TA Top Five: Villainous Leaders

By Mark Delaney,
This article contains heavy spoilers for all of the related games.
Video game history, like that of the world, is no stranger to the wrong people assuming power. It's often the hero's journey to bravely resist against tyrants, despots, and the generally ill intentioned. But among those villains, be they two-faced politicians, self-elected dictators, corporate overlords, or religious charlatans, who are the most memorable — the best at being the worst?

The silver lining of these villains' rise to power is that they each instruct us what to watch for and be wary of in our lives. It's important to remind ourselves what propaganda, anti-humanism, and a culture of headline-only news consumption looks like. One day they might create a perfect storm for an unreasonable figure to assume a crucial position of power and influence. We would want to identify that and stop it before it's too late, of course.

5. Rodrigo Borgia - Assassin's Creed II

Beware of: False religiosityBeware of: False religiosity

The entire Assassin's Creed series could really go here, as the centuries-old struggle between the titular brotherhood and their rival Templars is rife with world leaders choosing teams and stabbing backs. Arguably the best of the series is also home to one of its best (meaning morally worst) central villains. Rodrigo Borgia, also know as Pope Alexander VI, played dual roles as both the head of the Catholic church and, less publicly, Grand Master of the Templars. To rise to power, he used his covert and safe position to eliminate all who would oppose the Templar ideology. He represents a classic example of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

The rivalry is especially personal for protagonist Ezio as Borgia conspired against Ezio's own family to have them framed and executed. A man like Borgia usually has a hard time retaining allies, and that proved to be his undoing as he dies as a result of a most violent picnic. His son Cesare, the next target on Rodrigo's hitlist, reverses fortunes and force-feeds Rodrigo his own poisoned fruit. Requiescat in pace.

4. The Loyalist Conspiracy - Dishonored

Beware of: Phony uprisingsBeware of: Phony uprisings

Sometimes political turmoil gives rise to an assemblage of opportunists that end up being no better for a populous than those that were unseated. When Dishonored's Corvo joins forces with the Loyalists to take down the men that framed him for the Empress' murder, he learns this sad truth the hard way. One coup results in another as Lord Regent Hiram Burrows and his cabal are eliminated one by one by the wickedly skilled Corvo, only for the Loyalists to then abandon him as the patsy for the murders as they seek to move their next figurative chess piece. These men aid and abet Corvo for almost the entire game only to, in the eleventh hour, unveil that he was just a pawn in their scheme all along.

In Dunwall, everyone is vying for power, and to be at the bottom of the food chain is certain death. Corvo crawls out of this position and takes out every predator on that chain, including the trio of conspirators with faked virtues.

3. Molluck The Glukkon - Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty

Beware of: Corporate greedBeware of: Corporate greed

Proving heartless self-interest is not limited to just religious or political figures, Rebecca is here to tell us how the CEO of RuptureFarms is villainous in his own disgusting way:
When the Magog Cartel needed somebody to run their RuptureFarms meat factory, Molluck the Glukkon seemed a perfect candidate. After years of success and large profits, the factory ran into a problem. The creatures that were farmed for the meat products became scarce, except for the Meeches, which became extinct. With profits falling and the future of RuptureFarms in doubt, what would any normal CEO do? A spot of cost-cutting? Redundancies? Diversification? Well, Glukkon went for two of those three options and he devised a new product: Mudokon Pops. The catch was that the meat for this product was sourced by feeding his own employees into the factory machines. That's technically redundancy, yes?

This new product was the trigger for the events of Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee or, later, the re-imagined Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty. Factory Floor Waxer and Employee of the Year Abe not only managed to escape a factory laden with deadly traps and security that was instructed to shoot him on sight, he managed to bring all of his 299 Mudokon colleagues with him and destroy the factory. Nobody knows whether Molluck survived or not, but even if he did, he will be standing trial for his failure to quell the Mudokon uprising.

