The Greatest Ever Game Characters
the sorrow of Andrew Ryan and the tragedy of Diane McClintock crumble before the grandiose ambitions
Published on Mar 17, 2010
As Seen In BioShock (2007)
BioShock is built upon mystery. The true nature of Rapture, its fate, and your own identity remain secret until the revelatory plot twist. Before that one, unforgettable moment, everything in Rapture seems subservient to two key figures, Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine. Everything, that is, except Sander Cohen.
Despite the titanic struggle for control that engulfed the world of Rapture, Cohen remained in Fort Frolic, content in his own pocket of Ryan’s decadent metropolis, diligently planning his masterpiece. By manipulating you to achieve his own, unique ends – the ultimate compromise between artistry and brutality – Sander Cohen becomes BioShock’s quintessential character.
Ken Levine’s masterpiece offers a wealth of memorable characters, but the sorrow of Andrew Ryan and the tragedy of Diane McClintock crumble before the grandiose ambitions of Sander Cohen. In a sense, Cohen is Rapture embodied, encapsulating all of its glamour, perfectionism, and the internal conflict that tore it apart. It is impossible to imagine the game without him.
As Seen In
Thief: Dark Project (1998), Thief II: The Metal Age (2000), Thief: Deadly Shadows (2004)
Few main characters are as cynical and mysterious as Garrett, the Thief series’ morally ambiguous protagonist. But then, as a man who happily steals for personal gain, it’s perhaps surprising that his morals are called into question at all. His rampant looting and clear disregard for the law should see him confirmed as an unmistakable villain, but Garrett, often unwittingly, is responsible for preventing all sorts of evil during his escapades and he is frequently the only man capable of saving the day.
Of course, it’s Garrett’s unique skills and upbringing that make him such a fascinating character. Adopted at a young age by the secretive Keepers, Garrett’s past is partially revealed through overheard conversations and the occasional passage of text, but it’s only by playing all three Thief entries that the many parts of his unusual life can ever hope to be pieced together. This ensures that players always know enough about Garrett’s life to make him interesting, but never quite enough that they feel there’s nothing left to find out.
As Seen In
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy (2001-2004), Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney (2007)
Essentially a series of text adventures, the Ace Attorney games have a distinct advantage over their peers when it comes to characterisation. The lengthy dialogue fleshes out the courtroom drama’s cast in ways that few other games are able, particularly when the text offers us a look at the protagonist’s thought process.
On the surface, Phoenix Wright is a cool and collected lawyer, capable of legendary feats of defence. Yet on the frequent occasions that we get to read his thoughts, the game reveals another side to him. This is the side we’re most used to seeing in ourselves, a side that struggles with self-doubt and constantly passes comments on the surrounding cast that he wouldn’t dare to say out loud.
The result of sharing these thoughts is that we feel a much stronger bond with Phoenix Wright, a bond that is strangely absent in Apollo Justice, wherein we see him from another perspective, from which he seems much more aloof than we’re used to.
As Seen In
Portal’s GLaDOS is more than just an antagonist; she is a guide and a commentator. Remember, it is only through the assistance offered by GLaDOS that players are even able to progress beyond the first room, and it’s only due to her unhinged ramblings that the storyline can be understood at all. Without her, the Aperture Science Facility would barely be anything more than an empty shell – a succession of stages that contained puzzles but little else beside. Because of GLaDOS, the abandoned centre is overflowing with a history and atmosphere that the otherwise sterile test chambers could never hope to possess.
Her greatest moments come thick and fast. From the very first mention of cake to the revelations about Aperture Science Facility’s past, almost every line is impossibly captivating – the combination of Valve’s incredibly witty script and Ellen McLain’s soothing vocals working overtime. And who could forget GLaDOS’s finest moment? There are few other characters in this medium – let alone any others – that could possibly make gamers care about a Weighted Companion Cube, but GLaDOS did, which just goes to show how brilliantly realised she is.
