I started participating in Question of the Month back in 2017, and I’d like to think I had a pretty good run. I won my first victory early on when I pitched Pokemon Snap 2 as the most coveted sequel in gaming, and even in the months where I didn’t take the cake I’d like to think I put up a pretty good fight. After two years of question-answering shenanigans, the time came for this blogger to retire to the other side of the event: judging. Kim over at Later Levels along with her partner in question crime Chris of Overthinker Y invited me to join them in their quest to create the Ultimate Video Game over the full course of 2019. Judges are welcome to submit ideas – not to try to win, but to help inspire folks to riff off of our concepts and come up with their own fantastic submissions. But up to this point, I haven’t felt the desire to throw my hat in the ring, even with victory not being an option for me.
So far we’ve had two months with plenty of great entries. The game’s setting was designed by Luke over at Hundstrasse, who pitched an abandoned spacecraft in the rings of Saturn now overflown with water, harboring an entire ocean ecosystem right next to the futuristic technology and the ice cream machine. Next, Brandon AKA That Green Dude designed our protagonist, a detective with a different personality and abilities based on the gender you choose for the character. A detective in a spaceship ocean feels like a great fit for telling compelling stories, but here’s the thing – a story is only as good as its villain.
I’ve been content to hang out behind the judge’s desk for the other categories, but now the time has come to flex my retired question-answering muscles. I’m a bit of a villain enthusiast, and coming up with an antagonist for the Ultimate Video Game is not an opportunity I can pass up. So today I’ll be pitching my ideas for the antagonist of our game, and my hope is that you will be inspired to put me in my place behind the judge’s desk and come up with your own amazing submission!
So what makes a great villain? Antagonists are nothing more than the force that stands in opposition to the protagonist, and they may not do so on purpose. That is to say, the antagonist of a game could be non-sentient forces such as the trials of nature or difficult puzzles to solve. For those antagonists that do have intelligent thought, their motivations can vary wildly. Sometimes their motivation is the same as the protagonist, but their methods differ. Sometimes they want something totally opposite to the desires of the protagonist. Whatever the case may be, villains work best when their role in the story serves as a foil to the protagonist, challenging their worldview and forcing them to either double down on it or change it.
It is important that a villain has a direct connection to the story’s protagonist, by which I mean you shouldn’t be able to swap out the protagonist with any other hero and have the same impact. To use a well-known example, look at Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth. Replacing Cloud with another hero – let’s say Link – would cause the narrative to lose impact. Sephiroth and Cloud are both misguided and manipulated, but handle their trauma in different ways. And Sephiroth’s relationship to Cloud, first as his hero, then his puppet master, and finally the murderer of the woman Cloud loves, ties the two together in a way that makes their final conflict significant. Sephiroth is a great villain because he’s a great villain for Cloud, and that’s the kind of antagonist I want to craft for the ultimate video game.
This is made a bit trickier, then, by the fact that our protagonist is actually two different individuals. Both John and Mary Stansen could be the protagonist of the game, and we’ve established that their personalities and abilities will be unique from one another. This means we need an antagonist who makes a good opponent for either one, but we don’t know many details about our heroes, either. With no backstories to work with we’ll simply have to design our villain to foil the aspects of the protagonist that we do know about: their mechanical abilities.
We know a few key things about the protagonist. Regardless of which gender you choose, the character is a detective. Their role is to solve mysteries and uncover the truth. This tells us that our antagonist, either intentionally or incidentally, stands between the protagonist and the truth they wish to investigate. We can try to extrapolate a few details from our setting, too. What could a detective in this location possibly be investigating? The ship has floated here for 175 years and been overtaken by the water generated by the fusion engines. There’s no way a crime took place here in recent memory. I suppose we are running with the assumption that our detective is human – if this is an octopus detective, it could certainly investigate the Case of the Missing Hermit Crab Shell. I think there is room for a quirky, humorous game focusing on sea creature characters in this setting, but I’m going to run with a more serious tone as I think that was the intent behind Brandon’s protagonist.
The obvious subject of the Stansen investigation is the cause of Delta-Chi-743 being stranded in the rings of Saturn. This vehicle was clearly manned at some point, and it probably had a mission beyond just reaching this location and stopping. What happened to the crew? Did they simply get stuck in this location and eventually run out of resources or die of old age? Or did something more nefarious happen during their voyage? This straightforward approach to the story is certainly one option for the game, but I think there’s room here for something more. The cause of the ship stopping could still be a subject of investigation without being the subject of investigation, and this brings me to my second idea.
What if the antagonist is already dead?
Imagine, if you will, a wrongful murder conviction ending in an execution. An innocent person loses their life after being found guilty of a crime they did not commit. Years later, new technology discovers evidence that finally exonerates the original suspect. It’s too late, of course, and the knowledge of that suspect’s innocence still leaves the question of who the true culprit was. Looking back at the original case files reveals that there was a secondary suspect in the case – one who was a crew member on the fateful voyage of Delta-Chi-743. To finally discover the truth behind the case, a detective must mount an expedition to that forgotten ship and find evidence of the second suspect’s guilt.
The Stansens are glad to take on the job. After all, it was their grandmother who was executed for the murder of their grandfather.
The antagonist of a video game is often an active force that the player character is struggling against in the moment. This scenario imagines an antagonist who no longer has the ability to actively protect themselves from investigation. That’s where the flooded spaceship factors in – nature itself serves as a secondary antagonist. Water renders documents illegible, creatures both dangerous and benign abscond with evidence, and 175 years of distance from the commission of the crime erases the context of what might have been significant clues. On top of all that, the true murderer knew that someday suspicion might fall on them, so they prepared their own fail-safes in case an investigation was ever mounted.
I’m imagining that this situation is not a mystery in the sense of a “whodunnit,” but more of a mystery as to how it could be possible to prove their guilt in these ridiculous circumstances. Perhaps there are audio logs in which the antagonist is able to taunt and manipulate the player across the vast distance of time with inflammatory words or misleading half-truths. Perhaps the antagonist has a direct connection to the flooding of the ship – or maybe it’s more interesting for that happy coincidence to have benefited their shadowy agenda.
Having an antagonist who is no longer among the living also serves as an interesting foil to the protagonists. How can a detective uncover the truth from a dead person? What good is John’s brawn against a ghost? What does Mary’s stealth matter when she’s eavesdropping on a corpse? We have to assume that to some degree, the Stansens are motivated by revenge, but how do you exact revenge on someone whose life is already gone? Our mysterious killer is the ultimate riddle for a detective to solve, an impossible mystery – and the ideal antagonist.
That’s my pitch for the ultimate video game villain, adventurers. If you think you’ve got a great idea for the antagonist of our game, I encourage you to get involved! All you have to do to participate is write your own post proposing a villain for the setting and protagonist designed by Luke and Brandon. There’s no word limit and you are welcome to put a completely different spin on the direction of the game – all we ask is that you link Later Levels and Overthinker Y so we see the submission. Submit that post before March 26th, 2019, and then keep your eye on Overthinker Y to find out the winner. If your villain wins, they’ll be the bad guy that next month’s participants get to work with as we move on to the next aspect of the ultimate video game. I encourage every blogger reading to participate, and wish you luck in the event!