Villains Op-Ed

No doubt that heroes are cool.  Whether they’re the super variety with powers, someone with a just and noble cause, or simply a person that’s trying to do what they believe is the morally correct thing to do in their situation.  They provide us as the viewer with positive traits to try and emulate and strive for.  They, and in turn we, expect more of ourselves in each endeavor we perform.  And that’s a good thing, right?  But sometimes it’s just so…boring.  There’s a reason there are so many biographies and documentaries on bad people: they’re interesting.  I watch Dark Knight to see how awesome Joker is.  I watch Commando because Dylan is just sort of terrible but somehow amusing.  I enjoy Erebus in the Horus Heresy because he’s so rotten and slimy.  I sometimes enjoy going rogue in the Dark Zone when I play Division.  Villains compel and draw us in.  They elicit a certain reaction because we know we can’t or shouldn’t do those things, but that base level part of us strains a little because we want to do what they’re doing.  Sometimes being bad is just so much fun.  Ultimately the secret to making a good hero is a great villain.  And the secret to making a great villain starts with a great story.

Egg Shen knows the origins of villains too well

That’s How It Always Begins…Very Small…

As much as I typically don’t care to be around and interact with other people, I love to people watch.  I love to sit there and imagine their story: who they are, how they got to this point, what they are doing in the future.  I also love the psychology of people and why they do the things that they do.  I subscribe to a lot of different theories about life.  Some convoluted and others rooted more in experience.  One of those theories is that there are a handful of key moments in someone’s life that irrevocably alters their path, and once on it can be incredibly difficult to change.  I’ve also learned over time that people don’t just wake up one morning and do a complete 180 on anything specific.  Very few people just decide one day to write a book or rob a bank.  It just doesn’t happen.  But what does happen is that people build experiences and take in trauma from a young age, and shape that into who they’ll become.  It’s that constant drip feed that can build into something terrible.  I know people in the education field, and I’ve heard stories about older coworkers just not liking a particular kid who has troubled life either inside or outside of school.  The student just can’t win and everyday their teacher grinds on them just a little bit more.  Half joking, my response to all this is straightforward: “Do you want a super villain?  Because that’s how you make a super villain.”  And as we’ve seen in a lot of popular culture all it can take is one bad instance in that person’s life to alter their trajectory forever.

Sometimes money is the highest motivating factor

Drive, Purpose, and Code

Say a villain is created, what do they do?  Like any of us they seek drive and purpose.  Some villains think small and stay there.  Snidely Whiplash is perfectly fine spending his days tying Belle to the train tracks for Dudley Doright to eventually save.  Boris and Natasha are happy trying to foil the plans of Moose and Squirrel.  And if that’s their MO I’m totally cool with it.  But many villains seek something more.  Poison Ivy wants to overrun Gotham with plants and return the city to an organic paradise.  Red Skull wants the Tesseract to use its energy to control the world.  Ronan the Accuser wants to wipe out Cree civilization for…being Cree?  Not sure on the specifics as I never read those comics and I’m having a brain fart about the first Guardians movie as I write this.  But my point is this: they all want something that’s counter to what their society deems as acceptable and will stop at nothing to achieve those goals.  They all have a drive, a purpose, and I daresay in some cases, an ethical code to which they try to achieve those goals.  Rational or irrational it’s always interesting to set up a villain with some type of code or creed they use to justify actions.  Poison Ivy is sometimes conflicted on her ties to the plant kingdom while still human.  Even though he’s defeated again and again, Joker won’t kill Batman because he’s too much fun to have around.  And although they may be super formal and even a little weird at times, groups like the Guild of Calamitous Intent have a code they honor.

No matter how weird these cats DEFINITELY have rules that members are required to follow.

Are You Really on the Right Side?

And while it’s super simple to try and level a city, take over a planet, or start an intergalactic war, the very best villains, the true villains, will ultimately get the hero to do one thing: think.  And I don’t mean think as in ‘yes, this is bad and you need to be defeated’, I mean really think.  Whether or not something is ethically justifiable, if the villain gets the hero to ask, ‘Are we the baddies?’, then in a sense I think they’ve kind of won.  A great villain will get people to start questioning everything: loyalties, purpose, reason, ethics.  Ultimately after their defeat, was the real reason they fought the villain the villain, or was it some larger concept that maybe would’ve been the better outcome?

Are the wheels turning?  Can the hero say with true conviction they’re on the right side of things?

I end this piece with an example of a great villain: in the Division series the ultimate villain is a rogue agent named Aaron Keener.  Now while it could be argued that Keener was sorely underutilized, I’m not here to make an argument one way or the other.  As the player character, you run through New York trying to find this cat, all while he leaves clues as to what his intentions are.  You’re exposed to the harsh environment of New York City in the winter and during a pandemic.  You see trash everywhere and a city in decay.  You see convicted criminals roaming the streets and taking petty vengeance on fellow citizens.  You see the hostile takeover of a private military contractor hired by the federal government enforcing martial law on US soil and the brutal lengths they will go to in order to retain control.  You see the fractious nature of teamwork, cohesion, and control with the NPCs you fight alongside and the stress of trying to hold the city and a society together.  And in the end, you never find Keener.

Operating in the Dark Zone is a constant struggle – NYC Dark Zone, Copyright Ubisoft

Fast forward seven months and you begin the adventure again but this time in Washington, D.C. as a different agent.  In the nation’s capital you see the same effects of the pandemic brutally present but with the bonus of a recent hurricane impacting the city.  You also see the same internal power struggles and similar malicious groups from the months prior.  Eventually Keener is tracked down and you return to New York to hunt him down for good.  It’s the same song and dance: players have changed but power grabs haven’t.  There’s a constant need from civilians for assistance that can’t be fulfilled and now there is a civilian militia that has risen from the ashes of other federal agencies.  You’re able to corner Keener on Liberty Island and begin the final assault.  Fighting tooth and nail against Black Tusk, yet another private military company, you find Keener’s command center in the basement.  After months someone finally begins voicing the questions in your head: Who can you trust?  What is my motivation?  Am I good enough as an Agent?  Is the Strategic Homeland Division built on a lie?  Have I missed the bigger picture?  What is the endgame?  And then the final fight.  Keener intends to unleash a new virus across the east coast called Eclipse.  If launched the payload will devastate the Eastern seaboard, effectively pushing the reset button for the entire country.  But you’re able to stop the launch.  You’re able to kill Keener.  And in his dying breath, Keener simply laughs and says that this is only the beginning.

Agent Aaron Keener – Codename Vanguard, Copyright Ubisoft

At what cost did you win, if at all?  Can you really trust the other agents you’re serving alongside?  Is the SHD strong enough to repair the damage left by Green Poison?  After spending months trying to put the pieces of society back together, would it really be so bad if things just fell apart?  Who are you really?  I can’t answer these questions.  

But did Aaron Keener get inside your head and make you pause to think for even a second?  I bet he did.  And that’s what great villains do.

[This post was originally published at Otherverse Games & Hobbies]


A New England transplant that originated from parts westward, Ryan is a bit of a nerd that knows a little bit about a lot of things, all while claiming to know nothing about anything.  Seemingly part Khajit a logistician by trade, he’s the kind of guy that can get you virtually anything if there’s coin to be had a problem to solve.  Ryan began to learn the scrounging arts while serving time in parts east as a Loggie and has been perfecting them steadily over several decades.  He has a problem with continually purchasing models, paints, and terrain that he doesn’t really need but his wife doesn’t seem to mind.

More about Ryan | Ryan’s contributions