As Seen In
The Longest Journey (2000), Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (2006)
Forget the schoolboy fantasy that is Lara Croft, if you’re looking for videogaming’s original positive female protagonist then look no further than April Ryan, star of cult point-and-click The Longest Journey. It may not be that well known, but if you take a look at any serious modern adventure game then the influence of Ryan can be felt in practically every one. From Syberia’s Kate Walker to Still Life’s Victoria McPherson and even Zoe Castillo – star of The Longest Journey sequel Dreamfall – the adventure game genre has thrived on positive female protagonists ever since April Ryan’s debut.
Although headstrong and pro-active, she never comes across as an all-guns-blazing action-heroine cliché. First and foremost she’s an ordinary woman before a videogame character. She doesn’t always hold all the answers and frequently gets things wrong. Back in 2000, a character with realistic weaknesses (and strengths) was a breath of fresh air that sadly remains so to this day.
As Seen In
Majora’s Mask (2000), Wind Waker (2002), Freshly Picked: Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland (2006)
Like Wario before him, Tingle started life as a peripheral character seemingly designed to frustrate players walking in Link’s shoes. With his cries of Kooloo-Limpa, and his habit of massively overcharging for maps, he managed to anger a significant portion of (mostly American) Zelda fans.
Yet for everyone he annoyed, this tragicomic character managed to endear even more. The tale of a 35-year-old man who desperately wants to be a ‘fairy’ is certainly one of the campest that Nintendo has ever come up with and has assured Tingle’s character instant cult appeal.
His unpopularity with certain crowds may have banished him from the Zelda universe for good, but the anti-mascot has taken on a new life in his own series of DS games that capitalise on his quirky persona. A more interesting character Nintendo has yet to produce, and personally we hope this franchise goes from strength to strength. Maybe it’s time we saw a TingleWare game on Wii?
As Seen In Shenmue (1999), Shenmue II (2001)
Despite appearing in the most expensive videogame ever produced, Ryo Hazuki doesn’t really display the depth of an expensively written script. Dialogue as complex as “Do you know where sailors like to hang out?” mark Ryo out as little more than a typical videogame character, his only interaction with the plot being to move from one puzzle to the next. When he isn’t asking questions he can be found practising new martial arts moves or collecting toys… rarely do we see into his inner self. But then he probably doesn’t have one. Go into a public phone box and get Ryo to phone his supposed sweetheart, and unless he has some information to move the plot along, he’ll say nothing until Nozomi tells him to phone back when he actually has something to say.
So why do we love him so? Perhaps because he’s exactly the type of persona-less slate through which we need to experience the breathtaking world of Shenmue. Or perhaps because his odd questions and quirky lack of personality lend him a cult appeal unlike any other.
As Seen In System Shock (1994), System Shock 2 (1999)
Irrational – sorry, 2K Boston – seems to have a knack for creating antagonist characters with more depth and personality than its supposed heroes. Ken Levine can’t control the meaning a player attaches to the character that serves as their eyes, so the protagonist is left as a blank canvas. The enemy, however, is a different matter entirely.
As a medium, videogames are defined by their interactivity, so any meaning the content carries is largely dictated by your ability to engage with it. You are locked in a battle of wills with SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimised Data Access Network) throughout System Shock and System Shock 2, and Irrational never misses the opportunity to redefine the nature of your relationship.
From benevolent AI to godlike power to a marginalised force and back again, the character of SHODAN – and more importantly, your role in her plans – is constantly evolving. In a medium not normally recognised for well-honed character arcs, SHODAN is a peerless example
of what’s possible.
As Seen In
Halo: Combat Evolved (2001), Halo 2 (2004), Halo 3 (2007)
Despite the monumentally complicated plot being almost unintelligible, there is a momentum to Halo 3’s cut-scenes that simply cannot be ignored. Bungie’s impeccable cinematic eye plays a considerable role, but it is something else that provides the sense of purpose necessary to glaze over the story’s intricacies: Cortana.
In the first two Halo games, Cortana was little more than a cheerleader; present to give Master Chief some words of encouragement or exposition depending on the situation. If her role had never expanded, that would have been quite enough. Cortana is a benevolent, mysteriously sexy AI construct, and two-dimensional by her very nature.
