One of my vices, if you would call it that, is an endless desire to make ‘top ten’ lists of things. Or top eight, or six… whatever I can find! I’m a lot like John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity (including the history of relationship troubles).
Anyway, today I’ve had video game villains on my mind. I thought I’d make a list of some of my favorite video game villains. My favorites include those with great personalities, those who scared the hell out of me, and those who just kick ass! My list below the fold. Some minor spoilers are involved, so if you’re planning to play the game mentioned, you may want to skip that description…
1. GlaDOS: Portal (2007).
This was the one that inspired me to write this post in the first place! Probably the best game of 2007, Portal is a first-person action/puzzle game. As the protagonist, you awaken in an underground research facility and are asked to perform ‘tests’ of increasing complexity using Aperture Science’s ‘portal gun’, which allows the opening of passages from one point in space to another. Your only companion is a disembodied female voice which is at times encouraging, reassuring, condescending, and threatening. In fact, you are at the mercy of Aperture Science’s deranged AI, GlaDOS, who is evidently performing ‘scientific experiments’ on those members of the research facility who haven’t been killed. GlaDOS becomes increasingly unhinged as the game progresses, and adds a huge amount of atmosphere to an already magnificent game. Winning the game treats you to a song by GlaDOS, ‘Still Alive’, penned by Jonathan Coulton, which I just downloaded the other day from iTunes. GlaDOS is voiced by soprano/actor Ellen McLain, and this role has made her a celebrity amongst the ‘gamerati’.
2. The Dahaka: Prince of Persia, Warrior Within (2004).
In the first (Ubisoft-designed) Prince of Persia game, The Sands of Time, the proud and rather thick-headed prince is tricked into releasing the sands of time, which wreak havoc upon the world and the space-time continuum. By the end of that game, the prince has put the genie back into the bottle, so to speak, but not without cost: the Gods are upset with the prince’s meddling and have sent the Dahaka, The Guardian of the Timeline, to rub him out. The Dahaka, a burly, lightning-fast creature of shadow, is a wonderful symbol of the inevitability of fate.
The prince’s only hope, it seems, is to meddle with the timeline even more and prevent the sands of time from ever being created. You spend the game searching the Island of Time for clues, fighting the island’s definitely hostile inhabitants. Numerous times throughout the game, the Dahaka appears without warning and you are forced into nail-biting flight, the Dahaka close behind. Every appearance of the Dahaka would make my heart feel like it was being squeezed by an icy-cold hand.
To make the creature even more oppresive and formidable, it turns out there are two endings to the game: one in which you ‘placate’ the Dahaka to make it leave you alone, and a second ending which requires you to find all the hidden items in the game. If you do so, you find a mystical sword called the ‘water sword’, which is powerful enough to kill even the Dahaka. That battle, though still incredibly difficult, is one of the most satisfying in all of videogames. (“Eat it, Dahaka!”)
3. The Cyberdemon, Doom (1993).
Doom was, of course, the game that pretty much single-handedly established the genre of first person shooters. You play a nameless space marine assigned to guard duty at a secret teleportation research facility on the planet Mars. Then, one day, something goes wrong with the experiments and demons from Hell come streaming out of the gates, killing all in their sight and turning the hapless human staff into zombies. What follows is an ultra-violent kill fest as you battle your way across Mars and eventually into the demon-haunted halls of Hell itself.
By the end of the second of the three chapters of Doom, it’s not hard to start feeling a little cocky. Sure, the demons are nasty and can still make you jump, but with your rocket launcher and shotgun none of them seem too terrifying.
Enter: the Cyberdemon! This towering monstrosity appears without much warning and starts firing missiles at you as fast as your minigun fires bullets! Even worse, a single direct hit from any of these missiles is pretty much the end of you! You try to run, but the demon is fast, horribly fast: you have only a fractional speed advantage over him. And the missiles start flying the instant he catches sight of you. You are forced to flee constantly, taking an occasional shot with a missile and then diving behind cover as his deadly barrage approaches. With steady nerves and a high degree of patience, he is defeatable: but you’ll never see another monster so fearsome. The spider demon at the end of the entire game seems tame compared to this missile-chucking bastard…
4. Trolls: Pool of Radiance (1988).
(The image above is a ‘modern’ representation of a troll.) Pool of Radiance was the first official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons computer game adaptation, produced by Strategic Simulations, Inc. Players constructed a standard AD&D adventure party and went on explorations of the ruins of the City of Phlan, which was overrun by the forces of a malevolent spirit named Tyranthraxus.
