Profiles in Villainy is a series that takes an in depth look at some of the most interesting, iconic, or downright strange baddies in video games. Each profile will focus on how the visual design and writing behind a particular villain have impacted games. Who is the best of the baddest?
Beware: Spoilers follow for Far Cry 3
Great villains can function as a mirror. They can force the protagonist and audience to reflect on their own values and who they think they are. The Joker is an obvious example, testing Batman’s code by pointing out how close the Caped Crusader is to becoming the Clown Prince of Crime.
“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is?” With those words, Far Cry 3’s Vaas Montenegro cemented himself as one gaming’s most chilling villains. He is the result of a fantastic performance and an interesting use of a villain as a psychological threat. Vaas is one of the best examples of how games can use villains as a mirror to force players to question their behavior.
Welcome to the Rook Islands, Hermano
Since Far Cry 2, the series has focused on large worlds, open-ended gunplay, and non-Western locales. Far Cry 3 was no exception, giving players a large tropical setting – the Rook Islands – to explore and shoot their way through.
However, Far Cry 3 took this a step further. Driven by the insanely captivating Vaas, Far Cry 3 told a psychedelic, over the top story full of drugs and violence.
Vaas, a native of the islands, is a huge part of this narrative despite the fact that he isn’t in the game that much. The player never really fights him until the end, during a trippy boss battle full of dreamlike imagery. But he’s important as a symbol of what the protagonist, Jason Brody, could become.
From the moment players encounter Vaas it’s clear he’s a force to be reckoned with. Held captive in a cage after his skydiving trip goes horribly wrong, Jason meets Vaas as a ranting, raving lunatic who can shift from soothing, buddy-buddy conversation to volcanic rage in seconds.
In a tense opening sequence, Jason and his brother Grant escape their cage only to fall back into Vaas’ clutches. Vas proceeds to shoot and kill Grant, setting Jason on his path of revenge.
But even at this point, it’s difficult to hate Vaas. Due mostly to Michael Mando’s insanely charismatic and captivating performance, he is equal parts funny and terrifying. He’s unpredictable. The player never knows when he’s going to go off and that makes every moment that he’s on screen tense.
However, as far as players know, Vaas was not always like this. There was a time in his life where he wasn’t this way. Growing up as a member of the native Rakyat, Vaas cared about tradition and family, so much so that he mentions that the “first time I ever killed was for my sister.”
Unfortunately, brother and sister followed very different paths. Vaas went on to become the right-hand man for deranged drug trafficker Hoyt Volker, while Citra became leader of the local Rakyat resistance fighting the very same man. His mind consumed by Volker’s drugs, Vaas would oversee the deaths of people he once considered family. He decided his individual self was more important than the communal whole.
But in many ways, Vaas’ story is not too different from Jason’s over the course of Far Cry 3. The game goes out of its way to point this out. Jason’s first kill is also for family. He murders one of Vaas’ pirates to save him and his brother. Jason’s mohawked nemesis even starts to chip away at Jason’s dedication to family. He yells at Jason that family “will blindside you every f***ing time.” They’ll force Jason to decide between “me or them.”
In the end, based on the player’s choice, Jason can ditch his family and friends. It’s a testament to Vaas’ power – and some lackluster writing for Jason friends and family – that this choice is so tempting.
The Definition of Insanity
With every conversation, it seems like Vaas is trying to build a deadly, twisted relationship with Jason and the player. He sees a lot of himself in Jason, the same violent rage and selfishness.
With every violent kill the player commits and with every syringe the player sticks in their arm, they get one step closer to defeating Vaas and Volker. But the game questions the player’s quest at every turn. Is it victory if you complete your goal and find you’ve become the very thing you wanted to destroy?
One of the most memorable moments in Far Cry 3 is Vaas’ “definition of insanity” monologue. Mando’s delivery and performance here is perfect. But more importantly, this moment starts to address the central questions of Far Cry 3.
Violence leads to violence. The same bloodshed and intoxication that got Vaas to where he is hangs over Jason’s quest for “justice.” It’s a cycle, a bunch of people doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different outcome. Jason is a lot closer to becoming Vaas than he thinks.
You Complete Me
The final, climactic encounter with Vaas – which happens way too early in the game – is not subtle about this idea. In a psychedelic, dreamlike boss battle, the player guides Jason through a hallway of madness. Images of Vaas surround the player. But those same images start to shift and transform into images of Jason. Vaas repeats, “You are me. And I am you.” Again, the game’s not subtle about these connections but by the end of this fight it’s unclear if the player has killed Vaas or themselves.
Vaas is an important tool for Far Cry 3. He’s a way for the game to get away with entertaining mayhem, but he’s also a way to reflect on that mayhem. He elevates Far Cry 3 beyond its narrative shortcomings – a reliance on the “gone native” and “white savior” themes of colonialism – with a strange mixture of humor, madness, and violence
A great villain serves as a foil for the protagonist and a physical representation of the story’s themes. Vaas isn’t so much a foil as he is a mirror. He’s a psychological threat, forcing the player and protagonist to reconsider their violent tendencies and to question the true definition of insanity.
Would you kindly come back next week when Profiles in Villainy tackles a villain responsible for one of the biggest twists in gaming?