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5 instances in video games where the protagonist was the villain

Ellie and Joel head out in The Last of Us (Image via Naughty Dog)
Ellie and Joel head out in The Last of Us (Image via Naughty Dog)

Video game protagonists are generally portrayed in a good light, with them being dubbed as the heroes, the saviors or something similar. They generally go about performing deeds which earn them such titles. Deeds like slaying dragons, killing insurgents or helping young damsels achieve their destinies.

Whether they do all or any of the above acts, protagonists in video games act mostly in the interest of others rather than for their own personal gain. They are the stalwart forces of good fighting against the antagonists who are almost always wielding nefarious schemes to take over the world or such.

However, every now and then comes along a game that shows the protagonist’s darker side, with them having to wrestle with difficult decisions and performing some unpardonable sins. Whether it is by player choice or storytelling, it is inevitable that sometimes the very person who has been an ideal for good eventually turns to the dark side.


5 instances in video games where the protagonist was the villain

1) Killing Crossbreed Priscilla – Dark Souls

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The entire story and ending(s) of Dark Souls is arguably up to interpretation by each player. The extremes being that the ‘chosen undead’ protagonist of the player is either the hero that delivers a dying world to salvation or a power-hungry maniac that will stop at no cost to become the strongest being in the world of Lordran.

However, there is one choice in the game that has pretty binary connotations, no matter which way one looks at it. Said choice is hidden away at the end of the optional area of the Painted World of Ariamis.

Traversing through this snow-covered hellscape that is full of poisonous fire-breathing enemies, crow-men, and an undead dragon, the chosen undead will finally reach the coliseum where Priscilla resides. At this point, the player's boss-fighting senses might be tingling due to the suspiciously large size of the arena, the fact that Priscilla is twice their size and that she wields a giant scythe.

Priscilla gives the protagonist an option that no boss has yet offered: to talk. Once prompted she advises the player, wisely, that if they are lost, should they simply jump down from the ledge beyond her, they may return to their world.

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Upon talking to again, she insists that the painted world is peaceful and the chosen undead are but an unwanted presence and again asks that they leave. And so the choice is laid before the player: believe Priscilla and jump off to possibly return to their world, or attack her and start the boss fight.

If the protagonist chooses the latter option, they should be prepared to play the role of the villain as Priscilla will promptly turn invisible and punish them harshly for this choice. The fight is hard and by that time, jumping off the aforementioned ledge will begin to sound like the better option.

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But should they persevere, the protagonist might finally prevail and defeat her. Upon her death, she will utter her parting words, serving as the final stroke that cements the protagonist's status as the villain:

"But why? What seeketh thee?"

2) Spec Ops: The Line

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While Spec Ops: The Line seems like a decent third-person shooter on the surface, it plays around with some important themes of the atrocities of war, PTSD and the like. The player takes control of the protagonist, Cpt. Martin Walker of the US military, leading a small team of soldiers into war-torn Dubai.

Their mission is to apprehend a rogue US military agent named John Konrad who has taken over the ravaged city with his unit known as the 33rd. Throughout the game, the protagonist has to make many difficult decisions where the line between right and wrong gets blurred.

The most heinous of these is the deployment of white phosphorus, the use of which around inhabited areas is prohibited by the UN due to the chances of it spreading out and harming civilians. And guess what happens in the game after Walker employs it to try to take out a group of insurgents? It harms some civilians. Specifically, 47 of them.

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Walker holds the 33rd responsible for civilian casualties and continues his mission to find Konrad. Towards the end of the game, Walker finally discovers Konrad, only to realize that he’s been dead since before the beginning of the game’s story. He also realizes that he has been hallucinating most of the big events of the game, including the white phosphorus situation.

Finally, the game gives the player a few choices on how to go about the ending. These are as follows: a) Decide to kill Walker b) Surrender to a US military patrol, who eventually kill Walker or c) Kill off the patrol and stay in Dubai, presumably to play the same part Walker had attributed to Konrad in his mind. In this case it’s more like Walker either dies a villain or lives long enough to become an even bigger villain.


3) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

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Skyrim’s expansive list of quests means that there are several times that players get to play a morally ambiguous character, such as during the Dark Brotherhood questline, the civil war, the Paarthurnax quest, etc.

However, there is one quest, for a certain Daedric Prince (Skyrim’s version of demonic entities) which really makes the protagonist out to be a backstabbing two-faced character.

The quest, The Taste of Death, starts as a miscellaneous objective when the protagonist first hears about the hall of the dead in Markarth closing down. Upon talking to the priest, Brother Verulus, he will ask them to help out by inspecting the hall to see who has been desecrating the corpses.