In play, you started out with ‘novice’ 1st level characters, and initially explored the slums neighborhood of Phlan. Everything seemed quite ordinary at first: you encountered garden-variety orcs and goblins, no creature a good ‘sleep’ spell couldn’t mow down by the dozens. Then the developers played a really mean trick on you: coming into the next room, you stumble across a large group of ogres and trolls, playing catch with huge sacks of grain. As the last sack breaks, they turn to you as their next plaything! Trolls and ogres are huge creatures (immune to sleep), and trolls regenerate from any wounds not caused by fire. The enemy grossly outclasses you at that point in the game, and I expect that most people had their party massacred numerous times. I sure did. The only option is to skip the trolls and start exploring more distant parts of the dungeon, hoping to build up enough skill to come back and whup their tails. Even then, the fight was a real nail-biter. Considering, on the Commodore 64, death in the game required a five-minute reload of a saved game, I think most players of PoR ended up hating the trolls with a passion!
5. Guardian: Ultima VII (1992).
The Ultima series of fantasy role-playing games were amongst the first, and also remain some of the best. A central conceit of the game is that you yourself are the ‘Avatar’, the ultimate hero of the fantasy realm of Britannia, and that you travel there from your real-life in times of Britannia’s need.
Ultima VII, The Black Gate, starts with a seemingly normal game introduction on the computer screen. Suddenly, a face appears and projects itself out of the screen to taunt and threaten you! In a frighteningly authoritative voice, it declares:
Avatar! Know that Britannia has entered into a new age of enlightenment! Know that the time has finally come for the one true Lord of Britannia to take His place at the head of His people! Under my guidance, Britannia will flourish. And all the people shall rejoice and pay homage to their new… Guardian! Know that you, too, shall kneel before me, Avatar. You, too, shall soon acknowledge my authority – for I shall be your companion… your provider… and your master!
You travel to Britannia, and quickly get wrapped up in a murder investigation which leads into a deeper conspiracy by the Guardian and his minions to conquer the land. Though you don’t actually meet the Guardian in person in the game, his shadow (and his occasional disembodied taunt) hovers oppressively over you as you race to stop him.
6. G-Man: Half-Life, Half-Life 2 (1998+).
“Gordon Freeman, in the flesh… or, should I say, in the hazard-suit?”
Speaking of oppressive shadows, one cannot ignore one of the most sinister villains (?) in all of videogames: the ‘G-man’ of the Half-Life series. In the original Half-Life, you play theoretical physicist (yay!) Gordon Freeman, an employee of the massive Black Mesa government research facility. An experiment in exotic matter goes horribly wrong, ripping open an extradimensional portal through which aliens from the world Xen appear.
As you battle through numerous levels of alien and government-inspired carnage, you occasionally catch glimpses of a dour, briefcase-toting executive who seems to be observing you and seems completely unconcerned with the danger surrounding him. At the end of the game, after defeating the boss of the Xen aliens, you are whisked to a meeting with this mysterious, seemingly omnipotent G-Man, who offers you a choice: work for him, or die. Accepting the offer is highly recommended.
Half-Life 2 finds Gordon awakening after years in stasis, en route to a mysterious European city known only as City 17. The Earth has been conquered in the meantime by another alien race, the Combine, apparently drawn to Earth by the rifts created by the Xen aliens. Gordon takes up the fight against the Combine, again with the G-Man pulling the strings from behind the scenes. Half-Life 2 is still ongoing, with 2 of 3 ‘add-on’ episodes having been released, dealing with the consequences which followed the conclusion of the original game. The G-Man is playing a progressively larger role in the storyline as it progresses…
His mundane appearance, his creepy demeanor, and his nearly limitless power makes the G-Man a compelling villain. Is he even a villain, though? We know so little about his motives, even this is unclear…
7. Donkey Kong: Donkey Kong (1981).
The big crazy ape holds a special place in my heart. This was one of the first video games to employ multiple, distinct ‘levels’ and a non-trivial storyline. Carpenter Jumpman (later renamed Mario and reemployed as a plumber) mistreats his pet ape, who kidnaps his girlfriend and takes her to the top of a massive building. Jumpman must rescue her by jumping barrels and dodging fireballs. Donkey Kong’s mocking low-quality digital laugh still haunts me to this day…
8. T-Rex! Tomb Raider (1996).
(Picture from Tomb Raider: Anniversary.) The original Tomb Raider was a breakthrough game not only because of its protagonist, lovely low-res Lara Croft, but because of its beautiful level design and excellent creature animation. Early in the game, while exploring a massive cave system in the mountains of Peru, Lara comes across a ‘lost valley’ filled with deadly prehistoric raptors. After dispatching the raptors and moving forward, the ground begins to shake with heavy footfalls! In the distance, nearly concealed by the haze of the valley, a massive Tyrannosaurus comes out from behind a rock outcropping, looks Lara’s way, and lets out a mighty bellow! This was one of the biggest “Oh, shit!” moments I’ve ever experienced in gaming. I later brought the game to my friend Bert so could play and I could watch his reaction. His was even better than mine: he started with “Oh, shit!” and then turned Lara’s tail and ran! By pure coincidence, he timed it such that the camera angle contained not only the back of the fleeing Lara but the head of the T-Rex in hot pursuit!
