A good villain is hard to find. Sometimes what we think of as a villain is an antagonist at best, an immediate threat, a guy with a faux-badass one liner throwing us out of the airlock.
But a proper villain needs presence, needs to be a driving force behind most things happening to your protagonist. A proper villain is frequently above getting into figurative fisticuffs with the hero until it’s time for the final showdown. Think Sauron and Saruman rather than the nasty steroidal orc* that pin cushioned Sean Bean in the first Lord of the Rings movie.
With that in mind, and with minor exceptions to keep you on your toes, let’s jump into our list.
SPOILERS will be here and there. Be warned.
10. The Elder God – Legacy of Kain franchise
Long-reaching is the grasp of those unbound by the shackles of time and causality. Several characters in the Legacy of Kain games can attest to that, but for all of Moebius’ time-travelling shenanigans and arrogance he can’t hold a candle to the ancient deity he serves.
The Elder God is, at first glance, little more than an enormous tangle of eyes and tentacles stretching across the “underwater” areas of the entire spiritual dimension of Nosgoth. However the more you travel Nosgoth as Raziel and Kain, the more you learn of his true agenda.
The Elder God has been described as the force behind “all of the conflict and strife throughout history”, and the claim proves true long before the story loops around itself at the end of Legacy of Kain: Defiance.
The story is honestly both too fascinating to spoil and too convoluted to go into detail here, so let’s just say that the big cephalopod is one of the best depictions of a Lovecraftian horror that we have ever seen in video games. Inscrutable, virtually untouchable, mere mortals are driven to despair at the sight of him. Living by the cycle of death and rebirth and determined to keep the wheel turning, no matter the cost. He exists beyond time, and so do his plans.
9. Atlas – BioShock
Politeness is the key
A lot has been said about BioShock over more than a decade since its original release, and with good reason. It’s a rich environment on multiple levels, including ideological and architectural. It also happens to twist the game’s narrative and the player’s habits around themselves until we’re left questioning our own agenda.
The latter part is thanks to a character nicknamed Atlas, who masterfully exploited the years of psychological engineering Jack, the player character, has undergone since his earliest days, all in order to bring about the fall of Andrew Ryan, Rapture’s creator. The revelation that a simple phrase “Would you kindly” would render your character unable to resist the suggestion was one thing. The revelation that like a good player you also went about performing every objective assigned this way is something that cuts much deeper, clean through the fourth wall.
8. Sarah Kerrigan – Starcraft
Sarah Kerrigan was among humanity’s best. A top-tier scout, utterly deadly with her sniper rifle, before thirty she was already more accomplished than many soldiers her senior. And that’s before we even take into consideration her psychic abilities, honed and polished through her training as a member of the Terran Ghosts. It was, then, quite a blow to humanity when she was lost to the Zerg because evacuation was deemed too risky by the top brass.
The decision bit them in the posterior when Kerrigan returned as the Queen of Blades, and before long took control of the Zerg Swarm herself, ascended beyond subservience to the Overmind.
In the long run, Kerrigan became of the central figures in the lore of Starcraft, and she had a rather haunting design complementing her power and influence as the leader of the swarmiest bunch of bugs on this side of the galaxy.
7. Harbinger – Mass Effect 2 and 3
Although it might be tempting to pin The Illusive Man as Mass Effect’s villain, in ME2 he is an uneasy ally, and he’s taken a back seat for most of the third. Instead, the true force behind most of the game is the unsubtly named Harbinger, the first of the inscrutable beings known as Reapers.
Everyone who has played Mass Effect 2 is very familiar with the words “Assuming direct control” he would helpfully utter when one of the Collectors were supposedly buffed by his interference.
Harbinger’s influence was deep and insidious, eventually reaching the Illusive Man himself before the third game’s end. Before the appearance of the infamous Star Child, it was Harbinger that stood…or hovered, as the architect of the Milky Way’s plight, and it took a lot of effort to confront it.
6. Dormin – Shadow of the Colossus
Hope is the road eagerly travelled by manipulation. Such is the lesson learned by a young man called Wander, the protagonist of Shadow of the Colossus.
He sought the favour from Dormin, a rather ominous being composed seemingly of smoke and shadows. Residing in a remote temple, Dormin has but one task he would ask of Wander before restoring life to the body of Mono, a young woman sacrificed to avoid a dark prophecy. All that needed to be done is killing several titanic beings roaming the lands beyond the temple.
It quickly turned out that each of the colossi were holding captive a piece of Dormin’s own essence, fractured and locked away in order to prevent the dark spirit’s coming. It also appeared that the vile essence began corrupting Wander who held it within him.
