How to establish a villain as a serious threat?

Your favourite type of villain/antagonist?

  • Pure evil through and through

    Votes: 4 11.1%
  • Evil, but with a backstory to back up their actions

    Votes: 19 52.8%
  • Misunderstood

    Votes: 1 2.8%
  • Rival

    Votes: 2 5.6%
  • Force of nature

    Votes: 1 2.8%
  • Other...

    Votes: 9 25.0%

  • Total voters
    36

Milennin

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I've been thinking about methods on how to make players consider the villain(s) in a game as a serious threat, and not just as a random NPC with an evil looking sprite graphic that's forgotten about the moment they leave the screen. What are effective ways of making a villain leave a mark in the player's mind after their appearance? It doesn't necessarily have to be the main bad either, side villains also do count.

(also adding a poll for the sake of it, feel free to vote if you like...)
 

Redeye

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Have them kick the protagonist's butt. Multiple times. Maybe even throw in a few casualties. A villain's actions is everything, and there's nothing more intimidating than an antagonist that actually has a chance to succeed (or even better, an antagonist that actually DOES succeed, and now you must find a way to undo or lessen the damage).

If the villain isn't physically powerful, then they can also be socially powerful, like a villain who has the power to turn your allies into enemies through the power of rhetoric (or mind control, I guess). Villains that have an entire organization or populace in their clutches, and can turn the protagonists into Public Enemy #1 with the snap of a finger.
 
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bjorn56

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I mean there's a bunch of ways to establish a villain as a threat but it really boils down to the tone of the story and the type of character you're villain is. if your villain is a murderer then have him kill someone we know to be strong in the story or have him come after the protagonist near the beginning of the story. that last one works best if your hero barely escapes. If your villain is a nice guy in a bad circumstance or something, it's a bit trickier to make him imposing. You could have him beat someone strong near to death or have them go through a dangerous place without flinching or some such thing. again, it really changes based on the type of story.
 

Meowsticks

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Depends on how you want the villain to be portrayed. Probably one of the easiest ways to make a villain a threat is for them to destroy/kill something/someone close to the protagonist. There's a reason the whole "hero's hometown gets burned down!!" is a trope, because it easily and instantly makes the villain an imposing threat (maybe not as much nowadays, but back then...).

If you want want a physically imposing villain that players will remember and hate just seeing, then as mentioned prior have them beat you, again and again and again. Nobody likes to lose, so getting your butt kicked but some person multiple times will make them seem like a big threat and get the player to really want to finally one-up them.

If you want a villain that's more imposing than actually physically strong, have them disrupt your party in ways that cause big issues. They keep sending minions that holding you back, they keep blocking your path and preventing and forward progress. The villain hasn't technically attacked you, but their presence is know and you are raring up to finally give them their comeuppance.

Above all else, to really make a villain stand out and be remembered by the player, you need to make their presence a consistent thing. The easiest way to make a villain feel unthreatening is to see them once at the beginning, then never see or hear from them again for half the game. They need to a constant thorn in your side, always reminding you they are there. Even if they don't interact with the party in general, the player should be aware that the villain is there, scheming. That's just my take on it though.
 

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In a general sense, have the villain win some. For instance, the heroes have some quests or story arcs they go on and even though they successfully advance the story, the villain manages to thwart the thing they were attempting to do. A good villain makes you hate them so that when you finally do defeat them, it feels good.
 

TheGentlemanLoser

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I voted "Other" and I thought I'd specify:

Have them immediately kill off a character that

a) has been established as a badass
b) that the player has grown to like

only works in games with an "anyone can die" approach to the story.

My villain stole the entire town's underwear.

I defy you to be more Evil than that!

And talk about Motivation ...

Sorry.

Carry on.
so...

Phase 1. Collect underpants
Phase 2. ???
Phase 3. Profit
?
 

Rodak

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so...

Phase 1. Collect underpants
Phase 2. ???
Phase 3. Profit
?

It's complicated.

But you did remind me that I voted and didn't explain!

I said Evil - with a back story, but didn't mention the obvious point is that the back story has to be revealed slowly.

Like in the above example, it was an Underwerewolf who stole the town's underwear, but the trail becomes convoluted and 4 or 5 quests later (each revealing more about the Ultimate Villain) they finally find out it the Evil Doctor Denton behind it all because he was upset that the underwear he designed fell out of fashion.

Basic storytelling stuff. Build it up, then make potty humor jokes at it (or whatever ending you may have in mind).
 

Trihan

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My favourite kind of villain is one who serves the narrative, in whatever form that takes.

The most effective way to establish a villain as a threat is to have them hinder the protagonist's journey in a way (or several ways) that can't immediately be overcome or undone. The exact nature of this hindrance largely depends on the kind of game it is. (they could fight the protagonist and demonstrate that they're significantly stronger, meet them at a social event and in private reveal their schemes and taunt the protagonist because they're in a position of power and can't be touched, etc)

In terms of "evil", I think it's best when an antagonist genuinely believes that their side of things is the right one: effectively, to them, the protagonist who's trying to stop their plan is the antagonist in their story, and they think themselves the protagonist of theirs. Villains who are evil for evil's sake are difficult to effectively write, and I can't really think of one that's properly pulled it off since Kefka.
 

