If I’m being straight with you, sometimes it’s good to be bad. Playing games, I’m generally the dude who tries to do right by everyone and only shoots people in the head when it really really sounds like fun. But sometimes, it just feels right to slip into the role of the guy who does whatever he wants and says whatever he wants. This list here is to talk about a few examples. Some ground rules though, no characters are allowed if you can shape their personality. I don’t care how many times you punched that reporter lady in the face, Captain Shepard is not allowed here. With that out of the way, read on, you soggies.
Shadow the Hedgehog (Sonic Franchise)
Ok, look. I know. But as embarrassing as it is, he’s the first thing to pop into my head when I thought up this list. So just tolerate him for a spell, yeah?
If Sonic is the hedgehog with attitude, then Shadow is definitely the hedgehog with a Hot Topic membership. Everything about his personality stands in direct opposition to the bright optimism of Sonic. I feel like everything that you would need to know about him you could just gather from his color scheme. He’s also purposefully vague when he talks like you used to do when you were younger because you thought that mystery would make you more interesting.
Coming into the series in Sonic Adventure 2, Shadow was positioned as Sonic’s rival for a majority of the game. He was always a few steps ahead and he was always kind of a dick about everything but you find out at the end of the game that he’s acting out of revenge for a old friend he cared deeply for. Pathos, wow he’s so deep. He then turns and ends up sacrificing himself to save the world. So he’s a good dude, only he’s dead. But wait, here comes Shadow the Hedgehog, a game that revived the black blur and now he has guns and he just can’t seem to find that “damn fourth Chaos Emerald.” Now we’re getting into the good stuff.
This is the game that really solidified his anti-hero image. It’s also probably the reason people laugh when Shadow is brought up. The opening cutscene has him standing over a defeated Sonic and cocking a gun for Christ’s sake. The edge was really overcompensating. At his lowest point, it wouldn’t be a surprise to find him at your local library moving all of the copies of the bible to the “fiction” section.
Nowadays, Shadow has calmed down quite a bit. He’s usually in all of the Sonic games but he serves as an aloof Vegeta-like character who always helps but likes to pretend he doesn’t want to be there. It’s a welcome change from what he was before and he fills the anti-hero slot that Knuckles held back in the Genesis days. He’d probably lose a lot more of that angst if he just settled down with Rogue and had that kid that it seems the entire internet is asking for.
Travis Touchdown (No More Heroes)
Everything about Travis has been engineered to be as aggravating as possible to the average person. He’s the obnoxious dude who won’t stop yelling for more refills on his drink on a busy Saturday night. He’s so poon-crazy that he probably can’t step foot in a Red Lobster. The dude is a dickhead and No More Heroes never tries to present him as anything more than that. So it’s impressive what a following he’s cultivated while being an amalgamation of all the worst things ever.
Travis starts out the game in poverty. He just bought a beam katana online like the irresponsible shit he is and now he’s real strapped for cash. To make some quick scratch, he takes up the job of killing an assassin. I mean, I’d probably take out a bank loan first, but what do I know, the interest rates could be killer. After his first taste of blood, Travis decides to go all the way and become the #1 assassin in the world, taking out the competition along the way. Travis’ story is incidental. The only reason he’s doing anything of note is because he’s bad with his money. So when he comes off smarmy and narcissistic, that’s because he hasn’t earned his adventure. He’s just a greasy troll who wound up in a bad situation.
Like a lot of anti-heroes, he does eventually grow and becomes more understanding of his position in life. Travis eventually discovers how meaningless revenge is and how unfulfilling it can be. Comparing his first on-screen kill against Death Metal to any of his later exploits is like night and day. Where he would once trash-talk and write off other people’s lives as expendable, he ends the series more introspective and wiser. Of course, this could all be bungled up in a few days when Travis unplugs Badman’s controller at a boss battle or something.
Conker (Conker’s Bad Fur Day)
This is a strange one. Thinking back through Conker’s Bad Fur Day, it’s tough to even remember what’s going on half the time. Didn’t he just want to get home after a night out drinking? But then I remember there being dinosaurs? And then you’re being deployed on the beaches ala D-Day? Maybe the schizophrenic tone of the game makes sense for Conker. For such an unpredictable journey, a regular hero wouldn’t cut it.
Conker is a drunk, a womanizer, and also the worst choice in Diddy Kong Racing. He shares a lot of similarities with Travis up there. But whereas Travis sets out on the journey to become an assassin, Conker just wants to get back to his shitty life. Conker’s adventure is kind of sad in the sense that it’s probably the most fun the squirrel has had in ages. Despite all the danger around, there’s times where he’s genuinely excited and happy, like he’s finally enjoying the life he’s living. It makes it all the worse when you remember how his tale ends.
