The 3 Types of Villains in Games

A few days ago I talked about my favorite antagonist in a video game. While my choice hasn’t changed, one aspect of Ghirahim I (purposefully) left out was that he isn’t the main villain in Skyward Sword. That role goes to Demise, as you know.

Image result for demise
With good reason.

So how could a villain who is not the main antagonist come across as such a fantastic example of a villain? The answer is simple: there are three kinds of villains that exist in video games (and other storytelling media), and Ghirahim and Demise fall into two very different categories. But before we start putting villains into neat, labeled boxes, let’s take a step back and talk about what makes a good bad guy.

Defining a Villain

Generally, villains are seen as the antagonist of a story, whose sole purpose it is to to have a negative effect on other characters. While villains can also be the protagonist of a story, for our purposes we are going to keep with the former idea of villainy. Villains also tend to set into motion the conflict that sets the hero/heroine on his/her quest, and defy the hero/heroine whenever possible, making reaching their goal as difficult as possible.

Image result for villain

To this description, I would add that a villain is the one who propels the story to its satisfying conclusion. Under this definition, I pose that there are only three types of villains found in stories: the evil villain, the flawed villain, and the impetus villain.

The Evil Villain

Evil villains are driven by hatred, greed, anger, and similar cruel desires. They stand alone and set up the problem of the story and bring it to its satisfying conclusion. Evil villains are, of the three types to be discussed, the most powerful. They create the beginning of the story, directly affect the middle, and propel us to the end. These types of villains are strong enough and powerful enough to stand on their own. Ganon from Ocarina of Time, the Reapers from Mass Effect 3, and even villains like Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty and Voldemort from the Harry Potter series fall into this category.

Image result for ganondorf

For example, Ganon from Ocarina of Time sets the main conflict of the game into motion, then causes Zelda to flee with Impa, and is powerful enough to create every single problem Link has to face without the help of anyone. He never loses his power during the course of the game, and so is able to single-handedly propel the game forward.

So Ganon – at full power – does not require help, but when he is weakened, for instance in Twilight Princess, he requires the help of an impetus villain to restore him to full power and propel the story to its conclusion.

TL;DR: An evil villain is powerful enough to begin a conflict and propel the hero through the entire story to reach a satisfying conclusion. Or, if the evil villain is not at full power, he or she is instead the driving force behind the scenes until the impetus villain (discussed below) is able to return the evil villain to full power.

So let’s take a look at these other villains.

The Flawed Villain

These are the villains that never intended to be villains. They are driven, not by greed or anger, but by some character flaw (e.g., fear, selfishness, arrogance, delusion). However, flawed villains, unlike evil villains or even impetus villains, display a certain amount of humanity. The audience knows part (or all) of their back-story and can claim an understanding of the “why” behind their actions. Flawed villains create the conflict in the story and propel the plot to a certain point, but are not able to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. Wander from Shadow of the Colossus is a fantastic example of this type of villain. He is driven to his actions out of love for Mono, which leads him to perform actions that set off a series of rather unfortunate events, but nothing was ever done with malicious intent.

Image result for wander shadow of the colossus

Another fantastic example of a flawed villain is Saren from Mass Effect. While I haven’t read the books based in the Mass Effect universe, his story from the game is compelling enough to discuss. Saren is a Spectre (or SpecTRe if you’re so inclined) who ultimately becomes indoctrinated by the Reapers and is the “bad guy” in the original game. But Saren’s actions aren’t driven by a desire for power, or revenge, or even a desire to destroy anything. The reason he acts how he does is because he wants to save organic life, and cannot see any other way to accomplish that other than by means that Shepard fights so hard against (how’s that for avoiding spoilers?). But, he is the vessel through which the “evil villain” Reapers are acting, since they are not yet at their full power.