If Lara lingered too close to the T-Rex’s mouth, the gamer might be treated to a graphic view of the beast sweeping her up in its jaws and giving her a vicious shake!
The recently released remake of Tomb Raider, dubbed ‘Anniversary‘, is a better game in all respects except for the treatment of the T-Rex. A cutscene is used to introduce the beast, taking away from some of the dramatic fear of first seeing it while in full control of Ms. Croft.
9. Kane, Command & Conquer (1995).
Command & Conquer was one of the first RTS (real-time strategy) games available, and is generally credited with popularizing the genre. Players could control, in real-time, numerous military units of either the GDI (Global Defense Initiative; the good guys) or the Brotherhood of Nod (the bad guys), and battle their opposing force in a number of missions. Kane is the mysterious, powerful and charismatic leader of the Brotherhood who is also apparently immortal, or very nearly so. Playing the game on the side of ‘good’, you learn to really hate Kane, especially as he starts lobbing nuclear missiles at your base from his ‘Temple of Nod’ in the final mission of the game!
Kane has appeared and reappeared in most of the C&C games to follow, and a mythology has been constructed about him involving alien and Biblical references. The actor Joseph D. Kucan has done an excellent, over-the-top job portraying the fanatical Kane. Either that, or I just like him because he looks vaguely like an evil version of a friend of mine (you know who you are!).
10. Agents of H.A.R.M.: No One Lives Forever (2000).
This first-person shooter is a spoof of the James Bond films of the 1960s, but its spoofness doesn’t take away at all from the intense action. The gamer takes on the persona of Cate Archer, agent of the good-guy British spy organization UNITY. After a large number of UNITY agents are assassinated, Archer is brought in to investigate. She eventually uncovers a plot by agents of the terrorist organization H.A.R.M. (whose acronym is intentionally never explained) to blackmail the free world.
The villains of H.A.R.M. are all unique, from the Scottish mercenary Magnus Armstrong to the conceited German opera singer Inga Wagner. Especially fun are the rank and file soldiers, who are usually having very entertaining conversations if you sneak up and eavesdrop. (One of my favorites involves a goon talking about an old trash-talking colleague of his who had his jaw blown off in a gunfight. “Don’t you get it? He was always shootin’ his mouth off, and he got his mouth shot off!”)
The villainous mastermind of H.A.R.M. makes his demands through a high-pitched voice and a hand puppet, pictured above. It’s hard not to giggle while watching the extremely long cutscene…
11. Shadowlords: Ultima V (1988).
Finally, we come to yet another set of villains from the Ultima series. Actually, Ultima I-VII, the ones with Lord British at the helm, were all spectacular and had spectacular villains. Ultima I had the evil wizard Mondain, who was defeated by smashing the gem which was the source of his power. Ultima II had the wizardess Minax, pupil and lover of Mondain, who was defeated by the hero traveling throughout time and space to find objects of power. In Ultima III one needed to defeat the spawn of Mondain and Minax, Exodus, who turned out to be a demonic computer of sorts. In Ultima V, the Avatar (hero of the series) returns to Brittania to find Lord British, the rightful ruler, missing, and his throne usurped by his servant, Lord Blackthorne. Blackthorne is under the influence of three evil robed figures, the Shadowlords, and the goal of Ultima V is to defeat the Shadowlords and return Lord British to the throne.
It turns out the Shadowlords were spawned by the long-lost fragments of Mondain’s gem, and the Avatar must seek out and destroy these fragments. Along the way, he and his friends are haunted by the Shadowlords. In particular, during certain phases of the moons, the Shadowlords take complete control of certain cities in Brittania, and if the players are touched by one of them, they are transported to a nightmarish land where the Shadowlord mops the floor with them. In the original game, the Shadowlords move at exactly the same speed as the player character, so your only hope upon seeing the Lord was to flee directly away from it, and heaven help you if a building happened to be in the way!
Ultima V also contains one of the most nerve-shaking experiences in all of videogaming. While sneaking through Blackthorne’s castle, the adventuring party is captured by Blackthorne’s guards. Taken to the dungeon, Blackthorne puts one of your party under a swinging pendulum blade, and you have only seconds to reveal one of the passwords to a mystical shrine before your party member is exterminated! Even if you do reveal it, your party member is still slain, but you are at least left alone, albeit trapped. However, one of your fellow prisoners, a barbarian in a neighboring cell, has an improbable escape plan that you agree to, but it requires precise timing to avoid the patrolling guards. No other scene in a videogame has motivated me more to get revenge!
In 2006, a group of Ultima fans released an updated and remade version of Ultima V, using the Dungeon Siege game engine. I haven’t finished the remade version, but it is spectacularly good and recaptures the spirit of the original game perfectly.
Well, those are some of my favorite video game villains. Who are your favorites? Feel free to tout them in the comments!