Save Your Villain with a Single Line
FF7 Remake follows the principle “don’t have a one-dimensional villain” in a way you don’t expect. Normally, this advice means (1) give your villain motivation for being evil, (2) maybe not have your villain be evil at all — just a person with a different perspective, and (3) show us glimpses of the villain’s past.
For your main antagonist, that’s great writing. It’s what FF7 does with its major villain, Sephiroth. But it’s also a video game filled with dozens of mini-bosses, and the writers can’t spend time developing each of them. Most of the mini-bosses are monsters and robots who don’t talk, which solves part of the problem. But the humans come off as more than just obstacles for the player to fight past — they’re believable characters.
The game’s writers figured out how to give their villains depth with a single line.
Roche is one of the game’s early bosses. What’s immediately striking is how much pleasure he takes in combat, literally making romantic remarks while trying to kill you.
In one encounter, Roche heals the player before the fight. This is surprising because his army was doing everything in its power to annihilate you seconds before.
After you beat him, he launches a flurry of attacks on his fellow soldiers to help you escape. Before riding off on his motorcycle, he says “We really must do this again. Until then… try not to die.”
This scene warps Roche from a one dimensional goon to a man willing to commit treason for the joy of fighting an equal. That single line shows the player there’s more to Roche than a hired gun. He has principles beyond his employer’s and that’s more than can be said for most “military” villains.
This spiky red-haired suit also comes off as one-dimensional at first. He gives a brief explanation that he’s an agent for the same company as Roche and has come to take the girl the player is guarding. The player refuses to give her up, and a fight begins.
We quickly notice Reno’s callousness, sending his soldiers out to die before him. Regardless, the player has no reason to assume Reno is anything but an upgraded enemy.
After beating him, Reno collapses from exhaustion. At this point, the writers turn the villain into something much more than a one-off obstacle. First, we switch to Reno’s point of view. Literally, the game’s camera looks out of Reno’s eyes rather than the main character’s. We see the player raising his sword to finish him off. Then Reno says, “You’ve got it all wrong, man. I just wanted to — ”
A sudden interruption saves Reno, but the writers got their point across. The last line showed the player there was something they didn’t know about the villain. This act alone transforms Reno from a forgettable enemy to a character with a mystery.
Yep, all their names start with “R”. We encounter Rude while escorting the aforementioned girl home. Rather than make him multidimensional at the end of the fight, Rude becomes a full character at the beginning.
The player finds him knelt down feeding pigeons. Does that seem like something a evil villain would be doing? Before fighting the player, he drops the line, “No, I’m not bad. But like it or not… I sometimes have to do bad things.”
Suddenly, we’re fighting against another human with a conscience. It feels completely different than a robot or monster.
President Shinra & Rufus
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the same impression from President Shinra and his son, Rufus. If you watch the President Shinra cutscenes, see if you can find anything to the man beyond politics and greed. Nothing indicates there’s a side to him we don’t know. He feels like a cardboard cutout of a villain.
Rufus doesn’t say a lot, but we’re not given anything to suggest he’s different from his father.
The writers of Final Fantasy VII Remake found a way to keep their villains from being one-dimensional with a single line. The game isn’t perfect, but, as far as storytelling in an RPG goes, it’s my current favorite.