But flawed villains are never enough to propel the story to its conclusion. In Wander’s case, Dormin could be seen as the impetus villain, enabling Wander to continue his journey and forcing the story to its conclusion. After all, if Dormin hadn’t completely corrupted Wander’s body, Wander would not have succeeded in his quest to revive Mono. And Mass Effect would have fizzled to its end without Saren working for the Reapers, only for the Reapers to step in and “help” Saren at the end, forcing Shepard to take on the Reaper threat instead of just dealing with a rogue Spectre.

TL;DR Flawed villains are the ones we can relate to the most, even if we don’t agree with their actions, because they are not driven by hatred or other negative reasons. Instead, they are often acting out of good intentions, although these intentions may, as the saying goes, pave the road to a rather awful place.

The Impetus Villain

The third and final type of villain is only seen when there is a flawed villain or a weakened evil villain, and that is the impetus villain. After the flawed/weakened villain sets the stage for the story and carries the plot as far as he/she can, the impetus villain drives the story to its satisfying conclusion. The impetus villain can also act on behalf of a weakened evil villain until said villain has regained power. There would also be no “happily ever after” without them (in stories that have these types of endings).

Image result for zant twilight princess

Examples of these villains are Ghirahim from Skyward Sword (to a point), Zant from Twilight Princess, and the robots from Mega Man, among others. For a non-video game example, Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast” would fit into this category, as well (with the Beast being a flawed villain).

TL;DR The impetus villain (often) doesn’t have the noble intentions of the flawed villain, either because they have been duped by the evil villain (e.g., Zant) or they have their own agendas that siding with the evil villain would fulfill (e.g., Ghirahim).

Since Ghirahim was the catalyst for this post to be written, let’s focus on him.

Piecing a Villain Together

Ghirahim has the characteristics of an evil villain: he is arrogant, power-hungry, and is constantly in Link’s way. He wishes to be greater than he is, and is the exact opposite of the virtuous Link. All symbolism of the Light vs. Shadow Link aside, Ghirahim is not the lone “bad guy” of the game. After all, it is the promise of Demise’s incredible power that has driven Ghirahim to his actions; his own power is not enough to succeed. For that, Ghirahim actually needs Link (an unwitting and unwilling accomplice) to release Demise in order to complete his goal.

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But Demise is not powerful enough by himself to push the story to its conclusion, either. He needs Ghirahim to constantly meddle in Link’s affairs (inadvertently making him more powerful), and challenge him to the grand penultimate fight of the game. Ghirahim even turns into the dark Master Sword that Demise wields during the final battle with Link. Demise would literally be void of a weapon without Ghirahim. And Link would not be driven to become more powerful or create what would become the Master Sword without Ghirahim’s meddling. So, without Ghirahim, not only would Demise not regain his power or have access to a weapon, but Link would not have been driven to become to hero Zelda needed. Thus, it is through Ghirahim’s actions that Link and Demise can meet for the ultimate battle, propelling the story to its satisfying conclusion.

Image result for demise's sword

 

Of course, many different villains can be described in many different ways, but these categories could be applied to almost any villain found in a story, whether it is a book, movie, or video game.

What do you think? Can we really streamline types of villains into three categories? How would you categorize Ghirahim and Demise? Who is your favorite villain, and where do they get sorted, based on these descriptions? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon,
~ Athena

PS Shout-out to The Shameful Narcissist: I’ve been pondering how to make this idea relate to video games for a long time, ever since we chatted about it!


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25 comments

  1. Of your archetypes. The flawed villain is alway the one I enjoy the most. I like the idea that there is a cause to their behaviours (that’s the teacher in me!) and that they aren’t just flat out bad. Straight evil villains don’t interest me as much as their drive is too simplistic. Give me purpose to that villainy!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Awesome article! I always learn so much here.

    I agree with your Demise and Ghirahim categorization. I do purpose a fourth category for Demise’s infant stages, The Imprisoned – “Just Plain Annoying” I also agree with you about putting Bowser in the flawed category. I think he would be the best evil dad ever!