TheGentlemanLoser

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profit.jpg


was gonna edit this into my last post but

a tried and true approach with videogames--especially jRPGs, jAnything really, like Megaman X did this--is to have the player lose to the villain in a scripted unwinnable fight near the start of the game, and then spend the game powering up for the rematch; like I said, it's a tried and true approach to videogame storytelling but I can't blame anyone who's sick of it by now as it's been done and done and done and done.
 

PixeLockeT

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I tend to like super evil villains, who believe in their causes. Zophar from Lunar 2 for example, who doesn't have a crappy sappy backstory, but his personality shines and he has the social prowess to back it up. My husbando Mordegon-sama, although he has backstory origins, is imposing not because you see him multiple times, but because you hear of his exploits - he charms, he is able to run entire kingdoms for years under the guise of good while bringing them to ruin, he is a master at manipulation, he is patient and adamant in his beliefs and goals, and he also rules the world for a time.
 

Cythera

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*cracks knuckles* Alrighty, here we go! :ywink:
I love writing antagonists. They are arguably the most important character you will ever write in your game/book/movie/what have you. Without a good opposing force, the protagonist has no reason to ever get better or improve. Plus, there's so little threat, all the characters feel flat to begin with.
Now, it also depends on the antagonist you want to make. If you want an evil brute that is scary and pure evil and there simply for people to hate and oppose, that's one thing. They will serve to be the villain and not the antagonist.
Let me put this simply - an antagonist is the protagonist of their own story. If you were to be playing THAT character instead of the protagonist/main party, you as the player would empathize with them, understand their goals, maybe agree with their goals.
That is scary enough in my opinion. When you begin to think, maybe the antagonist is right. When you start to sympathize with them.
But, if that's not scary enough for you, I also love the antagonist that is so far above the protagonist's level, they find the protag 'cute' or 'funny'. In the 'I am far stronger than you, and you still try to oppose me? Oh, that's adorable.' I'm not talking the tried-and-tired unwinnable battle (sorry...it is a tired trope...) but just a level of utter dismissal by the antag. The protag is so far beneath them, they're not worth the attention of the antag.
When an antag doesn't even take you seriously, you know you're small fry :3

To me, the scariest antagonist is one that is relatable, has reasons, one that may even be right in what they're doing. These are also great antagonists, as they could very well be protagonists if you were playing from their perspective.
 

ATT_Turan

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+1 for not doing the scripted losing battle. They always make me feel like I just wasted time: either I put effort into winning a battle the game said I couldn't, or I realized I couldn't win and had to sit through turns. Either way, take it out of the battle scene and make it part of your cutscene exposition.

As for the actual question of how to make them appear to be a serious threat...well, make them seriously threatening. I know it sounds circular, but it's what you asked :p Choose a thing that would make you think a person is dangerous and have them do it.

Kill off a village, including women and children. Have them send tax collectors to a town, knowing that it'll take the farmers to the point of starvation. Or sure, have them kill the main character's mentor (again). Kick a puppy and don't feel bad about it. Whatever fits the tone of your story.

While I certainly enjoy well-written examples of both kinds of villain, my preference is for people who are bad because they're bad. Yes, there's definitely room for the villain who has understandable reasons and could be his own protagonist...Darth Vader is awesome. But at this point, it's gotten almost overdone. There's nothing wrong with a villain who knows what he's doing is morally wrong and just doesn't care. If you go that route, it just has to be done in a believable way.
 

Basileus

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I think that showing off your villain in the game's battle system is an effective tactic, and one that's unique to video games as a medium. It doesn't have to be a scripted loss, but getting to actually see how you measure up to the villain in real terms is a good tool.

One of the reasons that lots of people remember Sephiroth is because we get to fight with him in the Nibelheim flashback. Cloud's stats are pitiful in that segment and the monsters are far stronger than even bosses from the Midgar prologue, so the player will be overwhelmed. But Sephiroth has higher stats than anything you've seen at that point, is casting magic far above anything you have, and is defeating those monsters in one hit. It's way more effective than just having people tell us how awesome he is. Even him killing off a popular character is arguably less effective at establishing his threat than that flashback sequence.

Personally, I'm not usually affected much by villains that are only cool during cutscenes. The story might say that the villain would destroy me, but I don't really respect a villain on a gameplay level until I have to. It's unfortunate that gameplay and story rarely align in RPGs, but it's fantastic when they do. If you can make a villain actually feel like something I might not be able to beat, then I would consider that much more powerful than just having the villain burn a town down during a cutscene.
 

Inksword

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Now, there's how to make your villain compelling within the realms of the story itself, but to make the player truly hate your villain you do have to target, well, the player. There's an archytipical problem in D&D and similar about the DM trying to get players invested in a storyline by killing a well-known NPC to be responded to with yawns, but the random pickpocket who accidentally grabbed the rogue's magic dagger off him gets hunted down with extreme prejudice and hate. It's because the NPC is just an npc, there's a lot of npcs and players have seen a lot of them die over the course of media consumption, but the equipment is THEIRS and it's not an affront to the character but to the PLAYER.

