While the heart and soul of any good story is its hero, the meat of the story is the plot clinging to the structural bones of the world and setting. The binding agent of all these elements is the villain. A hero has no challenge, the world has no conflict, and the plot has no forward motion without a sinister hand behind the wheel. Let’s face it: most great stories rest on the shoulders of a great villain. But what makes these baddies so memorable? Certainly, conducting evil acts for the sake of simply being an upstart is hardly a good enough motivation to drive anyone, least of all be the driving force of a good story. Villains fascinate us perhaps more than the heroes because their motivations are oftentimes more complicated than the hero’s. They have to be able to rationalize and justify their actions within themselves. It’s not enough that someone wants to take over the world–they have to have a reason to do so. The most memorable villains have tragic backgrounds. What sets villains apart from the heroes that they force out of the woodwork is that, unlike the heroes, they wrapped themselves in the darkness that plunged them into despair. They embrace evil, rather than resist it.
Perhaps one of the most interesting and dynamic twists in any story is when a hero becomes a villain or, even more unlikely, a villain becomes a hero. These twists and turns in a character’s story and personality are among the most dramatic, and really add another, very human, dimension to a fictional setting. We, as humans, are always being tested, tempted, and tried in the content of our character. Even in the Bible, some of the “good guys,” like Judas, became villains; and some “good guys,” like Paul, began their stories as the villains.
While I typically run Top 10 lists, ranking up to my favorite, these lists won’t be in any order, nor will they include all flip-floppers in gaming. These are just some of the most memorable to me. And, of course, given the nature of the article, I do have to issue a spoiler alert as many of these flips will be major plot points within their respective games. Minor point before I go on: I’m going to limit myself to one character per franchise, per list. Let’s face it: series like Final Fantasy and Suikoden have at least one of these flip-floppers per game, and while those characters are amazing, I want to try to broaden the spectrum a bit. Lastly, I will not include characters that pose as good guys or bad guys, only to be revealed as the contrary. The characters on these lists have a genuine change of heart in the course of their development.
When Good Guys Go Bad
Gabriel Belmont (Dracula) from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (XBox360 & PS3)
Leading off this list is the prince of darkness himself: Count Dracula.
In the previous games, Dracula was just Dracula. Evil vampire. Kill. With fire. It was as black and white as that. The most recent in the Castlevania series, Lords of Shadow, has done a lot to expand on a cult classic while simultaneously attacking the feels of everyone who once gloated over the fall of the vampire king.
Gabriel Belmont is featured as the main character and hero of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a reboot of the classic Castlevania series. The game begins with a scene right out of a classic horror film where a pack of werewolves lay siege to a helpless backwater village, and an armored hero steps forward to deal with the monsters. After quietly dispatching the beasts, he asks directions and continues on his way. Through the majority of the first game, Gabriel seems like a crusader of light, fighting for the Brotherhood of Light, the church, and even God himself. He’s wracked with heartache, and, through the course of the game, he wakes to find his hands covered in the blood of an innocent. Matters continue to spiral downhill as he is betrayed first by his traveling companion, by his order, and, finally, by his own self. Through everything, Gabriel clings to his faith and even confronts the “son of the morning” himself, Satan. It seems that all is well and good for our tragic hero, all things considered.
In-between the main Lords of Shadow games, two “in-between” stories were released: a special DLC that expanded on the ending of LoS (Xbox 360 or PS3) and Castlevania: The Mirror of Fate (3DS). During the DLC, Gabriel is called upon to save humanity once more–this time at the request of one of the very creatures he was trained to hunt and destroy: a vampire. This particular vampire takes the form of a young girl plagued with the curse. She informs Gabriel that a demon is about to rise from the core of the earth, and only another demon can destroy it. Faced with no other option, Gabriel allows the girl to curse him as a vampire, and he rushes in headlong to lay low yet another threat to humanity.
Once victorious, Gabriel does not face gratitude but is instead hunted by his own order. He attempts to isolate himself to avoid conflict, but time and again his castle is attacked by those seeking to destroy the evil within. Among those that make an attempt on his life is his own son, Trevor, who only reveals his identity as he lays dying following his failed attempt to take his father’s life. Grief-stricken, Gabriel attempts to revive his son. When he fails, Gabriel finally wraps himself in the darkness that has been tempting him through the course of the past several decades and becomes the lord of darkness himself–Count Dracula.
