Villains are a dime a dozen. Memorable villains are rarer, but engaging villains are the most elusive of all. So what makes a villain engaging and lands them on this list? An engaging villain is more than memorable, terrifying, notorious, or well-known (although several on here are all of those). These antagonists are engaging to the player. They connect to us on some level, and we cannot take our eyes off of them when they appear on screen.
We hate them, and we love to hate them. In some cases, we even feel regret or sorry for them if we defeat them in battle. They represent something about us or something we desire to see, even if we are not aware of it. With that said, let’s see who made the list!
BioShock was a hugely influential game with great atmosphere, strong writing, and a terrific narrative to boot. While the game technically has two main antagonists, Andrew Ryan commanded the most respect and was the more charismatic of the two. Ryan was a man of unimaginable wealth and power with a dream he was passionate about to bring to fruition. Ryan was the driving force behind the undersea city of Rapture.
What makes Ryan engaging are his misguided beliefs and ideals that Rapture were founded upon. He stringently believes in a hands-off approach to civilization and regulation of any sorts. Even when Rapture devolves from a wonderful utopia into pure murderous anarchy, Ryan prefers to stand back and watch from safety at the world he has created. You can’t say the man is not committed to his ideals. After all, he refuses to resist his death merely to prove a point.
“A man chooses, a slave obeys.”
While Ryan may be the more memorable of BioShock’s adversaries, Fontaine is the more diabolical of the two. Fontaine deliberately manipulates and deceives you into doing his evil bidding like an overlord’s minion. While he is ultimately out to get Ryan, he is out to get you as well.
Fontaine is the exact opposite of Ryan. While Ryan has ideals and morals, Fontaine has none and is simply trying to accumulate wealth and power, even in the hellish remains of a utopian city. Fontaine gains your trust by appearing as a fellow lost soul in Rapture and giving you helpful advice via the radio, which makes his betrayal all the more unnerving. “Nice work, boyo! It’s time to end this little masquerade. There ain’t no ‘Atlas’, kid, never was.” Backstabbing b******.
Oh Vaas. How we love to hate you. The antagonist for most (the good part) of Far Cry 3,¸Vass has made a huge impact despite only starring in one game. When Ubisoft was developing the game, Vass was actually a character named Bull and looked nothing like the man we love to fear. After the fantastic Michael Mando auditioned for the part though, the team took inspiration from his physical appearance, and eventually made Vaas Mando’s digital doppelganger.
Sure, Vass certainly has memorable dialogue, however, Mando’s performance is what makes him so engaging. Mando brings to terrifying life a man who is grasping at the final straws of his sanity. He is highly unpredictable with a violent nature he is not afraid to show off or commit heinous acts. Despite all of the atrocious things he does, the player cannot help but be enraptured with him whenever he shows up on screen. When Vaas does make his exit (still wondering who thought this was a good idea), the game loses a LOT of steam, and I would not blame you if you did not finish it. The fact people would hesitate to complete the game without him speaks volumes to his presence on the game.
All of Metal Gear Solid’s foes were engaging and memorable in their ways, but Psycho Mantis is undoubtedly the most beloved. The psychic warrior’s emaciated appearance belies the nature of his abilities and his true strength in battle.
What makes Mantis so engaging was not only his dialogue but the constant fourth wall breaks during his fight. He reads your mind (memory card) and can even make your controller rumble. To defeat him, players had to move their controller to another port thereby “confusing” the psi-warrior. From the moment he appeared on screen until he leaves, you can’t help but be absorbed in his amazing (for the time) tricks and shenanigans he pulls on Snake. Tricky blighter.
Spec Ops: The Line is one of my favorite games of all time and boasts one of the best narratives in gaming. Seriously. Play it if you have not. Your character, Captain Walker, is sent with his squad to Dubai to find Konrad, a former commander of Walker’s. What follows is a descent into Hell and one of the most gut-wrenching games you can play. If you don’t feel something after playing this game, you may want to seek help.
Largely inspired by Joseph Conrad’s (clever eh?) Heart of Darkness and Colonel Walter E. Kurtz from the classic Apocalypse Now, Konrad is an enigmatic and shadowy figure. Like Colonel Kurtz in the film, Konrad is not seen much until the end of the proceedings, but his presence is felt everywhere. He talks to you over the radio; he leaves messages for you; he tests your resolve and character; and he causes you to question your actions. But when was there a gaming villain who was right in the end and also made you think about your actions? Cue the existential crisis.