Once the protagonist proceeds into the hall, a woman known as Eola will, quite inexplicably, accuse the player of eating human flesh and enjoying the taste. A weird way to start a conversation, but she’s a Skyrim NPC after all.

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Eola then reveals that she is also in the habit of eating human flesh, specifically in service of the Daedric Prince Namira, the Lady of Decay, and admits to being the one feasting on the corpses in the hall. If the protagonist allows her to leave after listening to her offer to join their cannibal gang, the quest starts in earnest.

The player can then return to Brother Verulus to tell him the hall is safe to enter or ignore him entirely for the time being. If they decide to follow up on Eola’s offer, they can head over to a creepy cave, clear it out and help her establish a dining hall for cannibals.

There, she will ask one last thing from the protagonist: to lure Brother Verulus to the hall to be eaten as part of the ritual. If the player decides to go in all the way, they can get back to Verulus and ask him to follow.

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Verulus, who by then trusts the protagonist implicitly for having helped him out earlier, is willing to go anywhere with them. Even to a sinister-looking, dimly-lit hall with a suspicious altar, occupied by strangers.

Eola will then convince Verulus to lie down on the table and put him to sleep, prompting the player to kill him and take a bite out of the freshly-deceased priest. Because what’s a little cannibalism with a side of backstabbing between friends.


4) The Last of Us

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When we think of Joel from The Last of Us, we mostly remember him as the charismatic main protagonist from the first game who took on an assignment to smuggle Ellie to the group known as the Fireflies. In the fungus-infected zombie world of The Last of Us, Ellie, it seems, might be humanity’s only chance at a cure for the infection.

While their relationship is begrudging at first, it later softens out into a loving father-daughter dynamic, as is the norm for such things. It fits them perfectly too, as Joel had lost his wife and daughter years earlier and Ellie had lost her entire family as well.

By the end of the game, Joel and Ellie are finally taken to the Fireflies’ stronghold where the work on a vaccine using Ellie’s blood begins. Marlene, a Firefly member, tells Joel that the cure is possible but Ellie will die in the process.

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However, by this point, Joel is not ready to lose another daughter again and takes matters into his own hands. In a show of how love can make even the protagonist commit horrifying acts, Joel heads to the surgery room, gunning down every guard that tries to stop him along the way.

Inside the room, he holds up three surgeons at gunpoint, one of whom blocks his way, armed with only a scalpel, with the other two having surrendered already. Joel shoots the surgeon standing between him and Ellie, picks up the unconscious girl and heads for the garage.

There, Marlene confronts him and tries to convince him that saving her will lead to nothing, but Joel shoots her as well and leaves with Ellie in a car. This surprising turn at the end of the story perfectly depicts that not all villainous acts arise from malice.

Joel’s love for Ellie overrides his sense of right and wrong and leads him to commit some very morally questionable actions, as he murders some fairly innocent people, with the surgeon being at the top of the list.

Developer Naughty Dog seems to agree that Joel’s acts of villainy here could not go unpunished, as in the second game he himself meets his end, at the hands of the daughter of that very surgeon.


5) BioShock Infinite

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BioShock Infinite tells the story of protagonist Booker DeWitt. He is a man of partial Native American descent who took part in a massacre of his people known as the Wounded Knee Massacre while he served in the United States Army.

At the start of the game, however, we find him going in search of a young girl called Elizabeth who is trapped in a tower by the leader of Columbia, a floating city off the coast of Maine.

As the game progresses, Booker meets Elizabeth and travels with her through different cities, alternate universes and timelines, with the duo constantly dogged by the forces of Zachary Hale Comstock, the aforementioned leader of Columbia. Comstock had adopted Elizabeth as his daughter, as he himself had been rendered infertile, and was grooming her to be the future leader of the city.

In a confrontation between Comstock and Booker, the latter kills Comstock, surprisingly somewhat early on, especially for being the primary antagonist of the game. It is then revealed that Elizabeth is actually Booker’s own long lost daughter, whom he had given away to people working for Comstock to clear his debt.

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But if this plot twist sounds mind-bending, just wait for the second one. After even more timeline and alternate universe shenanigans, it is shown that Comstock exists in many different worlds, tied to Elizabeth and Booker’s fate.

Why is that? It's only because Comstock is none other than Booker himself. Apparently, after feeling regret for participating in the massacre at Wounded Knee, he got religious and baptized himself, taking on the new name of Zachary Hale Comstock.

Additionally, he also took the ideals of self-righteous supremacy to new heights. Meaning that he was both the protagonist and the antagonist of his own story.

This is then followed by the Elizabeths of other universes arriving and participating in a consensual drowning of Booker at the moment of his baptism, such that it wil erase both him and Comstock from existence. Talk about being his own worst enemy.

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Edited by Abu Amjad Khan
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