Why We Game - Villains

FBT explains his favourite bad guys and why he killed them.

In movies, the villain is often more fun than the hero, but in video games you rarely wish you were fighting for the other side. Bosses are usually lumbering cheats with over-sized health bars like they're compensating for something. But this is a list of bosses, final and mini that I’ve loved to hate - or in some cases, hated killing.

Frank Fontaine, despite being the actual Bioshock baddie is often forgotten in favour of Ryan; from setting his beloved city’s self-destruct to stop ‘Atlas’ getting it, to letting his own son beat him to death to prove his point, Ryan is a tough act to follow and Fontaine seems a panto villain in comparison. But...

It’s true Bioshock loses something after Fontaine is revealed, but that’s not his fault. Fontaine and Ryan were similar – they believed in the self, in being unrestrained, but Ryan did compromise himself; he robs the Splicers of free-will, the backbone of his belief system, to do his dirty work - making him the very parasite he rallies against. Fontaine never compromised, never wavered. No pontificating, no grand speeches – yes, he goes on a bit, and his plan is convoluted, but Fontaine knew who he was; a crook. Nothing more complex than that. It’s rare that a narrative-driven experience, be it a game, movie or book has just a bad-guy to foil. Villains nowadays need motivation and are usually, well, more like Ryan. Fontaine is a refreshingly simple gangster.

I hated killing Vaas in Far Cry 3. Not because I liked the nusto, but because losing him two-thirds of the way through is a major mistake the game never recovers from. The final boss Hoyt is a sneering pillock who tried to be scary, whereas Vaas is scare. The time with Vaas is gaming gold. From his opening scenes mocking us in the cage, setting dogs on us, making us run Forrest, setting us on fire, explaining insanity, trying to drown us, shooting us point-blank - and still anticipating us surviving? He’s not just an insane maniac, he's like a cat playing with a mouse and the impact of Vaas feels bigger than the game actually planned; a strange connection builds between him and Jase, one that is criminally wasted once he's gone. Jase and Vaas were like Batman and the Joker, they completed each other, reflected each other – most importantly, Vaas is the madman Jase might become, yet he's what Jase needs to be to survive. It always felt like Vaas knew what Jase was walking into. Vass claims the definition of insanity is repeating an act and expecting a different outcome, but once Vaas and Jase break the cycle, the game ironically gets samey.

But Vaas isn’t the only bad guy in FC3. Buck is something else again. A sadomasochistic bastard who takes pleasure in upsetting Jase with tales of abusing our pal Keith - he’s so horrible you feel Jase’s rage, and look forward to gutting him. FC3 does astonishing work of making Buck and Vaas very, very dangerous men and the tension, the fear and anger that you get just looking into their eyes is unnerving.

Sticking with the FC franchise a bit longer, one villain that caught me off-guard was FC4’s Pagan Min. At first I thought he was an effeminate Asian cliché, but while there’s some North Korea vibes to him and the story, you realise he’s actually a brilliant antagonist – and that all he ever really wanted was for you to take control of Kyrat. Mid-game, when he’s calling to ask if Denis Rodman might be persuaded to visit, he seems just a typical self-aware meta villain, but you start to suspect he’s more than that, and when he saves your life or talks about tough love, he’s not just toying with you, he’s trying to turn you into the king Kyrat needs, makes you see the truth of the place. When he finally allows you to put your mum’s ashes to rest and explains how he ended up like this, you actually feel for him. It’s the only game where I sided with the bad guy, then went and killed the supposed good guys Sabal and Amita.

Exactly what FC4 is saying with all of this isn’t clear, but when did an FC have a satisfying ending? Min is a brilliant baddie. At the beginning when he says “you and I are gonna tear shit up!” that’s the game I wish I’d played. The Golden Path suck.

