No world is worth saving without a worthy opponent to threaten it. In almost every game we play, someone has to be defeated, but it is a rare villain that leaves a lasting impression and lingers on even after the credits have rolled. Whether the bad guy did something vile, is just pure evil, or somehow hits a sympathetic chord with the player, there is an antagonist that stands out above all the others. So, with the New Years here, some of the rebels wanted to collaborate and discuss the biggest and most memorable villains in the video game realm.
Note: Several of these sections may spoil large parts of the games they discuss.
Suikoden is a role-playing game I spent countless hours on over multiple playthroughs, and is one of a handful of games that revitalized my interest in gaming during a time when I was phasing the hobby out of my life. I love that game, so naturally, when its sequel was published in North America in the Fall of 1999, I bought a copy the moment I saw it sitting on the shelf at my local game store. Suikoden II would soon become my favorite RPG, and that distinction still holds true today. It didn’t make any radical changes from the original and instead took all the elements that were great about its predecessor and improved upon on them. The first Suikoden had great characters and a fantastic story, but to be honest, its lack of a really great central antagonist slightly diminished the urgency of the heroes’ cause. Suikoden II completely remedied that problem with the introduction of Luca Blight, an antagonist who completely fulfills his role in creating a clear and justified motivation that binds the protagonists together in their quest. Not only is he a great villain in the Suikoden universe—he’s also one of the greatest villains in all of video games.
I don’t particularly believe in the concept of evil, but if I did, I could proclaim with full confidence that Luca Blight is evil incarnate. He’s a true sociopath that believes in one thing, and one thing only, and that is raw, brute force. Son of the King of Highland, his reputation as a ruthless, tyrannical killer earned him the nickname of the “Mad Prince.” With Luca Blight, the ends always justify the means, and he operates with the most despicable cruelty and without any moral binding. Early in Suikoden II, he slaughters his country’s military youth brigade and frames a neighboring state for the massacre in order to justify starting a war. Later, he ransacks and burns down whole communities just for his own enjoyment. In one village, after murdering every other person who lived there, Luca tells a woman pleading for her life that if she gets on all fours and acts like a pig, he’ll spare her. After she performs this for him, he cuts the woman down with his sword, but only before he screams “Die pig!!!!” Merciless. The pleasure he takes in the suffering of his victims may remind some of Kefka from Final Fantasy VI, but where the killer clown seems childish in his violent outbursts, Luca Blight’s acts of depravity are much more disturbing and brutal.
The reason for his bloodlust and hatred of the world stems from his childhood after witnessing the gang rape of his mother and the cowardice of his father who fled before the crime took place. In that sense he is somewhat of a tragic character, however, it’s hard to feel sorry for someone filled with so much pure malice and no remorse for his atrocious deeds, and Luca Blight is truly the character you love to hate. The Mad Prince is eventually killed about halfway through the game, but only after a cunning scheme is hatched by both the madman’s allies and enemies. His actions progressively become so heinous and out of control that it leads to two opposing sides in a war coming together in secret to take him out in a brilliantly planned and truly epic battle. The efforts of three full parties of the player’s best fighters only serve to weaken Luca, and a hail of arrows and a duel with the game’s main character finally put him down for good. In his final moments, he revels in his death, as well as all the destruction he created, leaving behind these words: “It took hundreds to kill me, but I killed humans by the thousands!!!! Look at me!!!! I am sublime!!!!!! I am the true face of evil!!!!”
Sends chills down the spine!
It’s not often that a relatable villain comes along. In fact, most villains are written to be despised. A good villain has depth, motivation, meaningful goals—but not necessarily logical goals—that conflict with the protagonist’s idea of ethical behavior. Take Liquid Snake from Metal Gear Solid for example. At first glance, Liquid appears to be a stock larger-than-life evil twin who’s dead set on power and world domination. He even has the stereotypical British accent. But once you dig past the surface, you’ll see that Liquid is an emotional character who’s driven to achieve his goals.
