Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Princess' Heart's Missed Opportunities for Character Development

I just don’t know what to make of you, RosePortal Games. Every damn time I play 1 of your games, I get this vague but insistent impression that you want to include and address heavy, dark, real-world issues that rarely get as much attention as they should in this medium...and every single time, you thoroughly underwhelm me with a complete inability to portray these issues adequately, or actually do anything of significance with them. Or hell, even just tell a compelling surface-level story in the process!

I’ve made my complaints about Whisper of a Rose, and I’ve talked about how Sweet Lily Dreams failed to utilize its narrative’s structure. Well, I’ve just finished The Princess’ Heart, another of Roseportal Games’s creations, and so I’m here again. I know it must seem like I’m just picking on this developer at this point, but they just keep disappointing me in new ways! Or maybe it’s not new, so much as it is that with every additional RosePortal Games creation I experience, I realize another way in which their writing just doesn’t work.

Here’s the problem with The Princess’ Heart (and, frankly, it’s the same for Whisper of a Rose and Sweet Lily Dreams, though thankfully not quite as dire for them): RosePortal Games writes the way a fresh, inexperienced child does. You know that lesson you learn, early on in learning to write creatively, that you need to always keep in mind that your reader doesn’t know everything you do, so you need to make sure to show and describe everything adequately? The creators of The Princess’ Heart did not learn about this. They seem to assume that you’re simply going to intuit every nuance of their characters and the story’s heavier issues on your own. There’s no showing, there’s no telling. The majority of what you ever get to know about Princess Aerin, the protagonist, or any of her companions is surface-level personality stuff, nothing deeper or more complex.

Like, you learn that the priestess character had a past as a prostitute who sold her soul before she got religious, and it’s clear that Princess Aerin has a drinking problem. That’s about it. The rest of the cast are just 1-dimensional support dialogues in human form, you never get any details of why the priestess character sold her soul nor why she turned away from that life, and Aerin’s drinking problem just magically clears up between the game’s opening and its ending. I’m serious! The game opens with her launching a drunken attack on her prince boyfriend’s castle (clearly this is the red wine variety of inebriation), she briefly laments the fact that her boytoy got mad at her for her drunken brawling, she gets put in one hell of a relaxed rehab that oddly has located itself right next to a demon’s tomb, and after she goes and makes a deal with said demon, she just walks the hell out of rehab - and that is the last you hear of her alcoholism until the end of the game, when she gives her boyfriend the happy news that she spontaneously doesn’t have a drinking problem any more.

I guess Alcoholics Anonymous has been doing it wrong all this time; that 12 Step Program is highly inefficient! They should be advocating the Princess Aerin 2 Step Method:

Step 1: Have a drinking problem.
Step 2: Don’t.

The whole “romance” of this game, if such it can honestly be called, is another example of this whole thing of RosePortal Games just assuming everyone can read their minds. Basically, it goes like this: at the game’s beginning, Princess Aerin and Prince Tommy are together, but Tommy has allegedly cheated on Aerin, and doesn’t seem especially fond of her, even considering that she’s been stomping around his castle causing a mess. He boots her out, Aerin’s sent to rehab. She walks out the door completely unimpeded so that she can go to a nearby demon’s crypt, and make a deal with said demon of desire, Izdul-Kalag, to make Tommy be in love with her. A quick fetch-quest later, she’s up 1 boyfriend and down 1 soul. Experiencing immediate buyer’s remorse, as one does, Aerin goes on a quest to find a way to renege the deal and get her soul back, joined by her friends/employees, as well as an irritated priestess, a randomly promiscuous catgirl ship captain, an optional fairy party member that you goddamn better get because this game’s battles and bestiary aren’t designed well enough for you to go without her, and Tommy, who is madly in love with Aerin because he’s under Izdul-Kalag’s curse. Finally, at the end of the game, the deal is undone, Aerin’s soul is saved, and Tommy is free to hem and haw just a bit before he decides that he actually does super-duper love Aerin, and they get back together. It will work this time, the game tells us, because Tommy and Aerin have grown as people and are now more ready for a serious relationship.

...When? How? Exactly what was it that happened to make this true? Tommy was hypnotized the entire game’s course; at what point did he have a chance to mature as a person? In terms of his actual, real consciousness, he’s jumped straight from maybe cheating on Aerin at the beginning of the game to being woken up and told he’d been brainwashed for a while. Even if we buy the idea that he has had an epiphany about his feelings for Aerin, he hasn’t had time to develop himself! And when did this maturation happen with Aerin? She made a bad deal and spent the entire game trying to get out of making good on it. Trying to save your soul from a demon isn’t growing as a person, it’s basic self-interest! RosePortal Games clearly has this idea of what Aerin has learned from all this and how she grew along the way, but all they’ve actually shown us is a story of solving a contract dispute with violence!

Take what’s in your head and put it in your game, RosePortal!

