The 10 best video game characters

The Observer asked me to contribute a piece on video games characters for their “ten best” series, and with some trepidation I embraced the challenge (the resulting debate in the comments thread was pretty lively).

I tried to strike a balance between old and new, mainstream and niche, and to interpret “best characters” as slightly different to simply “iconic.” Mario aside, there’s no Master Chief, Sonic, Lara Croft, Ryu, Ken, Gordon Freeman, Duke Nukem, or most other towering franchise heroes. I remain delighted not to have gone for any of these, whom I think of as brilliant cyphers rather than characters as such. But—of the better suggestions that I’ve seen among the comments and in response—I do miss a bunch of Miyamoto’s offspring (Kirby! Link!), the Final Fantasy cast, Jon Irenicus, plenty of Steve Purcell & Tim Schafer creations, Garrett from Thief, and Tim Curry’s Gabriel Knight, among others.

Anyway, here’s that list again, in a pre-edited form with slightly more detail in some places…

Floyd the Robot, from Planetfall

In the early days of computing, when it was still possible for a game to be built from nothing but words, games designer Steve Meretzky’s first title for Infocom set a new standard of emotional involvement for players. Planetfall cast you as a lowly ensign in a space fleet whose escape pod crash lands on a mysteriously deserted planet. The sole survivor of whatever disaster occurred is a simple-minded robot called Floyd, who strolls around of his own accord, banters about save games and—in an apotheosis that has some of today’s most hardened coders swearing they sobbed into their Commodore 64s—ultimately sacrifices his life for your sake.

Guybrush Threepwood, first appearance in The Secret of Monkey Island

“I once owned a dog that was smarter then you.” “He must have taught you everything you know.” Boasting the gaming world’s first insults-based combat system, 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island cast you as wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood. Thanks to the dazzling Lucasfilm Games team of Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, outwitting evildoers with your ready wit and solving increasingly fiendish object-based problems was a constant delight—and the geeky Guybrush an unforgettable presence in countless nascent gaming lives, from his knobbly knees to his less-than-silky sword skills.

Mario, first appearance in Donkey Kong

One of the world’s most beloved cultural icons, Mario is as much a series of attributes as a character: moustache, dungarees, hat, springy jump. Created by debut designer Shigeru Miyamoto for the 1981 arcade classic Donkey Kong—and managed lovingly by his creator ever since—the leaping hero, initially known only as “jumpman,” soon won a following and a name. Almost 30 years on, he’s now featured in more than 100 titles, including some of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed games in history. That a chubby Italian plumber should have become perhaps the globe’s most universal emblem of fun is one of technology’s stranger facts; but it would be a hardened gamer who doesn’t quiver faintly with anticipation at the thought of what Mario might do next.

The King of All Cosmos, first appearance in Katamari Damacy

Nobody does bonkers game concepts quite as gleefully as the Japanese, but even aficionados concede that Keita Takahashi’s series of Katamari games—where you play a miniature prince rolling around a magic ball that expands by picking up larger and larger objects—deserve a special award. Topping off the odd scale is the prince’s father, the King of All Cosmos, a planet-sized binge-drinker who seems to be made from lego and old toys, and whose uniquely deformed syntax has earned him a dedicated, if bewildered, global following. ”This sky is not pretty at all. It’s rough and masculine. Possibly sweaty.” A very particular kind of genius.

GLaDOS, from Portal

In a field not historically noted for feminism, perhaps gaming’s funniest, freakiest female also happens to be a psychopathic artificial intelligence, thanks to this exquisite 2007 first-person action-cum-puzzle game from Valve. Portal takes place in a scientific testing facility, where a female voice appears initially to be guiding you on your way and—slightly more strangely—attempting to bribe you with promises of cake. As the game progresses, the pronouncements, threats and snack-related enticements become progressively more bizarre, until the denouement sees you breaking out and executing your deranged interlocutor, GLaDos (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System). She then sings you a song over the end credits. Expert scripting from Valve and voice acting from Ellen McLain make every moment a discomforting joy. Be warned, though: the cake is a lie.

Arthas Menethil, first appearance in Warcraft III

If you’re going to do fantasy, you may as well embrace the histrionics that come with the genre: something Blizzard entertainment showed they understood perfectly with the introduction of the character of prince Arthas in the third of their Warcrarft strategy games in 2002. Initially the valiant model of a medieval knight, everything changes when Arthas picks up a cursed sword and begins to perpetrate a steadily more sinister series of atrocities (think dead peasants), culminating in killing his own father. The character really came into his own in the mighty World of Warcraft, over which his twisted spirit presided for five years—culminating this year in the chance for players to end his evil reign at last. Top class schlock.

Niko Bellic, from Grand Theft Auto IV

That the gaming world’s most notorious series featured a Serbian immigrant as the hero of its latest episode is a tribute to the freshness of the thinking behind the sales and headlines. Arriving in a parallel New York dreaming of the good life painted by his cousin, Niko finds awaiting him not cocktails and swimming pools, but a failing taxi business and money owed to the mob. A military veteran, Niko has been tempted over to act as a protector: a role you guide him through, alongside whatever you wish to make of his love life, leisure and stunt driving opportunities. A truly adult character in a gleefully adult game, Niko also boasts a surprisingly subversive line in anti-materialist disillusion.

The Lemmings, first appearance in Lemmings

In the greatest games, less is more—and characterisation can be every bit as impressive as character. Witness the miniature protagonists of this early hit, their green hair bobbing in profile as they walked towards a doom that only the speed of your mouse could avert. Interchangeable, expendable and numberless, turning these midget chunks of 8×8 pixels into characters was a major achievement for 1991. DMA Design pulled it off thanks to charmingly characterised animations for each special ability (digging, climbing, floating on giant umbrellas) and the judicious use of chipmonk-squeaky sound effects: the death scream “oh no!” being the most commonly-heard, thanks to the fiendish difficulty. It was almost enough to make you want actually to save the moronic rodents.

Captain Olimar, first appearance in Pikmin

Japanese genius Shigeru Miyamoto’s second entry on the list is both a less familiar figure than many of his beloved brainchildren—Link, Toad, Samus Aran—and a more intriguing one. His name a near-anagram of Mario himself in English (and a perfect anagram in Japanese), Olimar is a diminutive astronaut who has crash-landed on a strange planet and must enlist the help of its inhabitants, the plant-like Pikmin, to fix his ship. So far, so standard. But Olimar is a very particular kind of hero: a salaried employee of an interstellar delivery company, married with a wife and children, tasked in a later game with rescuing his company from bankruptcy. A little man, solving big problems—it’s hard not to glimpse a veiled autobiography in this
whimsical portrait of private enterprise going right.

Garrus Vakarian, first appearance in Mass Effect

Proof that space opera need no longer mean sub-Star Wars cheese when it comes to gaming, BioWare’s Mass Effect series has set new standards of plot, characterisation and player interaction: the second outing even allows the import of saved characters from the first so that old animosities, allegiances and romance can be continued. Among the dozens of non-player characters, the alien investigative agent Garrus Vakarian stands out: having fought alongside him in the first game, the second sees him operating as a vigilante under the mysterious moniker Archangel. Your job is to re-recruit him to your cause, a process that can—if you choose—involve entering into his own story of betrayal and vengeance. A new way of thinking about what interactive fiction might mean.