The Snake “brothers” were brought into existence so the people in power would have super soldiers on their side for when the shit hits the fan. Liquid was created from his “fathers” (aka, Big Boss) recessive genes and was constantly reminded of it while Solid Snake was given the dominant ones. Even though he had all of Big Boss’s genes, he was looked at as the second best son. Growing up as the middle child I can relate to that. Liquid wished to prove Big Boss wrong by killing him and succeeding where he failed. As fate would have it, Liquid lost that opportunity when Snake killed Big Boss instead. Obviously I don’t support patricide but I can sympathize with wanting your father to recognize your accomplishments and then having the chance taken away.
As for what makes Liquid so spine-tinglingly villainous, that would be his motives and how he goes about getting things done. He plans to turn the American government on its head and sell its top secret weapon—the titular Metal Gear—to the highest bidder. The thing is, world domination is not his end goal. It’s just a stepping stone to see his vision through, a vision of a war-torn world where soldiers are revered. After all, Liquid was brought into the world with the sole purpose of being a weapon. His goals are not entirely selfish either as he plans on using Big Boss’s DNA to save his genome soldiers from an impending disease.
Where Liquid’s villainy really shines though is in how he handles things. Throughout the whole game Liquid is playing the part of Snake’s former mentor, learning the Pentagon’s plan, and tricking Snake to do his own bidding. Snake is led to believe he is entering in Metal Gear’s deactivation code but he is actually activating Metal Gear for Liquid. After the alarm sounds Liquid removes his disguise, takes a bow, and climbs aboard Metal Gear. If you think he’s a monster for trying to kill Snake remember that Snake had the same thing in mind. Snake also slaughtered his genetic brothers as well as numerous members of his former organization FOXHOUND while Liquid listened.
In the end it’s revealed that Liquid received all the “soldier genes” from Big Boss’s DNA, and yet the genetically inferior Snake came out ahead. Over the course of the next few Metal Gear Solid games Liquid takes over Revolver Ocelot’s brain through his arm because his genes really want to live or something convoluted like that. To me, Liquid’s legacy lives on in the effort to create a world at war where soldiers like Snake and him can thrive. Liquid was honest to his genes until the end, while Snake acted the part of a hero while continuing to be a merciless killer.
The first Borderlands game was fun, but a little bit lacking on the story side of things. Not to mention a pretty forgettable last boss. So when Borderlands 2 came around, the developers made sure that both of these problems were fixed. The lead antagonist Handsome Jack is introduced, and from the start of the game he makes an impression with a literal BOOM! He is a constant threat without the player having to fight him numerous times, by having him communicate with the protagonists over a communicator throughout most of the missions. The player is given plenty of opportunities to get acquainted with their nemesis, while his humor and vile nature spell out the personality of a truly interesting villain.
He was so good in fact, that this “Hyperion Executive” made it into the next game (since it was a prequel to the sequel) and was even a playable character in the DLC. This gives the player another chance to get familiar with this dastardly rogue and show off what makes him so cool.
Jack pulls out all the stops to try and prevent the vault hunters from beating him to the prize, using everything that he and his massive company have at their disposal. Although this is bad guy 101 stuff for the video game world. What separates the handsome one from the rest is the lengths he is willing to go just to win. There are many great examples of this, even past what he put his own daughter through, but one particular event in the game sticks out to me above all else.
In the first game I played Mordecai, the Hunter. He had a pet falcon named Bloodwing, who saved my life more times than I could count, swooping down to deliver vengeance. The Hunter was my favorite character. We shared the entire Borderlands experience. So of course, I was excited to see him return in Borderlands 2, even if it was not as a playable character. I was stoked when we started doing missions with Mordecai, until I realized there was no animal companion present. Handsome Jack had taken her in a failed attack on the Wildlife Exploitation Reserve.
I was determined to retrieve my friend, even if I was playing a different character now, but Handsome Jack, that bastard, had other ideas. He had experimented on and brainwashed my former friend to attack us, there was still hope though. We could weaken her and take it from there… until that bastard, Jack, detonated her collar and drenched me in my friend’s blood.