Of course, there are also plenty of opportunities for this to have been an interesting game with compelling character dynamics and personalities, and a more standard failure to take advantage of any of them. Aerin’s party includes a long-time friend and a knight with a long history of service to her and her kingdom - but do you think either of them ever engage her in a real conversation about her problems, her relationships, what she’s done and is doing? Aerin flat-out murdered multiple guards during her drunken rampage at the game’s beginning, and her own knights who she ordered to assist her were executed afterwards for their part in the matter - but do you think she ever spares even a single line of text on any guilt or regret for the fact that she’s responsible for the death of these innocent men? Tommy is mind-controlled by Aerin’s deal with a demon into being madly in love with her for the rest of the game until the curse is broken at the end - do you think the staggering immorality of this situation is ever discussed or even acknowledged by anyone in the cast, beyond a single scene of Aerin gloomily acknowledging that Tommy’s current ardor is not authentic? The catgirl pirate that later joins the party makes a pass at Aerin - do you think Aerin responds in any way to a situation in which someone showed an interest in her without the coercion of a Faustian pact? Aerin’s friends are cursed by the demon that she sells her soul to simply by the fact that they’re in the same room with her when it happens - do you think any of them ever shows a natural resentment towards her for the fact that their souls are in danger because of her selfishness?

No. The answer to all of these questions is No. Because taking the slightest narrative advantage of the scenarios that they themselves have created would require the developer to be paying attention to its own work, and RosePortal Games writes The Princess’ Heart with all the care and presence that a motorist puts into driving while he carries on a text conversation on his phone.

The game can’t even make good on the character development it outright promises you. There’s a point in the game in which Princess Aerin finds out that, in order to save her soul from Izdul-Kalag, she has to confront the other 4 demons of the world, because there are parts of herself and her past that tie her to each of their domains over the negative aspects of the human mind and heart. It was at this point that I perked up and had my hopes renewed, because let’s face it, even if it’s a common narrative tool, you really can’t go wrong having your protagonist confront literal manifestations of the demons of their past and the dark parts of their soul, right? Finally, we’d get a chance to delve into the theoretically troubled psyche of Aerin, make her more than just a shallow, petty NPC who accidentally got the role of protagonist. This was where it was all going to turn around!

It astounds me, sometimes, that even after 30 years of experience with bad RPGs, I can still be so incredibly stupid.

You wanna know how the confrontation for each of these demons goes? You walk up to a coffin, Aerin warns you that you’re about to get into a boss battle, you acknowledge that this is intentional, the priestess in the party tells you the demon’s name and what sin he/she represents, you have a boss fight, you win, and you leave. That’s it. There is quite literally no more narrative involvement in this confrontation against a demon who represents the sins blackening Aerin’s soul than there is with a random forest bandit encountered earlier in the game. Aerin walks up to the manifestation of her own mortal failures, she hits it a few times, and she leaves, absolved of its claim on her. The game dropped the bombshell that Aerin’s soul is rife with the sins of all demons, it tells you she’s going to have to confront each demon and overcome its hold upon her and purify herself, and the sum total result is 4 utterly silent boss fights neither preceded nor followed by even a single line of monologue from Aerin about the matter. For this level of not even trying to deliver on what’s been promised, you usually have to get Todd Howard involved!

Just once, I’d like to play a RosePortal Games title that’s good. Or even just average! This is getting really tedious.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

General RPGs' "Losing" Battles

You know what I’ve always found to be really annoying? The--what? Oh. Yeah, I guess I have always been irritated by how hard it is to find an oatmeal cookie that hasn’t been poisoned with raisins, now that you mention it. Good point.

What I was gonna say, though, is that thing in RPGs where you can win a battle with ease, but because the plot demands it, the story acts like you just survived the fight by the skin of your teeth, or the enemy didn’t actually get damaged, or you’re gradually losing ground, or something.

Like, remember during Dragon Age 2’s finale, if you sided with the mages like a decent human being, there’s this battle where you and your allies are holding off an advancing invasion of templars in a large temple room? When I was playing through that, I had an archer-rogue build on my protagonist so incredibly broken that I was killing enemies faster than the game could keep track of. No, I’m serious--Hawke’s shots were so powerful that when each instant-death arrow hit an enemy, there’d be a pause between the damage being displayed and tallied up, and the enemy actually dying from it, a pause greater than the time it took for Hawke to shoot another arrow. My archer Hawke was so obscenely broken that I had to manually select every target for her because she’d be firing another killshot before the game could even realize she should be moving on to a new enemy. The rest of the party could’ve taken a break and had a mid-battle picnic, and everything would’ve been just fine.*

And yet, in spite of the fact that these enemies were basically dying before they’d even finished stepping through the doorway, I still eventually got interrupted by the inevitable cutscene in which Orsino loses his shit about how it’s a hopeless battle, and goes and proves what a stupid fucking hypocrite he is and what shitty writing the ending of this game had by doing his dumb necromancy nonsense. It’s like, bro, this fight earnestly could not possibly be going better for your side without ceasing to fit the definition of a battle!

Or how about all the times you very clearly win a boss battle, and yet afterwards the game acts like the bad guy’s fine and has been wrecking your party the whole time? Like that time in Xenogears when you fight Id in hand-to-hand combat. He’s not tough, even by standard Trying Too Hard Lame-Ass villain metrics. And yet, even though you can and probably are just steam-rolling this self-important little bitch-boi the whole fight long, when the battle’s over, the game acts like he’s still some dangerous threat going strong that needs a whole giant robot to subdue, even though for the last 15 minutes your characters’ fists have been extracting teeth from Id’s jaw like they want to pay off their student loans through tooth fairy bounties alone. Drives me crazy when games pull this shit, and RPGs do it all the time...hell, Xenosaga 3 overuses this frustrating trope so badly that, from a narrative perspective, its “heroes” actually lose the majority of the fights they get in!

