The maw hammers tolled in unison, sending shockwaves and a low hum through the ground. Commander Shepard could feel the earth trembling with each hammer fall and peered out from behind a ruined pillar. The bug-like Reaper was still circling the Shroud, protecting the distribution of its poison into the atmosphere. Its red eye scanned for the source of the disturbance, the ground shaking with each step. Its pincer-like legs brushed aside the crumbling Krogan architecture like dead leaves and, at a shout from Garrus, Shepard threw himself out from behind the pillar and rolled to cover as one of the Reaper’s legs hit the pillar and sent it toppling to the ground.
‘Commander!’ Javik shouted, pointing out towards the wasteland. ‘Look!’
Shepard slid into cover beside the prothean soldier and looked, but the dust rising from each of the Reaper’s steps had veiled the surrounding landscape around the base of the Shroud.
‘What is it?’
But his question was soon answered. There was another tremor, but this time not from the hammers or from the Reaper. This was a long, sustained rumbling that was progressively growing stronger by the second. Loose rocks and bits of debris all around them were shuddering, and whatever Javik had spotted had clearly also drawn the Reaper’s attention.
The ancient machine uttered its soul-shattering war cry, a low blast of terrifying sound, and manoeuvred its body to face the oncoming threat. There was an explosion of earth and the mother of all thresher maws, Kalros, burst from the ground, its pincers wide, its savage jaws open and angry. The Reaper fired but the thresher maw collided with its metallic shape and clung on tight, sending the Reaper’s laser firing perilously close to Shepard’s position.
‘Move! Move!’ he shouted.
The red beam sliced through a raised walkway, then the huge shape of Kalros’ body came crushing down, decimating what once may have been a road. The team leapt across a ruined bridge and scrambled up the opposite side of a narrow ditch as the two leviathan shapes battled above them. The Reaper’s war cry blasted angrily as it tried to shift the hold of its long centipede-like attacker but Kalros held it tight. Struggling, the Reaper shook itself violently and swung the thresher maw hard against the Shroud itself. Kalros released a piercing cry and its hold on the metal bug slackened. Its tentacles retracting in pain, the giant monster retreated back underground.
No! Shepard thought, despairing.
They had worked so hard to get the hammers working, summoning the giant legend to help them against the Reaper. Now the ancient machine was repositioning itself defiantly in front of the Shroud once more, its red eye searching from side to side for any further sign of trouble.
‘What now?’ Garrus asked. ‘We can’t get to the Shroud with that thing still there.’
‘Wrex,’ Shepard said into the comms, ‘is there another way to the Shroud from our position?’
‘At the end of the—’
The earth shuddered dramatically once more and Shepard, Javik and Garrus all lost their footing. Shepard spun around and looked in the direction of the Shroud to see Kalros rearing out of a new explosion of dust and debris, its bloodied tentacles fiercely lunging towards the Reaper once more. Caught by surprise, the Reaper crumbled under the weight of the thresher maw and its steady hold on the ruined city was gone. Its laser fired once, twice, three times, but the shots all missed its attacker. Kalros spun its huge body around the downed machine, twisting and crushing it like a snake, its smaller legs holding the monstrous metal body secure. Explosions erupted across the Reaper’s body and red lightning flickered outwards from its laser-like eye as Kalros squeezed it and dragged it under the ground.
‘Good enough for you, Shepard?’ Wrex’s voice broke through the comms, followed by a laugh.
‘It’ll do!’ Shepard replied. ‘Okay, Javik, Garrus—get back to the truck, I’ll take care of the cure! Go!’
The turian hesitated, but then nodded and hurried off towards the raised skyway with Javik. Shepard turned towards the Shroud, which was still emitting its poison into the atmosphere, took a deep breath and broke into a run.
When he reached the control centre at the base of the tower, Mordin was already there, furiously typing on a terminal. Above them, small explosions were breaking out across the Shroud’s exterior.
‘Mordin, is the cure ready?’ Shepard asked.
The salarian glanced towards him, but then returned his gaze to the terminal.
‘Yes. Loaded for dispersal in two minutes. Procedure traumatic for Eve, but not lethal. Maelon’s research invaluable.’
‘Heading to safety now. Her survival fortunate. Will stabilise new government should Wrex get any ideas. Good match, promising future for krogan.’
There was a great boom from above and a piece of the damaged Shroud came toppling down close to the terminal. Shepard shouted in surprise and alarm, and looked up at the tower. It did not have long.
‘Control room at top of Shroud tower. Must take elevator up,’ Mordin said, barely flinching.
‘You’re going up there?’
‘Yes, manual access required. Have to counteract STG sabotage. Ensure cure dispersed properly.’
‘Mordin, this whole thing is coming apart!’ Shepard argued. ‘There’s got to be another way!’