In that moment, Jack decided to use humor. He talked about dicks, his glee of killing established characters, even his emotional connections when it came to his daughter, but none of that mattered to me. There was only rage. It wasn’t just mine either, as Mordecai proceeded to go a killing spree that even I was impressed with. Jack had given us a glimmer of hope just before crushing it. At that point I knew that there was no getting around it, Handsome Jack had to die.
In all the games that I’ve played in the last year or two, one of the most dastardly villains I encountered was Corypheus from Dragon Age: Inquisition. Corypheus, whose name means the Silent Conductor, was originally a magister of the Tevinter Imperium. After a failed quest to find the old gods in the Fade (the realm of spirits and demons in the Dragon Age universe) he contracts the blight and becomes one of the first darkspawn.
Unlike other darkspawn who are unintelligent and merely follow orders of an arch demon, Corypheus commanded his own will. He was incredibly powerful and had the ability to sway the Grey Wardens (who normally fight and protect the world from Dark Spawn) to do his bidding. When Corypheus was born back into the world during the age of the Inquisitor hero, he did whatever he could to control the world and kill all humankind.
The templar order, which was originally formed to protect Thedas from the desires of evil mages, was dependent on a magical substance known as lyrium. Normally, this substance had an addictive, yet positive influence on most templar knights. When Corypheus discovered red lyrium (tained with the blight of the darkspawn) he convinced the templar order to use this vile element instead. The templar knights became unwilling pawns under Corypheus, even transforming into hideous and powerful monsters.
Corypheus also stopped at nothing to bring the Grey Wardens under his control. This forced the Inquisitor and his forces to slaughter and displace the normally noble order of protectors, leaving a hole in the defenses of Thedas. The Grey Wardens are effectively done, ending a millennia of honor and tradition, as well as the lives of hundreds of good men and women.
At one point during his reign of terror, Corypheus manages to sway a grand duchess in the Orlesian Empire to attempt to murder the empress. Offering the rule of Thedas to Grand Duchess Florianne de Chalons would have given Corypheus that much more military power, as well as weakening any potential Orlesian reinforcements for the Inquisitor’s forces.
The darkspawn leader is dangerous, with his immense magical powers and ability to control armies psychically. Corypheus also begins to infuse his own body with red lyrium, further increasing his terrible powers. He has at his command darkspawn, men, and arch demons alike, even infusing a dragon with the red substance. If these powers aren’t overwhelming to the Inquisitor’s forces, Corypheus also has the power to transfer his soul to a new body if his is dispatched, making him nigh un-killable.
The Inquisitor is finally able to defeat Corypheus by throwing the monster into the breach between the physical realm and the Fade, sealing it behind him. The damage done was great, with countless mages, templars, Grey Wardens, and innocents alike dead. The land was mostly in ruin, political tensions were still strained, and the people were looking for a leader to guide them. The Inquisitor had a great task before him to help rebuild Thedas after Corypheus’s terrible war against the mortals.
I chose the villain Lavos from Chrono Trigger because while many games borrow the atmosphere or trappings of the cosmic horror story as developed by H.P. Lovecraft, very few get it right. Chrono Trigger absolutely nails it in all respects. Lavos is an eldritch abomination who lands upon the planet in ancient times, and will rise in 1999 AD to destroy the world. Lavos is a hideous entity whose very presence warps space-time on the planet it resides in – inadvertently allowing the time travel which the heroes use to defeat it. The DS port expands upon this with an optional boss fight. It has Lavos tell the heroes when you win the battle that it can’t be killed. It simply takes another version of itself from a parallel universe where you didn’t win, so all you do is meaningless. If nothing else screams “cosmic horror,” the idea that nothing you can do will stop it certainly does.
Much like Lovecraft’s creations, Lavos is a potent source of magic and occult power. The ancient mages channeled the power of the sun to work magic, but after the coming of Lavos, they channel power from it. Lavos granted magic power enough to levitate continents to its followers, and eventually Lavos-derived magic superseded all solar based magic. That’s right, Lavos has at least the same power as an entire star. This creature is more powerful than the very objects that create life in the universe, and destroys a whole planet beyond recognition. Appropriately, the magic the main characters are given is sun-derived, which finally enables them to defeat him.