What really drives me crazy is the rare occasion when the gameplay’s even set up in a way that, if the writers had actually given a shit about a cohesive narrative instead of just barreling through it solely as was convenient for them, they could have acknowledged the fact that the heroes of the game weren’t actually having any trouble with the battle in question.

You take Stella Glow, for example. There’s a part of the plot of SG in which the good guys launch an attack on the headquarters of their enemy at the time, Hilda. Things go south fairly quickly, and the heroes find themselves ambushed by Hilda’s goons, and have to fight their way through them. No matter how well the battle goes, though, the heroes still find themselves surrounded on all sides by their enemies, including any who were actually defeated in the battle. This is super annoying, of course, even more so if 1 of the goons you beat up in the battle was Dante, because he’ll be his usual smug jackass self in this scene even though he just got done getting beaten as if he’d wandered into Chris Brown’s aggro range. But what makes it more vexing is that Stella Glow has a monitoring system in place that rewards players for doing certain things in each battle, like getting the first strike, or, most often, not having any party member get KO’d. So the game already has a system in place which it can use to determine whether a player has done well enough to keep all characters alive throughout the fight, not to mention also keep track of which enemies are defeated during a battle (as defeating or not defeating certain enemies can sometimes be a part of these reward variables), there’s really no reason, on the technical side of things, that the game couldn’t have had an alternate scenario prepared for players who did well enough that the Stella Glow heroes were obviously not having any real problem.

Hell, it wouldn’t even have been hard from a writing perspective. Hilda only shows up halfway through the post-battle scene, so the writers could’ve just had a version like we see in the game, where protagonist Alto and his bunch are on the ropes, and a version where Hilda’s bunch are the ones in dire straits, but Hilda arrives with enough reinforcements that Alto’s team wind up in need to rescue all the same. You’d easily get from Point A to Point B as needed either way, and at least not make everything that occurred in the preceding fight narratively inconsistent.

I know that the battle screen is, most of the time, only vaguely related to the actual events of an RPG’s story. Still, it’s jarring, annoyingly so, to finish a battle with the impression that the heroes have come out on top--a natural reaction, considering that even these fights which the story says were unsuccessful still usually require the player to have won them--and be presented with a scene completely contrary to the victorious situation you’ve just created. Not only that, but it can even be detrimental to the story as a whole--while few games are such chronic offenders as Xenosaga 3, the player inevitably loses any confidence or pride in the heroes of that game simply because said heroes prove themselves time and time again utterly incapable of winning a fight when it counts. This is just an outright annoying trope, all the more since it only exists because of writers’ laziness, inflexibility, and lack of creativity, as they force the story to potentially ignore its own events’ reality so that they can achieve their means in a single, direct way, rather than perform their office as creators and create alternate means to their end.

* I am not, incidentally, trying to brag or flex about what an awesome RPG player I am, or anything. I suspect, in fact, that I’m generally below average, and creating broken builds in Dragon Age is not a difficult thing to achieve.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

General RPG Lists: Greatest Villains

Well, it’s been a few years now since I expanded this from a list of 5 to a list of 10...long enough that I think it may just be time to update it once again! Especially since there’s been enough revisions in the past few years that half the work on updating this thing is already done--I can just reinstate some of the characters who got bumped off the list previously in the new spots!

But, uh, it’s not all old stuff, so...please read? Here, I’ll even give you a little guide: the brand-new stuff is in spots 12 and 6, while the somewhat-recent-but-not-exactly-new stuff is in spots 11, 10, and 9. So read on in whatever amount you prefer, and enjoy!

If there's anything that's hard to define about RPGs (and just storytelling in general), it's what constitutes a "good" villain. Everyone's got their own opinions on what a decent villain should be and do. So, a lot of this is gut feeling. I'm gonna stand by my picks pretty adamantly (unless I play games in the future and find new villains that outclass even these ones), but I admit that there's no real set of rules about what makes them great...sometimes it’s the scope or success of their evil, sometimes it’s the sympathy they can arouse within the audience, sometimes it’s how well-developed a character they are, and, hell, sometimes it’s just all about presentation! But until I or someone else manages to hammer out some absolute rules about what is and isn’t a good bad guy, here are the 15 best RPG villains I've come across by my own vague reckoning, in ascending order.

Oh, and be warned: this list obviously contains major spoilers. At this point, I'm sure you expect that sort of thing with these rants, but even so, it bears mentioning.

15. The Master (Fallout 1)

RPGs these days have an overabundance of lackluster Misguided Villains. You know the type--they come up with these big, elaborate plans to change or destroy the world that are way, way more contrived and dependent on chance and unlikely magical bullshit than is necessary, all because they believe, thanks to illogical thinking and sheer stupidity, that their fucking everyone in the world over is somehow what everyone really needs because the villain wasn't hugged enough by daddy. Like, literally, in many cases--Volsung of Wild Arms 5 and Seymour of Final Fantasy 10 come to mind. It's an old favorite of anime--Japan seems to be nuts about the sheer idiocy of having supposedly noble, pure, misguided wholesale-genocide-supporting maniacs. It's gotten old. Hell, it was old before it was in RPGs.