Perhaps the oddest villain on my list is Songbird from Bioshock Infinite. Odd because he’s completely ineffectual, a strictly scripted threat. Deeply in love with Elizabeth and utterly dedicated to keeping her in Columbia, he and Liz are Big Daddy and Little Sister 2.0. The sequence where you find a prototype lying on the floor forced to watch an endless repeat of images and the only one it reacts to is a photo of Liz is heart-breaking. Songbird’s tenderness towards Liz is affecting and his ending is a beautiful, horrible moment. What makes it ten times worse is Infinite is an insanely frustrating, smug game that doesn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny and after his emotional end, it all turns to shit; but Songbird soars above all that to become the most effecting and interesting character in it and one of my favourite ‘monster villains’. That he's been completely forgotten is a travesty. He is gaming’s King Kong.

Actually, the real villains of Infinite are those goddamn Luteces. They caused everything that happens, do nothing to fix it even though they can time-travel, effect reality, brain-wash people, and know the events that will unfold yet keep them from Booker and expect him to behave differently to all the others. So what’s the actual outcome of Infinite? The Luteces survive! If Booker dies before Comstock is created, Columbia is never built so they're not murdered; everyone else winks out of existence and they live? God I hate Infinite.

Anyway... if we're talking about inter-dimensional ghosts, there's only one on my list...

F.E.A.R Alma. That moment where you’re in the security office and turn to see her at the window, those bloody footprints approaching you, the time she flickers in and out while you’re stuck in the lift or see her shadow in a dark corridor you have to walk down … and that damn ladder moment. Alma is fear.

FEAR exploited every good horror trope. Occasional jump-scares, seeing shadows, lights flickering and swinging, things fall off shelves; you see something out of the corner of your eye, the feeling of being watched; and the way you’re Pavlov’s Dog-conditioned to get nervous whenever you see ‘unknown signal’ on Comms. FEAR knows what scares you, and the scariest thing is this seemed to be just another shooter. FEAR tricked us.

Heavily influenced by Japanese horror, primarily Dark Water and Ring, we know this little girl and we know nothing’s going to stop Alma. But like all good J-Horror she’s tinged with sadness; she was wronged, and now we’re front and centre for her revenge.

We see little Alma exacting horrible, skin-melting revenge on everyone but she doesn’t seem to mean us any harm - she’s curious, and that’s even more scary. The threat is left to the older, emaciated Alma rushing at us screeching. Great, two terrifying Almas, but it’s interesting that the little curious girl is the one that gets to you, not the monstrous banshee whose hugs can kill. Throw in the X-Files like conspiracy to both hide and exploit Alma, a heartless corporation, the mysterious (and cannibalistic) Fettel, and our own part to play and you’ve got a heady narrative to disappear into. And this is a shooter?

I hated Arkham Knight. I hated it so much. But for all the problems I had with it, there was one unmistakable piece of brilliance. The dead Joker. In Arkhams' Asylum, City and even Origins he was the conniving, dangerous character you expect. What you didn’t expect was his death at the end of City. The Joker doesn’t die any more than Bats kills. When Knight opens with his body being cremated you still expect him to jump up, to be revealed as someone else, do something. But no, he’s gone. And then he came back.

Now Bats’ personal Tyler Durden, he constantly needles Bats about living no real life, taunting him about the people he’s not managed to save; Bats losing his mind to the The Joker means he would effectively be reborn; now that’s how you bring a character back from the dead; in Bats’ mind, the Joker is alive - and more gleefully villainous than ever.

Talking of pure villainy, the Sphere in Prey (2006) is an odd choice but it stuck with me; for most of the game, our hero Tommy is fighting his way through its bowels. First time I’ve ever been inside a Villain; that stays with you. Returning to earth every few generations to abduct humans for spare parts, the Sphere is a living, breathing torture factory that just gets worse the further you go while ‘mother’, the Sphere’s consciousness taunts Tommy. Mother is like a lot of unseen, goading voices we’ve dealt with before but whereas GLaDOS or Shodan were aggrieved AI’s, what’s at the centre of the Sphere is much worse. We just spend hours knee-deep in reconstituted human remains, watching people being ripped limb from limb, seen tortured aliens, even our weapons are built out of still-aware creatures; this place is horrible and when we reach Mother, it’s a … human who lets all this suffering continue in return for immortality? You MoFo. That she fused your girlfriend to another creature and made you kill her is just one reason why offing Mother will be such a pleasure, even if it's an overwrought boss battle, but Tommy’s final act of sacrifice to break the cycle of the sphere is a grand bit of game story telling. Shame they tacked on a franchise-starting ending that never happened.

