Conflict is one of the central pieces of storytelling, and a game without conflict is a game without plot. An actual antagonist character is not always necessary in literature; sometimes a conflict can be shown in a story without a character driving the protagonist’s actions. In gaming, however, and especially in RPGs, having a story without a clear antagonist is rarer. Because the player is taking the role of the protagonist, games without at least some form of antagonistic character do not tend to be very interesting. Those games which are interesting without antagonists, like Tetris, are interesting as games but do not tell any sort of story.
With the Final Fantasy VI playthrough underway, I am of course somewhat obligated to talk about Kefka when discussing villains in video games. Kefka is one of the biggest reasons why the plot of FFVI works so well, but he is not the game’s only effective villain. While we as JRPG genre-savvy gamers living almost twenty years after the release of Final Fantasy VI know that Kefka is the main villain, the game honestly does a good job of making the true main antagonist of the plot unknown for most of the first half of the game. For all intents and purposes, Gestahl is the true villain in the first half of the game, with Kefka playing the role of the advisor. And while Kefka’s inevitable betrayal may be an obvious event, Gestahl is an extremely effective and underrated villain who does an excellent job of providing an antagonist attempting to thwart the player party’s plans.
Effective use of a villain is something Final Fantasy VI succeeds at better than any game in the series, and indeed perhaps better than any other game. The first and third entries in the series barely had a main villain to speak of, and the minimalistic NES plot of FFII meant that while the Emperor had a decent presence throughout the plot, he had no real characterization or motivation. Final Fantasy IV did a decent job with Golbez, but the eventual revelation of Zemus as the game’s true antagonist did somewhat lessen Golbez’s impact. Exdeath is a decent villain, but before he shows up, FFV is left devoid of any real antagonistic force.
Final Fantasy VII at least has the Shinra Corporation to act as its driving force before Sephiroth comes into play. Additionally, Sephiroth’s role as the main villain is still established relatively early in the plot, but his lack of presence in much of the game’s story is still noticeable. Still, Shinra does a good job of filling in the gaps and FFVII still has effective conflict overall.
Final Fantasy VIII‘s use of bait-and-switch villainy could have worked, but the game’s poor writing meant that Edea and eventually Ultimecia both ultimately lacked motivation for their actions. While Kefka seemingly has no real reason why he does the things he does, his personality and his utter disregard for any sort of morality give him at least some depth of character. Ultimecia has neither personality nor motivation and is therefore left shallow and uninteresting as a villain.
Kuja is easily the second-best use of a villain in Final Fantasy. From the moment Kuja is introduced, he is a constant force in the game’s events, and his influence is present in the story long before his character is brought into the plot. Additionally, he is perhaps the series’ most fleshed-out villain; his motivations are well-developed and his character remarkably dynamic for a video game villain. I rarely see Kuja get appreciation as a villain, but he is definitely a villain worth noting.
Interestingly, Sin is less of a character and more a force. For the majority of FFX, Sin is treated as an unstoppable force and the only course of action is to try and survive. Seymour is clearly intended to fill in the gaps and be an antagonistic character, but he is never really very threatening as a villain. Seymour was poorly fleshed out and almost cartoony in his actions. Shuyin may as well have not even been in Final Fantasy X-2, since his character contributed little to the game and his actions are minimal.
Both FFXII and FFXIII suffer from a lack of presence from the main villain. Vayne only appears a few times in Final Fantasy XII, and his appearances are generally minor. The wonky pacing of the plot of FFXIII does Barthandelus no favors, as a potentially interesting character is reduced to generally being a minor issue. XIII-2 has a different problem: while Caius has both presence and depth, he is the game’s only real notable antagonist.
It is worth noting that the two games in the series that are most often praised for their stories are also arguably the two games with the best villains; Kefka and Kuja are both exceptional characters. A good antagonist is helpful to any story, and the Final Fantasy series is certainly no exception.