One of the most important elements of storytelling is crafting a protagonist that the audience will be invested in. If the hero is endearing, multi-layered, and empathetic, they will be more likely to stick around to see the outcome of their journey. With the protagonist being such a critical component of a story, it stands to reason that the antagonist would be just as important. While villains are often not as talked about as their heroic counterparts, they play just as big of a role in determining how invested the audience will become in the story that is being told. This is true for movies, TV shows, books, as well as video games.
One of the fascinating things about video game villains is all of the varieties they can come in. Protagonists in video games can be often be boiled down to a handful of character archetypes. Villains, on the other hand, can be presented in a vast multitude of ways. They can range from comedic buffoons who aren’t meant to be taken seriously to deranged psychopaths who are downright disturbing. In a video game, a compelling antagonist can help the player become more invested in the story and encourage them to continue playing for the satisfaction of taking down the big bad. This is a list of our favorite villains in video games, whether it be for their motivation, aesthetic, personality, or a combination of all three. Note that there will be SPOILERS for all of the games listed below. We encourage you to comment below on any that you think should be on this list as well!
The Illusive Man (Mass Effect Series)
It has been said by many writers that the best villains believe themselves to be the hero of their own story, and this applies perfectly to the Illusive Man. The Illusive Man is the head of Cerberus, a shadowy organization that aims to make humanity the dominant species in the galaxy. While Cerberus claims to be working in humanity’s best interest, it regularly engages in inhumane experiments and terrorist actions to further its goals.
In the first Mass Effect game, Cerberus is presented as little more than a radical terrorist group that occasionally interferes with Shepherd’s mission. However, at the start of Mass Effect 2, this image of Cerberus is challenged when Commander Shepherd is killed by the Collectors and brought back to life at the order of the Illusive Man. The Illusive Man presents himself to Shepherd as a man who has humanity’s best interests at heart and tells him that he brought him back to stop the Collectors from eradicating humanity. For most of Mass Effect 2, the goals of Shepherd and the Illusive Man align and he gives Shepherd a new ship, a new crew, and all the tools he needs to stop the Collectors. The game goes out of its way to directly contrast Cerberus with the Alliance, who, despite claiming to sympathize with humanity’s plight, are too burdened by bureaucracy and bickering to offer any meaningful help. Adding to this are the strong relationships Shepherd forms with people within Cerberus like Miranda and Jacob; both of whom are motivated by a genuine desire to help humanity.
All of these factors serve to complicate the narrative in a way that makes the player question the morality of the choices that they make. This dilemma culminates at the climax of the game when Shepherd and his crew storm the Collector Base to free the captive members of his crew and destroy the Collectors. As Shepherd is planting the bomb to destroy the base, he is contacted by the Illusive Man who orders him to capture the base so that the Collectors’ research can be used by Cerberus. The members of Shepherd’s squad, however, push back against this idea, arguing that the human experimentation used by the Collectors should not be used at all regardless of the intent. This is one of my favorite parts of Mass Effect 2 as this choice forces the player to consider the implications of power and the nature of war. Is it wrong to put too much power in the hands of one person even if their intentions seem good? Does it matter how a leader chooses to win a war? These are the kinds of questions that a villain like the Illusive Man raises.
While the Illusive Man was presented as a bit morally gray Mass Effect 2, he slowly plummets into further villainy throughout Mass Effect 3 as the Reapers descend on the galaxy. From performing ghastly experiments on his own soldiers to staging a coup to assassinate the leaders of the Alliance, the Illusive Man’s true colors are clearly shown. Before long, the Illusive Man has fallen off the slippery slope and gone from fighting against the Reapers to becoming just another one of their puppets. In his final moments, the Illusive Man realizes that he has become indoctrinated by the Reapers and has fallen too far to be saved. Depending on the player’s choices, Shepherd either kills the Illusive Man or the Illusive Man takes his own life. In either ending, the Illusive Man is cemented as an ultimately tragic figure. He is a man who may have started with the intentions of helping humanity but his desire for power ended up making him one of humanity’s greatest threats.
Even though the Reapers end up being the ultimate threat that Shepherd has to face, I would argue that the Illusive Man is the best villain in the Mass Effect franchise. He has the most fleshed-out motivations and represents the danger of giving into a “win-at-any-cost” mentality which is readily applicable to many real-world issues. The choice to cast Martin Sheen was also inspired as he gives the Illusive Man a commanding presence and an air of mystery to his intentions. Overall, believable motivations, great voice acting, and a striking screen presence make the Illusive Man one of the best villains in any video game.