The Master is misguided. But he is not misguided in the way that I have mentioned. He does have a noble goal--finding a permanent solution to human nature's supposedly irrepressible urge to kill and destroy itself, leading to lasting peace. But see, The Master is misguided in a way that is fucking creepy; there's none of that Noble Pretty Boy stuff going on with him. To create world peace, he mutates regular human beings into huge, obedient mutants to serve him, creates an army of these mutants and tamed, freakish genetic monsters to sweep across the wasteland's towns and tribes, to collect more people for mutation and brutally massacre all others. He also creates a false religion to draw in unwitting believers to be experiments in mind control experiments, breaking their minds and creating utterly insane mental shells devoted to his cause. He's insane and freaky like few other villains--you find him in a hellish cathedral full of gun-toting mutants, broken-minded psychotic prisoners, and messy, grisly biological experiments on human beings, and when you talk to him, you can hear the madness in his words--literally, as he speaks with several different voices that interrupt each other.

I'm not really gifted enough verbally to properly describe it to you, a problem I had with a previous rant about Fallout's soundtrack--the series is all about the actual experience of viewing and hearing it, and reproducing that experience in text just isn't possible, I think. But trust me, once you're familiar with The Master, you can definitely agree that he's got the sheer misguided, malicious madness and chillingly creepy words, voice, appearance, goals, and methods to earn him a spot on this list.

14. Delita (Final Fantasy Tactics)

(I'm going by the names from the original FFT English translation, not the blander one released several years later).

Delita's a neat villain in that it's hard to really know exactly where he stands, what he values, how much of anything he says is genuine. He's not so much ambiguous or developed too poorly, however, as he is skillfully open to interpretation. His path to power is ruthless and calculated, and he makes a habit of using the emotions of those around him as no more than tools, killing superiors who trusted him and sacrificing allies whenever convenient...yet he inexplicably shows mercy, too, sparing some of his enemies and even having it officially reported that they perished to give them freedom and protection, as he did for Balmafula. He seems to only use Ovelia's emotions as a way to gain the throne and later control her...yet his private statements and mannerisms suggest that his feelings for her may be partly genuine. Basically, while Delita's actions and motives unquestionably make him a villain, it's hard to get a bead on just where in the villainy range he is--is he a cold, power-mad manipulator, his ability to love and trust destroyed by his sister's death at the hands of one he trusted as family? Or is he a hero at heart, villainous on the outside only because he can see no other way to take control of a country in turmoil and make it a place where the innocent will never die as his sister did, unmourned victims of endless political war? Either interpretation could be accurate, as well as many that fall in between. All you can really know for sure is that he's a well-created villain with great depth of character.

13. Loghain (Dragon Age 1)

Loghain is a very interesting and complex character, a former hero who falls to the side of villainy because of poor choice of advisers and an overpowering paranoia of former enemies. Loghain descends so far into his obsession with keeping his country safe from the imagined threat of the neighboring country whose former occupation of his country he helped lead a revolution against, he commits unspeakable atrocities and all but ignores the true threat to his nation, the army of Darkspawn spreading over his lands like a plague. While Loghain appears for most of the game to be no more than a power-mad tyrant, making certain choices during the game can allow the player to come to a better understanding of him, and see each of his poor decisions, each of his evil deeds, as more than just the acts of a mindlessly evil villain...the pieces fall into place to instead show a man who simply can't let the past rest, and lets his old paranoia color his vision of reality and blind him to true danger.

12. Father (Fallout 4)

Say what you will about Bethesda lately, but they really created a masterwork of villainy when they made Shaun. And so much of it is shown through the subtlety of scrutinizing things like his actions rather than words, environmental storytelling, and the theme of the game as a whole. Shaun is a tyrant who uses cultural tools of control, like insisting on using carefully selected words to dehumanize his victims, to stay in power and keep all his subordinates from ever really considering the ethical problems of what they do. He’s a scourge on humanity, sacrificing untold numbers of people for an undefined cause. He’s a sociopath out to satisfy his own curiosities and personal needs without any regard to how it may affect any others involved. He’s a pitiful child seeking the familial love he never had, immorally using his own parent as a plaything and tool of revenge in the process, and creating a self-aware life form doomed to an eternal childhood. He’s the enslaver of a race of conscious people, creating and destroying their bodies and minds without a second thought.

And all along the way, he’s so quietly insistent, always ready to defend everything he does with empty but oh so pretty and elegant promises that it’s for a better future (which he can’t define or set out a road map for), that there’s no other way to save humanity from itself (when the greatest threats to the humanity of the Commonwealth are the Institute itself, and its byproducts), that just because a human can be created and programmed, that makes it not a real person, no matter how much it may cry out for freedom (as though “real” humans are not also made and programmed, just by biology and environment). So eloquent that many players are taken in by the appeal of his arguments’ surface, unable to see how hollow they actually well-spoken that he can turn the protagonist her/himself down the same path, a legacy of evil to be continued after Shaun’s death for some greater tomorrow that neither he nor any other in the Institute cared to detail or put a deadline on.

