of the more interesting characters, which is playing on my mind a little. But I guess that’s one of the great incentives to keep pushing on.
Cinema is a little different, I believe. Arkham City is a far broader experience than a 2 hour movie, and therefore can accommodate much more going on to a certain extent. And lets face it, Spiderman 3 was just a crap movie, wasn’t it? With movies however I do certainly agree with you. A single antagonist is more often than not far more appealing. I believe one area that continues to divide cinema and the gaming industry is their respective abilities to focus on and build a truly engaging and fearsome villain.
Lewis: Absolutely, they definitely do a villain well and I think that is part of the problem. Because some of their villains are so good you don’t want to be whisked away into another part of the game so soon, as you know you might not see them again — that they’ve played their part — however small it may be. I think a lot of my problem with villains also stems from the fact that I always side with them and when I find one I love, I’d rather be playing the game as them or with them. But, and moving away from Batman, are there really many great villains in games? G-Man, Sephiroth and Wesker are the only three that immediately spring to mind for me and even then of those three only one strikes me as a serious figure. Sephiroth is almost a caricature of anime clichés whilst Wesker is for want of a better word, a prick. Some of Metal Gear Solids were good, especially Sniper Wolf and Psycho Mantis, but they too often played small disjointed parts.
Returning back to films, villains such as the Joker in The Dark Knight, or Sergi López as Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth or Don Logan in Sexy Beast are all fearsome, unhinged characters. Its agonising watching them on screen because although most are sure to have witnessed similar villains in the past, there is that sense you will never quite know where they will take you.
In games, it’s still all a little too predictable and I don’t think I’ve ever once witnessed anything surprising from a videogame villain.
Mat: It’s probably testament to Rocksteady’s ability to craft a decent villain that upon seeing Mr. Freeze for the first time, I didn’t immediately start screaming “Lets kick some ice!” and “Stay cool, birdboy” in a psuedo Austrian accent at the screen..
Creating a truly compelling villain is something that I think the industry struggles with in general. I think it’s fair to suggest that the Uncharted series probably leads the industry right now in terms of single player story telling and character development. I’m yet to play Uncharted 3, but Uncharted 2 was stunning in terms of cinematic presentation, with a narrative and love triangle more interesting than alot of movies I’ve seen recently. But the antagonists were crap, and eventually I think it dragged the experience down. Lazarovic was a walking cliché and the final showdown with him felt painfully awkward and out of place, not to mention at odds with the rest of the games pacing and combat. I think I would have enjoyed Uncharted 2 more if the last 30 minutes never happened. Unfortunately with video games, I’m finding that the rule rather than the exception.
Lewis: Rocksteady have definitely done a good job of rebranding the DC villains, that is for sure.
Le Chiffre in Casino Royale is a good example of a villain that the Uncharted series should be aspiring to. He’s relatively subtle as a villain, a puppeteer rather than bombastic or outlandish; I like that. Games and developers often feel the need to thrust villains into the spot light with a big boss fight that is entirely at odds with what the game is often trying to portray.
Sander Cohen and the final boss battle in BioShock are a prime example of one working significantly better than the other. Sander Cohen, or more the build up, was absolutely fantastic and then the last boss, reduced to nothing but a gun battle with some hulking plasmid abusing beast, was hardly inspired.
Mat: You went ahead and did it, didn’t you. You just had to go right on ahead and mention the Fontaine battle at the end of BioShock. I’ve only just finished a course of intensive therapy to remove that travesty from my mind. Cohen was amazing, though. The “Masterpiece” sequence is right up there with the Scarecrow and Psycho Mantis sections I mentioned earlier, actually.
You’re right, we seem trapped in this very videogame trait of needing to have an end showdown with something. Anything. I’d like to see videogames work to their conclusions as part of the natural progression of the story more, rather than building up to a fight where the game just says “ZOMG, KILL THIS DUDE NOW!”, sacrificing everything you achieved in the previous 10 hours in the process.
In terms of memorable videogame villains, I think I have to go back to Resident Evil 3 and the Nemesis monster. I spent the entire duration of Resident Evil 3 panicking about where and how he was going to appear. He was a true nemesis in every sense of the term, an almost unstoppable hulking mass of tentacles and T-Virus stalking you throughout the whole game. He would smash his way through the nearest wall when you least expected it, lurking out of the shadows muttering nothing but “S.T.A.R.S”, with the sole purpose and desire to kill you. At the time, I found Nemesis absolutely terrifying, and in terms of a singular focus to stop you as the player I don’t think he’s been matched since. Nemesis conjured up the same sense of pure dread and unstoppable terror as Schwarzenegger did in the original Terminator movie.
Lewis: Nemesis! Crikey, I completely forgot about him. Lets pretend the film never happened, but in game terms it really was a stroke of genius by Capcom. I suppose it compares a lot like the female Big Daddy in BioShock 2 who randomly turns up to cause you a serious headache and heart attack. The first time Nemesis arrives, bursting through walls or generally stomping his way towards you was completely terrifying. It all became a case of fight of flight, where he would drop valuables if you gunned him down to the point where he was forced to retreat. I don’t think Capcom have ever captured that magic since, it was such a simple idea that created a permanent tension whilst being a mini-boss at the same time. The game still approached it with the attitude of “ZOMG, KILL THIS DUDE NOW!” eventually, but there was still a minor choice along the way.
Thinking about it, I can’t remember a single boss or villain in a video game that was settled by anything other than a sword, gun, fisticuffs or <insert appropriate weapon here>. I’m not even a fan of these controlled encounters in games such as Demon Souls or Zelda where there is a repetitive method through scenery interaction or the weaken/expose/punish/rinse-repeat approach. I’d much rather see a villain see his comeuppance from your actions throughout a game, rather than a climax encounter.
Mat: Haha, sure. If you’ve never seen Sony’s conference unveiling the PlayStation 3 in 2006, make sure you watch it at some point. “Hit the glowing orbs for maximum damage!”. “Giant enemy crabs!”. Hilarious, and exactly what we’re on about here. Resident Evil 5 was particularly shoddy for this as well actually, just as an example of how different that is from the highs of Resident Evil 3′s Nemesis or even the Tyrants and Mr. X from Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2. Wesker is pretty much an embodied summation of everything that’s gone wrong with Resident Evil as time has gone on. Mysterious, dangerous and intimidating in the first game. Comedy character by the fifth.
I just can’t think of any other videogame villains that come close to being as iconic as say, Darth Vadar or The Terminator. I don’t know if that’s because cinema has already beaten gaming to the punch with most of the ideas about what brilliant antagonists are about, or if it’s just because our relatively infant industry is still trapped in old habits such as climax boss battles and “end of level” encounters.
Lewis: The key question here though Mat, after all our talk; who is your favourite video game villain?
Mat: Bowser. No question.
Nah, maybe Nemesis I guess. Like I mentioned above, in terms of the actual point and role of a gaming villain, I don’t know if another character has fulfilled that role in the way that Nemesis did. He’s got an awesome jacket as well.
Lewis: I think mine would have to be Le Chuck or Sephiroth though I don’t think I’ve ever had such hatred for a character as Sephiroth, he is also quite possibly the coolest villain ever in a video game. White hair, padded shoulders, black trench coat and impossibly long sword? Awesome.
Mat: Is “impossibly long sword” a euphemism?
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