In Halo 3, however, over-wrought politics give way to the bond between Cortana and Master Chief. For much of the game’s latter half we needed to know little more than the fact that we were rescuing the most unlikely love interest in the history of the medium. From her vacuous role as explainer at the start of the trilogy, Cortana becomes the heart and soul of the entire experience. Not bad for a hologram.
As Seen In Mass Effect (2007)
The scale of Mass Effect always suggested the possibility of giving the player too much to digest at once. Commander Shepard is a blank canvas, his looks personality and choices are in your hands. Once in the game, you’re confronted with a dizzying array of races and species, and pages and pages of expository information to read.
Mass Effect was sold as a revolution in that the players interact with game narrative but the breadth of the game’s mythology can occasionally make you feel your decisions are more or less arbitrary. This is why Urdnot Wrex stands out. He is memorably designed with a compelling back story, but as soon as he gives Shepard his ultimatum – forcing you to decide if he should live or die – you feel your decision will radically alter the path of the game from then on. We pulled the trigger, others didn’t, and that’s what Mass Effect is all about.
As Seen In
Sam & Max Hit The Road (1993), Sam & Max Season 1 (2007)
When it comes to LucasArts adventures, there is a wealth of characters we could have picked for this list, but there’s something about Max that just makes him more memorable than any other character in the publisher’s body of work.
As a sidekick character he’s the perfect accompaniment to the dryer, more sarcastic Sam. He’s funny, as are most LucasArts characters, but not in the same way. Instead of reeling off one liners and quips, he’s more often found asking permission to eat a person or fill them with lead – the funniest part being that he’s probably not joking.
Max comes into his own not just as comic relief, but also as an integral part of the puzzle gameplay. Talk to him and he’ll dole out subtle hints, often beneath layers of seemingly irrelevant banter, and can even be used as an item throughout his games. Hilarious and practical, Max is the perfect videogame character.
As Seen In
Command & Conquer (1995), Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun (1999), Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (2007), Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath (2008)
There aren’t many great characters to be found in real-time strategy games, but Command & Conquer’s Kane is one of the few exceptions. Head of the Brotherhood of Nod, Kane is portrayed as one of the world’s greatest leaders. He is considered a messiah by his followers, who draw comparisons between him and the Biblical figure of Cain. Indeed, this connection has never been entirely explained throughout the past 13 years of C&C releases, and gamers have always been left to draw their own conclusions.
But Kane would surely not be so well liked were it not for Joe Kucan’s excellent portrayal of the infamous character. You see, Kane exists almost exclusively in the live-action FMV sequences that bookend single-player missions. And Kucan, a man who has apparently not aged in the many years since first adopting the role, has made Kane the enigmatic and charismatic leader that he is. Without Kane, and thus Kucan, the C&C universe would lose much of its enduring appeal.
As Seen In
Shadow Of The Colossus (2006)
Above all else, Shadow Of The Colossus is a solitary experience. Each successive colossus requires you to forge a path through the game’s vast, barren landscape, and the enormity of your eventual foe only serves to exacerbate the feeling of isolation, of being alone. Without that desperate sensation, Shadow Of The Colossus would not have seared itself onto the collective gaming consciousness with such aplomb.
You do have an ally, however, in the form of your horse, Agro. Wander, the hero, undoubtedly looks upon his trusted steed as a friend, but the player has been pre-conditioned by the history of game design to see Agro as purely functional – a mode of transport and nothing more.
Fumito Ueda and his team were obviously aware of this, and designed Shadow Of The Colossus to include Agro in pivotal ways. He is your only company on those frequent cross-country rides, the only living thing in a world of dust and rock – even the colossi appear as if they are hewn from the mountains.
Agro’s pace and agility is vital for defeating several colossi, and this is essential to the game’s emotional power. These debts may not be consciously acknowledged as you play, but at the moment of Agro’s death the skilfully orchestrated bond you share becomes painfully apparent. At that moment, and for the first time, you understand what being alone truly feels like.
As Seen In
Fallout (1997), Fallout II (1998), Fallout: Brotherhood Of Steel (2004)
Unlike the other entries in this character list, Vault Boy can’t be spoken to, fought against, or controlled. He is a cartoon advertising character that could easily be no more significant than a chocolate bar wrapper or a billboard poster, but he has somehow become one of the most iconic features in the Fallout franchise. His chirpy face, pronounced quiff and Fifties attire are stamped across everything Vault-Tec related, and it’s because of this that he is so well recognised both in and out of the game.
