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1. Big Boss
The elliptical nature of the Metal Gear series means that today’s villains can be tomorrow’s heroes. Or sometimes yesterday’s heroes. And that’s what happened with the character of Big Boss.
Big Boss ends up being the surprise villain of the first Metal Gear game. But Metal Gear 3 shows us that “Big Boss” was once an American hero who became disillusioned with how governments and politicians would disgrace what soldiers had fought for.
In that sense, Big Boss’s later plans weren’t that crazy. He simply wanted to create a better world where soldiers just like him could be themselves without worrying about the corruption of politicians and governments.
2. The Lich King
The Lich King was basically the “Big Bad” in World of Warcraft’s early days. But his story goes back to Warcraft 3, and it makes us feel pretty damn bad for the guy.
Before he was the Kich King, he was Prince Arthas Menethil. But he was lured to hell on a path of good intentions, as he felt forced to kill infected countrymen to keep a deadly plague from spreading. And he doesn’t really start turning to evil until he takes Frostmourne, a cursed blade with the power he needs to defeat evil.
Sadly, Arthas is a reminder that Captain Picard was right: sometimes, you can do everything right and still lose.
Ganon is a frequent foe of Link and Zelda. He’s not always portrayed as sympathetic, but that all changes in Wind Waker.
In that game, we discover that Ganondorf was the reluctant king of the Gerudo who wanted to bring them a better life. To that end, he wanted to make sure his people never had to experience the toil and despair that came from living in the desert.
Ganondorf still did many bad things. But, crucially, he did them all for the right reason.
4. 343 Guilty Spark
In the original Halo, 343 Guilty Spark represents a surprising “heel turn.” He is supposed to be helping Master Chief but actually ends up manipulating our hero to nearly wipe out all life in the universe.
Obviously, that sounds pretty damn villainous. But Guilty Spark genuinely thought this was the only way to defeat the Flood. And in his eyes, this would provide the universe with a quick and painless death instead of the terror and pain that come with a Flood invasion.
Have you ever questioned the wisdom of the Jedi in the Star Wars universe? If so, you’ll love Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II.
Kreia walks the line between the Light Side and the Dark Side. Along the way, she helps to point out the hypocrisy of the Jedi Council (who has brainwashed and manipulated characters and even stripped your character of her powers).
Ultimately, you have to fight and defeat Kreia. But that doesn’t mean you have to disagree with her very good points about the corruption of the Jedi!
In Chrono Trigger, one of your first major challenges is Magus. By the time you fight him, all you know is that he is a dark wizard who helps lead the monsters against humanity, and your characters believe he is going to summon Lavos and destroy the world.
But you eventually find out that Magus is a time-displaced wizard whose home and family were wiped out (with the exception of Schala) by Lavos. And he wants to destroy Lavos, going so far as to join your party if you allow him to do so.
Most of the time, what makes a villain sympathetic is what we know about them. But with the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, the opposite happens.
You are tasked with taking down these intimidating foes. But over the course of gameplay, you realize these are beautiful creatures who don’t really intend you any harm.
As you kill these creatures, they become more than sympathetic. They actually make you feel like the villain of the game!
In the Witcher 2, Letho is hyped up as a fearsome Big Bad. But by the time you confront him, you find out that he has a complicated backstory that explains his actions.
Basically, he is a fellow Witcher who took on some royal assassination gigs in order to bring back the School of the Viper. And he is willing to take care of Yennifer when Geralt can’t do so.
Is he a great guy? Not at all. But he is the kind of villain we can understand.
9. The Boss
Metal Gear Solid 3 is designed to make you feel guilty over the violence and death you cause. And this is especially true when it comes to The Boss.
At first, her story seems simple: she is a legendary World War 2 hero who betrays America when she later defects to Russia. But at the end of the game, we find out she was a double agent serving her country, and she is willing to lay down her life for her beliefs.
Long story short, this is one villain that will make you feel insanely guilty for pulling the trigger at the end.
Seymour is one of the scarier and more frequent bosses of Final Fantasy X. But he is also a surprisingly sympathetic villain.
Beyond his major powers and powerful religious position, Seymour is also a half-blood Guado who encountered racism all his life and is still processing the grief over his dead mother. And while he took some extreme actions after this, he claims the actions he took were motivated by a desire to ultimately save the entire world.
11. King Dedede
To younger gamers, King Dedede may just be one of the goofier characters in Smash Bros. But going back to the original Kirby games, this royal is surprisingly complex.
At first, he looks like a villain whose destruction of the Star Rod keeps Dream Land’s citizens from dreaming. But we later found out he destroyed the Star Rod and hid the pieces to keep the evil Nightmare sealed away.
Heck, the king even helps Kirby defeat Nightmare, so he’s clearly a sympathetic villain.
12. Illusive Man
Part of the plot twist of Mass Effect 2 is that you are forced to work with a pro-human extremist group known as Cerberus. And Cerberus is led by a mysterious and sometimes menacing figure known as the Illusive Man.
While he is canonically a manipulator and a racist, the Illusive Man is the one who brings Shepard back and helps humanity fight back against the genocidal Reapers. Eventually, he is mind-controlled by the Reapers, and a persuasive Shepard can convince the Illusive Man to kill himself rather than do anything that would further hurt humanity.
Kerrigan is the fearsome Queen of Blades, leading the Zerg throughout most of the Starcraft series. But she did not start out as a member of this brood.
Instead, Sarah Kerrigan was a heroic Ghost who fell in battle before being turned into the Zerg Queen. Her actions as queen are horrific, but she had no choice: she was turned into a monster when she would much rather have simply died.
14. Andrew Ryan
In Bioshock, Andrew Ryan makes for a compelling villain. And you must confront him after navigating the hellish underwater world he has created.
However, he didn’t set out to create a hellhole. Instead, he wanted to create a true paradise for humanity before everything fell apart. So while his obsession with the ideals of Ayn Rand is pretty cringe, Ryan’s heart was definitely in the right place at the beginning.
In Mass Effect, Saren betrays his organization and throws in with the evil Reapers. Their goal? Nothing short of destroying all life in the galaxy!
But Saren’s original goal was to convince the Reapers about the value of organic life. He completely failed, but he tried.
And this villain even feels enough remorse over his actions that you can convince him to kill himself at the end of the game!