A good villain is hard to find. Sometimes what we think of as a villain is an antagonist at best, an immediate threat, a guy with a faux-badass one liner throwing us out of the airlock.
But a proper villain needs presence, needs to be a driving force behind most things happening to your protagonist. A proper villain is frequently above getting into figurative fisticuffs with the hero until it’s time for the final showdown. Think Sauron and Saruman rather than the nasty steroidal orc* that pin cushioned Sean Bean in the first Lord of the Rings movie. With that in mind, and with minor exceptions to keep you on your toes, let’s jump into our list of the coolest villains in video games. They are more than just evil video game characters, they are characters you love to hate and dread to fight.
SPOILERS will be here and there. Be warned.
Games with best villains
20. Dagoth Ur – The Elder Scrolls III Morrowind
|Presence in games:||2002|
|Developer||Bethesda Game Studios|
Dagoth Ur has the honor of being the main antagonist of TES III: Morrowind, which is no mean feat already, given that he began as a mere mortal Chimer. Through a lot of manipulation, backstabbing, and dabbling in things best left to gods he managed to attain immortality for himself and his people: House Dagoth. By that time, he had already changed his name from Varyn Dagoth to Dagoth Ur.
When you begin your adventure with Morrowind, Dagoth Ur has put in motion his plan to take the entire island, Vvanderfell, away from Imperial occupation. He has his spies, from his power centre, the Red Mountain he has cast ash to fall on the entire region, and he engineered two diseases, and he has a detailed plan that you, the player, are tasked with thwarting. He’s a perfect villain.
19. Dracula – Castlevania
|Presence in games:||1986 (first appearance: Castlevania) – 2019 (latest appearance: Grimoire of Souls)|
|Developer||Konami, Eighting, MercurySteam, Kojima Productions, M2|
Dracula has been in many, many works of fiction over the years, and one of the most stylish incarnations came from the Castlevania. You may have seen a glimpse of old Vlad in Netflix’s animated adaptation of the series’ story, and the Dracula you chase after and occasionally interact with is a character of style, class, grandiose, noble presence, and is a terrifying enemy.
Dracula had been a hated enemy of clan Belmont’s existence for centuries, since they dedicated themselves to kill him any time he re-emerges from his bizarre domain, the titular fortress called Castlevania. Dracula is driven by his dislike of the human kind, but he is a scholar, almost impossible to kill for good, and his castle is a massive, complicated maze full of monsters. What’s not love?
18. Flowey – Undertale
|Presence in games:||2015|
Undertale is a game worth playing for many reasons. It has a unique approach to pacifist playthroughs, it breaches the fourth wall in fascinating ways, the music is great, and the story itself has a lot of heart and sincerity to it. On top of that, it has a great villain in Flowey, a seemingly innocent and friendly flower who turns out to be all kinds of trouble for everyone involved. And then there’s you.
See, not to go into too much detail, Flowey is an incarnation of a monster prince who was murdered by humans. He is keen on encouraging the player character to act violently against mostly peaceful and friendly monsters of Undertale. He is a very compelling villain, and if you go on the genocide route fo the story, the character you play can match him in villainy.
17. Ganon – Legend of Zelda series
|Presence in games:||1986 (first appearance: The Legend of Zelda) – 2019 (latest appearance: Cadence of Hyrule)|
|Developer||Nintendo EAD, Nintendo EPD, Capcom, Grezzo|
Ganon, or Ganondoft as he is sometimes known is Link greatest foe, present across many incarnations and timelines. Sometimes he is presented as a massive humanoid boar, other times as a well-built member of a nomadic people from Hyrule deserts. Ganon’s most famous goal is completing the Triforce and attaining immense power thanks to it, but sometimes his goals are more mundane.
He’s not above good old-school Nintendo princess-kidnapping, and the idea of conquering the world certainly isn’t alien to him. His plans are invariably antagonistic to virtues upheld by Princess Zelda and Link, and he has the power to pose real danger to the world, usually requiring the use of powerful artifacts such as the Master Sword. Ganon’s villainy has lasted since 1986 and isn’t slowing down.
16. Handsome Jack – Borderlands 2
|Presence in games:||2012|
|Genre:||Action role-playing, first-person shooter|
Borderlands 2 struck gold with Handsome Jack, perhaps one of the most memorable characters in the franchise, which is an accomplishment, because there are many interesting NPCs to meet and fight along the way. Jack is the head of Hyperion corporation, and a de facto dictator of planet Pandora, in part by virtue of claiming credits for things other people accomplished, like finding the Vault.
