Steam user genre tags can be awful. Cyberpunk 2077 was, for example, tagged ‘masterpiece’ for months before the first gameplay trailer, while the much more reasonable and catchy ‘looks cool sure but too early to say anything definitive if we’re being adults about it’ tag was strangely absent. Happily, they are sometimes wonderful, like the tag alongside ‘comedy’ and ‘indie’ that categorises avian arsehole adventure Untitled Goose Game as having a ‘villain protagonist’.
I’ve been thinking about villain protagonists a fair amount this week because GOG just graced our collective thinking tellies with 1996 Zelda-like Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, in all its richly overwrought, gothic, inimitably voice-acted splendour. I would estimate this news finds you, reader, in one of two categories: those who give not a fig, and those who give so many figs they are currently scrabbling the world’s few remaining fig-bearing trees, searching vainly for an adequate quantity of figs.
I am in the second category. Blood Omen is one of my all time faves. I would like to think that the brightly burning candle I hold for it is fuelled mostly by its own merit, although I’d probably have to admit to a waxy glob of nostalgia holding it together.
My dad, from the time I was born right up to his passing, ran a shop I can best describe as an independent Forbidden Planet, but mixed with one of those curio emporiums from a horror story that’s vanished when you visit the next day to return a cursed object. Games. Comics. Shelves of vinyl records. Towering stacks of cult VHS. A child-sized robot made from broken NES consoles with Zappers for arms. Bongs. Dust. Like, so much dust.
When I was fairly young, the shop got broken into, and the enterprising scalliwankers cleaned out the games, so my dad got into the habit of lugging home a saddle bag full of PS1 discs every evening after work. One of the only constants - strangely, since it became such an incredibly rare collectible for a good few years afterwards - was Blood Omen. The monkey’s paw to this ludicrous game selection was that we didn’t, for whatever reason, have a memory card for quite a while. I must have played the first few hours of Blood Omen fifty times over, so that introduction is seared into my memory. I’m telling you all this so you can get your industrial salt-pinchers at the ready when I say, nostalgia be damned, that intro was a certified game changer. An isometric ARPG from 1996 where the call to adventure was not a noble quest, but bloody, burning revenge.
After being stabbed up a good’un by a roving gang of sackcloths, Kain is offered a chance at revenge by a necromancer named Mortanius. Kain agrees and awakes, in his own words, to the “pain of a new existence, in a dank womb of darkness and decay.” Vampires dine on blood, but soliloquy only the finest ham.
What follows is a Shakespearean slice-em-up soaked with so much costume blood and melodrama that I blame it entirely for me becoming a diehard Alkaline Trio fan for most of my teens. At the end, Kain can choose to sacrifice himself for the good of Nosgoth. But canonically, the game ends with our antihero atop a throne of skulls, supping from a chalice of blood, and monologuing maniacally about how fun it is to be a proper shitheel.
"Blood Omen is a Shakespearean slice-em-up soaked with so much costume blood and melodrama that I blame it entirely for me becoming a diehard Alkaline Trio fan."
It’s worth remembering that this was two years before Dungeon Keeper, and only a year after Kain’s namesake appeared in the original C&C, so I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to place Blood Omen as a landmark title in the history of playable villains.
I’m making a distinction here between the playable evil that Blood Omen offered and the much more prevalent “Will u save the squirrels or kick the squirrels into a ravine for a 2% health regen ring?” style of storytelling. Even Overlord, largely touted as a primo badlad adventure, took the coward’s way out by offering a good path. Yes, Blood Omen had a single self-sacrificial choice, right at the end. But there is no version of Kain able to reach that ending that doesn’t drink blood from prisoners chained to walls and frequently revels in murder
Much of Kain’s convincing villainy is down the wonderful Simon Templeman, who I imagine cannot win at Scrabble without cackling like mad. You might know him as Loghain from Dragon Age, and I’m 90% sure that’s him in the Elden Ring trailer. His performance vitalises Kain’s vanity, solipsism and bloodlust with an undercurrent of wounded nobility and melancholy. Whatever else he does, he suffers.
This point of sympathy, or at least relatability, is vital. Goodfellas did not open with Ray Liotta saying that as long as he could remember, he always wanted to be a massive bastard. It’s charisma and pure, swaggering ambition that has you rooting for Henry Hill, even if we’d personally draw the line at the specifics. Same with Kain. We’ll forgive much of our leads as long as they're a) interesting and b) have some sort of pure motivation that they’re fearless about pursuing. Even if, again, both the ends and the means are various shades of reprehensible.
Say what you want about the Horrible Goose, but they are both unflappably goose-like and unapologetically horrible. An avian agent of chaos purely dedicated to disrupting a toytown facade of middle england. Pecking violently at stiff upper lips until they're too swollen to mask the lurking despair. Honk Honk.
So Kain, atop his throne of skulls at the end of Blood Omen, sits as a kind of great-grandfather to the horrible goose honking on his picnic blanket, an inseparable part of the same lineage. I mean, not literally. That’d be weird. Although Kain can time travel and shapeshift into animals. So I suppose if? Oh no. No.