    Keep dropping that wicked knowledge, o wise Athena! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wait, you haven’t read the Mass Effect books? For whatever reason, my brain just refuses to accept that as fact.

    I don’t really want to be That Guy, but since you raised the question at the end, I don’t know that I’m convinced you can categorize all villains into these three categories. You definitely can’t with antagonists, but from your inclusion of Wander in this list, I’m assuming you’re considering villains and antagonists to be fundamentally different. For example, where in this list would you fit the villains that are just mindless forces of nature, like Sin from Final Fantasy X? Or the Turks in Final Fantasy VII, who only oppose you because it’s their job? Would you consider someone like the Punisher a villain, who does some horrible things to people worse than he is? Or what about a character that opposes the protagonist simply due to being on the opposite side, without necessarily being evil itself.

    But I guess all of it does come back to what your definition of a villain is, which probably ties into what the definition of evil is, which is a whole philosophical discussion we could probably have all day.

    I don’t agree that a flawed villain can’t drive a work to it’s conclusion. It’s probably not as easy, sure, and most works in which the anti-villains pop up do have a straight villain there for contrast, but I’m unconvinced a strong anti-villain wouldn’t be able to carry the conflict on his own.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s because I knew what Kepesh-Yakshi was that one time 😉 Yeah, as much as I love Dragon Age and Mass Effect, I’ve never read the books. I hear they’re great, but I think I’m just wary that they’ll read like bad fanfiction. But maybe I should give them a chance!

      I’d love for you to be That Guy! You are always welcome to disagree, because it means we can have a discussion!! 😀 These categories might not fit every villain, and that’s fine, it just means I need to either be clearer or revise my thinking. To speak to your questions, I’d put “forces of nature” like Sin into the evil villain category, and the Turks probably would fall into a sort of “lesser villain” category in my mind, actually – more like minions. They don’t drive the plot at all; they just get in the way. The Punisher is someone I always thought of like an anti-hero, since he does bad things because of his backstory but his desire is to “punish”/hurt people, rather than like Wander who did bad things (dealing with demons) with good intentions (helping Mono/saving his girlfriend), but if I had to put the Punisher into a villain category I’d put him into the flawed villain one (if I’m thinking of the right person – he’s a vigilante whose family was murdered, right?).

      Any sort of philosophical difference driving someone’s actions would mean they were a flawed villain. I’m thinking of Loghain from Dragon Age: Origins (of course I am). The driving force isn’t the person’s desire to do things that hurt people, rather it’s his wildly different ideas that set off a chain of events and puts him solidly in the “main villain” position. So maybe instead of “evil” villain it should be “evil/main” villain or something like that. “Flawed villain” could also encompass certain antagonists, as well. My above definition of the word “villain” is pretty loose in that regard.

      Of course, who is a “bad guy” also depends on your point of view, as you alluded to. Ganon thinks he’s the hero, and to him, Link is the villain. So I think if we’re categorizing villains and heroes at all, we need to take a firm stand as to which “side” we’re viewing people from. In real life, I honestly don’t believe anyone would ever fall into the “evil” category, because there’s always a reason for their behavior. No one is ever Evil Incarnate.

      What do you think? Where would you categorize the people you mentioned? Do you have a flawed villain in mind that can drive the entire plot?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In large part, this reminds me of the whole “types of narrative conflict” discussion people bring up about books every so often, and I’ve always had a lot of disagreements with the categories there, too.

        My biggest problem with this was the thought that all villains fit into these categories. But I also have trouble with the distinctions between them. I think the lines between them, going by the titles, are so blurred that they’re almost not there at all. Almost by definition, villains are flawed characters, and plenty of them are evil, even if they’re not the leading villain. So you’re going to run into lost of Flawed Villains who are evil, and Evil Villains with character flaws. There’s also nothing stopping an impetus villain from being sympathetic or motivated by more than just the evulz, which would also make them a Flawed Villain.

