There are many aspects of story and characters that can go a long way to making an RPG truly great, or truly terrible. It’s important that there be creativity, that the setting be interesting, that the protagonist be compelling, that the story be purposeful, and so on and so forth. Lots of factors contribute or detriment an RPG’s overall quality depending on how well they’re written, and one of those factors is most definitely the major villain of the work. Unfortunately, just like believable and touching love stories, really good villains are unusually uncommon in this genre. Even most of the good games manage to get by without compelling antagonists, by virtue of their other good qualities--Final Fantasy 7 and Disgaea 1 come to mind, as examples, though there are certainly many to choose from.
Nonetheless, RPGs have had their share of really excellent villains, and those villains have always greatly enhanced the game they’re in. Fou-Lu was one of the comparatively few memorable parts of Breath of Fire 4, The Transcendent One provides a thematically perfect climax to the utterly incredible Planescape: Torment, and I dare say that Darth Traya is responsible for 50% of the overwhelming excellence of Knights of the Old Republic 2’s writing.
There’s all kinds of ways to make a villain great, memorable, iconic, a powerfully positive part of the plot. Sometimes it’s as simple as look, attitude, and generally foreboding menace. Darth Vader, for example, did eventually get some backstory in the second and third movies of the original Star Wars trilogy, but even as an entirely unexplained bad guy in the original Star Wars, he was an iconic villain. Sometimes it’s having the villain properly reflect the hero’s nature, the way most of Batman’s foes represent the dark side to aspects of his own personality, or likewise having the villain represent and/or reflect the themes and purpose of the story, like Cato in The Hunger Games. Sometimes it’s having a villain whose fall to evil you fully understand and can even sympathize with, such as Demona from Gargoyles. And so on and so forth--there’s a huge number of ways to really make a villain work well.
One thing that really, really helps, though, is something that not nearly enough RPGs seem to understand: giving the game’s major villain(s) enough screen time. Too often, the villain of an RPG is kept out of the player’s sight for almost the entirety of the game, only showing up to twirl his/her metaphorical mustache menacingly and prove his/her evil by doing naughty things for a few minutes before vanishing again. Sometimes it’s not even that much--the 10 Wise Men of Star Ocean 2 are the masterminds behind all the major problems of the game, yet if you don’t count the actual boss battles against them, I’m not sure all of them put together have even a full 15 minutes of screen time over the course of a 40+ hour game!
Some RPG villains manage to be pretty decent despite this lack of screen time. Saren from Mass Effect 1 is as much an “only shows up to remind you that he’s there and a bad guy” villain as the next guy, but he’s got just enough characterization during those moments and just enough of a tie to the theme of “struggling against impossible odds for freedom instead of giving in to slavery in order to survive” to come out in the end as a decent villain. The Sinistrals of Lufia 2, as another example, manage to pull off the role of epic deities of destruction just well enough that it’s not significantly detrimental that they only actually show up here and there, and we more or less never see anything of note on their end.
Still, as a general rule, a villain with the qualities necessary to be great will only live up to that potential greatness if those qualities have their proper time to shine. I think an excellent example of this is Loghain, from Dragon Age 1. Now, Loghain is a very well-crafted individual, with easily understandable motives and paranoias guiding his villainous actions throughout DA1’s plot, who has many good qualities and good intentions that are interesting to learn of and make him a character with real depth, even if they do not outweigh his evil deeds. But, you’ll never know practically any of this throughout the course of Dragon Age 1 if you let him die during the Landsmeet (as, I would think, most players do, and as I do with my “true” playthroughs). It’s only if you choose to spare Loghain, and sacrifice Alistair’s friendship (and possibly life), that Loghain joins your party and has a chance through his dialogue with the main hero to become known, to explain himself and show his true nature and facets of personality. That’s why he makes such a good example of what I’m talking about. Play the game one way (the more common way, I should think), without knowledge of how it goes otherwise, and to you, Loghain is a fairly basic, unexceptional villain--not bad, has a little characterization by reputation, but ultimately there’s very little to him and he just moves the plot along as needed with his nefarious ways. But, play the game the other way, give Loghain the time on screen to capitalize on the depth of his character by conversing directly with the player repeatedly, and you suddenly have a very, very well-crafted villain who fulfills his role in a particularly human way, and fits interestingly into the setting of the game.