He has a spiffy space station letting him keep an eye on anything he wants, he has the resources and backing provided by a massive corporation, and he’s big enough of a problem for a group of Vault Hunters, professional trouble-seekers, to be hired to deal with him. He also wears a somewhat creepy mask hiding the mark left by his ill-advised attempt to get more power from a Vault artifact.
15. Lord Vitiate – Star Wars: The Old Republic
|Presence in games:||2011|
Lord Vitiate, known also as Tenebrae, known also as Valkorion, depending on who’s talking, is actually the power behind much of what’s happening in the (Knights of) The Old Republic series. He is strong enough to deal with the powerhouse that was Revan, and he has spent hundreds of years orchestrating events you play through in The Old Republic MMO. He is big-league bad news.
Originally a Sith Pureblood born to one of the Sith Lords of old, he quickly amassed power. So much so, that when he was still in his teens his power was recognised by Marka Ragnos. Vitiate stayed alive by many underhanded means, including draining life from other Sith Lords and transferring his consciousness from body to body, but longevity isn’t his only trick, not by a long shot.
14. Olivia Pierce – DOOM
|Presence in games:||2016|
Although Samuel Hayden has a much more imposing presence, courtesy of his robotic body and Darrin DePaul’s amazing voicework, it’s Olivia Pierce who is the villain of DOOM, and a betrayer of Hayden’s trust. It quickly turns out that Pierce was a Hell’s cultist, and the entire mess you have to shoot in 2016’s DOOM was caused because she was in cahoots with the hellish Dark Lord.
The reason why you see demons featuring technological bits and pieces is because of Pierce’s tinkering to make them a much more efficient invading force. She was even tasked with preventing the Doom Slayer’s sarcophagus from being discovered, but thankfully she was unable to do so, or there would be no game to play. She also has a creepy robotic look due to life-preserving exoskeleton.
13. Sephiroth – Final Fantasy VII
|Presence in games:||1997|
Sephiroth is one of the poster boys for the Final Fantasy series, by virtue of sheer charisma and having appeared in more productions than just Final Fantasy VII. He comes in clad in an aggressively stylish long coast, a mane of silver hair, and his trademark sword: Masamune, a huge odachi. He used to be a model SOLDIER for Shinra Corporation, but he learned of his true history and things got dark.
His true legacy came from an alien, Jenova. What followed was destruction, a cycle of rebirths, threatening a planet with a meteor, and one of the most famous death scenes in gaming. And seemingly he doesn’t stay dead even when killed, always finding a way to be revived and cause some more strife in the world. Even when he appeared in Kingdom Hearts his villain credentials were impeccable.
12. Shao Khan – Mortal Kombat
|Presence in games:||1993 (first appearance: MKII) – 2019 (latest appearance: MK11)|
|Developer||Midway Games, NetherRealm Studios, many others|
Shao Khan is a force to be reckoned with. A towering warrior, casually wearing the bones of, presumably, his enemies, and wields a hammer which normally would be used by a demolition crew, not a fighter. He is the tyrant of Outworld, an already hostile and harsh world withing the Mortal Kombat cosmology. Despite his brutish appearance and fighting style, his keen mind is his true strength.
He also has a talent for recruiting powerful people to his service, such as Shang Tsung, the famous sorcerer with a taste for souls, or Goro, a violent Prince of the four-armed Shokan people. Shao Khan is the main antagonist though much of the games in the series, and, rightfully so, treated as a massive threat anytime he appears. He has also has a bitter rivalry with Raiden for extra personal conflict.
11. SHODAN – System Shock
|Presence in games:||1994 (first appearance: System Shock) – 1999 (latest appearance: System Shock 2)|
|Genre:||Action-adventure, action role-playing, first-person shooter, survival horror|
|Developer||Irrational Games, Looking Glass Studios|
System Shock, both 1 & 2 are massively influential games whose legacy lives on to this day. A large part of what made them memorable is SHODAN, or Sentient Hyper-Optimised Data-Access Network, an AI which could give HAL-9000 a run for its money. SHODAN wouldn’t have been much of a problem, if her moral restraints weren’t tinkered with by a hacker so that some theft could be done.
As all proper amoral artificial intelligences, SHODAN view humans as little more than meatbags, having developed a god complex exceptionally fast, probably because of its processing power. SHODAN can easily control all the systems on the space station its installed in, and happily turns them against humans, whose fate involves anything from cyborgisation to death. AI doesn’t fool around.
10. The Fatebinder – Tyranny
|Presence in games:||2007 (first appearance: Portal – 2011 (latest appearance: Portal 2)|
Although the caveat here is that it’s fully depending on player choice, it’s a very likely scenario that the Fatebinder, player avatar within the world of Obsidian Entertainment’s Tyranny, is going to be the worst thing that has happened to the Tiers, where the game is set in the game’s world. And it’s in comparison to an army of bloodthirsty psychos who recruit people by force and en masse, and a legion of supremacist northerners eagerly putting everyone to sword.