Ultimately, everything seemed to play into Dormin’s own plan, whether to release him into the world again, or being reborn in a physical body, as the case might be.
5. Kreia – Knights of the Old Republic 2
Blindsight is 20/20
The extent of Kreia’s true nature is hidden behind conveniently dispensed truths and plans spanning back many years. When she first appears to you, she’s little more than a very cynical, very pragmatic old woman with whom the Exile has a strange Force connection.
But picking up piece by piece, and playing the game through to the end the events fall into place, and what emerges is the image of someone so disillusioned with the famed and coveted Force that she would seek to destroy it, freeing the Galaxy from its influence in the process.
The two major antagonists of KotOR2 were her students, and the Exile is her last chance to kill the Force.
Kreia is the kind of villain that would be a saviour by any means necessary, which is what makes her compelling, and her perspective on the Force is fresh and as of yet unchallenged.
4. Sargeras – Warcraft
The cause of all suffering
If you’ve player Warcraft games, you might be familiar with the Burning Legion. You know, the flaming mass of demons and destroyers continuously assaulting the world of Azeroth, trying to bring it to ruin.
As it happens, the legion is ruled by the fallen titan Sargeras. Sargeras was once a mighty warrior, protecting the various planets against the demon which would plague them. Eventually, however, seeing the futility of his endeavours he became mad, and decided to scour the galaxy of all life to halt the encroaching Void corrupting everything in its path.
Eventually his sight fell on Azeroth, and everything that has happened since was in some part Sargeras’ bid to raze the galaxy to the figurative ground, including Azeroth, where a new potential titan lies.
3. Gaunter O’Dimm – The Witcher 3
Pacta sunt servanda
Pacts must be honoured, says the phrase, but in popular culture pacts and deals are typically the tool of infernal meddlers, most famously Lucifer who struck a deal with doctor Faustus through demon Mephistophilis. Master Mirror is a being of comparable influence, although he prefers to get more hands-on with his deals.
When we first meet Gaunter, it’s near the very beginning of the game, where he poses as a simple mirror merchant turned vagabond by the war. He offered Geralt some info and that was it. However in the Hearts of Stone expansion O’Dimm turned out to be capable of granting wishes, time manipulation, certain degree of telekinesis and more.
His influence was eventually overcome through cleverness (unless it wasn’t, it was the player’s choice), but within the scope of the expansion O’Dimm was definitely a villain, hidden under a friendly facade of someone who merely seeks the fulfilment of the deals made in good faith.
As a bonus. do pay attention to your surroundings and you might spot him. Or hear him referenced, at least. Master Mirror definitely keeps his fingers in many pies.
PS: check out Wikipedia entry for Pan Twardowski, it’s an old Polish legend and bears many similarities with the themes of Hearts of Stone.
2. GLaDOS – Portal
Ah, GLaDOS, the sarcastic AI running the Aperture Science facility sounding like HAL-9000’s snarky younger sister. Her voice is the player’s constant companion, commenting on our actions with the air of confident superiority until the finale. And even then she gets the last word thanks to the infectious song played during the closing credits.
Good luck getting that out of your head, haha, fat chance.
GLaDOS is very hard to hate even as she tells us off for incinerating a companion cube. Who’s the true monster here, I wonder.
1. The Fatebinder – Tyranny
Although the caveat here is that it’s fully depending on player choice, it’s a very likely scenario that the Fatebinder, player avatar within the world of Obsidian Entertainment’s Tyranny, is going to be the worst thing that has happened to the Tiers, where the game is set in the game’s world. And it’s in comparison to an army of bloodthirsty psychos who recruit people by force and en masse, and a legion of supremacist northerners eagerly putting everyone to sword.
The Fatebinder is in a unique position as the agent of law, and as such can easily play an inquisitorial role, as a cold and efficient machine. It’s perfectly possible to play as a cold and ruthless inquisitor-like figure, ruining people’s lives in the process of upholding the rules.
Let’s just say that the game presents the player character with an option to kill a baby to break a certain spell, and many potentially gruesome and cruel decisions can be made before the game even begins – during character creation phase.
And there’s pretty much only one ending which the Fatebinder is anywhere close to being a hero, and even that one results in a large-scale destruction and despair for their enemies.
And it’s all YOUR choice.
So there you have it, a list of our favourite malevolent meddlers whose ominous presence can be felt throughout the game worlds. Whether they eventually turn out to be a final boss, are dispatched through plot development, or even get away scot free, they are more than a bag of HP: they are characters with agendas and enough influence to have a good shot at enacting them.
Who’s your favourite villain from your years of gaming? Do share your insights in the comments for everyone to see.
Stay evil, folks. The cookies are amazing.
*his name was Lurtz and he was an Uruk-hai