        To describe how I’m seeing your categories here, which I’m sure I’m wrong in some way about so feel free to correct me, but by the way you’ve described it, the Evil/Main Villain would be a villain with a high degree of in-character agency, a very limited amount of sympathetic qualities, they have some sort of presence at all stages of the conflict, and being the leading villain automatically makes them the evil villain. The ‘flaws’ in a Flawed Villain are sympathetic qualities. If a villain has those, they’re a Flawed Villain, and Flawed Villains cannot be the leading villain in a work. Impetus Villains may or may not have sympathetic qualities, and are defined by their driving of the plot during periods in which the Evil Villain has reduced in-character agency.

        There’s a lot of villains that fall outside those categories. To answer the question about Flawed Villains that drive the plot the whole way through an individual story, the X-men’s Magneto is the easiest example. Nearly any antagonist in a story centered around sports or other non-combat competitions. The Grand Master, from the Witcher. Main Villains may not necessarily see the action the whole way through, as evidenced by Saints Row 3, in which the leading bad guy was completely inconsequential throughout the entire first act. The Impetus Villains don’t require that the Main Villains even have reduced agency. In fact, more often then not in video games, I think villains that temporarily drive the plot arise because the Main Villain’s attentions are elsewhere other than the hero, rather than because they’re weakened or too flawed to drive the plot. Or, going further beyond the definitions here, there’s games like Starcraft, in which the adversaries are groups of people as much as they are any individual character, and you end up with organizations driving the plot. Or there’s the villains who may not have any redeeming qualities, but they don’t drive the plot themselves, and thus wouldn’t fit anywhere on this spectrum.

        And that’s not even getting into other types of conflict, which you don’t see as often in video games as in other media because games just work better when you have someone to fight.

        As far as the characters I’d mentioned, Sin would be a Main Villain for me, but I find Sin itself to be too mindless to consider particularly evil. I wouldn’t really consider Jecht a villain at all, since he has no control over himself in that state. I don’t think the Turks fit cleanly into any of those categories, as they’re evil, but not the main villains, never the primary driver of the plot on their own, and aside from being likable they’re not sympathetic, although I do see the Narcissist’s logic in that front. So yeah, more like minions. The Punisher is not a villain to me, but neither are the Beast or Wander, although I haven’t played enough Shadow of the Colossus to know how deep he’s into all of it. And yeah, that’s the right character you’re thinking of.

        So yeah, thinking of these categories as ‘some of the types of villains’ rather than ‘these are [i]the[/i] types of villains’ works better for me. The villain is such a basic building block of a narrative, and it has become incredibly broad over the past several millennia or story-telling. I find these categories too narrow to convincingly capture the spectrum of villains out there.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. And that’s fair! These are certainly three types of villain archetypes, and there is obviously a lot of details that I could have added and didn’t, so that’s shame on me for not taking into account all the nuances that today’s villains have. As our societal views of good and evil shift, these categories will definitely become less defined and/or will need to incorporate more characteristics, so I’m glad you pointed those out.

          You definitely have a handle on the thought process behind my categories. I’m confused about the sports games, though. I never really thought of an opposing team as a villain, or even “fighting games” that pit two players against each other. I just saw them as professional competitions, so they are excluded from needing a villain, as a desire to “win” is what drives the game forward. I also never found Magneto to be particularly sympathetic, but I understand the point you were making. But I do agree that the main villain might need an impetus villain because they are attending to other things, and not necessarily because they are weakened.

          I think you make some very good points, so I might revisit this in the future. I still think these are the main categories villains fall into, but obviously my descriptions need to be a little tighter!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. That’s one of my favorite things about storytelling, though. As soon as you try to set rules for it, someone’s going to make something great by breaking those rules. It happens with everything, every feature you look at. Art is just not a thing that you can put lines and limits on. Doesn’t mean that having rules or categories doesn’t help your understanding of it, but there’s always exceptions. I may disagree with them, but if these categories further your understanding, more power to you.

