Welcome to the final entry of Profiles in Villainy, a series that takes an in depth look at some of the most interesting, iconic, or downright strange baddies in video games. Each profile focuses on how the visual design and writing behind a particular villain have impacted games. Who is the best of the baddest?
Warning: Major spoilers for Bioshock follow.
“Would you kindly?” Those words still echo throughout gaming history. When Atlas, Bioshock’s unreliable narrator, spoke those words back in 2007 it was unclear just how nefarious they were. He was prompting Jack, the protagonist, and the player to push on. They seemed like kind words. But anyone whose played Bioshock knows things are not always what they seem.
So far Profiles in Villainy has focused on baddies who pose physical or psychological threats. But Atlas, who later reveals himself to be the con man, crook, and primary antagonist Frank Fontaine, is more than those things. Ken Levine and the mad scientists at Irrational Games created a villain that’s both a character and a clever meta-statement on games themselves. He’s so villainous he influences every press of a trigger and push of an analog stick in real life.
Once a Conman, Always a Conman
Even without all the meta levels to his character, Frank Fontaine is a fantastic villain. Growing up an orphan, Frank learned early on how to survive through deception. The three years he spent working for a theatre helped him learn the value of manipulating an audience through words and costumes.
That experience no doubt helped him become the grifter and opportunist the player meets in Bioshock. Even before he entered Rapture, Frank, who had several pseudonyms including Fontaine, was conning people. He was always looking for a bigger score. Eventually he found the biggest score of his life: Rapture.
Andrew Ryan’s underwater utopia for free artists, entrepreneurs, and scientist was the perfect place for an opportunist like Frank Fontaine. There was a market for “surface goods” and Frank Fontaine had the resources to provide that market. In a lot of ways, Frank Fontaine was the logical endpoint of Ryan’s vision. He exploited the free market system Ryan had created in Rapture. Frank Fontaine knew what he wanted and he worked for it.
Ryan asks any person going to Rapture, “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” Fontaine’s response was simple: “Yes, and I want the sweat of your brow too.”
Who is Atlas?
Frank Fontaine took what worked on the surface – the cons, the greed, and the charismatic performances – and adapted it to Rapture. He saw gaps in Rapture society and took advantage of them. Frank founded Fontaine’s Home for the Poor, a safe haven for those Rapture’s “free” market society had forgotten. He also created Fontaine Futuristics where his team of scientists manufactured plasmids, genetic modifiers, for commercial use. Frank Fontaine was Ryan’s rival in every possible way.
Frank Fontaine’s history is important because the player meets him as a very different man.
The player meets Frank under a different name, Atlas. Atlas is also Ryan’s enemy, as he leads the poor and downtrodden against Ryan. It’s an interesting way for the game to introduce its villain. The player trusts Atlas out of necessity. He’s a calm voice in the middle of the player’s chaotic intro to Rapture. His Irish lilt and polite refrain, “Would you kindly?” makes the player want to trust him. And Ryan seems like the real big bad of Bioshock, at least according to Atlas.
Would You Kindly, Get Your Mind Blown?
Throughout the game Atlas guides the player, offering important tutorial info and valuable plot details. Most gamers are familiar with this kind of character. He’s the in-game narrator, the player’s and protagonist’s ally.
If only things were that simple.
In one of the most mind-bending twists in gaming, it turns out Atlas – Frank Fontaine – has been manipulating Jack all along. The phrase “Would you kindly?” that Atlas has been using throughout the game is a trigger phrase for Jack. Every time anybody says the phrase followed by a command, Jack has no choice but to follow it. The player learns this after one of the most iconic scenes in gaming history.
It turns out Jack was the illegitimate son of Andrew Ryan, brainwashed by Fontaine as part of a very long con. The plan, set in motion years before the player jumps into Jack’s shoes, will end with Ryan’s death. Jack and the player are the unwitting participants in a planned assassination. Like Jack, the player has never really chosen their own path. They’ve only followed the designs of another person.
More Than Just a Villain
So while Frank Fontaine is an intriguing, conniving villain, he’s also something more. He serves as a reminder that gamers only ever has so much control or free will in a game. Sure, open world games give players choices, but who designs those choices?
Frank Fontaine ends up representing the best of what villains can do in games. As Atlas, Frank was the ultimate unreliable narrator. The narrative made players feel like they had to trust him. But Levine and his team also took advantage of the linear structure of their game. They designed it so that trusting and following Atlas’ orders were necessary in order to advance in the game. Players had to trust him.
That makes the twist even more disorienting. Frank Fontaine reveals the invisible hand of the game designer and in the process, he shows the player just how little control they have. The fact that players never really see Atlas or Frank (until the lackluster boss battle at the end) plays into that idea. He’s a force and an idea as much as he is a flesh and blood character.
The player presses “A” to pick up the radio at the beginning of the game because Atlas – and the game – told them to. When players finally got to kill Andrew Ryan the game took control away from them yet again. Ryan also uses the phrase “Would you kindly?” He forces the player to kill him, repeating the phrase, “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” The implications of that phrase still haunt many gamers.
A Villain Unique to Gaming
With Frank Fontaine, Irrational Games made a villain that wouldn’t have the same impact in any other medium.
He’s a greedy, nefarious con man in a free market utopia. However, he’s also a narrative reminder that gamers never have as much choice as they think. Atlas and Frank Fontaine are both important in making that point. One calms the player and the other confuses the player. But both play into the illusion of choice that so many critics have written about.
Frank Fontaine is a villain that’s unique to gaming. Villains like Bowser and Vaas are landmarks in design and writing respectively. Frank Fontaine combines those two areas of game design and makes a comment on the medium itself in the process. He deserves to be placed in the pantheon of video games baddies.