As another example, I have no doubt that Kreia (AKA Darth Traya) of Knights of the Old Republic 2 would have been a noteworthy villain either way, but compare her to the character of Ravel Puzzlewell of Planescape: Torment. Both are incredibly fascinating characters, both villains in a way that is ultimately for the greater good of the one they care most for (The Nameless One and The Exile) and even the greater good of the universe itself, in some ways. Both are masterfully wise and engrossing to listen to. Both are characters written by Chris Avellone, who is basically a living god of RPG writing. While certainly distinct characters from one another, there are certainly plenty of similarities between them. No one can say that Ravel Puzzlewell isn’t an incredible character and villain. Not without risk of getting punched in the face by me. But to me, Kreia far surpasses her.
The wisdom and insight of Kreia into the Force, people and their interactions with one another, the power of charisma and setting an example, the way one small act can snowball into a revolutionary action, the importance of striving for balance between the foolish old Jedi Order’s ways and the equally foolhardy ways of the Sith, the connection she forges with the protagonist, the way she manipulates people and destiny itself, the way she sets in motion the future of the galaxy so far that the effects of her actions are seen and felt even thousands of years later, in the actual Star Wars movies...it’s genuinely amazing, it really is. The thing is, you only truly understand all these facets of Kreia as a person and as a force of fate (and in some ways as the fate of the Force) is because you spend 4/5ths of the game in her company, listening to her words and watching her actions, and then that last fifth you spend pursuing her to try to stop her, so you’re sill seeing the effects of her machinations and encountering her as a force to be opposed. Kreia is a character of immense, utterly fascinating depth who has the time in the game to fully show that depth to us in all ways.
Ravel, on the other hand, is clearly a fascinating character as well, and might even be just as incredible a villain and person as Kreia, but in Planescape: Torment, we only ever meet a few of her shadows, hear a little of her actions, and meet her face to face a single time for a single conversation. And don’t get me wrong--the meeting with Ravel Puzzlewell is one of the many parts of Planescape: Torment that goes down in history as one of the RPG genre’s greatest moments. She only has one conversation, but it’s long, and it’s jam-packed full of intriguing character development, plot exposition, and great ideas and perspectives to think upon. As much as the writers do with it, though--and, again, they do a LOT with it--it still is only a single encounter for Ravel to be able to make herself known and understood. We can tell much about Ravel, be properly wowed by what a well-written, compelling character and villain she is, but even if she really does have the potential depth that she could match Kreia, she simply doesn’t have the time to fully explore that potential the way Kreia does, and so Kreia is by far the greater villain.
Giving a villain enough time on screen for the player to really understand them, even bond with them, just makes all the difference sometimes. Sure, we might have found Fou-Lu in Breath of Fire 4 to be an okay villain under normal circumstances, been able to at least take his word for it that the world he awoke to was populated by a pitiful, deceitful, and unworthy society of lower beings...but instead of just expecting us to accept Fou-Lu’s point of view on his word alone, Capcom took the time, had the good idea, to devote a significant amount of the game’s time to playing as Fou-Lu, showing us (instead of just telling us) his own journey and letting us see firsthand how the worst nature of people that he encountered shaped his opinion. It makes Fou-Lu not only a more complex and believable villain with a goal we can understand, but also a better counterpoint to the protagonist Ryu, who has on his journey experienced enough good and strong enough friendship that his point of view can justly be opposite.
And yeah, we would have been able to just go along with fighting an intangible evil force called Odio acting through some random corrupted knight named Orsted in Live-A-Live, but instead of just tossing Orsted at us and telling us “This is a villain, kill it,” Squaresoft gave Orsted a game chapter just as the rest of the cast got, wherein we see how Orsted became the fallen angel that we must oppose, how this innocent hero had everything, everything, cruelly taken from him by the dark side of humanity. By the time Orsted’s chapter concludes, he’s lost every good thing his life had, tangible and intangible, and it’s no wonder to the player that he gives himself over to evil.
And of course, there’s always Wylfred, of Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. As the game’s protagonist, the one you’re with from start to finish, it comes as no surprise that he’s also one of the greatest RPG villains ever, since he’s getting the time and devotion to character development that a game’s main character typically does.
