There are two types of villains in the world of fiction - effective ones, and ineffective ones. It may seem like a massive generalization to narrow down the entire literary scope of villainy to this broad dichotomy, but bear with me here. We can compare story beats all day, but the true power of any plot element is the effect it has on the person “consuming” it, whether that be a reader, viewer, or in this case player. It’s the effect a plot has on a person, the emotions it raises, that’s important - not necessarily the plot itself.
If we continue along with this idea at the forefront of what makes a plot element, character, etc. work (and if you don’t want to that’s fine - you can just sort of nod along with it), we can then move on to look at the effects specific elements have on those who read/view/play them. That is, by using a specific character or element who’s considered to be either effective or ineffective, we can look at just what about this character/element is either one of those two options and why. It’s fun stuff.
I belong to the school that believes looking at failed examples is more educational than successful ones, so let’s really kick off the new year with a nitty gritty, complicated examination of the villain considered by many to be the worst in the Zelda series - the dreaded Bellum. Perhaps by looking at the emotional effects it has on the player and what plot elements about it cause them, we can come to a better understanding of what makes a good villain just so good.
Let’s start with just how Bellum is received in the Zelda community - or perhaps received isn’t the right word, as the more general Zelda fan seems to forget Bellum even exists. So here we have our problem, the reason why Bellum is noneffective - he’s forgettable. It’s actually important to distinguish just what about a villain makes him/her/it ineffective. Now that we know Bellum’s problem is that it’s forgettable, we can rule out examining it based on viewpoints like how obnoxious it is, etc.
So now that we know Bellum’s problem is that it’s more forgettable than that simile I was about write that’s now slipped my mind, we can look for logical reasons that define why it’s forgettable. The most obvious place to start from is actually peppered throughout this article, and is visible in the two images used so far - Bellum is an “it”.
While “it” can be meant to denote any non-gendered being as used here, the word naturally comes with some other tones, ones that sufficiently describe Bellum. By calling something “it”, you recognize that it has no personality, and is referred to basically as an object. Bellum, being an “it” by nature, is incredibly difficult to characterize in any sort of fashion. The only real way you can make an “it” villain effective is to go the Lovecraftian cosmic horror route, which works surprisingly well.
However, for a cosmic horror direction to work, you have to fear the horror in question - which brings us to the next problem: Bellum isn’t scary.
When, during the events of Phantom Hourglass, did you feel threatened by Bellum? It’s absent nearly the entire game, only spoken of by other characters. And we’re not talking “spoken of” in that dark sort of whispering sense that broke logic and somehow ended up working very well in The Lord of the Rings in regards to Sauron - we’re talking a world that’s basically unaffected by whatever Bellum happens to be doing, and only, like, two characters care about it.
It’s primary vessel of terror, the dreaded Ghost Ship, is only capable of sapping people’s life force when they voluntarily go on board like complete and utter nincompoops - it prefers to sort of hang out in a foggy bank and do nothing. It finally takes an active hunt for the Ghost Ship to bring it down, which seems to completely debunk any sense that the Ship is truly powerful as it desperately evades a twelve-year old with a sword.
Then there’s the problem of Bellum’s ill-defined goals. In order to properly fear a villain, you need to fear what will happen if the villain gets its way - in all media, it’s this fear of the consequences of failure that a person really feels, not really the fear of the one who causes them. This is why Bellum fails in large part to demand any sort of fear. The double whammy of never showing up in a meaningful way before the end and not having any actual premise is basically fatal.
So now the problem with Bellum’s ineffectiveness is more clearly identified, but there’s one last hammer in the nail of this coffin, one last glaring problem that pushed Bellum into the realm of forgettable villains. To be blunt, it’s boring. Bellum is just a really damn boring villain.
Bellum is a malformed squid covered in eyes that seeks to drain the life force from the world by sending out its laughably useless Ghost Ship. In the meantime, Bellum will just sort of lay around at the bottom of the worst dungeon in Zelda history and kind of hang there. It’s good that the rest of the supporting cast in Phantom Hourglass is exemplary (Linebeck and Ciela being particularly notable), because otherwise the plot would be total deadweight.
We’ve now identified that Bellum is a noneffective villain, that it’s noneffective because it’s forgettable and boring, and that it’s forgettable and boring because it has no personality, no real presence or actually threatening goals (we’re told it’s dangerous by Oshus, but never shown). Now what did we learn from the Bellum Profile?
- Villains need to be personal and present in order to be effective. This means they need to be a constant threat in the back of the reader/viewer/player’s mind, and show up a nice number of times over the course of the story.
- Villains need to have a clear and threatening end goal to their villainous schemes in order for the conflict to have any sort of resonating effect, otherwise the events of the story feel flat.
- Villains need to strike fear in the reader/viewer/player by a “shown” event - something witnessed in the story, not something another character described in an expository sequence.
- Villains’ ways of operating need to feel threatening. When they or their forces show up it has to mean certain trouble, i.e. not a ship hanging around in a fog bank just because.
So how’s that for a way too late at night after hard partying cross-examination of a character that’s probably only increasing your headache? Happy 2013!