‘Remote bypass impossible,’ Mordin said, looking up at the tower. ‘STG countermeasures in place. No time to adjust cure for temperature variance.’ He paused and his large eyes looked back at Shepard. ‘No. No other option. Not coming back. Suggest you get clear. Explosions likely to be problematic.’
The salarian strode over towards the lift.
‘Mordin, no!’ Shepard cried, going after him.
‘Shepard, please. Need to do this,’ the scientist said, turning back. ‘My project. My work. My cure. My responsibility.’ He closed his eyes and sighed, somehow managing a smile. ‘Would have liked to have run tests on the seashells.’
Shepard shook his head, but did not try to convince his friend any further. He knew Mordin well enough to realise that his mind was set.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said instead.
‘I’m not,’ Mordin said. ‘Had to be me.’ He turned and engaged the lift. The screen came down, and the salarian turned back to look at Shepard once last time. ‘Someone else might have got it wrong.’
The lift began to rise and Shepard watched it go until his friend was out of sight.
‘Warning: temperature malfunction detected. Warning: temperature malfunction detected,’ said the control centre’s VI.
Glancing back, he saw the lift reach the top of the tower. He began to run. As he leapt over the debris and ran as fast as he could back to the skyway, he heard Mordin’s voice through the comms.
‘Ah, classic bypass. Standard failsafes. Excellent work. Yes, yes.’
Shepard began to hear humming and then, as the signal began to break up, words of the scientist’s song.
‘I’ve studied species turian, asari and batarian…’
‘Temperature now in acceptable range,’ said the VI.
He ran on, his eyes clouding with tears. He could see the skyway up ahead and a convoy of trucks. Garrus and Javik were there, waiting for him.
Shepard looked up and saw a mist with a yellowish hue now spreading out from the top of the spire, replacing the Reaper’s poison. It spread quickly and wide across the sky.
‘Genophage cured, krogan free. New beginning… for all of us,’ Mordin said.
Shepard felt the earth tremble as he continued to run. More explosions began to dot the exterior of the Shroud. Up ahead, he could see Wrex getting out of one of the trucks.
‘My xenoscience studies range from urban to agrarian…’ the scientist sang to himself. ‘I am the very model of—’
An explosion ripped through the control room at the top of the tower and the comms signal went dead. Shepard ground to a halt and looked back. The top of the Shroud was aflame. The cure was still defiantly spreading across the sky even as the tower disintegrated.
Particles began to fall around him as the cure was dispersed. It was like snow. He reached out and a piece fell into the palm of hand and disappeared. Behind him, he heard cheering—the krogan celebrating their freedom, their hope and their new beginning. The cure that the salarians had manufactured and the turians had helped to disperse many years before was now no more—and both turians and salarians had given their lives to make it happen.
The Mass Effect trilogy is, hands down, my favourite suite of games. The reasons for this are threefold. Firstly, the story, of course. The progression from a simple military commander on a semi-routine mission to literally gathering whole races of galactic species together to face a civilisation-ending threat is amazing, captivating and inspiring. Secondly, the combat. I’m not a huge fan of shoot ’em ups, so the fact that I actually enjoy the combat systems in this game is quite a feat. The way you can weave shooting together with biotics and tech skills means each fight isn’t just a mindless jaunt down a corridor, shooting and throwing grenades. Your team works together, their skills complementing yours, and when you pull off a biotic combo and see your enemies dramatically expode mid-air, there’s nothing more satifsying, in my view. The final reason is the characters. I will unashamedly admit that playing Mass Effect feels like hanging out with friends. (I do actually have real friends, by the way, so don’t say that’s sad!) The characters are so deeply crafted, they have their own individual mannerisms, they make jokes, they’re sometimes hard to strike up a conversation with, they’re tragic, they’re annoying and they’re your bros—just like with real people.
But what about this scene in particular?
One of the best things about the story of Mass Effect is how you can craft it. Yes, you’ll always be facing down Reapers at the end—nothing you can do can change that—but how you get there is extremely important. Moral choices are peppered through each mission: Do you kill this person because they’re blocking your way, or do you let them live and take the long route? Do you try to convince your friend not to punch someone in the face, or do you egg them on? Do you allow your buddy Mordin Solus to sacrifice himself to save an entire species or do you convince him to pretend he’s released the cure, save his life, and then risk your fragile alliance with the krogan? There are many choices in the series that leave me paralysed, but this one was different. The answer was obvious—cure the krogan. And that meant saying goodbye to one of my favourite companions, but I console myself with the knowledge that Mordin would have wanted to go out this way. Sniff.
TLDR: Sympathise means to feel sorry for someone, empathise means to understand and agree with them.