Sylens (Horizon Zero Dawn)
“I’ve spent a lifetime trying to uncover the secrets of this world. Where the machines came from. How the Old Ones achieved such marvels, only to fall into silence and death. A lifetime of failure, as year, by year, decade by decade, I hit walls I could never break, doors I could never breach. Until a Nora huntress marched out of the Savage East and…voila! For her, all the deepest secrets of the earth were laid bare.”
“For years I tried to get through this hatch. I drilled, I burned, I blasted. But we both know that you won’t have any trouble getting through…it never occurred to me that the way through would not be with force, but with a key. A key in human form. The failure of imagination was mine, not yours.”
Horizon Zero Dawn concludes with a cliffhanger, its ambiguity unsettling. HADES’ essence escapes from its husk and flies off into the sky. Sylens is its destination, and he welcomes the AI, entrapping it with a lantern-like apparatus. Despite this being an ending cutscene, there is much to process. Remember: Sylens reveals to Aloy that it is he who rallies the fractured Shadow Carja under a new banner, the Eclipse, the bane of her existence, per HADES’ bidding. In exchange, HADES would bestow upon Sylens the post-apocalyptic equivalent of epistemological omniscience.
This means that Sylens is culpable for the following atrocities: the slaughter of Nora braves during their Proving; Helis murdering Aloy’s foster father, Rost; the bounty HADES places on Aloy’s head; widespread acts of violence and terrorism the Eclipse inflicts upon the general population.
Sylens: “That’s your reaction to everything you just learned? To whine like a spoiled child?”
Aloy: “You should really try talking that way to me, face to face!”
S: “As you wish…I expected more of you.”
HADES would teach Sylens lost subjects like physics and calculus, which he would use to facilitate Hades’ prime directive to destroy all life on earth. Its ulterior motive was unbeknownst to Sylens who unwittingly helped it. HADES withheld the humanities-driven topics from Sylens—history, sociology, political science—that would have betrayed HADES’ plans. Only after Aloy reassembles her Alpha Registry to unlock ELEUTHIA-9 at Mother’s Cradle do we learn about Ted Faro purging APOLLO, which would have brought humanity’s descendants up to speed.
Despite HADES’ attempt on Sylen’s life after the Eclipse had gained enough power such that he was no longer useful to the entity, and the fact that he had enabled it to ruin Aloy’s life, Sylens says to her face that he would do it all over again. Only self-preservation drives him to thwart HADES since the AI will not discriminate in its programming as it tries to undo all that GAIA had cultivated, by reawakening the Faro Swarm.
Consistent with his character, acquiring knowledge motivates Sylens above all things. I can appreciate, if not empathize with his character. Ironically, he is a character who lacks empathy, as seen in the scene where Aloy pleads with him to stop calculating and to feel. Whenever I am asked “If you could have a mutant power, what would it be,” I always choose Professor X’s, because I want to know everything. Similarly, Sylens wants to know everything.
Aloy: (seething) “I’m past trusting you with secrets!”
Sylens: “Good. That means you’re wising up. Trust is for fools. It shifts and crumbles like sand– a poor foundation for any partnership. But mutual self-interest—now that is a solid bedrock, upon which you and I might build a new science of understanding.”
I even envy the way that Sylens condescends towards Aloy, scolding her for her whining, using sarcasm as a rebuttal to her negativity. He reminds me of a younger version of myself, how I once was in my know-it-all 20’s. He is how I wish I could be in the present, yet still have a successful career, a happy marriage, and kids who do not hate me. However, none of these characteristics align with the teachings of Jesus Christ, either. In reality, Sylen’s antipathy toward anything but knowledge makes him more nefarious than the Eclipse, who are inspired by faith, or HADES, which simply follows its programming.
“How tragic to learn you are a person of towering importance! It seems that you have a destiny to fulfill, so when you’re done feeling sorry for yourself, go to the Bitter Climb. I’ll be waiting above, in GAIA Prime’s ruins.”
For those reasons, Horizon Forbidden West is a hotly-anticipated game. I would like to know why Sylens is interested in the signal that activated HADES, and what he plans to do after he learns.
“While her people bickered, she was the one who took responsibility. The one who could.”
“She was better than them.”
Originally published at Blerd Beats with permission.