Gabriel’s story is extremely powerful, as it adds a tragic, very human heart and soul to the monster and further shows that a villain is oftentimes the result of a cruel series of events rather than the consequences of birth. While Gabriel certainly chose to embrace the darkness instead of light, in some ways his story is understandable.
It’s pretty obvious that these games will never stop appearing on my lists–and with good reason. The Sukioden games are masterfully written. Of all the main series games, Suikoden 2 is perhaps the most celebrated–and with good reason. Suikoden 2 tells the story of three lifelong friends and how a war between nations ripped them apart. Riou and Nanami were two orphans raised by an old war hero and trained in the discipline and techniques of martial arts. Jowy was the son of an aristocrat, likely an illegitimate one, who found no favor with his stepfather. The three were routinely bullied and cast aside by the children of their hometown. Jowy suffered abuse and rejection from his own family and found himself embraced more by Riou and Nanami. When he and Riou were old enough to serve, they enlisted in the military and were quickly deployed.
The two were the sole survivors of an attack on their brigade, composed by their very own commander in league with the enemy forces, and were framed for the incident. Sentenced to death, Jowy and Riou faced the gallows side-by-side. While still devoted to his friend, Jowy quickly grew sour and resentful of his home nation. When the opportunity presented itself, he switched sides and began to manipulate the enemy army from within. Unfortunately, this put him at odds with his childhood friend and surrogate brother, Riou. As the war grows between the two sides, Jowy repeatedly requests that Riou leave until he can end the war and establish peace. Riou refuses, and, by the end of the game, the two friends must face one another as the leaders of the two armies.
What makes this flip such a memorable one is the fact that not once does Jowy personally hate Riou. He’s conflicted in his actions and justifies himself because he himself was betrayed. His family rejected him, his country turned on him, and the one good thing left in the world–his friends–were being caught up in a conflict that could cost them their lives. He hates what he has to do, but he feels there is no other choice. It’s because he feels he’s doing the right thing, and because he cannot bring himself to hate his friends, that makes him such a great villain. Of course, he can be redeemed, but only through the completion of a perfect game and a few well-timed button crunches. Seeing as you never actually get him back in your party following his betrayal, he counts as a villain exclusively.
Felix from Golden Sun
…Yeah just keep reaching out like that. I’m sure it’ll do something.
An obscure JRPG series, but a classic none-the-less, Golden Sun is filled with memorable characters, an interesting system of magic, and, of course, a wonderful villain. The first game opens in a small village in the middle of a terrible storm. Landslides and heavy rain turn the once peaceful village into a sloppy nightmare. The player controls a young boy by the name of Issac who must seek out his companions and flee the village before the boulders atop the mountain fall. He manages to find most of his companions, but is delayed when he comes across his father, Kyle, assisting another family in attempting to pull their child from the current of the muddy river. Felix, the elder brother of Jenna, one of the leads of the first game, is swept away along with Kyle when the boulder breaks loose and tumbles down into the village. Felix is knocked senseless but salvaged downstream by a duo of antagonists by the name of Saturos and Menardi.
Feeling indebted to his saviors, Felix assists Saturos and Menardi in attempting to break Alchemy’s seal on the world. While he’s never outright malicious towards his childhood friends and younger sister, his dedication to Saturos drives him down a path that rivals that of the heroes. Felix is an interesting enemy because it’s impossible to outright hate him. He’s doing what he feels is the right thing. He’s legitimately trying to keep his friends and family away from danger, but his misguided convictions drive him to assist those who throw his world into chaos. His struggle is something that a lot of people can relate to, if not personally than in someone we care about. It’s hard to see someone we care about make the wrong choices, even going so far as believing themselves to be right or justifying their actions. We still love them… but sometimes we do want to give them a nice, firm kick in the backside.
Caim from Drakengard 2
Caim… was never really a “good” guy precisely. He’s an angry soul with a bloodlust and a reckless personality. Through the first Drakengard, his only voice of reason is found within his dragon, Angelous, who ironically enough holds more compassion for humanity than he does. Drakengard 1 is as much a journey of Caim finding his humanity as it is in his saving the world. He goes from angry and selfish, bloodthirsty and downright defiant, to genuinely caring about someone other than himself.
…and then that someone is ripped away from him and tortured. He hears every cry and plea echo in his mind for years thereafter.