            And hey, thanks for being open for discussing this. I enjoyed this debate.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Likewise! I’m always happy to discuss topics 🙂 I’m a therapist during my day job, so I’m not much for hard and fast categories for people, either. This was just a fun little idea banging around in my head, so I ran with it!

              That’s what I like about the arts… it’s about always looking forward and thinking about not only what *is*, but what *could* be.

              Liked by 1 person

    2. I think is complicated since Sin always has to take over a person, so the actual “thing” that Sin is is an evil villain since it’s the driving force behind the story, but the person taken over is a flawed villain like Jecht. I’d say the Turks are impetus villains, and I’d say more about FFVII, but it’s pretty much all I’m going to talk about in my own comment hehe.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Interesting article. I try fitting one of my favourites, Darth Vader into one of these. At first I thought he was kind of a flawed villain, doing bad things but for good reasons, but then becomes an evil villain. But I think tracing his journey through the movies, he never really shows a lust for power and greed, just consumed by hate. But ultimately still a good person. I thought he almost made the trip between flawed to evil and then back. But it could be argued he is just flawed the whole time.

    definitely agree with your analysis of Demise and Ghirahim. Ghirahim is ultimately a catalyst for Demise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Darth Vader is an interesting one! I’d probably put him into the flawed villain, as well, and put the Emperor into the “evil” category… I agree with your analysis, and it’s definitely possible he switched between villain types as his character developed.

      And thanks. Glad you liked the thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh my god so much yes. I’ve already bookmarked this, and I’m going to refer to it many times in the future. It’s going to help out my oldest argument from the most virulent detractors, because now I have someone with a Ph.D (or soon to have) to fall back on to support hehe.

    Sephiroth from FFVII is a flawed villain, which is something I always knew, and I’d put sympathetic villains into the same category as flawed. We sympathize with them because they became villains through that flaw. Since humans are inherently flawed, the flawed villain is the one we can most connect with since “but for the grace go I.” I’m toying with the idea of who or what is the evil villain of FFVII, because I want to say both Jenova and the Shinra (the company that the fore mentioned Turks work for). Jenova is an alien entity that feeds off the life energy of planets. It also infects living organisms with its DNA mutating them and also taking bits of them into itself (I’m almost certain Squeenix was inspired by both Alien and The Thing). It mimics your loved ones in order to get to you, and Sephiroth’s real mother was injected with its DNA when she was pregnant with him so he was augmented in utero so that he could become the most perfect super soldier ever. There’s no Sephiroth without Jenova, but the Shinra Corporation is the one that dug Jenova up and used it in order to gain more power. But…since it’s an entity that deals in mind control, there’s no telling whether or not this was its plan all along, and this is where I start thinking of indoctrination, because it gets into your mind and makes you do things. But humans are also greedy and power hungry. The corporation could’ve acted on its own to pave their way to power, but whenever mental manipulation is brought into a narrative everything comes into question. Sephiroth became the conduit through which Jenova could go about its eternal task or devouring worlds, so in a way he was like Saren. Of course it’s possible for people to have desires and for something like that to hinge onto your desires until you don’t know where you end and its will begins.

    But ah thank you so much for this. Though I can still see people arguing with me that he’s an evil villain. In terms of the main character, his goal is to find Sephiroth, though he’s working for people whose goal is to stop the Shinra, and though Sephiroth is the final boss (kind of), he’s not the catalyst for the full and true events of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! Well, technically it’s a master’s degree.. I haven’t gone for my PhD yet, so I guess you can take my writings with a grain of salt now 😉 But I’m glad you like the breakdown. Like I was saying to Aether, the titles and maybe some of the descriptions could use a little work, but I’m glad the outlines of how antagonists/villains can be categorized makes sense!

      I’ll agree with you on Sephiroth based on the logic of your argument (since I don’t have personal experience to go off of! haha), and if a character has been brainwashed or indoctrinated, it’s not really fair to say that *they* organically are evil. Sigh… mind control really does complicate everything, doesn’t it?

