Sympathy For The Devils
With every classic story comes a classic premise, hero and, more relevantly, villain. From the scheming, fratricidal King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to the well-spoken terrorist Bane in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, every great story has been defined by its lead hero and their rivalry with the opposing antagonist.
I’ve long believed that videogames, with their innovative approach and interactive nature, are the most exciting medium for telling a story in the 21st century and the industry has already seen its fair share of classic bad guys. The villains of videogame lore tend to have all the fun and all too often are far more entertaining than the heroes of the piece, providing stern challenges to the most experienced of gamers while remaining integral to the plot.
So this article is a tribute to those videogame villains who have etched their ways firmly into our hearts. From the cold-hearted psychopaths to the downright corrupt law enforcers, the following are four of my favourite rivals from videogame history.
The best villains are often more entertaining than the protagonists they face and in no case is that truer than with Portal’s Queen of passive-aggressive guidance GLaDOS. Being your only source of information and direction throughout the increasingly perplex test-chambers of Aperture Inc., it’s incredibly easy to put your trust in the calm, robotic voice of GLaDOS with her initially complimentary attitude and repeated promises of cake and grief counselling.
But the further you delve into Portal’s test chambers, the more you begin to question GLaDOS’ true motives. Not only does she gradually grow more pessimistic (“This next chamber is impossible, make no attempt to solve it”) but forces you to incinerate your only friend in the game world, the weighted Companion Cube (a stationary object that GLaDOS herself encouraged you to take care of).
GLaDOS is a great example of a “slow burn” reveal done to perfection. Initially your only friend in the mysterious, ridiculously clean laboratories of Aperture Inc., GLaDOS’ increasingly hostile, somewhat erratic behaviour and dark sense of humour make her not only a memorable adversary for your mute first-person heroine but a hugely entertaining character in her own right.
Mantis’ backstory is one of horror and melancholy, of a man born with an incredible gift that would prove to be his greatest power and his most unbearable curse. He is not only one of Solid Snake’s greatest foes but also one of the most sympathetic of all villains.
Mantis’ heartbreaking character arc isn’t what makes him one of my favourite villains of all time (although it does endear him to me). Mantis sticks in the mind because he represents the first time that an enemy doesn’t just fight the protagonist: he fights the player.
You all remember the first time you fought Mantis, I know you do. You were probably already aware of how he took advantage of your memory card and controller but you probably didn’t know just how badly Mantis could fuck with you in the space of one battle. From random blackouts of the screen to judging just how much you loved CastleVania, Psycho Mantis was able to take the battle between good and evil straight to the controller, memory card and heart of the gamer themselves.
Ok, so he isn’t strictly just a videogame villain. The Joker made his comic book debut way back in 1940 and has since become Batman’s greatest arch-nemesis: simultaneously the Dark Knight’s hindrance and his reason for being.
Mark Hamill practically made the role his own throughout the 90s as Batman: The Animated Series became a hit on television. Hamill’s eccentric, hilarious and dark performance as the green-haired criminal mastermind soon became the definition by which all future incarnates of the Joker were measured (though you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who wasn’t completely blown away by Heath Ledger’s portrayal in 2008) and he would reprise the role twice more, for the Clown Prince’s first true outings on the current-generation gaming consoles in Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City.
Hamill’s performance made for one of the most memorable villains in the television series but it is his ability to constantly take the character to newer and darker places that make his videogame outings arguably the best. The open-world settings of the Arkham games mean that the main story arc (in which the Joker plays a key role) can sometimes get ignored but whenever Hamill’s cackles sound over a mobile phone, a television screen or a bludgeoned henchman’s radio, you can’t help but smile or laugh along with the homicidal maniac.
Haunting, horrible and hilarious, the Joker’s transition from video to videogame was an unrivalled success thanks to some superb writing from Paul Dini and two truly mesmerising performances from Mark Hamill.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has provided some of my favourite videogame moments, in no small part down to the chief antagonist Officer Frank Tenpenny. Voiced superbly by Samuel L. Jackson, Tenpenny allows drugs to pour into the city and into the hands of a rival gang, turning a profit himself along the way.
He tells protagonist CJ that his job is all about “percentages” and doing the wrong things in the name of the “greater good”, though the reality is that Tenpenny is no more than a drug-pushing, murdering psychopath. Throw in the huge measure of control Tenpenny has over CJ and you have the ultimate villain: a corruptible presence with the law on his side and with a great deal of power to wield over our character.
Tenpenny is memorable for all the right (or wrong) reasons. He’s a genuinely terrible guy with friends in the right places and a bad attitude to match. Whether to help clear his name in a potentially implicating case or just to amuse himself, Tenpenny relishes in utilising CJ’s services and making our hero’s life a living hell.
Just as all good villains should do.
Ultimately, everyone will have their own opinion on what makes a great videogame villain, and everyone will have their personal favourites. For me, you won’t find many finer examples than the four above. Honourable mentions do go to my childhood nightmare Dr. Robotnik, The Origami Killer from Heavy Rain and of course, Gary Oak.
As videogames continue to tell great stories, we will continue to see great villains, but it will take some going to beat the likes of Officer Frank Tenpenny and GLaDOS as truly great antagonists.