In order to save humanity, Angelous offered herself as the goddess of the seal, effectively binding her with the burden of the seal. Originally, the burden was tolerable. Though she was no longer physically present in the world, she lingered in Caim’s mind through the pact they forged in the first game. However, the burden she bore was increased by one of Caim’s former companions, and the agony of the burden drove her mad. Caim, who lost his voice as payment for the pact he formed, was unable to do anything for his better half. In time, he could bear her pain no more and sought to destroy the seals holding her captive.
His actions not only cost the protagonist of the second game one of his own friends, but they also help to further unleash chaos. When Angelous is freed, the once reasonable dragon is reduced to a rampaging beast bent on carving her vengeance out of the world that she once helped save. Caim’s plight is honestly a heartbreaking one. At first, the player has no clue what could have driven this poor man into the darkness. The first game ends with him finding his humanity and performing a selfless deed. When it’s revealed how and why he became a villain, it’s heart breaking. The conclusion to his story is bittersweet but memorable.
When Bad Guys Go Good
“N” ( Natural Harmonia Gropius ) From Pokemon Black/White and Black/White 2
…Yes, N has a real name (if you can call it that). Behind the silly name and creepy, almost stalker-esque, tendencies in the game, N is actually one of the most well-fleshed-out and sympathetic characters in the Pokemon universe. Very little is known of his early origins. His parents, homeland, and original culture are all a mystery. N was found among wild Pokemon who had, for some reason, decided to raise him like one of their own. It’s likely that the foundling would have been left to his own devices, if not for his ability to actually speak with and understand Pokemon.
Team Plasma, the antagonist organization in Pokemon Black & White and Black & White 2 take in the boy and raise him in their ways. Their leader, Ghetsis, poses as the boy’s father though he’s never once shown as having any tender moments with the boy. In fact, in Black and White 2, the player has the opportunity to see where N was raised. His room is closed off, filled with toys, and tucked quite out of the way. In short, N was isolated from anyone outside of Team Plasma, raised in a role he knew nothing of, and was brought up thinking that every action he took was for the greater good.
While N is never actually villain-like in his behavior, he is a formidable opponent through the games, with a good deal of support. He has some valid points in his arguments (points that, funnily enough, reflect concerns with the games themselves) and he presents himself as level-headed and truly compassionate in his cause. At the end of Black and White 2, following his defeat, he is taken away by the rival legendary beast of the hero to try to observe the world from a perspective that was denied to him as a child.
…I for one welcome our adorable, green-haired, POGERMERN-whisperer overlord.
While he doesn’t have a hand in assisting the hero too strongly, N has shed his crown and abandoned team Plasma entirely. He’s spent his years in exile learning about the world, Pokemon, and the relation between Pokemon and humanity. He steps in towards the end of the game to beg the assistance of the hero and once again to simply challenge him to Pokemon battles.
Dracula (Gabriel Belmont) from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2
Lords of Shadow 2 opens up with a siege on the dark lord’s castle, in which he completely devastates those who dared to come knocking at his door. Like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Lords of Shadow 2 teases amazing powers and abilities that are quickly stripped away so that they can be restored throughout the course of the game. Following the conclusion of the siege scene, the game recaps Gabriel’s tragic backstory and his rise to becoming Dracula himself, to include the tragic misunderstanding that led to the death of his son. Or… the supposed death of his son.
In trying to restore Trevor, Dracula shed his own blood into the dying man. Believing his attempts to have failed, he buried his son in the walls of his own castle and raised an army of darkness to defend that castle. Dracula’s blood worked slowly through the Trevor’s body and, over many years, transformed the fallen man into a vampire. Disgusted with himself, Trevor re-named himself “Alucard” and sought to un-do the evil that his family had caused.
Through the course of the game, Alucard guides his sire through his memories, taking the form of his child-like self or that of a white wolf to appeal to Dracula’s more gentle nature. He manifests visions of Marie, Dracula’s slain wife, to assist him in his task. By the end of the game, Gabriel has returned and faces the darkness within himself, overcoming it. While both he and Alucard can do nothing about the state of their bodies, both turn away from the darkness.
Once more, Dracula faces off against Satan and rises to the defense of humanity once more. The events leading up to his change of heart are actually very well written and orchestrated within the game. Alucard’s clever actions and methods are revealed in a genuinely touching father and son reunion scene, and the shadows of Marie and young Trevor earn honest compassion and tenderness from even Dracula himself. It’s a memorable, clever twist on an old series, and an even older story, that’s well worth the time it takes to play through the games.
