I don’t think we give enough credit to a well-crafted villain. You can’t just throw a dude in a twirly mustache and oversized monocle, hoping he’ll tie some local girl to the railroad tracks. You need some theatrics, some motivation. I need to know why he’s tieing some local girl to the railroad tracks. Was he raised by railroad tracks? Were they alcoholics? Maybe they beat him before heading off to the railroad mines every day. They lived in poverty, the railroad family, and now he wants revenge. On some local girl. By tying her to his parents.
See, good villains can make or break the story of a game. Their motivations shape every character from start to end, and their actions give life to the world in a way the player character never could. That’s why we’re honoring the five best video game villains of 2013. (Warning, spoilers ahead!)
Superman – Injustice: Gods Among Us
DC has played with the idea of Superman going evil dozens of times. In the golden and silver ages he was kind of a dick anyway, so it’s not too much a stretch to make him jump from beating his girlfriend to transforming Earth into an Orwellian future dystopia. Yes, it’s an alternate dimension, and yes, that’s the lazy way out, but what’s scarier than a pissed off super alien with god powers and a chip on his shoulder? Oh, right, everyone else.
In a world populated by immortal zombies, biorobotic alien psychics and the entire Greek pantheon, Superman isn’t very interesting. He’s not as unpredictable as the Joker, he’s not as timeless or unknowable as Ares, and he doesn’t even benefit from unlimited power like Darkseid. But in Injustice we get to see just how far this alternate Superman has fallen when he fills Captain Marvel’s lungs with ice, then burns a hole through his fucking head. Of note: Captain Marvel is a 12-year old child named Billy Batson, who didn’t like that he had to do evil things under Superman’s regime. So Superman killed him by cutting off his powers and burning a hole through his fucking head. While all of Billy’s friends watched him spasm out in Supey’s claw-like Kryptonian grip.
After that he goes all super apeshit crazy on us, and it makes beating his perfectly toned ass into a puddle all the sweeter. For a fighting game story, that’s not bad at all.
Daimon – Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen
Dragon’s Dogma is cool because despite the colorful NPCs, you never really feel a connection to any character who isn’t the Grigori the Dragon. You’re an ageless interloper cocking about the land, chopping off lizard tails while your band of merry pawns tell you really interesting things about stairs – all in the pursuit of the Dragon. Then the ending hits and all the niggling loose ends and vague characterization is jarred into a sudden, horrific realization that outside the Arisen and the Dragon, nothing matters. The world is locked into an unending ring of death and rebirth, creation and destruction, with a single Arisen reigning as eternal god-watchman over a world that moves on in blissful ignorance. The god is slain and a new god takes his place. The dragon is slain and a new dragon takes his place. Nothing changes. Nothing can change. All is subject to the will of the eternal ring.
That is, until Grette, Ashe and Olra show up. Grette slayed the dragon and was defeated by the Seneschal, becoming a big red lizard with a vaguely European accent. She deliberately chooses her partner Ashe to become an arisen and kill her and in so doing gifts her old pawn Olra to him as a travelling companion. Unlike every other arisen/pawn relationship in the history of the eternal cycle, the pair immediately begin banging super hard. Which is really gross when you realize that pawns are emotionless creatures created in the image of humans to serve their every wish. Gross. GROSS. But I guess they fell in love, and when Ashe was forced to either murder his best friend or sacrifice his pawn girlfriend, he went insane and became a demon that rejected the cycle and tore a hole in the fabric of reality. That is Daimon, and he’s so crazed and powerful that even removing Ashe’s soul from his body isn’t enough to kill him, because the face on his chest is a completely separate organism so powerful it created a labyrinth just to trap and kill Arisen.
RPGs, am I right?
