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33 Features

Generation review: Memorable characters

By Chris Scullion on Sunday 29th Dec 2013 at 12:00 PM UTC

There's arguably nothing more important in a story-based game than the characters appearing in it.

They're the ones who keep the plot going, they're the ones who give the game a sense of life, and - in the most effective cases - they're the ones you'll remember and think about long after the credits have rolled.

As technology continues to improve and developers become ever more ambitious with their use of narrative, these days we're seeing a steady stream of fantastic characters appearing on our screens.

In the space of only 15 or 20 years we've gone from simplistic sprites and basic polygonal mannequeins to fully formed, well rounded characters with the ability to speak, to emote, to engage the player and make them feel like part of the story rather than an onlooker.

For most gamers this generation has well and truly answered that irritating question regularly put to us by naysayers and cynics: "Will there ever be a game that makes us cry?". The answer is yes, it's already happened to many of us in games like The Walking Dead and Last Of Us; both games that put emphasis on character development and interaction.

The following, then, are the characters who helped make the most recent generation the greatest to date in terms of storytelling. Whether they made us laugh, made us nervous or made us care about their well-being, the point is they at least made us feel something, a clear sign of real progress in this industry we love so much.

Clementine (Walking Dead)


A lot of games (and movies and TV shows, for that matter) use children as a sort of emotional cheat code. After all, it's a lot easier to make the viewer feel concern, tension or fear when there's an innocent, defenceless child in danger.

With that in mind, it's easy to take one look at Clementine and think "oh, they've just put her in there to make the game scarier".

Doing this is just foolish, though. Clementine is such a perfectly written, perfectly acted character that she quickly becomes more than just an easy tool to evoke a reaction from the player, she becomes the centrepiece of the game. The fact she's been promoted to the lead role in the upcoming Season Two says it all.

John Marston (Red Dead Redemption)

With a prostitute mother who died giving birth to him and a Scottish immigrant father who passed away eight years later, it's easy to see why the rebellious John Marston became the first Rockstar character players felt real sympathy for (unless you were really into Rockstar Table Tennis).

In one respect he isn't too different from the likes of Nico Bellic, in that he's a former criminal who's flung back into a life of crime against his will. It's both the ends and the means that make Martson's story more powerful, though - he's forced to kill the men he used to fight alongside, in order to be allowed to see his family again.

Such was John Martson's appeal that many players admitted to shedding a few tears during Red Dead Redemption's final scene. If that isn't the sign of a truly memorable character, we don't know what is.

Nathan Drake (Uncharted)


In 2008, cinemagoers were 'treated' to the fourth film in the Indiana Jones series, the slightly iffy Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.

One year later, Uncharted 2 arrived on the PlayStation 3. By improving on the original in every way, Uncharted 2 showed that its hero Nathan Drake was no fluke - in the new millennium, he truly is a better Indiana Jones than the actual one.

Brave, athletic, adventurous, genuinely funny and oh so charming, Nathan Drake made archaeology look cool to a whole new generation just like Harrison Ford did in the '80s and '90s. Such was the character's quality that voice and motion capture actor Nolan North was offered a small role in the second Star Trek film because JJ Abrams was a fan of Uncharted.

Wheatley (Portal 2)

When you've already had massive critical success with Portal, in large part because of GLaDOS, a creation which has gone on to become one of the medium's most loved characters, how could you possibly think about improving on it with a sequel? This was the dilemma Valve was faced with, and the answer was Wheatley.

Masterfully voiced by Stephen Merchant (even though many say he wasn't really acting, more simply playing himself), Wheatley is the opposite of GLaDOS. Whereas she speaks slowly and deliberately, Wheatley is a fast-talking, neurotic personality core responsible for most of the game's laughs.

As the game progresses it becomes ever clearer that there's more to Wheatley than meets the eye, and by the end of the game we were eager for more. Should Portal 3 ever happen, we'd love to see Wheatley return.

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Ezio (Assassin's Creed)


It's hard to think of a more charismatic murderer than Ezio. While Altair was the man who started the Assassin's Creed series off, Ezio is the man that put it on the right course, and it's Ezio we all wish we could be like.

His tragic backstory justifies his need to assassinate the people he does, he has a wit that's almost as sharp as his hidden blade, and - let's face it - he looks like a badass.

Altair was the spark, but Ezio was the flame that followed. You can tell a character's well-loved when another developer wants him in their game: in the case of Ezio the developer was Namco Bandai, who featured him as a playable character in SoulCalibur V.

Ellie (The Last Of Us)

Ellie is a 14-year-old bundle of opposites. Whereas most child characters in games are considered the vulnerable ones you have to protect (see Clementine et al), you always get the impression Ellie can handle herself.