Siegfried from Soul Edge & Soul Calibur
I never thought that a fighter game would have any chance of making any kind of impression on me beyond sore fingers and mad button-mashing skills. The story behind Siegfried completely stole the stage for me.
Siegfried was born to a soldier and raised in the art of swordsmanship. When Siegfried entered into his teens, his father rode off to war and, without his role model there to keep an eye on him, Siegfried ended up getting himself involved in a petty gang. At first, they performed small acts of thievery, but one day they decided that they would ambush soldiers, leaving the field of battle and rob them–partly because they believed anyone leaving the front lines of the crusades to be a coward, and partly because these soldiers were bound to have a good deal of loot on them. One night, they ambushed a group of war-weary soldiers. Siegfried engaged and decapitated the leader of the soldiers, but didn’t catch the man’s face until he raised his trophy up to the moonlight. Yeah… that was daddy.
Very long story short, Siegfried went a little off his rocker. He ran into the wood and was swallowed up by madness so severe that he convinced himself that someone else had killed his father. When rumor reached him of the Soul Edge, he sought after the weapon with the full intent to use it… against his father’s killer. When he did get his hands on the blade, it consumed him. The blade carried with it a will of its own and struck a bargain with Siegfried. In exchange for his assistance in collecting souls, it would bring Siegfried’s father back to life. Beyond insane at this moment, Seigfried agreed.
The character “Nightmare” is one of the main antagonists in Soul Calibur game. When Nightmare is defeated, Siegfried is freed from the blade and slowly comes to terms with the sins of his past and begins down the slow road of atonement. It takes time for him to regain his sanity, and he still faces heavy temptation from the darkness, but Siegfried shows through every one of his appearances that he is bound and determined to redeem himself.
Cecil Harvey from Final Fantasy IV (PS or DS Remake)
And, finally, the token reformed villain, Cecil. Seeing as the entire story of Final Fantasy IV revolves around Cecil’s coming to terms with his past, renouncing his old ways, and seeking out redemption, it would have been an actual crime not to include him.
Cecil’s mother passed away while bringing him into the world, and his father was killed before he was born. He had an older brother, Theodor, who ran off with him but abandoned him shortly afterward. He was found and raised by the King of Baron. He grew up with another youth by the name of Kain, and a young girl who would come to be his love interest, Rosa. Cecil was trained in the art of combat and eventually became a black knight in service to the king. Unfortunately, his service isn’t exactly gallant, and he ends up doing the king’s dirty work for him. Cecil doesn’t originally question his actions, but as he begins to see their effects on the common folk, he begins to open his eyes.
Eventually, Cecil turns away from his king and denounces himself as a black knight, instead choosing to walk the path of a paladin in defense of the common people. This choice puts him at odds with his home nation, the king he served his entire life, and even his best friend. The game largely revolves around his struggle to redeem himself and come to terms with the choices he made.
Of all the reformed villains, Cecil is perhaps the most spiritual. He was a product of misfortune and groomed to conform to the wishes of the world around him. Even when he seeks to repent, he is frequently tormented by temptation and wounded by those he had to turn away from in leaving the darkness behind. Sometimes the best we can do to help those around us is to help ourselves first. Reaching out to those still in the darkness will, more often than not, pull us back into the shadows. Cecil learns the value of righteousness, sacrifice, and selflessness. In a sense, he represents spiritual rebirth. He washes away the old and becomes a new creation.
So there you have it!
There are dozens more that could have made this list, but I wanted to focus on those that left an impression. The struggle against one’s darker nature is one that every human being can relate to, so it’s no wonder this element comes up so often. Villains (at least those worth remembering) don’t always start out as evil bald men stroking a cat at the end of a long hall. Most memorable villains could have been the heroes if they had had the strength of character to persevere. More memorable, and perhaps more relatable to those within the faith community, than the story of “light into dark” is the story of deliverance from the darkness into the light. Even villains are still able to find redemption, but they have to be the ones to make that choice. As with real life, the turning point in many bad-to-good or good-to-bad characters is their experiences. Sometimes a kind word or gesture can soften a hard heart just enough to put that individual on the right path. Rejection and cruelty are just as powerful motivators to push someone down a darker road.
I was born and raised in a traditional Christian household, educated privately, and brought up with a passion for Christ. The works of CS Lewis and Tolkien were my greatest influences. I aspire to become a published fictional author, hopefully illustrating my own work as well. Christ is the center of my universe and my faith is the lens in which I look through in regards to everything. As far as games go I am swayed best towards fantasy/action/rpg's.
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