They're evil, and that's good.
Heroes and villains, while common antitheses, are usually very standard black and white affairs – they are good or evil. Anti-heroes on the other hand are much more complex and make choices that don’t always fall in line with their typical paradigm. A popular recent example would be the television anti-hero Walter White from the critically acclaimed series Breaking Bad, who makes less than moral choices for the good of his family. Machiavellian characters who view the world as grey are always the most interesting, and game characters are no exception to this rule. The following are our Top 10 video game anti-heroes.
10. Niko Bellic
To be honest, it would be easy to put any of the Grand Theft Auto protagonists on this list. From Tommy Vercetti to C.J. Johnson, the brilliant writers at Rockstar have always created the kind of criminal characterisations that would make Scorsese proud. Niko Bellic is no exception and arguably the franchise’s most fascinating and complex.
The most comical of GTA’s anti-heroes, Bellic is also its most scarred, as vengeance bubbles under his newly-minted green-card exterior. He’s been through hell, and though he’s no psychopath, his quest to avenge his fallen ex-comrades means no amount of notoriety stars is going to stop him. Prostitutes with a fear of public sex toy assault, beware!
Wario has sort of evolved as a character, beginning as the Bizarro-styled reflection of Mario – literally so, as even the name is just an invert – but he would come to star in his own line of games as a protagonist and even help the red-capped hero out from time to time, though his motivations are always monetary. Wherever there’s a glimmer of redemption for Wario, there’s also a glimmer of gold. The yang to Mario’s ying cares about coin and little else.
Sure, he probably gets the girl every once in a while, but hardly in as noble an effort as trotting over dozens of Mushroom Kingdom worlds to let loose the damsel. This fat virtuoso of vices probably just pays up front… and the quality probably suffers.
8. Max Payne
On our spectrum of good and evil, Max Payne is one of the closest of our characters to being regarded as a hero rather than a villain. But his vices drag him down deep. Having to bear witness to the brutal murder of his wife and newly-born daughter in the first game, the trauma of immeasurable loss haunts Payne for years. Having lost the will to care about any manner of rules, he’ll point the gun at just about anyone who J-walks (okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration), and takes advantage of his freelance status by going after all manner of underground scumbag Dirty Harry style.
Cop or not, disgraced or not, Max is no saint, but he’s also no devil, cutting through the red tape of ethics to get the real bad guys staring down a 9mm barrel.
7. Jackie Estecado
Though an anti-hero doesn’t necessarily need any sort of redeeming quality, Jackie Estecado Is certainly one of the more empathetic figures in video games. First appearing in The Darkness line of graphic novels before being converted into pixel form, he’s a gangster who, on his 21st birthday, gets possessed by a demon spirit. At heart, despite his relentless nature and violent disposition, he’s not nearly the loose-cannon his carrier fiend is, and is morally motivated by his long-time love Jenny, who helps him stay path of virtue. Jackie’s no saint, to be sure, and will exterminate his enemies without hesitation, but as passionately, he cares for his friends and family and, instead of using the Darkness’ power, he resists its antagonizing influence throughout the course of the series.
Though a more recent game character, and despite having already been conceived on page, Estecado is one of the more fascinating anti-heroes in the last few years, and so earns his spot at Number Nine.
Who could forget the most vulgar, distasteful, uncouth, smart-ass squirrel around? When Conker’s Bad Fur Day launched on the N64 in 2001, no one would’ve suspected the cutesy characters that emblazoned the cover merited an M rating, but such was the oxymoron. Conker was another anthropomorphic woodland creature out to save the world, but he was only in it for himself.
Indeed, the first drawn out shot of the game sees Conker reigning as self-made royalty atop a throne – and not the flushable kind. Beer and breasts – that’s all the little rascal was after. Still, he ultimately went through the motions of his movie referenced journey so that Nazi teddy bears and dung maestros may never rule.