Saint’s Row 4’s Zinyak is an awesome villain. The time he interrupts the boss and Pierce's sing-along to Just A Friend (topped only by him rage-quitting the audio commentary in Dominatrix) is awesome. And he’s such a luvvie. He’s a grand old-school villain with no real need to do the things he does, it’s purely for his own amusement and ego. He even wears a cape. He’s like Ming in the 1970s Flash Gordon movie. SR4 is a mad game and a lot of the time you’re not really thinking about Zinyak, you’re too busy being a nutso hero with superpowers but kudos to devs Volition for managing to create a memorable villain when you have such an overwhelming lead.

No villain list would be complete without Portal’s GlaDOS, but there’s a good reason for that. She’s one of the best villains of all time. Her constant assertion that there’s cake at the end rings hollow the first time you see ‘the cake is a lie’ scrawled on a hidden wall, but by then you’d begun to suspect the automated voice directing you to test is anything but automated. You realise she killed everyone else, and now she’s after you. But she’s powerless while you’re outside the testing areas which is a new dynamic in games, a largely helpless villain, so all she can do is taunt you up until the end where a battle of wits plays out over a thing that makes shoes for orphans. Portal might be a mind-twisting logic game but it’s all about GLaDOS. You don’t replay it for the puzzles, you go back for GLaDOS.

Her return in Portal 2, when she’s stuck to a potato and learns some humility is where you realise none of this was her fault and maybe she’s not so bad. But just as you’re thinking it’s a cop-out to humanise her, GlaDOS regains control – and then deletes the memory, proving she was always the dyed-in-the-wool villain we love her for – “I think that one was about to say ... I love you.”

Another amorphous, ‘can’t be reasoned with’ villain is WAU in SOMA. And it’s not even a villain. You know how your mum would make you eat your greens, clean your teeth, get in the bath, and would justify those tortures with ‘its for your own good’ – that’s WAU. On a deep-sea science base, a disaster occurs that traps everyone under the waves. WAU, the station’s AI follows its programming – ‘protect mankind’ – but, because it doesn’t understand quality of life, it activates this liquid circuitry smart gel stuff and begins bonding people to machines, creating artificial lungs and body-parts to ensure their survival as they decay. It’s beyond horrible. Until you discover survivors digitised themselves into hard-drives to be transferred to a Holodeck style virtual reality, but WAU began placing them in the various machines around the place instead. Now it’s beyond horrible. This place is literally a living nightmare. Some don't even understand what happened to them, some you find begging you to end their suffering, but it's those who beg to keep living that are the ones that mess your head up. WAU is the best villain in recent gaming – because it’s just doing it for your own good.

But my favourite villain is the one in Spec Ops The Line. On the surface it's a CoD knock-off, but as you progress you realise The Line is something you cross, not play. When you finally reach the renegade US General responsible for all you’ve endured in the ruins of Dubai, it turns out he was dead long before you got there, and you were looking to find excuses for your actions. None of this had to happen; you did it because killing everyone, committing atrocities and reaching the big-bad is what soldiers (and gamers) do - the game was playing you; it makes you consider how you play shooters; you let your comrades die, killed supposed traitorous soldiers, murdered innocents and doomed survivors to die just to reach a boss battle – but not this time. The Line has the best villain of all time. You.

And so, those are the guys, gals and machines that had me smirking as much as scowling. They’re all very different but all have one thing in common – they’re not video game bosses. They’re conflicted, corrupt, conniving characters. One thing that struck me is how many of my all-time fave games don’t have an appearance here – I guess not every good game needs a great big bad; Mass Effect’s Reapers are perhaps the literal biggest bosses faced, but they’re rarely in it and just provide Shep with a reason to keep fighting. But a good bad guy can really make a game something special. You want the right boss for the right game – Serious Sam would be a lot duller if we reached the end only to discover Ryan playing golf. But this list of reprobates, I’d have a beer with all them. Except Buck. And I’d be very nervous about spilling Vaas’ pint. But I’d do a karaoke with Zinyak. And share my cake with GLaDOS.