The Escapist has a good article up on Foozles; those Big Bad end bosses in the majority of RPGs. Certainly, there is a place for a Big Bad villain to serve as a strong antagonist in a narrative, but what can you do without one?
I’ve been writing an “alternate history” sort of book/series for a while now, sort of a mix of Steampunk ethos and Dinotopia with a fair dose of Norse-inspired whimsy. It’s not in any sort of publishable form as yet, but as I’ve been crafting the world and its history, I just haven’t been able to find a good place for a singular Big Bad. The scope of what I’m angling for is more political and sweeping than would be served justice by a single criminal mastermind. (It’s worth noting that Dinotopia is the single strongest influence in this project, and that excellent book is most about exploring an amazing world, not a Heroic Journey needing resolution.)
One alternate that I’ve toyed with is the sort of thing that Kirk dealt with in The Doomsday Machine; a totally nonsentient relic of a forgotten war. Of course, it would serve as a singular menace akin to a Big Bad, but it also has elements of a force of nature, in that it simply functions; there is no malicious deviant at the helm. Even so, that just isn’t terribly satisfying to me, and if I go that route, it’s going to be a wheel within a wheel. The notion of a singular Big Bad just seems too… simple to me. Too… neat of a solution to a world where factions and contentions aren’t merely black and white.
That doesn’t mean that it’s bad to have a clear singular enemy. Darth Vader has his fans, and in some ways, he really makes the movies. Simplicity isn’t a bad thing either, especially in a relatively straightforward morality tale.
So, singular iconic villains aren’t a sign of incompetence… they just aren’t the only way to create conflicts for heroes to overcome. In a lot of ways, heroes are made by a lot of little choices, not by the singular defeat of a true monster. Sometimes it’s the quiet moments that are the most important; the choices that don’t save the world, but define a soul.
The Escapist article floated the notion that games have indulged in Foozle hunting for a long time, and may yet for a long time. Perhaps games are too simple a storytelling medium to do much else… or perhaps our writers (and players) are too immature. Maybe the mainstream of games will always be a Foozle hunt (whether in the Big Bad mold or the “kill ten foozles” mole)… but I believe there’s a place for something a bit more subtle.