Kefka, Kuja, and Ardyn (Final Fantasy Series)
If you get the chance to chat with me for very long, you’ll learn that I’m a very passionate Final Fantasy fan. There are many entertaining topics that warrant discussion when it comes to the Final Fantasy series, but its villains are definitely a standout feature. It’s actually pretty difficult for me to choose a ‘best villain’ or even a ‘favorite villain. ‘ I do have my own particular favorite villains in this franchise, although they tend to skew more towards the sympathetic side of the spectrum.
The two I’m most fond of that fit that description are Kuja from Final Fantasy IX and Ardyn from Final Fantasy XV. Once the player learns more about them and their motivations, it can be difficult not to see their side of things, though they still must be stopped in the game proper. The greatest villain of the franchise if you’re going by who does the most overall damage would have to be Kefka from Final Fantasy VI. With no repentance ever expressed, this clown is bad news through and through. What appears at the beginning to the player to be mere mischief quickly becomes more sinister as lives are lost thanks to Kefka’s mechanisms. It culminates with him destroying the world and becoming a god – one of the very few antagonists to achieve this goal, although it’s only for a brief time.
Still, even when the game concludes and Kefka is defeated, it remains unclear if the world will heal from all the damage he caused. A villain who is able to create all that mayhem and uncertainty is definitely one for the books. When it comes to ranking each Final Fantasy antagonist, it’s obvious to many that Kefka is the one who stands on top.
Kain (Soul Reaver Series)
To this day one of my favorite villains comes from a video game with what I consider to be one of the best intros of all time. I was first introduced to Kain through The Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. His first appearance was in Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen, in which he was the player character. In that game, he suffered from vampirism and spent the duration of the story seeking both a cure and revenge against his murderers. However, I was introduced to this character when he cast his General, Raziel, into the abyss for surpassing him in the evolution of their vampirism.
In Soul Reaver, Kain became a conqueror without a cure and a hatred for humanity. Raziel is the protagonist from this point on in the series, and after watching that intro to the game I wanted to see him quench that thirst for vengeance. However, this series goes much deeper than a revenge plot and includes themes from the work of Shakespeare and other literature that includes a journey through time in Soul Reaver 2. Throughout the series, we see Kain’s path of corruption as he embraces vampirism and how the journeys of these two characters are interwoven. Their paths cross more than they’d like, culminating with them being forced to reconcile in the third and final game, Legacy of Kain: Defiance. At the end of it all, the series is called Legacy of Kain, and this character that starts out as the hero of the story is actually a very flawed being—which gives him much more depth than an average villain.
I would love some kind of HD remaster or remake to replay the Soul Reaver trilogy, and it would also create an opportunity for people to discover such a great story directed by Amy Hennig of Uncharted fame. The original Blood Omen will feel the most outdated as it is a Diablo-like action RPG from 1996, while future games are action-adventure titles, with the final game taking notes from Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden. You can find the series on Steam, but they are a pain to play on modern PCs. I’d recommend the experience on the consoles they originated on if you have any of them laying around.
Pagan Min (Far Cry 4)
Even though Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth is probably my all-time favorite villain, I decided to show some love for Far Cry 4’s Pagan Min. The charismatic, pink-suited overlord of Kyrat skyrocketed to my top ten favorite villains in just the opening scenes. In fact, he’s the reason I got Far Cry 4 in the first place.
It takes stellar writing—and equally stellar acting—to get a complex character like him just right. Throughout the game, you see how dangerous he is. Hedonistic, violent, and egotistical are all fitting descriptions. Mercy is not part of his vocabulary, and he is not opposed to having his own subjects tortured and killed to achieve his goal. What makes him more unsettling is that he is calmly insane about it all. That said, there’s a deeper reason for why he is the way he is, and that makes him slightly more sympathetic.
Despite all of that, throughout the game, you get to see a completely different side of him. When he’s not crazy, he’s actually quite personable. He has a great sense of humor, and jokes are never far away when he talks. Additionally, he demonstrates immense patience as far as the player character is concerned.
The dichotomy of the psychotic dictator and the jovial hedonist makes for a fantastic villain, but Troy Baker’s acting perfects it. Pagan Min isn’t unique in character type, but he is a prime example of how to do it right. It’s always a blast when he comes on the screen, and I can only hope we get more villains like him in the future. After all, how many villains take selfies with the protagonist, kidnap celebrity chefs to cook for them, and talk about how they want to improve their image by getting a washed-up celebrity to endorse them? Not nearly enough, as far as I’m concerned.