Hell, a proper amount of screen time can even work wonders for bad guys who are more like forces of nature than actual characters. You know, big monsters of legendary badness, that sort of thing. I mean, look at Lavos from Chrono Trigger. Yeah, he doesn’t have any real characterization, and there’s no reason to consider him even self-aware. But he’s kept relevant throughout the game’s course--every major arc the story has to do with Lavos, from seeking to stop Magus because of the mistaken belief that Magus created Lavos, to the seemingly unrelated battle for humanity in 65 Billion BC turning out to be the time that Lavos first arrived on the scene, to the story arc involving the magical kingdom of Zeal, which feeds upon Lavos’s power and goes too far with it. In as much capacity that Lavos can exist as a character, he is kept important to the story, on the characters’ and player’s minds, and extremely significant to the game’s world. There are few moments in this game where the threat of Lavos is not being directly shown, reference, or addressed, and that elevates Lavos as a big bad monster villain way above peers of his like, say, Giygas in Earthbound or the evil Genie in Dark Cloud 1.
Of course, don’t get me wrong. A lot of screen time is not ALWAYS needed for a great villain. I mean, Luca Blight from Suikoden 2 is one of the most iconic, monstrously evil villains I’ve seen in an RPG to date, and he only got a regular small amount of time on screen in the game. He simply had the attitude and actions to really sell it. I definitely think that Seymour from Final Fantasy 10 and The Master from Fallout 1 are very good villains, and they didn’t get an abnormal amount of time on screen (Seymour gets some, but not a large amount). In their cases, their reason for villainy (for Seymour, the belief that death is kinder than an existence in the perpetually ravaged Spira, and for The Master, the belief that humanity is incapable and unworthy of surviving in the hellish wasteland it has created for itself and should be replaced with a more unity-minded and strong race of super mutants) is given weight by the time the player spends in the environment. We see firsthand just how miserable and regularly lethal life is in Spira, where the greatest hope people have is simply for a couple years’ reprieve from their tormentor (and it’s bad enough that they’re willing to sacrifice human lives for that reprieve), and in Fallout 1 we see just how much the world has been ruined by humanity’s actions, how difficult it is to live in this world, just by traveling across its endless wastelands. And Greyghast in Embric of Wulfhammer's Castle gets essentially no screen time at all, because he's not even alive for the events of the game (sort of), yet he's close to being as monstrously evil and horrifying as Luca Blight, because his evil is seen after the fact in the protagonist Catherine, who has memory-nightmares and clearly bears the mental scars that serve as legacy to Greyghast's evil. In these latter 3 cases, the game’s setting, other characters, and story themselves are aspects of the villain, an indirect way of familiarizing ourselves with the villain’s motivation and goals, and that works more or less as well as actually learning these things through more exposure directly to the villain.
And of course, a poor villain is a poor villain, regardless of how long the camera’s fixated on him or her. If the villain you’ve made just sucks on principle alone, then extra time is not going to help. Mithos in Tales of Symphonia is a whiny, irrational, thumb-sucking little turd. The writers made a shitty villain when they made Mithos, one whose motivations are embarrassingly bad, one whose plans are stupid and silly. Namco obviously wanted him to be a standard kinda-tragic-because-he’s-misguided sort of villain, your usual JRPG bad guy, but they failed big time. Every damn thing this self-important, mewling little jackass says is annoying and idiotic, and his existence even detriments the other characters of the game, like how he makes a major point of Genis’s character development the dilemma of choosing between Mithos, a dude who Genis has known for maybe an hour, and the friends and family he’s known all his goddamn life. Ugh. Anyway, Mithos is a sucky villain no matter how you slice it, so giving him a lot of screen time does not actually improve anything. The time Mithos spends travelling with the heroes is only more time for him to prattle on and annoy us further. A villain has to actually be WORTH the time for it to do anything good for him/her.
However, as a general rule, I’d definitely say that more screen time for a villain is a very good thing. The best, most interesting, most compelling villains of RPGs are very often the ones that the audience has had time to really become familiar with and understand, and really, it just makes sense that a character playing such a crucial role for your story, providing much of, perhaps all, of the obstacles for your heroes to overcome, to get a significant level of characterization. Sadly, most games are so caught up with developing and portraying the heroes of the story (not that there’s anything wrong with that! Heaven forbid I give that impression; if anything, the major characters in RPGs STILL often don’t enough proper development) that they seem to forget the importance of the villain as a character, and use them only as a necessary plot tool. If only more games could follow the examples I’ve mentioned above.