Though only a few different letters separate the two, there’s actually quite a significant difference between the words sympathy and empathy, or sympathise and empathise. As you may have guessed, however, they do share the ending ‘-pathy’ or ‘-pathise’, which is derived from the Greek word pathos meaning ‘feeling’. So we’re looking at two words which involve emotions, but what’s the difference?
sympathise (verb)—to feel or express feelings of sorrow for another’s misfortune or situation
’It’s not hard to sympathise with such a tragic character. If there was only something we could do for him.’
empathise (verb)—to understand and share the feelings or opinions that others also have
’While I empathise with your situation, constable, I must also do my duty.’
One way to explain the difference is to imagine yourself watching a movie. The screenwriter creates a character so realistic and relatable that the viewer empathises with them when they must make a tough decision. The level of empathy dished out to the character is a reflection of the viewer’s experiences and character, in many ways—for if the character in the film is a policeman forced to decide whether to chase down a mass murderer (leaving his latest victim to die) or help the victim (and let the murderer get away to potentially kill another person), a policeman viewing the film is more likely to understand the predicament and empathise more acutely.
In contrast, sympathy is expressed more readily by a broader range of people. If you see a distressed child crying for her mother in a supermarket, you will feel sorry for her (hopefully) and try to reunite her with mum. Similarly, if your friend just lost his job or your son is getting bullied at school, causing them to feel sad, then you will most likely sympathise with them (as well as potentially empathising with them)—give them a hug and talk them through their woes.
Just as my previous post saw many changes to my favourite heroic characters, my opinion of ficticious villains has also changed over the past few years. What is a villain? When we think of antagonists in fiction, we might think of the obvious ones like Lord Voldemort and Sauron, or the evil mutated scientist from that computer game/movie/TV series with all the zombies… But I’m not really interested in the stereotypical ‘dark lord’ figure—a character who appears to be in the hero’s way simply as a plot mechanism. These villains are often two-dimensional, lacking depth and real motivations. And while I love the Harry Potter series to bits, I’m still not quite sure why Lord Voldemort didn’t just go into politics instead of plunging the whole wizarding world into war. Twice.
So here we go again. The following characters are the villains who have had great personalities, true motiviations or have made me stop to wonder: who are the real villains here? My original villains post can be viewed here, but like I said, I don’t entirely agree with it anymore.
DISCLAIMER: There will be plot-related spoilers referring to the characters I have chosen.
Pe Ell—The Heritage of Shannara series
Death frightened most people, but not Pe Ell.
The first time I read The Heritage of Shannara was also the first time I read a book (or part of a book) from an antagonist’s point of view. This was an unexpected but pleasant surprise because I loved reading the thoughts of the assassin who was planning to kill one of the other main characters. It’s great to read a thoroughly developed antagonist with his own thoughts and feelings, motives, doubts and fears.
The best part about him was that, at the end, he decides he doesn’t actually want to kill his target. There’s also an element of tragedy here for Pe Ell because, while his character arc was very powerful, he was manipulated into killing his target anyway, so the other characters in the story continued to think ill of him and are not sorry to find that he had been killed (by an invisible plot device/monster thing that, to this day, I think was a really cheap move). This left me feeling very hurt, and stories that can do that are rare and wonderful things.
‘I realised that this city was a part of me, that it was in my blood, and I would do anything to make it a better place for people like you.’
Hell’s Kitchen is the setting for Marvel’s Netflix series Daredevil in which a (slightly bland) blind lawyer dons a mask and beats up bad guys by night and shuffles papers by day. The best thing about this series (apart from its production quality and acting, that is) is the character of Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin. About as much time is given to fleshing out the villain as is given to the hero, making him a believable and, frankly, likeable man. True, he does kill a lot of people and his plans for Hell’s Kitchen upsets many more, but his intentions are good. His methods are what make him the bad guy here.
How did he become such a powerful crime lord? We see him struggling through his childhood, being bullied at school and then being forced to violent revenge by his father. He killed his father to protect his mother and the two of them cut up and hid the body. After piecing together such a tragic figure, it’s no wonder that, when we see him later as an older man, we’re glad he’s apparently risen above such a traumatic childhood. Problem is, he hasn’t. His present is shaped by his past, he can’t escape the man he has become, and it’s the vulnerabilities in his character that make him so relatable.
When he clashes with Daredevil, we know we should be rooting for the perfect, blind, Catholic, lawyer superhero standing up for the little guy—but whenever Fisk gets away, we can’t help but cheer. Maybe don’t smash that guy’s head repeatedly in your car door? No? No. Okay…
‘I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you… stranger.’
Very dangerous, a total nutter, unpredictable, cunning, ruthless and wild, the Joker is Batman’s greatest nemesis. Though the Joker has many origin stories, the most common in the canon is that he falls into a tank of chemical waste, which causes him to lose his mind. This accident also turns his hair green, his skin bleached-white and his lips an unnatural red. This is the Joker we see portrayed by Jack Nicholson and Jared Leto. The origins of Heath Ledger’s Joker (and almost all of Mark Hamill’s renditions), however, is a complete mystery.
