Through the years, video games have had some amazing villains. Some have created an impact because of how evil they are. Some chew up the scenery with how over the top they can get. From Handsom Jack to GLaDOS and Joker, these are the antagonists we remember and who end up being on all the best villain lists.
But my favorite type of enemy, is the kind you don’t see coming- the villains who change up the game by challenging expectations or requiring you to change the way you play the game.
In this edition of GH Breakdowns, I dissect some of my favorite villains and why they were impactful.
There will be spoilers ahead.
When we think we know what to expect
When we begin to play a game, we usually have an expectation of how it is going to play out. These expectations are formed based on trailers, the genre, and even reviews. But some villains take us by surprise the moment they appear by behaving in an unexpected manner. They force us to reconsider what the game was going to be and create a memorable experience we never knew we wanted.
Pagan Min – Far Cry 4
Far Cry has always served the purpose of making me feel like an 80s action star, which is honestly the reason I even pick up these games- to live my Rambo or John Wick fantasy and take out a despotic villain. These villains perpetuate something terrible and you, as the player, have to stop them, all while mowing through thousands of minions and surviving the environments and wildlife of beautiful locales.
Following the popularity of Vaas in Far Cry 3, the Far Cry series began to include loud, larger-than-life villains who are as charming as they are dangerous. It was a great move that created a bunch of memorable characters, but the villain who truly challenged my expectations of a Far Cry title was Pagan Min.
On the surface, Pagan Min isn’t much different. He was flamboyant and just manic enough to put me on edge. I never knew when he was going to murder the NPCs around or what he was going to say next; it was delightfully chaotic.
My first surprise was how we met Pagan Min. Instead of stumbling across his ‘evil’ activity like in the previous games, he captured Ajay right at the start of the game saying he recognized him. Pagan Min did swing in and immediately commit murder, but then the game immediately established a personal connection. It was done through a comment about Min ‘recognizing those eyes.’
A connection that was further strengthened in that twisted dinner party where he talked about Ajay’s mother fondly, going so far as to taste her ashes. Ew! Expectations set by the previous games told me that I needed to escape, that this was my call to action to take down the madman. The game then went about as expected, but I felt like that initial connection was left unresolved.
Later, I found out about the fact that I could have stayed, obeying Min’s request to enjoy the Crab Rangoon. So I went back and replayed the game. Boy, was I glad I did, even if it was a long wait! There were interesting story details of Min being Ajay’s stepdad and the details of Lakshmana. There was also the satisfaction of completing the starting story goal. This was where you found the reason for the connection.
The experience cast the entire beginning of the game in a different light. Outside of the standard crazy villainous nonsense, I realized that Min was probably waiting for Ajay at the start to say goodbye to a woman he once loved, who gave him a daughter. To remember a family he lost because the rebel leader was angry that his spy fell in love.
It’s such a twist. It was immediate story depth. It was a human side to Pagan Min’s cartoonish gangster persona. Min had no intention to pull Ajay into a civil war. Even though Ajay was the Rebel Leaders’ biological son, he was Min’s stepson. Min completely destroyed my expectations by providing a peaceful ending to an action game. It is a narrative I still can’t stop thinking about.
The entire sequence reframed the villain. Outside of the expectations of a Far Cry game, there was no reason for Ajay to run to the rebels, no reason to believe he would be safe there even if Pagan Min does some unhinged things. Staying is something I would have done if a scary man tells me to. I am so glad I chose to replay the game and unlock that alternate ending. I now remember it much more clearly than the rest of the game. Thanks to Pagan Min and his actions, all Far Cry games since have had fun alternate endings.
God of War 2
Another game that played with my expectations was God of War 2. That game actually messed with me in a few different ways.
For starters, it was a sequel. With most sequels, I grudgingly commit myself to start at zero and building myself back up. We all expect it to happen. But I often find myself grumbling and wondering why some elements of my overpowered character from the previous game couldn’t carry over.
However, God of War 2 started with Kratos powered up. It was amazing. I was so excited that I didn’t have to start from scratch and could instead build off the base from the first game. I spent 30 glorious minutes charging around the world being powerful and being the Goddess of War.
Then Zeus showed up…woof!
Now, there are a lot of narrative reasons to dislike Zeus. There has to be, because Pre-Norse Kratos was a really unlikable character. In fact, it is a testament to his antagonists that you still root for him. But have you thought about why you really dislike Zeus? I am pretty sure it is the same reason I happily got on a war path against him even if I agreed with the Greek Gods at the start. It’s because he stripped off all those glorious powers as I was settling into them. He literally stalled my game forcing me to rebuild Kratos.
At the start of the game, Kratos finds himself shunned by the rest of the Gods because of his anger and resultant destructive ways. When Kratos Joins the Spartans in destroying Rhodes, an eagle drains part of Kratos’ powers to animate the Colossus of Rhodes. That is when Zeus comes in and offers Kratos his sword, The Sword of Olympus. If Kratos powers up the sword with the rest of his power, it will be an incredibly powerful weapon. It was, of course, a trick.
Kratos is now mortal, even though he still took down the Colossus. But he is injured and struggling, giving Zeus the chance to pick up that giant sword and plunge it through him. Just like that, we start at zero again. Yeah…I was mad. Kratos has his reasons for hating Zeus. This was mine.
I can appreciate the design behind this. There was now a genuine reason to rest Kratos back to zero. It definitely kept me from complaining about that aspect. But…I did not want to restart. It was an excellent method to win me over into another vendetta. With this move, the designers created a way to appeal to me directly and I was again willing to back Kratos in whatever he wanted to do.
Kudos Cory Balrog…Kudos.
A refreshing change
Both of these games had antagonists that made me rethink my game. Pagan Min did so by breaking expectations I had based on the genre and the previous games of the series. And Zeus did so by messing up with expectations I had developed while playing the game. With both of them, I had to reset my expectations of the game- and it was wonderful!