I’m reminded of King Math’s words in Lloyd Alexander’s The High King:: “Is there worse evil? Is there worse evil than that which goes in the mask of good?”

11. The Changing God (Torment: Tides of Numenera)

The Changing God is a fascinating mix of good intentions, and petty vanities and selfishness. His villainy is in his careless legacy, the fact that his creations and actions across his lifetimes have caused untold strife and chaos to the world, leaving such a profoundly damaging impact upon everything he touches that things such as the Endless Battle are regarded as an unchangeable fact of the world. To bring his daughter back to life, he has, through his abandoned projects, the engines of his plans which he has left running, and the castoffs he has created, ruined countless numbers of lives...and he doesn't really care. And that alone would make him a decent villain, but added to that is the fact that bringing his daughter to life again is eventually lost in the shuffle of his's a goal in name only, after a certain point, little more than a hobby he pretends to himself that he's still obsessed over, when, in fact, the Changing God's petty vanity and his own desire to continue surviving at any cost override the initial good intentions he had when he began his work. He reminds me of Dio, from Revolutionary Girl Utena--a former hero whose wake now only destroys those caught within it, claiming to do it all for the one he loved most, yet only lazily going through the motions of pursuing his goal, now concerned not by his failures, but by satisfying his own personal wants. Fallen heroes in RPGs are so often those who were disillusioned, those whose personal beliefs eventually drove them to extremes...the Changing God is fascinatingly genuine to us for having fallen not for such grandiose reasons, but for simple, petty human fears and self-interest.

10. Flowey (Undertale)

Flowey's a great combination of a villain who's incredibly creepy, like The Master from Fallout 1, and really annoying, like 1 of the villains below, yet he's also a villain who's got a really interesting backstory that explains very well how and why he is. It's hard not to sympathize with this infuriating little psychopath once you know how he became what he is...even though he still revolts your sensibilities. As a representation of the player of RPGs, Flowey is insightful, as a character he has depth and pathos, as an adversary he's downright disturbing, and as a concept, he's intriguing...yeah, Flowey's a pretty excellently crafted villain, no doubt about it.

9. Lusamine (Pokemon Generation 7)

Lusamine's a terrific villain. She has a striking presence, and the madness within her practically jumps out at you--she doesn't need her to dress up in some clown outfit, slaughter a town, or talk in a weird voice for your to know that Lusamine is deeply, unnervingly insane, you just have to look at her, feel it through her glares and words. And it's such a personal, compelling madness, too! When you learn of Lusamine's history, see that it was the loss of her husband that drove her to her current state, and see how this harmful madness manifests in a compulsion to seek utter emotional domination over those she desires love from, to prevent the possibility of ever feeling that same loss of love, and to see how easily this madness has corrupted and merged with her instincts of motherhood and her relationship with her's pretty fascinating stuff. And what really sells Lusamine as a villain is how personally affecting and damaging her actions are to those around her. Her plan to enter an alternate world at any cost, which puts the Alola Region at risk, is mild as villainous acts go, and her abuse of Pokemon is, of course, reprehensible...but Lusamine's real evil is the manipulation of, the stunting personal control over, her children, Lillie in particular. Lusamine takes advantage of others' love for her, tries to twist it into the unquestioning, doll-like obedience which is the only love she can accept, and uses it to emotionally abuse and stunt her daughter's growth as a person, and we see this legacy of disturbing, simple evil in everything Lillie is and says, each of her moments of awkward uncertainty and fear to advance herself. It's such a small, quiet thing, to be mad and do evil to those close to you, to have such a personal nature to one's villainy...but it makes Lusamine all the more compelling and real an antagonist.

8. The Transcendent One (Planescape: Torment)

The Transcendent One's greatness as a villain comes less from who he is and what he does than it does simply from what he is and what role he fulfills. Without spoiling too much (because I never, ever want to discourage anyone in any way from playing Planescape: Torment), I can say that The Transcendent One, as a remnant of the protagonist's past, is the perfect ultimate obstacle in a game focused on the protagonist's journey of self-discovery and recovery of that which has been forgotten. With a great presence (helped in no small way by solid voice acting), heavy philosophical weight in his mere existence, the menacing threat of an unknowable hunter slowly closing in on its prey throughout the game's course, and the fact that he's the perfect culmination of the unusual journey of a nameless man across the planes of reality in search of himself, The Transcendent One is a character of great storytelling power that should serve as an example to game developers everywhere of how excellently connected great heroes and villains should be.

7. Pokey/Porky (Earthbound and Mother 3)

Most of the evildoers on this list are here because they're deep and interesting examples of villains, giving the player insight on how a person can turn to bad ends and lose themselves to their darker emotions.

Porky is not that kind of villain. Porky is just an obnoxious little shit.

Porky is a selfish, rude, irredeemable brat. While he's not a character with any depth per say, he's nonetheless an incredibly well-made bad guy for how realistic he is and how consistently true to character he stays. He's the essential bad kid. He's spoiled, he's selfish, he jeers and taunts everyone, he's petty, he's convinced that he's the center of all creation, and he demands absolute adulation from everyone around him. Never before have I seen the nastiest traits of children portrayed so completely and convincingly. At his absolute worst, South Park’s Eric Cartman at most equals the level of obnoxious, petty, toxic self-importance that defines Porky’s every word and action. Despite the fact that he manipulates his way to the top of an evil organization, guides the embodiment of all evil, and creates an army with which he invades and corrupts what amounts to the entire world, he's never more than a rotten child.