Why do I like the Joker so much? He isn’t your usual ‘I want to take over the world and look down upon you from my throne made of cash’ sort of bad guy. He also doesn’t concoct stupidly complicated traps to capture or torture Batman, like a villain from the Bond universe might do. In fact, he’s arguably not interested in killing Batman at all. He simply enjoys the thrill of the chase, the challenge and the mayhem. The fact that he’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic is the reason why he’s so interesting—you never know what he might do next, and he probably doesn’t even know himself, or why.
The Shadow—A Wizard of Earthsea
Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.
Often, a villain reveals something about the hero, about which the hero was previously unaware. The Shadow is one of these villains. While not actually being much of a ‘character’ per se, it first appears when main character and wizard Sparrowhawk is naughtily looking through an advanced book of magic in his master’s collection. He wants to impress a girl he’s just met and so chooses a spell that turns out to be too powerful for him to control. It goes terribly wrong and the Shadow is born.
Despite being banished for a short time by his master, it becomes evident later on that this strange entity is linked to Sparrowhawk in a way he doesn’t initially understand. No other wizard can tackle this terrible beast except Sparrowhawk himself because, as we discover later, the Shadow is a part of him. At first, he tries to run, but in doing so, the Shadow kills one of his friends, making him realise that he is just delaying the inevitable. He is going to have to face this thing alone. The Shadow makes you look within yourself and think about your darker side and how best to tackle it. The decision for Sparrowhawk to leave the safety of Roke takes great courage, knowing full well what lies out there somewhere… waiting for him.
The Phantom—The Phantom of the Opera
‘Can you even dare to look, or bear to think of me—this loathesome gargoyle who burns in hell, but secretly yearns for heaven…’
The Phantom was a misshapen child who broke free of a circus and went to live in the bowels of an opera house in Paris. He became an architect, inventor, musician, composer and tutor and would have been famous for it had it not been for his deformity. Society shunned him and so he hated the world, until a grieving child—Christine—was brought to his opera house. From then on, he made it his life’s goal to train Christine to sing and used his knowledge to write, design and compose an opera in which she would star.
Living in the dark for years in seclusion did nothing to improve his opinion of the outside world and the people in it, so when the members of the opera house turned against him (out of fear of him), he reacted in the only way he knew how, through violence and cunning. His character is so well developed that you pity him and understand how he feels and why he does what he does. Also who couldn’t love a mysterious guy in a cape who lives by an underground lake, plays music to you while you sleep, writes melodies for you by the light of numerous candelabra and has a shrine of you in his bedroom topped with a life-size model of you in a wedding dress…? He also gets the best songs in the musical.
‘Despite your violent behaviour, the only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart.’
Mean, witty and malicious, the main antagonist from the extremely clever game Portal actually goes unseen for about 95% of the story. As you make your way through the seemingly endless test levels in the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre, GlaDOS’s voice instructs and guides you, as well as pokes fun at you before giving way to simply threatening you (comically) with various methods of death because you didn’t die, as planned. But GlaDOS isn’t simply an artificial intelligence that doesn’t like the fact you’ve outwitted her.
In Portal 2, her character is fleshed out, as it were, and you discover what she truly is—that she was once the thing she despises most: a human. This initiates a character arc in which GlaDOS aids you in your struggle against an even greater adversary, and your second chance at freedom from Aperture Science.
‘Better that we die on our feet than live on our knees!’
None of the above examples better demonstrates the Shakespearean idea that there is no good or evil, that only thinking makes it so. The reason why Magneto (Erik Lehnsherr/Max Eisenhardt/all the other names he’s had) inspires such a following in the X-Men universe is that, while he does have questionable methods most of the time, his overall goal is a noble one. One of the most powerful ‘mutants’ ever born, Magneto believes that he and his brethren are not actually ‘mutants’ at all, but rather the next step in human’s evolution: “homo superior”—and he’s probably right. He’s sick of how he and his kind have been treated by common humans—experimented upon, used, abused, discriminated against and murdered—and makes it his life’s mission to encourage this evolution, by forcefully putting homo superior on top.
His fight ignites the “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” argument, and indeed, he is truly fighting for the freedom and advancement of his own people, but he chooses the path of violence, making him a villain in the eyes of most. And that is why he is such a great antagonist—you can understand his motivations. He is not just a man out for power, glory or wealth—he is fighting for the freedom of many from cruel suppression in a world where he and his kind are feared and mistrusted.
Other notable villainous characters
Francisco Scaramanga—The Man with the Golden Gun
Darth Vader—Star Wars
Mr Hyde—The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Dolores Umbridge—Harry Potter
Illusive Man—Mass Effect