The assassins who stand in Travis Touchdown’s way on his quest to become the top-ranked assassin are a colorful and memorable bunch. Every one is distinct and engages the player in their own way.
Dr. Peace is the second assassin you face in the game, and he makes for one hell of a memorable adversary. When you meet him, he tells you about a dinner he had with his family and he utters this line, "Unfortunately, the atmosphere was a facade. Not once did my own daughter looked me in the eye. Oh, the food? Tasted like blood..."
Destroyman is a postal worker who cosplays as a character from a cult film who also fights dirty and resorts to cheap tactics. Holly Summers fights with a prosthetic leg which can fire ANTI-AIRCRAFT missiles. She will also beat you with a shovel.... To each their own. Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii is a stage magician who uses several tricks of his trade in his attempt to do you in. Bad Girl is a demented young lady who spends her free time bludgeoning cloned men clad in bondage gear while she is garbed in Lolita attire. Dark Star is a parody of Darth Vader with a crazy beam katana (lightsaber) which can project dragons and might have an A.I.? Like I said, they are an interesting bunch.
The fact that you have ten of these wild characters to encounter in just one game makes for one unforgettable game, and I did not even touch on the sequel.
Hotline Miami was a neon-saturated, blood-drenched, and gore-filled arcade romp. While the game seemed shallow, the narrative had a surprising amount of depth and subterfuge to it. The player encounters the main masked killers several times in what appear to be trippy hallucinations. The killers make allusions to future events and ask direct questions about the violent acts committed by the player’s character.
The catch is the game is asking YOU these questions.
“Do you like hurting people? You’re not a nice person are you? Why did you came back here? You're not a nice person, are you? You make me sick!” The game itself is a commentary on video game violence and our perceptions about it. The developers themselves made an appearance and address the player as well. There aren’t many games where the developers themselves tell you how terrible a person you are. Too bad the sequel went all-out in the opposite direction…
Ah Kane. Despite being a man who manipulates people by their faith and is a remorseless killer, he remains a loveable rogue. Kane has appeared in nearly all Command & Conquer games and for damn good reason.
Like Vaas, Kane is largely defined by his actor. Joseph Kucan brings such charisma and terrifying edge to the character, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the murderous despot. He acts without remorse and no regards to the consequences of his actions. Despite all he does, we cannot look away and eagerly await to see what he does next. We love to hate him.
Homicidal robots. Is there anything better? What makes GLaDOS so special is the voice acting and the writing. Sure, villains threaten us all of the time in gaming, but how many make you genuinely laugh or promise you cake and a party? Her persistent insults to your intelligence may annoy, but you cannot help but chuckle at them either. During cooperative play in the sequel, she will even tell players different things in an effort to get the players to turn on each other.
The presence of GLaDOS elevates what would be another puzzle game into something more memorable and special. She is full of personality and vibrant and shames most other characters in gaming period, protagonists and antagonists alike. She will always have a special place in our hearts, no matter how much she insulted us. She also gave us “Still Alive” which is more than you have done. You monster.
SHODAN is the epitome of a diabolical machine. While GLaDOS may be the new standard for homicidal computers and Fontaine is the standard for traitorous allies who become the main foe, you have to recognize the lady who did both, first.
Like GLaDOS, SHODAN constantly harangues the player during their quest. While GLaDOS is amusing in her antics, SHODAN is downright terrifying. “The Polito form is dead, insect. Are you afraid? What is it you fear? The end of your trivial existence? When the history of my glory is written, your species shall only be a footnote to my magnificence.” She constantly refers to the player and humans as insects and cockroaches she seeks to exterminate. And her voice will haunt our dreams for years to come.
You’d think we would have learned our lesson with A.I.s by now.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the first homicidal computer in gaming. The main antagonist of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, AM makes the rest of these villains look like harmless cartoon characters. Based on Harlan Ellison’s short story, AM kills off the whole of humanity except for five people. He artificially extends their life and then proceeds to spend the next 110 years torturing them for his pleasure. He is pretty messed up.
Seeing AM brought to life is simultaneously petrifying and magnificent. Ellison himself performed the voice work for AM, even though he had no experience as a voice actor. The writing alone is enough to send chills up even the most seasoned horror fan’s spine, and the delivery sells the experience. Ellison brings a sardonic, belittling edge to the sentient A.I., which makes his atrocious actions all the more unnerving. GLaDOS and SHODAN both owe a great debt to AM.
Do you agree with my picks? Can you think of any engaging villains I missed? Sound off in the comments below!