Cyberpunk is unique in that a lot of the time, the villain of the story is a concept rather than an actual person. The villain of the story may take different forms throughout, but with cyberpunk they can also take a powerful form: the puppet master–pulling the strings on what seems to be an endless onslaught of oppression. The protagonists of cyberpunk are battling against a system of oppression that resulted from government, or corporate takeover of society and the loss of personal liberty for the citizens of that society. Protagonists aren’t just fighting against a single adversary, they’re fighting to undo a powerful system which is deeply rooted in place. With this in mind, we’ll look at some examples of villains in works of cyberpunk and evaluate their character traits and motives. Villains are important because they challenge protagonists and put them through trials that push their ideals to the limit, often blurring the line between good and evil. Great villains know how to manipulate the protagonist, are cunning, and are ruthless in pursuit of their goals.
The Matrix: Agent Smith
As seen in the Matrix, Agent Smith is ruthless, cold, and calculating, always working toward getting what he wants. Agent Smith’s emotionless, professional attitude is what makes him frightening. Agent Smith is effective as a villain because we, as the audience, are enthralled by his ruthless persistence of trying to sustain the Matrix and destroying external threats that would seek to destroy it. Agent Smith embodies both the concept of brutal oppression, but also takes on a human-like form that makes him a unique, interesting villain. When creating villains like Agent Smith, focus on cruelty, ruthlessness, and endless persistence. These villains represent an idea more than the character themselves and their humanity should be put on the backburner. These types of villains are scary because they’ll do whatever it takes to get things done and have no redeemable qualities.
Blade Runner: Roy Batty (Blade Runner Spoilers below)
In my opinion, Roy Batty is one of the most interesting villains in all of cyberpunk. He is a Replicant (a synthetic human with enhanced capabilities, engineered entirely of organic substance.) and is unique in that he blurs the lines between human and machine, struggling to find identity as he leads the renegade Nexus-6 Replicants. Throughout the story, Roy is constantly beaten down by a search for purpose, developing, conflicted, emotions, and the fact that most of his friends were eliminated one by one. Created by Tyrell corporation, Roy represents the question of “what is humanity?” and struggles with that questions through the entire film. Finally, in his last moments, Roy saves Deckard, his adversary, which suggests he has transcended the line between human and replicant and become something that is neither one. With deep confliction and a surprisingly relatable human side, Roy Batty is an excellent antagonist because it’s easy for the audience to connect and feel empathy toward him and what he’s doing. Villains like Roy Batty that are internally conflicted make great characters, adversaries, and some of the most interesting villains of all time. Creating villains that can be redeemed like Roy Batty or Darth Vader (not truly cyberpunk, but a good example nonetheless) can make a story interesting and create scary, understandable, and life-like villains that can make a story great.
The Faceless Villain
Different from the other villains, we have the faceless leader, a mysterious overlord of society that remains masked throughout the entire work. These villains almost always throw a twist in which they appear in a form different than what the audience expects–a form almost always more sinister. Faceless villains often have the most control over cyberpunk society and use others to fight their battles for them until they’re ready to face the protagonist. When the protagonist finally encounters the faceless villain, the consequences will often be staggering. Faceless villains or an overarching mastermind are fun to create, they seem to be omnipotent, invincible, and always make the best decisions. Protagonists that have to stand against faceless villains will be pushed to their limits and rely on others to help them overcome the seemingly impossible task of defeating them.
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Featured image used with express permission of Mike Winkelmann/Beeple.