What are some well-developed villains in games that aren’t from RPGs?
It’s interesting that you specified villains that aren’t from RPGs. That makes this question a challenging one to answer. You see, a lot of popular video game villains don’t have great reasons to be bad – mostly because we never give them the time to expand as characters. Outside of possibly loving Princess Peach, Bowser has really terrible motivation for continually abducting her. Doctor Robotnik (Eggman) may want power, but that’s ultimately a really shallow excuse for his nefarious deeds. Dracula probably likes to kill for the fun of it, but that doesn’t make every quest in Castlevania worthwhile. Don’t even get me started on the single-mindedness of Gannon, Wesker, Dr. Wily, MechaHitler, Cortex, or M. Bison. Strong villains require complexity and few genres outside of RPG or Adventure allow the space for such a thing. There are, however, a few examples of really excellent antagonists that were given the room to grow and made their games better as a result.
To begin, I’m a huge fan of Bioshock. With all of its philosophical and aesthetic references to Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ the game stole my heart and captivated my mind. Naturally, I enjoyed learning of the friction between main antagonist Frank Fontaine and Rapture founder Andrew Ryan, but Frank is only a good villain because of how he used you and Andrew is just plain misunderstood. The best all-around villain in this game – by a good margin – is artist Sander Cohen. Sander has lost his god-damned mind. Like many artists, he’s fickle and feels as though his genius is being ignored. Unlike many artists, he has an army of homeless drug-addicts and likes to kill people in sadistic or ironic ways. He also prefers to keep polaroids of his victims. Sander, of course, takes a stab at your character and if you’re determined you can stab back. If you manage to kill him and then take a picture of his corpse I promise you’ll receive the most satisfying achievement/trophy ever.
The Metal Gear series has a lot of antagonists. All of them have amazing designs and fairly unique backstories, but most of them have a nasty habit of being underdeveloped and one-dimensional; tis not the case with Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis. Do you remember the first time you fought this creepy ass hole? He possesses your girlfriend WITH HIS MIND and makes her try to kill you while anticipating your every move. In a moment that busts the game’s fourth wall, he “breaks” your screen and you’re expected to conceal your thoughts by switching controller ports. This fight was a totally unique event. Naturally you win (you are the hero after all), but the banter between you and Mantis as he is dying is what really steals the show. In just a few simple sentences, you understand why and how he became the monster he is today. In spite of knowing exactly what atrocities he has committed, for purely sadistic reasons, you kind of feel sad for him. That is the mark of an excellent villain.
SHODAN, the brilliant antagonist of System Shock and System Shock 2, was created to be the central AI of the TriOptimum Corporation’s Citadel research and mining station. You, a hacker who was seduced by a corrupt VP of the company, bust into this AI and in the process remove its ethical restrictions – leading SHODAN to believe she is now a God. In essence, you kind of birthed this monstrosity. Once free, she uses all of Citadel’s systems, robots, and defenses for her own ends. She slaughters most of the staff and converts the rest into mutants and cyborgs in an effort to create life. The only person aboard she leaves alone, for the most part, is you, her “creator.” She’s omnipresent and has a nasty habit of sending snide messages to you over the station’s PA or your email, usually referring to you as an insect or rationalizing your demise. She’s clearly mental, but she’s also your fault. You have to clean up the mess and that gives her role more of an impact.
Heavy Rain’s Origami Killer is the last non-RPG villain I want to expand on. He’s evil not because of who he is/was, but because of how he goes about murder. He’s a child killer, which is despicable in its own right, but his method is particularly grisly. He kidnaps kids and then locks them in a storm drain, allowing rain water to build up over several days and eventually drown them. During this process, he puts the fathers through tortures, called ‘Trials,’ in a false offer to save their child’s life. The puzzles that have to be solved to save your child are horrific to say the least. Fingers are cut off, you’re expected to crawl through live electrical wires/glass, and there is a chance that you’ll be shot point-blank. He’s a monster solely because of his actions, but holy crap was I ever blown away when I found out his true identity.
With all of that said, Kefka Palazzo is and will always be the greatest villain in video gaming. I don’t care if you like RPGs or not, the man literally destroys the world and becomes God. He is the only villain that ever actually manages to win against you, the player. Sure – you eventually strike back and save what’s left of the world, but it doesn’t change the fact that he succeeded and mass lives were lost as a result of you failing. Furthermore, Kefka is interesting as he’s not just a murderous, psychopathic, blood thirsty lunatic – he’s a prime demonstration of the descent from mental instability to pure nihilism. He draws elements of Christianity and philosophy to make you question not only his rationale, but also that of dominant religious imagery. It’s brilliant and you should play Final Fantasy VI if you haven’t already.