Think back to the last game you played -- did it have an antagonist? Unless you were playing Tetris, it very likely did. Yes, I suppose the A.I. or whomever you’re against would count as the game’s antagonist, shut up.
Anyway, think of a non-Tetris game you played; what did you think of the antagonist? Were they a force of irredeemable evil that must be stopped? A tragic villain turned away from righteousness by a twist of fate? How about a charismatic sociopath you know you’re meant to hate, but there’s just something about them you love?
In recent years, it seems more and more games lean toward this “lovable enemy” model. These are your Handsome Jacks, GLaDOS’ and Vaas’. Villains so twisted, yet so likeable that you can’t help but hate yourself for eventually winning against them.
How the times have changed
It’s interesting to look at this shift. Where once video games used to have mostly big-bads, now we have just… normal people. A lot of our antagonists nowadays aren’t as easily defined, one way or another. They’re not just one super-evil enemy. They may have a good point, but are just utterly misguided in their execution.
Having these characters be less diametrically opposed to the player really brings our purpose as protagonists into question.
Take Pagan Min from Far Cry 4 for instance. There is a secret ending in which, rather than starting the game the right way, you can instead go off with him and “finally shoot some goddamn guns.” This may have been intended as just a little easter egg or joke for the player to discover; it makes you think. This secret ending, along with some info you obtain down the line, makes you look into the possibility of the whole game going into a different direction. One in which you just join Pagan Min.
And while we’re on the topic of Pagan Min, let me use this sloppy segue to approach my main point. My main point… that I’m only exploring some 300 words later.
Likeable villains, and their less likeable descendants
Developers like Ubisoft and Gearbox have hit gold in past games, with likable and charismatic villains. They realize this too late though, and they scramble to recreate that magic in future installments.
Vaas Montenegro was the perfect foil to the player in Far Cry 3. His clear mental state -- shown through the repetition of his “definition of insanity” spiel -- and his off-kilter comedic sense, were the shining feature of Far Cry 3. Aside from those DAMN radio towers.
*Spoiler* Vaas was so good, that when he disappears in the third act, and you go after someone else, the game starts to feel empty and devoid of personality. It may be a bold claim, but if you played FC3 then you’ll agree Vaas carried the majority of that game.
Ubisoft tried to reclaim that balance with Pagan Min, but he just couldn’t live up to the mantle. Min wasn’t balanced, he was purely unhinged, didn’t toy with the player in the ways, and just wasn’t the same demanding presence that Vaas was. That being said, Min wasn’t a terrible villain. He would’ve been a lot better if he didn’t feel like a blatant attempt to recreate Vaas, though. I actually kind of like Pagan Min, he was eccentric and jokey, but still crazy enough to remind you he’s a baddie.
Vaas will forever reign supreme though. He was so good they gave him his own miniseries.
Borderlands 2 had the same greatness with Handsome Jack. He was so good that Gearbox even gave him a whole game to himself. The Pre-Sequel was centered around pre-handsome-Handsome-Jack and his story. Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel -- or 1.5 as I call it -- even got repackaged as “The Handsome Collection” for a re-release on current-gen consoles.
Vaas and Handsome Jack are super likeable antagonists; either that, or I just have a thing for unhinged sociopathic murderers. Hint: It’s the former.
What comes after gold again? Oh right, silver.
When it comes to the followup on these iconic bad guys, Vaas had Pagan Min, and Handsome Jack got Timon and Pumbaa -- wait did I use this joke already? Anyway, Tyreen and Troy weren’t bad. If anything I liked Troy more, but they were mostly just annoying psychopathic vloggers. Definitely not as cool as Handsome Jack. Though I suppose Borderlands 3 had a lot more to offer than just a couple of new villains.
The follow-ups aren’t bad by any means, but they’re unimpressive when put against those who came before them. An honorable mention goes to The Joker, who was so good that they basically brought him back from the dead.
A weird opposite example that comes to mind is Just Cause 3 and 4. In JC3, we’re introduced to General Di Ravello. He’s pretty much a petulant man-child trying to kill protagonist Rico Rodriguez, and he’s pretty funny to watch. He’s not so much a likeable villain, but rather just a funny and annoying one.
On the other hand, I’ve played JC4 for 2 hours now and I have no clue who the antagonist is. I’ve seen two characters that could be, but they just don’t feel like main-baddie-material. As silly as it sounds for a game about blowing shit up, JC4 doesn’t have the same story that JC3 does. I remember quite a bit of the JC3 story, but I know maybe one or two small details about JC4.
I’m not really sure when I started noticing this weird… phenomenon? I’ll say phenomenon. I also don’t know if I’m talking out of my ass or not. But it really feels like the devs have just kept trying to make characters that live up to the expectations set by the villains of a franchise’s past.
The age of compelling and likeable villains is upon us. And as each one gets better, I worry that they may start getting worse and worse.