I’ve worked on a couple games now that were fairly late stage and required complete rewrites; repurposing pre-existing events or assets. The major thing these games had in common was the lack of a clear villain.
There are a lot of ways games differ from books or movies, but one of the most significant (for a writer) is that you’re not in control of the main character. You can’t control how the player feels, you can’t guarantee the player will notice a specific detail (unless you use a cutscene, which can be problematic in itself).
Usually the main character drives a story. When you can’t use that main character that way… Well, it’s pretty easy to lose direction. The story is directing itself according to the needs of the developers, not the needs of the main character. Which means it won’t feel compelling.
A villain, however, focuses a story admirably. Or it can, if you introduce the villain early enough, establish his villainy, and give him something to want. He can force the player’s hand, to some extent. He can set up ambushes, he can spy on you, he can hire someone to poison you, he can mind control the King… He can have a story. His actions can follow an internal logic and that, in turn, can make a story feel real.
Often newer writers try to be too coy with their villains. They try to hide them until the end, so it’s a surprise. Problem is that you have no reason to hate the villain if you didn’t realize he was the one causing your problems. You need to show him, or someone directly connected to him, kicking puppies pretty early on.
It’s easy to hate someone who kicks puppies. It’s easy to believe the corrupt sheriff is working for a shadowy crime boss. You may not actually *see* that crime boss until late in the game, but so long as you know he exists and you can connect horrific acts with him, it works. Think of the tiers of villains in a James Bond movie. Minor guy leads to major guy.
It’s worth noting here that not all stories require a villain. However, epic adventure games? They do.
I may try starting with the villain for the next story I write. It would be different.