      Of course, analyze any villain and there’s usually a “reason” for their actions, but I think when analyzing villains in stories a lot of times we need to just look at the canon information that’s been presented to us, otherwise (again, I think I said this somewhere else) no one would ever really fall into the “evil” category.

      Anyway, I’m glad this helps your argument about Sephiroth, and am flattered you’d like to use the information in the future 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Still! I’ll take the word of someone with a masters and whose words I’ve already read so I know the value/validity. I was going for my MA in English, but alas life got in the way.

        Your breakdown makes perfect sense, but I do love categorizing things with some wiggle room. The biggest argument with Sephiroth is whether or not he was brainwashed, which is what the detractors tend to go with, but when you go from wanted to retire from the company that “created” you and forced you to be a soldier and wanting nothing more to do with any of it to deciding you’re going to become a god after an encounter with an alien entity you were told was your mother by your horrible scientist father who experimented on you to make you what you are, well that raises some questions lol.

        I think it comes down to what the average person would do/can relate to. With Ganon, it’s hard to relate to him as a person because he pretty much just wanted power for the sake of power, but take a character like Mr. Freeze from the Batman animated cartoon (boy am I dating myself here hehe) and people can relate to that. He was trying to save his wife, and the real bad guy, some rich stuffed shirt pulled the plug on the treatment that would also dooming Mr. Freeze to needing to live in a cold environment. That episode always stuck with me because it was one of the first times I saw a sympathetic villain.

        We could get very philosophical about the “evil” category if we delve deep enough. There’s always some circumstance that causes someone to feel they’re owed more than they have. It opens the doors for some fine debates though.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. See, so you almost have a master’s… you’re just as much of an expert as I am! haha

          It’s hard, especially now, because we look so closely for “reasons” behind actions. For said master’s, I wrote a comparative paper about the depiction of the Wicked Witch of the West in the original Wizard of Oz (the musical, not the book) and Wicked (the musical, not the book). The central hypothesis was that there was once a clear divide between “good” and “evil,” and some people were just “evil.” But society’s views shifted, and so did how we portrayed the “Wicked” Witch. Who is called “evil” nowadays? (and people actually believe that to mean, you know, evil like a demon)

          Even Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time… he would have been the Gerudo leader during the Hyrulean Civil War, and now he was forced to pay homage to his conqueror. So he was a little nuts to begin with, and then revenge set him off onto his evil path, if we’re going that way. (Oh, look. There’s a rabbit hole. I think I’ll fall down it).

          I know Mr. Freeze! haha I wasn’t ever really in to Batman, but my brother was so… yeah. It only takes one or two details for people to start to empathize.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I know *technically,* but in my head I’m a little annoyed at myself for not completing it even though my reasons were sound. I’ve definitely written enough to have one at this point lol.

            I think the breakdown of binaries is integral to understanding how they came about. When you think about Wizard of Oz, Dorothy was technically a foreign invader who killed the witch’s sister and stole her property/inheritance. They were her sister’s shoes! Technically, the witch had every right to be angry and try to get them back. I haven’t read or seen Wicked yet. I want to read the book, because I love things like that, and I adored Maleficent. Originally, she was pissed because they only had 12 golden plates, so could only invite 12 of the kingdom’s fairies to the princess’s Christening or something like that. She was the 13th fairy who was left uninvited, and she was quite put out. Disney, well, Disneyfied it to make her more evil, but I enjoyed the live action movie insofar as the symbolism around the loss of her wings and how she came to care for the princess.

            Down the rabbit hole we go!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Hey, any education is something that no one can take away from you.

              And maybe I’ll send you my essay one day. It’s pretty terrible and I want to expand on it, but it’s a good start 😉

              i know, there are so many details that are forgotten, and they really change how we picture the villains. Maleficent is a fantastic example of this! (and also a great movie)

              Liked by 1 person

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