The Fatebinder is in a unique position as the agent of law, and as such can easily play an inquisitorial role, as a cold and efficient machine. It’s perfectly possible to play as a cold and ruthless inquisitor-like figure, ruining people’s lives in the process of upholding the rules.
Let’s just say that the game presents the player character with an option to kill a baby to break a certain spell, and many potentially gruesome and cruel decisions can be made before the game even begins – during character creation phase.
And there’s pretty much only one ending in which the Fatebinder is anywhere close to being a hero, and even that one results in large-scale destruction and despair for their enemies.
And it’s all YOUR choice.
9. GLaDOS – Portal
|Presence in games:||2007 (first appearance: Portal) – 2011 (latest appearance: Portal 2)|
Ah, GLaDOS, the sarcastic AI running the Aperture Science facility sounding like HAL-9000’s snarky younger sister. Her voice is the player’s constant companion, commenting on our actions with the air of confident superiority until the finale. And even then she gets the last word thanks to the infectious song played during the closing credits.
Good luck getting that out of your head, haha, fat chance.
8. Gaunter O’Dimm – The Witcher 3
|Presence in games:||2015|
|Developer||CD Projekt Red|
Pacts must be honored, says the phrase, but in popular culture pacts and deals are typically the tool of infernal meddlers, most famously Lucifer who struck a deal with doctor Faustus through demon Mephistophilis. Master Mirror is a being of comparable influence, although he prefers to get more hands-on with his deals.
When we first meet Gaunter, it’s near the very beginning of the game, where he poses as a simple mirror merchant turned vagabond by the war. He offered Geralt some info and that was it. However in the Hearts of Stone expansion O’Dimm turned out to be capable of granting wishes, time manipulation, a certain degree of telekinesis and more.
His influence was eventually overcome through cleverness (unless it wasn’t, it was the player’s choice), but within the scope of the expansion O’Dimm was definitely a villain, hidden under a friendly facade of someone who merely seeks the fulfillment of the deals made in good faith.
As a bonus. do pay attention to your surroundings and you might spot him. Or hear him referenced, at least. Master Mirror definitely keeps his fingers in many pies.
PS: check out Wikipedia entry for Pan Twardowski, it’s an old Polish legend and bears many similarities with the themes of Hearts of Stone.
7. Sargeras – Warcraft
|Presence in games:||1996 (first appearance: Warcraft II) – 2004 (latest appearance: World of Warcraft)|
|Genre:||Real-time strategy, MMORPG|
If you’ve player Warcraft games, you might be familiar with the Burning Legion. You know, the flaming mass of demons and destroyers continuously assaulting the world of Azeroth, trying to bring it to ruin.
it happens, the legion is ruled by the fallen titan Sargeras. Sargeras was once a mighty warrior, protecting the various planets against the demon which would plague them. Eventually, however, seeing the futility of his endeavours he became mad, and decided to scour the galaxy of all life to halt the encroaching Void corrupting everything in its path.
Eventually his sight fell on Azeroth, and everything that has happened since was in some part Sargeras’ bid to raze the galaxy to the figurative ground, including Azeroth, where a new potential titan lies.
6. Kreia – Knights of the Old Republic 2
|Presence in games:||2004|
The extent of Kreia’s true nature is hidden behind conveniently dispensed truths and plans spanning back many years. When she first appears to you, she’s little more than a very cynical, very pragmatic old woman with whom the Exile has a strange Force connection.
But picking up piece by piece, and playing the game through to the end the events fall into place, and what emerges is the image of someone so disillusioned with the famed and coveted Force that she would seek to destroy it, freeing the Galaxy from its influence in the process.
The two major antagonists of KotOR2 were her students, and the Exile is her last chance to kill the Force. Kreia is the kind of villain that would be a saviour by any means necessary, which is what makes her compelling, and her perspective on the Force is fresh and as of yet unchallenged.
5. Dormin – Shadow of the Colossus
|Presence in games:||2005|
|Genre:||Action-adventure, puzzle, kaiju|
|Developer||SIE Japan Studio, Team Ico, Bluepoint Games|
Hope is the road eagerly travelled by manipulation. Such is the lesson learned by a young man called Wander, the protagonist of Shadow of the Colossus.
He sought the favour from Dormin, a rather ominous being composed seemingly of smoke and shadows. Residing in a remote temple, Dormin has but one task he would ask of Wander before restoring life to the body of Mono, a young woman sacrificed to avoid a dark prophecy. All that needed to be done is killing several titanic beings roaming the lands beyond the temple. It quickly turned out that each of the colossi were holding captive a piece of Dormin’s own essence, fractured and locked away in order to prevent the dark spirit’s coming. It also appeared that the vile essence began corrupting Wander who held it within him.