Devin Weston – Grand Theft Auto V
It’s not that Devin’s rich, or an asshole, or even that he dresses like a superfood juice blend salesman – that’s not the reason he makes a good villain. He makes a good villain because he’s genuinely awful and grating in every way that a person can be, globetrotting around the world with his sleep-in secretary while shitting on anything and anyone that he wants, all because he’s a billionaire. He knows money can buy fame, power, connections, and lots of freaky sex, and it’s gone so far to his head that he seems to have absolutely no human compassion left in his body. There’s no love or remorse left in Devin Weston. Just liquid capital and the knowledge that he can get away with anything he wants at any time.
Which is precisely the wrong kind of tone to take with Trevor Philips, a man introduced to the game mid-anal sex with a meth addict right before he crushes her boyfriend’s (and former GTA protagonist!) skull with his fucking shoe. Trevor is an unpredictable psychopath who routinely murders people for fun. Trevor is an international drug and weapon dealer with a rap sheet longer than The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Trevor is on meth, constantly, and notes at one point that no amount of money can save you from a crazy guy who doesn’t like you very much. The interplay between to two – watching Trevor’s slowly mounting rage, matched by Devin’s lackadaisical rich kid attitude – and knowing that somewhere down the line the former is going to tear the latter into pieces. That’s why Devin Weston is a good villain. And that’s why it’s so fun to watch him die.
Us – The Last of Us
There’s something about the end of the world that brings everyone together. Inexplicable burning buildings, fatal car accidents, tragic deaths – it’s the holiday spirit with a mutated cordyceps fungus, and everyone’s invited. So when society breaks down in the wake of a flubbed military response and rabid fungal zombies start chomping down on civilians, you’d expect someone to take charge. Take a stand. Lead the survivors, or at least a band of crazy cult survivors, into a brave new future where everything is beautiful and nothing hurt. Vonnegut said that. He’d make a great fungus monster.
Society breaks down and stays broken, with small pockets of civilization dotting forests and cities free(ish) from the roving hordes of infected. Individuals try to take charge, but they either die or violently fall from their position to less scrupulous members of the community. People go along with it. They try to maintain some form of order. And to do they, they murder each other in cold blood for scraps of food, working for themselves rather than each other. They are no different than the zombies. Perhaps even more dangerous.
Sure, there are individuals like David and Tess – people who will do anything and everything to survive, from the dangerous to the horrifying (Tess is a murderous gun runner and David is a cannibal, pedophile, and rapist). There are groups who purport to be working towards a greater good, but are only interested in power or control. Then there are guys like Joel, who will throw the fate of humanity under the bus to pursue some fantastic fantasy of wooly-bearded fatherhood with a girl who barely trusts him. The zombies aren’t the villains of The Last of Us. We are. And that’s scary as hell.
Zachary Comstock – Bioshock: Infinite
“What does a psychotic, bald religious leader elevated to the social status of a king have to do with villainry,” you may be asking yourself. Maybe it’s iconography. Maybe it’s the cultish fervor of his subjects. Maybe it’s his ceaseless desire to drown the sinful world below Columbia in steampunk flames, using his daughter as a psychic catalyst to tear reality apart and invade other, equally sinful versions of that world. Or maybe it’s that out of a city filled with magical racists, genocidal psychokinetic queens, and barbershop quartets singing Beach Boys songs seventy years before they were popular, he’s still the worst guy around. He really had to work for the number one slot.
By orchestrating the abduction of his own daughter from an alternate version of himself, murdering a pair of quantum-leaping siblings, and inspiring a violent uprising of the underclasses against average, everyday people, Comstock becomes less of a king and more of a monster, responsible from atrocities that range from the death of millions of rural Chinese to the murder of his own wife in cold blood. From torturing to brainwashing, kidnapping to extorting, Comstock is easily the best villain of 2013, down to that smooth, wizened preacher voice that echoes so sweetly as you crush police officer’s heads in your spinny claw thing. Don’t get too comfortable in your ‘heroic’ deeds, by the way. There’s a bit of a shocker coming about Booker that makes Comstock even more of an evil shit than you could ever hope to imagine. But at least you can jam out to Everybody Wants to Rule The World on a 1900’s bar piano. So we have that.