The villain hurting innocent people or burning down a town is a great reason for the characters to hate them, but a villain directly affecting the player's experience of the game is going to be a lot more motivating. Do they have a really cool piece of equipment? The villain steals it. Is there a party member that is a key to an easy early game strategy? Kill them. Are there enemies the characters have been steamrolling all game up to this point? Have the Villain cast a spell that powers them up and makes their life harder, or have them zap your godlike MC back down into mortal form as a story starter to the MC questing for their power back.

You can also do the reverse sorta, have the enemy use an powerful item that makes their boss-fight a PAIN and then have them run away. Give players have a chance to stop them from getting a second even more annoying item to deal with, or get the strong item on their own side. Motivating players through the mechanics and game experience is a vital tool that I think should be used more often. Sometimes you'll even see annoying or low-level bosses being far more hated than the grand evil mastermind of games, because of their personal interference with the player's progression, even if they're objectively a lot less evil or have a lot less screen time.

I'd argue this is one reason why Sephiroth killing Aerith in Final Fantasy was such an iconic moment. Aerith was not just a character, but also a really good member of your party with great equipment, powerful magic and even decent healing ability for that point in the game. I would bet a big chunk of players had her as a key part of their party (I did at least) and then had to rethink and rearrange the way they fought after losing Aerith. Every time a player thought "I wish I had Aerith for this fight" it's a visceral reminder of what Sephiroth did and I think helps simulate that actual care in the characters and is as close to sadness as you're going to get for some people who struggle to connect on an emotional level with stories in video games.

Now obviously you can go too far with this and have to avoid overusing it; you don't want to make the game unfun to play. Make sure there's still a viable strategy to fall back to, use it to help a difficulty spike that was intended anyways, but don't make the game a slog or unfun after they get their toys taken away or their stats reduced or whatever. If you kill off a player's horse to make the villain seem evil and take away fast-travel, you better make sure that slow travel is still fun.

It's a delicate balance to play, and not always one that will be taken in good spirits by your players. It's a tool to be used sparingly but I argue that pairing it with good in-story reasons to hate the villain will get the best of both worlds. I'm not arguing for sadism on the developers' parts, but a conscious knowledge that difficulty and mechanics can motivate players alongside the story.
 

Shikamon

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This remind me with Luca Blight of Suikoden II which I think as one of best antagonist / Villain in the JRPG. He is only mid-game boss but you clash him a lot in quite disadvantage moments as you will always underleveled when face him, that's why he feel so threatening. He is a truly evil but had a bit background story and you feel pity to him at the end of story.
You can still make them dangerous but still beatable. in Luca's case, you have to face him three times with different set party and lastly one vs one duel to end his life. his attack have huge damage and easily kill you if you're not careful enough.
 

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If you want to make a villain seem imposing, make sure the player comes across the result of the villain's deeds frequently - and make sure the player can really sense the hurt that was left in the villain's wake, not just a throwaway comment or two about how bad the bad guy is. You can see it happen, but you don't have to - often arriving to see the aftermath is pretty good. Having the villain hurt (but not necessarily kill) someone close to the main party is especially effective.
 

Testtubebaby

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I like a lot of what others have brought to the discussion here. There are some definite tried and true tropes, and there are obtuse or outright unforeseen ways to make a villain feel like a force to be reckoned with in your game.

There are a few different factors to take into account of course, such as "What is the goal of the main protagonist of the game?" Is the main protagonist a lawyer? A slime rancher? A dinosaur trying to survive? What are they trying to achieve? What sort of environment is the protagonist struggling in: political strife? Physical combat? Social stature? Lack of underpants? In order to make an effective antagonist, it's important to think about what would be considered a detriment to the protagonist. It would be easy to simply create a character that embodies this detriment, but would that make for compelling story telling?

Some of my favorite antagonist characters don't always start out as the antagonist, but are eventually driven to become the antagonist. Another scenario I like seeing is having an ally turn antagonistic due to their own personal vision or situation. It's a rare antagonist that I remember who starts out as the big bad and continues to be so, though that is not to say it can't be done well.

One way to think about it is to put yourself in the antagonist's position, and think about how the game's world would look from their perspective, or even how the game could play if the antagonist happened to be the real protagonist after all. (Plot twist!)

Give the antagonist personal goals that have more depth than "I wanna destroy everything because I'm angry/something happened/I don't like X". Having an antagonist that the player can connect with in some way is a surefire way to garnish investment in the character, and when a character is invested in, their actions have that much more weight, so that something that would typically be dismissed as an action caused by the "big bad" guy (such as killing someone) suddenly has a heavier impact. "Why would they do such a thing? This isn't like them... It's unforgivable!" This is only achievable through characters that have established connections with the player in some way.

With this sort of weight put into an antagonist, you can really deliver meaningful and impactful events that will really help to keep a player invested in the story, and the characters within.
 

Kyuukon

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Pure evil doesn't necessarily mean cliche (if done right).

My favorite villains of all times are Dio (from Jojo) and Meruem (from HxH). Pretty well done characters imho.
 

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