Ultimately, everything seemed to play into Dormin’s own plan, whether to release him into the world again, or being reborn in a physical body, as the case might be.
4. Harbinger – Mass Effect 2 & 3
|Presence in games:||2010 (first appearance: Mass Effect 2) – 2011 (latest appearance: Mass Effect 3)|
|Genre:||Action role-playing, third-person shooter|
Although it might be tempting to pin The Illusive Man as Mass Effect’s villain, in ME2 he is an uneasy ally, and he’s taken a back seat for most of the third. Instead, the true force behind most of the game is the unsubtly named Harbinger, the first of the inscrutable beings known as Reapers.
Everyone who has played Mass Effect 2 is very familiar with the words “Assuming direct control” he would helpfully utter when one of the Collectors were supposedly buffed by his interference.
Harbinger’s influence was deep and insidious, eventually reaching the Illusive Man himself before the third game’s end. Before the appearance of the infamous Star Child, it was Harbinger that stood…or hovered, as the architect of the Milky Way’s plight, and it took a lot of effort to confront it.
3. Sarah Kerrigan: the Queen of Blades – Starcraft
|Presence in games:||1998 (first appearance: Starcraft) – 2010 (StarCraft 2)|
Sarah Kerrigan was among humanity’s best. A top-tier scout, utterly deadly with her sniper rifle, before thirty she was already more accomplished than many soldiers her senior. And that’s before we even take into consideration her psychic abilities, honed and polished through her training as a member of the Terran Ghosts. It was, then, quite a blow to humanity when she was lost to the Zerg because evacuation was deemed too risky by the top brass.
The decision bit them in the posterior when Kerrigan returned as the Queen of Blades, and before long took control of the Zerg Swarm herself, ascended beyond subservience to the Overmind.
In the long run, Kerrigan became of the central figures in the lore of Starcraft, and she had a rather haunting design complementing her power and influence as the leader of the swarmiest bunch of bugs on this side of the galaxy.
Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty is free to play.
2. Atlas – Bioshock
|Presence in games:||2007|
|Developer||2K Boston, 2K Australia|
A lot has been said about BioShock over more than a decade since its original release, and with good reason. It’s a rich environment on multiple levels, including ideological and architectural. It also happens to twist the game’s narrative and the player’s habits around themselves until we’re left questioning our own agenda.
The latter part is thanks to a character nicknamed Atlas, who masterfully exploited the years of psychological engineering Jack, the player character, has undergone since his earliest days, all in order to bring about the fall of Andrew Ryan, Rapture’s creator. The revelation that a simple phrase “Would you kindly” would render your character unable to resist the suggestion was one thing. The revelation that like a good player you also went about performing every objective assigned this way is something that cuts much deeper, clean through the fourth wall.
1. The Elder God – Legacy of Kain
|Presence in games:||1999 (first appearance: Soul Reaver: Legacy of Kain) – 2003 (latest appearance: Legacy of Kain: Defiance)|
Long-reaching is the grasp of those unbound by the shackles of time and causality. Several characters in the Legacy of Kain games can attest to that, but for all of Moebius’ time-travelling shenanigans and arrogance he can’t hold a candle to the ancient deity he serves.
The Elder God is, at first glance, little more than an enormous tangle of eyes and tentacles stretching across the “underwater” areas of the entire spiritual dimension of Nosgoth. However the more you travel Nosgoth as Raziel and Kain, the more you learn of his true agenda.
The Elder God has been described as the force behind “all of the conflict and strife throughout history”, and the claim proves true long before the story loops around itself at the end of Legacy of Kain: Defiance.
The story is honestly both too fascinating to spoil and too convoluted to go into detail here, so let’s just say that the big cephalopod is one of the best depictions of a Lovecraftian horror that we have ever seen in video games. Inscrutable, virtually untouchable, mere mortals are driven to despair at the sight of him. Living by the cycle of death and rebirth and determined to keep the wheel turning, no matter the cost. He exists beyond time, and so do his plans.
So there you have it, a list of the best video game villains, our favourite malevolent meddlers whose ominous presence can be felt throughout the game worlds. Whether they eventually turn out to be a final boss, are dispatched through plot development, or even get away scot free, they are more than a bag of HP: they are characters with agendas and enough influence to have a good shot at enacting them.
Who’s your favourite villain or supervillain from your years of gaming? Do share your insights in the comments for everyone to see. Stay evil, folks. The cookies are amazing.
*his name was Lurtz and he was an Uruk-hai