A lot of storytelling, especially in game writing, involves directing the empathy of the person in control of the progression of the tale. You want to win, to do right, to save the day. You, the player, become the hero in many senses since you sign on to rescue the world from the forces of evil. There’s a grind to it: with every level, you and the protagonist become more bonded in the purpose. In control of the hero, you overcome incredible obstacles to get to the point where you can look the wickedness in the eye and …
And … ut-oh. Wait.
What happens when that wickedness makes sense? What happens when you find that, after all this time together, you and your protago-BFF might be … wrong?
Sympathy shifts, doesn’t it? Your loyalty (considering the incredible amount of time and energy invested) holds strong, but still, there’s that feeling, isn’t there? The unease in it all. There’s a touch of manipulation in triggering the investment of emotive momentum. And all those NPCs have been giving you just one side of the story for how long?!
There may be spoilers on this quest to give the presumed baddies their due, so proceed with caution.
10: Revolver Ocelot (Metal Gear Solid Series)
The ol’ triple-agent is truly in it to save humanity from the control of The Philosopher’s Legacy and the Patriots. Ocelot is presented as a terrible baddie set against Snake, but really, he’s a rabble-rouser, a disturbance in the force, a hero to humanity who works against the global war economy.
9: Ganondorf (Legend of Zelda)
Being a lonely revolutionary who someone (Zelda) had a bad feeling about is about the only basis for Ganon’s gradient of wickedness. A textbook example of being ‘bad’ because everyone says he’s bad, Ganondorf was put in an impossible situation by birth.
8: AI / Robotic / Zombie Bosses (Various)
Whether GLaDOS, Mother Brain, T-Virus or Big Daddies, you have to admit that they’re not really responsible for the wickedness they bring to the party. Someone, somewhere else, designed these baddies. They’re simply doing what they’re designed to do. No fault, no blame. The real problem is with whoever is behind the curtain. Will that slow you down? Nah.
7: Pagan Min (Far Cry 4) / Vaas Montenegro/ Citra (Far Cry 3)
Yes. Pagan Min establishes himself to be a violent sociopath, that’s true, but through the course of the narrative one might start to feel like the Golden Path, the side on which the player character glides along, is the side of the actual dangerous insurgent terrorists.
Compound onto that assessment the case of Vaas Montenegro, Citra, and the great white hope, Jason Brody, from Far Cry 3. Jason, as the player character, finds himself on Rook Island while celebrating his younger brother’s birthday. The locals, unhappy with the presence of the vacationers, gather them up and set about holding the wealthy college kids for ransom. But Jason ain’t having it. He breaks out, vows revenge, kills literal hundreds of island natives and places himself smack dab in the middle of a cultural, civil conflict. Take a moment with all of that.
6: Saturos and Menardi (Golden Sun)
The interesting thing about Golden Sun (and most everything on this list) is that in the game, no one truly classes as ‘evil.’ There are a lot of bad choices, but nine times out of ten those choices were made in the ignorance of any other way, to the ends of trying to achieve the greatest possible good for the whole of the world(s). Saturos and Manardi are presented as antagonists and the player is led to believe that they are. But, in an effort to save their own homeland and lighthouses, it is difficult to hold them to the villain standard.
5: Andrew Ryan (Bioshock)
Oh, that moment, Jack. You remember it, don’t you? That moment when you realized you were being used for destruction and oppression. All the fostered anger for mean ole Andrew Ryan is planted, watered, and grows. The entire walkup to meeting him, we’re filled with an anticipation of knowing, just knowing we were about to look oppressive evil right in the face. Would you kindly never show me a golf club, again. Thanks.
4: Almost Anyone you Encounter in Mass Effect:
The Geth are just trying to get by. The Reapers are just trying to get by. The Illusive Man, bless him, is just trying to get by. Saren Arterius is just trying to get by. On this huge galactic stage, behind the brilliant backdrop of world-class writing, Shepard is meddling in matters vague and prismatic. We all just want to get by.
3: The Master (Fallout 1)
A good amount of Fallout bosses fall into the category of ‘only bad because the gamer isn’t controlling them.’ The Wasteland is a rough place and trying to save humanity is on the minds of all who still have minds to use. Fallout is rife with boss encounters who are doing what they do in hopes of restoring order and prosperity. The Master seems evil – but deeper exploration reveals that there is a motive to find unity, end genocide, and achieve peace.
2: Colossi (Shadow of the Colossus)
These poor, beautiful, amazing giants just wanted to protect the realm and be left alone until YOU showed up, Wander. Their presence kept ancient darkness at bay, but … I think we all know how that worked out, don’t we?
1: Pretty Much Every Final Fantasy Story Boss, Ever. (Not you, Kefka. Sit down.)
Final Fantasy runs an interesting recipe in nearly all of its franchise titles: Plucky/and or/brooding protagonist finds that the whole of the world is being threatened by a massive dark/magic/celestial/technology –sucking the universe of life force. Hero journeys to find a way to intercede because hero has to but doesn’t always want to. Hero kills loads of mobs, gets loads of drops, gets loads of exp, strengthens the meaningful bond with other party members, usually on a romantic level of bonding souls, then BOOM – around level fifty, hero encounters the boss at the mid-level. The protagonist/antagonist interaction solidifies and strengthens the hero’s journey. This boss is such a jerk! This scene is marked with the boss’s biggest offense against the hero. It motivates the rest of the players’ actions but, but, but … Hero leaves the encounter with an odd seed planted.
The seed of doubt. The possibility that all the chaos and madness stems from that big bad’s best attempt at a heroic act: to save the world from itself.