2. Pagan Min - Far Cry 4

 Beware of: Propaganda Beware of: Propaganda

Of anyone on the list, Pagan Min is the most dictatorial in his role. He leads all of Kyrat on his own, adeptly employs anti-resistance propaganda, and meets anyone who dares rise to the call of liberation with swift and unblinking violence. We first meet Pagan as we're escorted off a bus coming into the country, where we see him brutally slay his own soldier for misinterpreting some relatively forgivable instructions. He immediately follows that killing by complaining of the blood on his new shoes. He's flashy, charming, and oddly calm at times, but having seen him at his worst, protagonist Ajay Ghale knows he can never be trusted.

The Machiavellian leader still manages to oscillate between taunts and compliments when he reaches out by two-way radio during the game, reminding us that the most feared dictators are often sociopathic in a way that allows them to blend in however and whenever they need. At the end of the game, Pagan's fate is left in the players' hands. He can be killed off at any point during an extended final scene, or you can let him go free and inherit the tumultuous land of Kyrat for yourself. After everything you see and hear of him doing to innocent people, it's hard for some to forgive and forget. Violence breeds violence.

1. Andrew Ryan, Frank Fontaine, Zachary Comstock - BioShock, BioShock Infinite

Beware of: Xenophobia, nativism, ultranationalism, racism, false prophetsBeware of: Xenophobia, nativism, ultranationalism, racism, false prophets

The BioShock series is famous for its sociopolitical commentary. In the original game, we have the Randian, underwater world of Rapture, where the unregulated market and me-first belief system at the core of the objectivist utopia quickly turns dystopian. Irrational Games, then 2K Boston, gave us Andrew Ryan, the entrepreneur who sought freedom from the "parasites" above and created his own world down below. But unrest arrives soon after as he begins utilizing the death penalty among smugglers and thieves, which didn't sit well with some of the populace. The rampant selfishness certainly didn't help either. He is a special type of villainous, corrupted by ultraconservative ideals that allow him to lose sight of humanity among his people.

His villainy is matched by his nemesis, Frank Fontaine, who, like The Loyalist Conspiracy, stages a coup for his own benefit. His late game heel turn is quite like the trio in Dishonored — of course his came first though, so who's really copying whom here? He lies about losing his family as he puts on an accent and plays woe is me. In reality, he's a calculated conman who has his own sights set on Rapture, even going so far as to make some players sympathize with Ryan by the time you're bashing in his face with a golf club. As the protagonist, you're sadly just a brainwashed piece to his bigger puzzle. Would you kindly continue reading?

Lastly, in Infinite there is the zealot Zachary Hale Comstock, who plasters so much "fake news" across Columbia that even snopes.com would have trouble keeping up. He is an ultra-nationalist, nativist (racist for short) who rules with fear. Comstock keeps his daughter Elizabeth locked away and watched over by Songbird, a bizarre mechanical sounding beast created to thwart the "False Shepard" the prophecies of Comstock allude to so often. He plans to raise her to destroy the United States as he believes they have left their once admirable ideals in the dirt. He idolizes the slave-owning, exclusionary founding fathers while criticizing Lincoln for his efforts to free the slaves that built American industry. In reality, his prophecies have a startling accuracy that keeps his populous compliant because he has the ability to see into alternate realities thanks to some very complicated work from a pair of "twin" scientists.

If you haven't played and are reading now despite the spoilers, it might be tough to keep up. Suffice it to say, he takes great scientific achievement and uses it for personal gains painted in racist, Christian extremist, xenophobic ideals all with the end goal of national destruction. Tyrants have long histories of creating boogeymen for their people to fear and hate, and Comstock does this better than anyone.

Bad guys come in many forms; Some wear robes of a holy man or suits of a business mogul, others are adorned in all pink. Others still are freely elected. No matter their rise to power, it's vital to stay true to ideals, not to fallible people, and to do what none of those listed here did: keep the betterment of all people at the forefront of your belief system. Video games have the ability to teach or inform like all other art forms. Never let these greedy, extremist, exclusionists detailed here become the norm.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.