What really makes Vault Boy so important, however, is the contrast that his affable demeanour has with the rest of the Fallout experience. Gameplay takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and there are few hints at what once stood in place of the crumbling houses, dilapidated streets and legions of mutants. Vault Boy is one of those rare reminders – a clever device that highlights how bad everything has become.
As Seen In
Canis Canem Edit (2006)
As the game studio that most parents are convinced is trying to corrupt their young, Rockstar Games must have known well in advance that a schoolyard setting and the provisional title ‘Bully’ would set tongue’s wagging. Indeed, it is impossible not to think that it was all part of the grand plan.
After Hot Coffee and Manhunt, even those with a love and respect for Rockstar were unsure what to expect of the freshly monikered Canis Canem Edit – a ruse to disguise the horrors within, perhaps? – and the stocky, shaven-headed Jimmy Hopkins seemed a paean to thuggery.
However, from the game’s opening moments all preconceptions are washed away. Neglected, abused, and passed from pillar to post, Jimmy’s situation has left him with the most well-balanced sense of decency ever seen in a Rockstar game. There are bullies here, but despite appearances, Jimmy isn’t one of them. The cries of the protesters immediately rang hollow. Once again, all part of the grand plan.
As Seen In
Animal Crossing (2001), Animal Crossing: Wild World (2005)
He may be one of the most annoying characters in gaming, but that doesn’t make him a bad character as such. Far from it in fact, Mr Resetti is so meticulously designed with the express purpose of annoying that it’s hard not to respect the thought that went into him.
His basic purpose is to stop Animal Crossing players from turning the game off without first saving the game – a job he does very well. Make the mistake once and he’ll rant at you for several minutes before allowing you to play on, make the mistake twice and he’ll become ever angrier and more long-winded. His tirade is so effective that few people have ever made the mistake a third time.
Big Boss/Naked Snake
As Seen In Metal Gear (1987), Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004), Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (2007)
Metal Gear’s Big Boss is among the most malevolent villains to have appeared in any long-running videogame series. How strange then that Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater gave us the opportunity to witness the origins of that villainy straight from the character’s own perspective.
He may have been a constant source of pain for Metal Gear’s real hero, but once you’ve gone through the days of turmoil and betrayal that shaped Naked Snake into Big Boss, it’s hard not to feel for the guy. To have his spirit and sense of duty utterly crushed by those he trusted the most, Snake is transformed into something else entirely. And in the context of the other Metal Gear games, we get to see exactly how ugly that transformation was.
And yet it is testament to Snake’s sympathetic characteristics – which, let’s face it, are exactly the same as Solid Snake – that your perspective of the subject matter changes. The Metal Gear games have always tried to highlight the hypocrisy of war through political commentary and Codec musings, but never has that message been more effective than when told through the eyes of the ‘enemy’.
As Seen In Resident Evil (1996), Resident Evil Code: Veronica (2000), Resident Evil Zero (2002), Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles (2007)
Now recognised as one of the most important characters to have featured in the phenomenally popular Resident Evil franchise, it’s all too convenient to forget that Albert Wesker was actually killed off in the very first zombie-filled Capcom adventure. It’s testament to the super-cool antagonist, however, that he proved so popular with fans that the developer was seemingly forced to resurrect him. Not only that, but the software giant has also returned to the Resident Evil back catalogue and found ways to tie the former Umbrella Operative into their respective plots.
Don’t believe us? Well, the remake of the original Resident Evil actually contained a revised ending, in which Wesker miraculously escapes his encounter with the Tyrant, alive. On top of that, Wesker’s involvement in Resident Evil 4 is only truly explained by the ‘Separate Ways’ scenario that was made available in later editions of the game. And don’t forget the fact that Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles also goes to significant length to increase Wesker’s involvement in Resident Evil 3. So, it took the Capcom team a while, but it seems that finally they appreciate Wesker just as much as the rest of us.