By the end of Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Conker has become king of all the land. But there was a price to all this. His girlfriend was brutally killed in the last mission and Conker screwed up the opportunity to bring her back. So now, wracked by guilt and thrust into a position that he doesn’t want, Conker sits at the throne. He’s bitter. He’s frustrated. And to soothe the pain, he again turns to drinking. The saga of Conker ends like it started but now the tone is one of desperation and depression. I’m starting to think the reason we haven’t seen that sequel is because our poor old rodent mixed some Tomcat bait into one last drink.
She’s the poster child for Soulcalibur, for better and for worse. What is actually a pretty nuanced and conflicted character is largely overshadowed by the erections she prompts with her attire. It changes from game to game but it’s gone the gamut from a deviant countess to straight-up dental floss. She’s got the whole dominatrix thing going on and she’s got those heels too. I’m not generally the type to ask fictional polygonal avatars to step on me and damn it, I’m not going to start here. I’ll wait for the second date.
For such a smart character, Ivy really makes poor decisions in Soulcalibur. Her story revolves around her pursuing the cursed sword, Soul Edge. She’s got a personal stake in this since her adoptive dad worked himself to death obsessing over it. She creates a kick-ass whip-sword and resolves to find Soul Edge. Oh, and by the way, she summoned a creature that imbued her sword with the power of the Soul Edge. Then along her travels, she ends up joining up with Nightmare to help summon the sword. Except that Nightmare has the Soul Edge in his hands. Yeah, Ivy really isn’t good at this whole thing.
After realizing how she was tricked, she says “fuck it,” and decides to raze the earth of any trace of the Soul Edge. That includes people who have encountered it along with herself, eventually. She spends the next few games killing tons of people and just not being super friendly overall. And even though it’s hard to see the “hero” part in her, she’s still a very conflicted character that is never entirely evil.
Sometimes, the anti-hero doesn’t have a return to the light. Or at least it doesn’t come anytime soon. Ivy spent most of the series being a straight-up villain under the belief that she was ultimately doing the right thing. She doesn’t get any pleasure out of killing folk, it’s just the crusade her broken mind came up with. She very briefly came closer to the light side during V, but now the series has been rebooted and she’s back doing the same shit she did in the first game. Oh, and they took away her clothes again. Hopefully she doesn’t need to wait fifteen years for a shirt this time.
Kratos (God of War)
To finish this list off, we gotta talk about the big boy. Never before has a character been so irredeemably evil in his actions before later on redeeming himself. Kratos is a complicated and tortured character, but he is also a deeply flawed one. During the opening of the first God of War, he accidentally murders his family. You won’t be forgetting this because he gets a lot of mileage out of this trauma.
Kratos sets out on a crusade against seemingly everyone for the entire rest of the franchise (except for the most recent title but shhhh we’ll get to that). His rage and guilt fuel heinous acts against gods, men, and Christian mothers everywhere. Every single god is sliced up, gouged, or splattered, with plenty of bystander casualties along the way. Even when he’s killed, he’s literally too angry to die and climbs straight out of hell to get right back to chopping. He ends up killing so much that he effectively ends his entire world. So yeah, dude could stand to attend a yoga session. Maybe do one of those meditation coloring books.
Kratos is never supposed to be someone we as the player relate to. Every once in a while, you can grab onto a strand of humanity in the man. But just as quickly, he’ll throw a woman into a gear just to open a door. At best, Kratos is catharsis for our more base instincts. He’s incredibly violent and hostile to every person out there. There’s only one point in the series where he attempts to talk his way out of a fight. The person he was talking to was Hercules. Hercules is now a fucking pudding creature.
But in a masterwork of a tonal shift, the newest entry has taken Kratos into a different direction. In place of unbridled fury is a more measured and rational approach. I mean, he still rips the wings off of creatures and splits faces in half with an axe, but he seems more reluctant to do it now. He’s been doing it so long that the fire of battle within him is only an ember. He’s settled down. He has more time to express actual emotions. He has more time to try and connect with an estranged kid. He’s more of a human and less of a cartoon. It’s been an experience seeing him go from such a villain to a genuine character. And all it took was a more moments of silence and a few less gods within strangling range.
And this list barely covers it. There’s plenty of examples of anti-heroes out there in video game land. People put in situations that don’t always do well and sometimes don’t always mean well and sometimes kill an entire civilization. But we still root for them, kind of. At the very least, they’re fun to watch, if only to whisper “oh my goodness” and clutch your pearls at the sight of Wario stealing yet another toddler's lolly.