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Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Beauty of Villainy

Villains in game media are often portrayed as extremely beautiful. I'm not complaining. Most of them look really cool. But why are scions of evil or misguided intent often portrayed as such handsome, cool, composed individuals? It's the opposite of, say, a Disney villain, who is usually made to be ugly or have some sort of glaring physical flaw or generally off-kilter appearance (there are some exceptions). Japanese RPGs and games that share a similar aesthetic, on the other hand, have their big bads designed so that you're drawn to them. Quite frequently, they look more capable and inviting than even the protagonist. Let's look at some examples.

Xemnas, Kingdom Hearts 2

Sephiroth, Compilation of Final Fantasy VII

Ramirez, Skies of Arcadia

Dhaos, Tales of Phantasia
They're all unnaturally beautiful, oftentimes even more so compared to the heroes, who are already better looking than any real human being.

Why do you think this is a thing in games like this? Aren't we supposed to be rooting against these people? Why give them such a positive trait?

I brought this discussion to the table, and this is what people had to say.

Toxi: Because it's an intentional contrast to take a stereotypically positive physical trait and assign it to an awful person. It subverts audience expectations and highlights how physical appearance has nothing to actually do with someone's moral character.

It's not just seen in JRPGs, it's seen everywhere. Disney's Beauty and the Beast, for example, contrasts Beast, who is physically monstrous but develops a good heart, with Gaston, who is physically attractive but is a complete scumbag. Jadis, the White Witch of Narnia, is incredibly beautiful, and is basically pure evil.

There's an unfortunate trend of femininity in men being perceived as sinister.

For example, this is how Satan looks in The Passion of the Christ.


Often, when comparing the villain and the hero, the villain will be more stereotypically feminine while the hero will be more stereotypically masculine. Guts and Griffith, Simba and Scar, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, Thor and Loki, Sora and Riku...

John Kowalski: It's almost always that thing about how cannot expect those who have an excess of charisma to have an excess of good morals. Also villains usually have big egos and vanity goes very well with egocentrism.

Elaugaufein: A lot of these villains have passed as or been great heroes of their nation. That generally requires not horrifying children with your appearance.

Brave: I think it has nothing to do with them being villains. JRPG character design usually has this effect.

It is, in part, a matter of perceived subversion. Beauty as a blessing for (or representative of) virtue is an ancient concept, and going against that image similarly old.

PSqueak: So the contrast is huge when they turn into their horrific final forms.

JonnyDBrit: With JRPGs in particular, I'd say its a trend in imitation of wider literature, particularly anime and manga. Several of the most popular and influential series have had villainous figures who either were handsome or became handsome, perhaps even being revealed as the true villain after knocking off an uglier initial villain. And since many JRPGs had their roots in imitating (and even today can still take from, as much as they influence) popular genres and stories, its not hard to see how they picked up those sorts of trends.

Darkly Tranquil: I recall reading a forum thread not long ago (can't remember if it was here or somewhere else) where people where discussing why western games tend not to do very well in Japan, and someone commented that they had read a discussion in a Japanese forum and the comments there were to the effect that Japanese gamers regarded the characters in western games to be too ugly. Presumably this is because there are very different cultural preferences in terms of aesthetics between western and Japanese character representations; where we in the west have the generic beardy white guy, the Japanese have the long haired androgynous pretty boy. One might conclude from this that the Japanese prefer attractiveness in their characters whereas in the west we favour badass looking characters.

Vulcano's assistant: At least for FF and KH, that's part of Nomura's signature. He has made a bunch of games and influenced the whole genre.

What's the origin of it though? What are some old works that have it, like, even older than Berserk?

Griffith, The White Hawk, is a villain from the manga series Berserk. He enraptures many people with his aesthetically appealing appearance.
Toxi: "... On th' other side up rose
BELIAL, in act more graceful and humane;
A fairer person lost not Heav'n; he seemd
For dignity compos'd and high exploit:
But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue
Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest Counsels: for his thoughts were low;
To vice industrious, but to Nobler deeds
Timorous and slothful: yet he pleas'd the eare..."

~ John Milton, Paradise Lost

SilverArrow20XX: The Lord of the Rings and the Bible. Lucifer was said to be beautiful. Sauron, a fallen angel analogue, was also said to be very beautiful before losing his body.

A depiction of Sauron, from Lord of the Rings, before losing his body.
I think it stems from the idea of charisma being frightening. An evil person who is beautiful and oozes charisma is very dangerous. He can easily get into positions of power through sweet talking and blending in with good people. He can trick good people into helping him commit evil. Eru (lotr God analogue) eventually gets fed up with Sauron's use of charisma for evil and destroys his body, reducing him to the towering super evil looking suit of armor we see in the movie flashbacks.

Other examples include popular culture's depictions of Jack the Ripper, as a charismatic man.

The key thing, I think, is that evil with charisma comes off as more "dangerous" and "intelligent." This is why evil leaders are so often depicted as attractive.

That's my theory, anyway.

SixMachine: It's been in popular culture for a while. It's why people can find Patrick Bateman pretty funny from American Psycho, even though he chops up women, eats them, kills hobos for fun, stomps on puppies, and can't get a reservation at Dorsias.

Also sadly there is a "Bonnie and Clyde"effect on some women, where they get attracted to bad boys. For example, after Charles Manson and Ted Bundy killed people, they got some groupies for some reason. So being evil and charismatic isn't too out there.

NinjamicWZ: So that I can relate to them.

PerfectFlaw: I feel like some of these bad guys would be getting a manicure while summoning a meteor to Earth.

Bonus points for stabbing a beloved main character through the chest while updating his Instagram.

Armoured Priest:


While all of the examples noted above are of male characters, it should be noted that the trope does extend to females, as well. Some noted the cruel yet beautiful White Witch of Narnia, Jadis, as an example, and the concept of evil or misguided beauty most certainly extends to video games. Beatrix from Final Fantasy IX, Jihl Nabaat from Final Fantasy XIII, Windy from Suikoden, and Legretta the Quick from Tales of the Abyss are some examples of female characters who fall into this category.

Jihl Nabaat, an antagonist from Final Fantasy XIII.
And the trope doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon!

Ardyn Izunia, an enigmatic character from the upcoming Final Fantasy XV, appears to fall into the role of a villain.
I received a lot of good insight into this particular topic. Beautiful villains are one of the more interesting tropes used in media due to the severe contrast between their external appearance and their personalities, so it was nice to get some analysis and opinions on the subject from a variety of different sources.

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