He also deserves mention for the fact that he very successfully makes the player hate his heinous little guts. Hate. Every time he opens his pudgy little mouth, I wish I could reach through the screen and choke the life out of him. He's always arrogant, maddeningly condescending, totally unfeeling, and he has an obsession with one-upping Earthbound's main character, Ness, that leads him to insist that he's still the cooler one even when he's running away like a sniveling coward--which happens a lot. Porky flees almost as much as those gutless Turks in Final Fantasy 7, and the fact that he refuses to adjust his narcissistic self-image at all regardless of how sorely the weak, pitiful little bastard's been pummeled just adds to how irritating he is. Porky's the perfect child villain, folks--it's that simple.

6. Handsome Jack (Borderlands 2)

Handsome Jack is much like Porky, in the sense that he’s personally repellant to the player of the game, a truly vile, obnoxious jerk whose insults and flexes against Borderlands 2’s protagonist are so penetrative that they actually feel personally directed at the player him/herself. You don’t just want to stick it to the guy because he’s the enemy of the game’s good guys--you want to thwart Handsome Jack because he’s your enemy.

But the difference between Jack and Porky is that, at the same time, he’s very like the Joker: you can’t help but find him and his arrogant evil, even at his most obnoxious, honestly quite amusing. Like, you know how you can laugh as The Joker commits horrible acts because he’s so genuinely and effectively clever that you can’t help it? Handsome Jack is basically that, but even more effective. The guy never met a harmful, evil act he didn’t like, and he’ll crack wise and exult in his evil while insisting (again, much like Porky) that he’s the completely awesome hero of his own story, and you just can’t help but chuckle at it, no matter what kind of terrible evils he’s enacting, because it’s all just flippant, clever, and over-the-top enough that it amuses you even while you acknowledge how wrong it is.

Add to all that the fact that the guy has enough dimensions as a person and villain to be capable of earnest passions and tragic rage, and that he’s also a subtle and interesting mix of delusion with inferiority complex, a villain with depth, and you’ve got a hell of a great bad guy here. Overbearing tyrant, careless corporate scum, twisted sower of chaos, spiteful rival, apathetic dismisser, misguided lunatic, self-important narcissist, deluded abuser, and through it all, undeniably compelling in his charisma...Jack wears many faces as a villain, and they’re all Handsome.

5. Wylfred (Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume) (Normal and Bad Ending Versions)

The best villains are often the ones you spend time with during their fall, the ones whose turn to dark means and objectives you can see for yourself. In 2 of the 3 endings of VPCotP (including the Normal Ending, which is canonically factual), Wylfred shows us this. Chosen for his resentment against the goddess of death, Lenneth, to fight and destroy her, Wylfred can be seen throughout the game to develop as a character along the path you set for him by the actions you make him take. Along the Bad Ending path, Wylfred becomes consumed by his rage against Lenneth and the other gods, encountering situations that further infuriate him as he lets his hatred for Lenneth and her kind completely engulf him, becoming, by the end, a spiteful, wrathful man obsessed with vengeance at any cost--a goal emphasized by the player's decision to have Wylfred sacrifice his companions through the game's course to gain power for himself.

Along the Normal Ending path, Wylfred instead develops as a more tragic villain, viewing the same events that the Bad Ending path showed through different eyes. While the Bad Ending path's view of these events encouraged utter submersion into the cause of hate and revenge, the Normal Ending path shows Wylfred perspectives that emphasize inevitable necessity, proving to him that he must carry out his objective of killing the Valkyrie even if the methods for doing so are distasteful. In this path, Wylfred develops into a man resigned to the necessity of his fate, knowing that his sins have committed him to his path and trying to do something right (or at least, what he believes is right) to make the evil deeds he's done to get to the game's finale meaningful.

Whether raging or resigned, Wylfred is a very well-crafted villainous protagonist, and the fact that he can be successfully developed into either version of the bad guy role is a testament to the skill of the game's writers.

4. Orsted (Live-A-Live)

Knowing a villain's motivation and background, their personality and beliefs, is, to me, perhaps the most important aspect in separating an excellent villain from a crowd of mediocre ones. Let's face it, the number of villains we see whose writers have put any strong effort into developing is shockingly small--and of the ones who do have strong backgrounds and motives we can see, many are just those annoying Good Intentions, Stupid Methods misguided anime losers I mentioned above at number 8. Knowing the villain as a character, seeing what he/she thinks, why he/she acts as he/she does, and how he/she got to this point in the story is what can really distinguish a villain as great--because really, how great can any character be if you don't know him or her? And yet, knowing a villain well is sadly pretty uncommon--most I've seen in RPGs are empty, meaningless plot vehicles, doing evil for barely any reason because it's needed for their to be a game at all.