The sequel, Chrono Cross, takes things further. Lavos merges with another character to become the Time Devourer who hides out beyond space-time, gathering power. It eats timelines that are forgotten, and is aiming to destroy the entire universe. Nearly every other villain in gaming is content to destroy planets, or at most a galaxy. Lavos eventually works its way up to destroying everything in existence. What is a better villain than one who is apparently only able to be slowed, but never defeated; is more powerful than a fusion reaction taking place over thousands of square miles and eventually becomes so powerful that entire universes fall before it. Lavos isn’t just a villain, it is entropy incarnate. This is why it stands out so well against the myriad of angsty assholes, smug shitheads and other assorted lesser beings who pretend to be RPG villains. It’s one of the most well crafted antagonists in gaming, period.
I have to be honest here, when I think of good villains, I typically don’t look to video games to find them. This medium is still a relatively young form of entertainment, and it shows. Especially when it comes to believable, powerful story telling. Many video games simply lack the narrative punch of their rival formats. There is a good reason for this however; movies and even TV shows have had decades upon decades to polish their way of storytelling to a shiny perfection. Video games on the other hand are still in their teenage years. And what normally comes along with teenagers? Usually it’s angst, temper tantrums and rebellious behavior, hence, much like the villains we are treated to in most video games (and granted, quite a few movies too). But alas, this piece isn’t meant to explain why I think there are no good villains in video games, because obviously there are!
So then what, exactly, makes a good villain? Personally, I like complex, conflicted characters. Although one note villains can be equally as compelling if the character is well written. The most infamous and perhaps obvious example of this in a video game is Kefka of Final Fantasy VI. He is a one note villain that really works, simply because his actions are so far removed from any sense of logical reason (not to mention he is hilarious in a horrible kind of way). Kefka is a psychopath that kills seemingly for the fun of it and looks to bring on the Apocalypse because… why not? He is memorable due to his actions being so incredibly vile and repugnant. And yes, there are many other video game villains that commit evil acts, but Kefka wanted to destroy the world simply because he loved watching all life perish in a giant blaze of senseless villainy. Perhaps even himself with it!
I like to think that Kefka worked in the same way that Heath Ledgers portrayal of the Joker worked in “The Dark Knight”. Both were insane, both were basically anarchists whose only real motivation was death and destruction, for the fun of it. Which leads me to my segue: “The Joker.” To me, there really is no better villain in video games than Mark Hamill’s portrayal of the maniacal clown in the Batman Arkham series. Of course, Hamill has been voicing the Joker for decades in one form or another, but when Arkham City was released, the bar was raised to exceptional heights.
While much of the experience is what I would consider standard video game fare as far as characters go, every scene where Hamill’s Joker is present manages to elevate the rest of the game to the pinnacle of his maniacal delirium. I have never been as invested in a villain as I was in the opening minutes of Arkham Asylum. This truly WAS the Joker I was seeing, wheeled down Arkham’s dark corridors rattling off line after line of insane dialog, all while being absolutely convincing. There is simply no other villain I can think of in a video game that comes close to the perfection of Mark Hamill in arguably, his best role. His dedication to the craft is unrivaled, at least in the world of video game voice acting.
But Hamill didn’t just do it once, he did it three times throughout the Arkham series (and while Troy Baker did an admirable job in Arkham Origins, he is no Mark Hamill). And as you would imagine, he remains incredibly consistent throughout, even in *spoiler alert* Arkham Knight where he haunts Batman through hallucinations. These scenes were so effective that I found myself waiting to see where the Joker would pop up next. I can’t say there are many other villains, or even characters for that matter, that brought such excitement every time they appeared on screen. Yes, perhaps the Joker isn’t the most original or compelling villain ever to grace a video game, but thanks to Mark Hamill’s dedication to the character, the Joker is unrivaled in my book.