5. Richard B. Riddick
Forget the movies, beginning with Pitch Black in 2000. They stink. If there’s any reason why they produced sequels, it’s because of the awesomely anti-heroic characterisation of Richard Riddick, one of the most dangerous criminals in yet another grimy future a la Star Wars, Blade Runner, and Dune.
On the silver screen, Riddick’s clever characterisation was overshadowed by bad B-movie dialogue. In video game form, first appearing in Escape from Butcher Bay in 2004 and later in Assault on Dark Athena in 2009, the solidity of these games let you see this almost auto-tuned criminal for what he is… a perfectly crafted ambiguity. Riddick is the most dangerous killer in a hundred star systems, and yet at times he can almost seem almost altruistic. He develops something close to a friendship with his bounty-hunting captor Johns, fatherly instructs a scared girl in hiding on how to fight fear, and he spares those he could just as easily kill. Self-interest is Riddick’s sole agenda, similar to Conker, and anyone who stands in his way is locked in his kill-first crosshairs, but he’d still rather have a universe to kill in.
4. Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong grabs the fourth spot on our list because of his unmatched ambiguity. Does he get labeled as a villain because of some troubled early years climbing up girders with kidnapped damsels, or does he earn the respectable recognition of a hero, as an ape who stops at nothing to thwart the dastardly King K. Rool? The answer is more appropriately neither; D.K. has always lazily nestled somewhere in between… usually in a hammock. To call the misguided simian evil just because he once submitted to his primal urges is hardly warranted – after all, King Kong was simply a tragic victim of tempestuous desire – but to call him righteous would be as grievous an error, as seldom has the lethargic gorilla given two thoughts about anything but getting back his precious bananas.
He may stand in the way of Klaptrap tyranny time and time again, but he does so to fill his own self-interested tummy. Legendary anti-hero, I dub thee, Donkey.
3. Duke Nukem
First appearing on DOS in 1991 and later helping killer apps like DOOM to bolster the PC’s user base and simultaneously popularise the first-person shooter genre, Duke was in many ways like Conker. If saving the world meant more girls and green, then point him to the nearest battalion of aliens.
Toilet humour was his hallmark, and he never passed up an opportunity to throw formality aside in favour of a good – er, rather bad – pun alluding to male genitalia. It was as if someone took the Terminator and hard-wired him to be a complete D-bag. But hey, at the end of the day he still put his life on the line for humanity, even if only to live another day to f*** the busty half.
2. Agent 47
Bald to the bar-coded bone, this contract killer clone was engineered for one purpose: to kill. Employed by an organisation known as the agency to carry out hits on an assortment of shady subjects, Agent 47 has nevertheless proven himself capable of compassion throughout his missions. Most of his assassination targets are criminal kingpins and scumbags, so he’s more or less taking out the trash, however unethically, and rarely does he leave a great deal of collateral in his wake (that is, of course, assuming you don’t suck at being stealthy).
The theme of remorse and coming to grips with dealing with the past and moving forward is also a big part of the Hitman series, a trait that pits him in the same ranks as silver screen soldiers such as Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer. Out for blood money, Agent 47 is also out for redemption, which gives the brutal manner of his career all the more weight, and saves him from being cast as a callous rogue.
There may be no anti-hero who comes closer to crossing the line over to villain than Kratos. The eventual God of War is arguably a villain himself, and may be considered heroic solely because of his role as a controllable protagonist, and no other reason. There’s a scene from the original game where Kratos dives into the head of a Hydra where he finds a sailor about to be swallowed. Not only does he not save the man, instead rescuing a godly relic from consumption, but he accelerates the poor soul’s fate by swinging at him and watching him fall into the bowels of the Hydra’s acidic stomach.
To be fair, Kratos is not pure evil, hence why he makes the list. A la Gladiator, his family has been unjustly murdered, and so for the most part Kratos is fury embodied. But again, he kills innocents without a blink. Throw that on top of a constantly intimidating angry brow and a sex drive that warranted its own mini-game, and you have a recipe for one of the most bad-ass anti-heroes in video game history.