This is why Orsted is so extraordinary. In Orsted's chapter of Live-A-Live, the player controls him as any of the other 7 (or 9, depending on how you view it) protagonists of LAL as he goes through a small, personal quest as the rest of them do. Thus, the player has a front row seat to all the events that result in Orsted falling from a national hero to a hated, pitiable fiend. Orsted loses everything important to him thanks to the petty vices of the people he trusted most--his fame, his honor, his hero, his friend, his love, and his aspirations. In the space of two days, the man who had everything to live for instead has everything he wanted and cared for, everything he desired to be a hero for, either taken violently from him, or worse, turned against him. By the time this horrible series of events conclude, you find no surprise at all as he bitterly curses the human race for its sin and weakness, and pledges to become a demon and eradicate it from existence utterly. This is a more powerful fall than Wylfred's was--Wylfred's descent into villainy is begun by his own feelings of bitterness and resentment against the deity of mortality; he was already facing the wrong moral direction before fate gave him the push down the villain's path. Orsted's fall is sheer and shocking, knocking him from the top of the world down to the very bottom and then rubbing his face in the dirt. You know exactly why he's doing this, but more than that, you even feel a great degree of sympathy to his position--because you've seen all that led him to this moment, and it was tragically unfair. Square very uncharacteristically* takes the time to show and develop their villain in Live-A-Live, and it really pays off with one of the best to grace the genre to date.

3. Luca Blight (Suikoden 2)

Now, I value creativity a lot. This is tied in with viewing villains as better when they're well-developed characters--it is, after all, a lot more creative to see a villain with a story than just some empty idiot who does bad things for the sake of it. As a rule of thumb, I want to see originality in my plots and characters first and foremost. But, as casts of games like Grandia 2 and Tales of Legendia have taught me, excellence really is all in the execution. Sometimes, if you do a damn fine job of portraying something well-known and typical, you still can make it excellent.

This is the case of Luca Blight. Luca is a power-hungry, war-mongering, bloodthirsty, genocidal madman out to personally kill everything he can--in other words, nothing new to the world of video games. He doesn't really have much character development, you don't know much about his back story that has any significance (even Final Fantasy 6's Kefka gets more background, and Square certainly didn't even put in their usual minimal efforts on villain background with him), and goals for his conquests certainly don't seem much more evolved than those of typical character-lacking RPG villains like Star Ocean 2's Wise Men, or Pokemon Generation 1's Giovanni.

But Luca is very, very different. Because Konami really sells you on how nasty this guy is, how great and terrible his rage and hatred is. You don't just get vague acts of destruction out of him. The game doesn't just show you some pretty cinemas of towns burning, things blowing up, maybe an NPC or two getting tidily struck down or laser beamed. You see him doing his thing, and you feel a chill at how utterly, unmistakably evil he is. He doesn't just order the slaughter of helpless civilians he's captured, he lines them up and personally kills each one with his own hand, laughing at them, insulting them, brutally humiliating them in their last, terrified moments. They mean nothing to him, yet he all the same makes their murders into a personal joy--even the self-satisfied enjoyment that Handsome Jack gets out of his own cruelties don’t stack up to the pure, chilling delight that Luca Blight derives from others’ suffering. He's vicious, willing to kill youths of his own army for his gain, and has the general demeanor when speaking, even to his own allies, of a rabid dog only barely held back by his leash.

He's also insanely powerful, and it seems that his power comes from nothing more than his all-consuming hatred and rage. In a world where magical Runes are more or less the be-all end-all of high power, Luca Blight surpasses most holders of True Runes with his strength of will and sheer evil alone. His death comes after:

1. Archers send a volley of arrows into him.
2. Archers send more arrows into him.
3. 6 of the best warriors that the good guys have attack him with all their might.
4. Archers shoot him a bunch more.
5. 6 more of the good guys' best fighters hit'im with all they've got.
6. He attracts another wave of arrows.
7. Another 6 of the good guys' best fighters give him all they have.
9. Riou, the main character, has to finish him off in a one-on-one duel.

It's crazy. This kind of evil-fueled immortality would do Rasputin proud. And after all that, he still has the strength left to him to stand, laugh insanely, and deliver this immortal quote that shows you just how remorseless he is:

"Listen, Riou!!!!!!!!! It took hundreds to kill me, but I killed humans by the thousands!!!!! Look at me!!!! I am sublime!!!!!! I am the true face of evil!!!!"

Indeed he is.

2. Fou-Lu (Breath of Fire 4)

Honestly, it's hard for me to decide on who's the greater villain, Fou-Lu or Luca. But in the end, I think it has to be Fou-Lu.

Like Orsted, the major aspect of Fou-Lu that makes him such a remarkable RPG villain is how well you know him. Although most of BoF4 has you playing as Ryu, the hero, the game also has you often control Fou-Lu as he makes his own journey. As with Orsted, you come to understand Fou-Lu by his actions and words, and to understand why he comes to his beliefs and resolution, for you experience the events that drive him to his path as they happen, instead of just in some rushed flashback or spoken back story.

