On this podcast Zak is asked what his favourite villain is. There is then some discussion of what makes a good villain, and the interviewer postulates that in a game, "the villain is the plot"; or, if I understood him correctly, a game is all about how the players react to what the villain does.
That's all very strange to me, and it got me thinking about villains in my games: in short, there aren't any. It's just not how I set things up. I start off with a big list of NPCs and they have their own motivations, goals and relationships, and some of them are very bad, but none of them are really villains in the narrative sense. They're not opposed to the PCs unless the PCs do something to piss them off or go out of their way to set themselves up in opposition to them. (In fact, in D&D in particular, the notion of a Big Bad Evil Guy never made any sense to me: this is a world where there are 20th level Lawful Good paladins, gold dragons, and kirin running about the place, right? So why would any BBEG even care about what this gang of 1st level no-hopers is doing? And why would those no-hopers have to get involved in the first place?)
But that's just in short; in practice, of course, villains emerge spontaneously through play, because if there's anything players are good at, it's doing things that piss off powerful NPCs. Once the game begins and the PCs are doing what they do, it is more or less inevitable that some NPC or other(s) will end up being "the villain" by default. This is as true of dungeoneering-type fantasy games ("Oh, we just pissed off the evil wizard") as it is of cyberpunk-type games ("Oh, we just pissed off the sinister faceless megacorp") as it is of SF ("Oh, we just pissed off those aliens"). In other words, villainy is something that comes about from the game, not something that is there from the start. It's bottom-up, not top-down.
That got me thinking further: is it, perhaps, inherent in role playing games there has to be a villain somewhere? That if there is not a villain from the start, ultimately the actions of the players will necessitate one emerging, unless they literally sit around doing nothing all day? Can there be any genuine interest without a villain existing at least as a corollary?