What sets Fou-Lu apart as a superior villain to even Orsted, though, is another aspect of what I believe really makes a great villain: the reflection he is to the main hero. Orsted is a villain in and of himself; Fou-Lu, however, is a villain who stands directly opposed to the hero, linked with him as two parts of a whole. Both Fou-Lu and Ryu see good examples of human nature in their travels--yet each also sees many tragedies brought on by the ugly parts of the human spirit. In the end, what Fou-Lu takes from his experiences is that humanity is too fundamentally corrupt and dark to deserve to live, while Ryu sees the good of some of the people he's met that surpasses the evil of the others (well, presumably; you actually have the option to choose how Ryu feels in the end, but the "real" ending has Ryu stand against Fou-Lu). Fou-Lu is great because the player can understand him and perhaps even sympathize with him, but the fact that you can see the contrast between his perspective and Ryu's over virtually the same experiences and evidence adds an extra aspect of excellence to him.

1. Kreia (Knights of the Old Republic 2)

Actually, sorry to disappoint you, but I don't really have much to say here--I already did a rant on Kreia a while back that had pretty much all I needed to say about her here. Check back on it if you want to know the scoop on the best RPG Villain of all. Suffice to say, Kreia has unparalleled character development, brilliant execution as a villain, and is pretty much a step up in every significant way from just about every other villain I know of, RPG or not.

Honorable Mention: Lavos (Chrono Trigger)

We're all familiar with the more humanized RPG villain, the one that talks and plots and menaces, but there's a whole other category of major RPG villains that I haven't gone into--the big, unnatural disaster-type villains. These are the huge, world-threatening catastrophic world-ending villains that quite often aren't even sentient--huge beasts like Gaia in Grandia 1 or the Archdemon in Dragon Age 1, godlike avatars of destruction like Nyx of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 or Malpercio of the Baten Kaitos series, and otherworldly menaces like Dark Force from the Phantasy Star series or Sulpher from Phantom Brave. They're world-ending monsters that often don't even seem self-aware, going about their destructive business by instinct or unconscious obedience to another villain's demands. As such, they're not that interesting as villains, being more like obstacles than any significant part of the story's intellectual aspect, but they deserve some mention all the same.

Of these doomsday beasts, Lavos is the best to me. For starters, once it gets started destroying, Lavos gets the job done in record time, bringing the ruin of the entire world about in, what, hours? Minutes? There's no steady progressing destruction like with Grandia 1's Gaia or anything. It's just over as soon as it begins. I also think Lavos's design is really pretty neat and appropriate, because it really LOOKS like the alien monstrosity it's supposed to be. Method of world-destroying's pretty neat, too, shooting out explosive spines so fast, high, and wide that they rain absolute destruction across the globe.

What makes Lavos stand out to me, though, is its motivation for its habits. From what little can be gleaned about this beast, it's a member of some immense alien species for whom the destruction of the world it infests is simply a natural part of the life cycle. It lands on a planet, digs deep down within its surface, and simply waits for aeons, somehow feeding on the evolutionary changes of the world's life over countless years, perhaps even directing some of them itself. Eventually it rises from the ground to bring about apocalyptic doom to the world's life (presumably to spark a huge feast of evolutionary energy in the world's few surviving organisms as they have to adapt to a radically different environment), and soon after spawns its own offspring (perhaps fertilized by the combined genetic data of all the planet's biological history) which will eventually leave the dead planet to find another and begin the cycle anew.

A planetary parasite that drains, affects, and kills an entire world's life like a plague-ridden tick spreads Lyme Disease to the host it sucks blood out of, so immensely powerful and steeped in the life essence of its planetary host that it distorts and rips the fabric of time itself--and never any indication or even hint that this could be anything but a non-self-aware animal acting solely on instinct. You can't tell me that isn't a damn cool idea.

...Remember how I thought at first that List Rants would be shorter than regular ones? Man, can I ever pull one over on me.

* Yes, I know, Squaresoft/SquareEnix DOES actually have 4 villains on this list, so my comment here doesn't appear very fair, but I'd like to stress that these good villains are VERY much the exception to the rule with the company. While really good villains are rare all around, few RPG makers so consistently make terrible villains as Square does. Yeah, you've got Delita, Lavos, Wylfred, and Orsted on one side...but the other side has maniacal idiots with less character depth than a Care Bears villain (X-Death of Final Fantasy 5, Ultimecia of Final Fantasy 8, Magic Emperor of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest), misguided nitwits who have the most idiotic reasoning for their actions that you can possibly conceive (Seymour of Final Fantasy 10, Feolthanos of Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings, Krelian of Xenogears), and puzzling dolts whose motivations and methods are so ridiculously complicated, contrived, and outright dumb that they just come off as silly and annoying (Vayne of Final Fantasy 12, Mydia of Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings, every single original villain of the Kingdom Hearts series besides Dark Riku), or so bizarrely non-authentic that you wonder if a largely misinformed space alien came up with them (Emelious of Grandia 3, Violetta of Grandia 3, Lezard of Valkyrie Profile 2). And there's also Sephiroth, who is basically a combination of all of those types. Oh, and don’t forget the groups of completely ineffectual, lame, and annoying minor villains that never shut the hell up and remain cocky despite having never succeeded at anything, ever (The Turks of Final Fantasy 7, Organization 13 of Kingdom Hearts 2, Id of Xenogears--okay, he's not a group, but he does the same thing). With Square, you breathe a sigh of relief when you just get a standard bland, uninteresting villain whose motivations are never adequately explored (Carltron of The Secret of Evermore, Thanatos of The Secret of Mana, the Omnidragon of Chrono Cross) because you know it could have been so much worse.