Similarly, while the player spends the game discovering what a once-familiar world looks like after it's been riddled with plague and decay, Ellie (born five years after the plague) instead spends it learning what it was like before it happened.

Stronger than her years and yet also ignorant of the real world, she's a remarkable character and one of the main reasons The Last Of Us is at the top of many 2013 Game Of The Year lists.

Claire (Thomas Was Alone)


It says a lot about the strength of a game's writing when a square can end up on a list alongside far more detailed characters with lengthy backstories, elaborate designs and the like.

And yet, Thomas Was Alone managed to nail each character's personality with just a few sentences each, making us feel empathy for geometry.

Best of the bunch was Claire, the biggest of the bunch, and a character that initially thinks she's utterly useless. A massive blue square with a tiny jump, Claire finally realises her worth when she falls into water and realises she can swim (unlike the other characters).

Claire quickly comes to the conclusion that she's a superhero, and it'd take a cynical sod to argue with her.

Midna (Twilight Princess)


As roundly well-loved as the Zelda series is, there's no denying that Nintendo regularly drops the ball when it comes to companions for Link.

We all twitch nervously when we reminisce about the irritating "hey! Listen!" of Navi in Ocarina Of Time, and Fi's annoying robo-speak in Skyward Sword was instantly irritating.

For that reason alone we doff our caps to Midna, but there was much more to this little imp than simply being tolerable.

Watching her develop from a cheeky little snob to a genuinely likeable character was a treat, and her eventual transformation was a key moment in the series.

Mordin (Mass Effect)

This salarian geneticist is one of the reasons most gamers believe Mass Effect 2 is the finest game in the trilogy. When Shepard first encounters Mordin s/he soon learns that he recently killed a local gang's members and displayed their bodies as a warning to others. It's clear from this early stage that Mordin will be an interesting recruit.

It's rare to find a game character that can amuse you one minute (his quick-witted one-liners and sharp dialogue is a joy) and touch you the next (the Old Blood side-mission, in which he explains his role in the modification of the genophage, is tragic). Plus he's one hell of a singer.

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Bomb, the Black Bird (Angry Birds)


Say what you will about Angry Birds - to paraphrase Voltaire slightly, we may not agree with what you play but we'll defend to the death your right to play it - but it was a phenomenon this generation and the console version, Angry Birds Trilogy, sold a decent amount despite costing over 5000% more than the iOS app (not an exaggeration).

Indeed, those who got along with it will agree that there was something oddly satisfying about flinging birds into blocks and destroying those irritating pigs.

It was Bomb, the black bird, who stands out as a true hero, though. Just as the game was starting to get repetitive and players were starting to lose interest, along came Bomb with a new gameplay mechanic: tap him and he'd explode. Suddenly this was no longer a game about knowing things over, this was a game about blowing things up.

For transforming the game that sold more copies than anything else this generation, we nod sagely at Bomb. But of all the characters on this list, we dare say he's probably least likely to feature again when the next generation comes to a close.

The Joker (Batman: Arkham Asylum)


It's difficult to reinvent a character who's appeared countless times in hundreds of different forms over more than seven decades, but Rocksteady did an incredible job with The Joker in the Arkham series.

Combining the dark kookiness of Mark Hamill's Joker from the '90s animated series with the sinister psychologically intimidating version played by Heath Ledger, the Arkham series' version of Joker was nevertheless a different beast, one that remained a compelling character throughout all three Arkham games. The return of Hamill to reprise the role as voice actor was the cherry on top of a fairly deranged cake.

Trevor (GTA V)

We've seen plenty of 'mad' characters in gaming over the past generation - Lynch from Kane and Lynch, that clown from Dead Rising, Phil Fish - but then there was Trevor.

He didn't just take the 'crazy game character' ball and run with it, he stuffed the ball with explosives and drove it off a cliff.

It goes without saying that were you to meet him in real life Trevor would be one of the most repulsive, despicable human beings you could ever hope to meet.

However, in the world of Grand Theft Auto, where many players like to perform unsavoury acts that they wouldn't dream of doing in reality, Trevor is the embodiment of that idea taken to the nth degree.

Bayonetta (Bayonetta)


Few characters this generation are as stylised and provocative as Bayonetta.

A witch whose entire costume is made of hair that she can use to attack enemies, Bayonetta is a character who's fully aware of her sexualisation and uses it to her advantage.

Our Bayonetta review said it best: "Every line she delivers drips with sexual innuendo, but it's all very tongue in cheek. You're never asked to seriously consider Bayonetta as a sex object, despite the fact she is the sexiest collection of pixels we've ever seen. Like the rest of the game, Bayonetta is there to poke fun at gaming conventions by exposing just how ridiculous they all are.

"She's Lara Croft without the prudishness. She's one of the most memorable, likeable characters in the history of games and we really hope she gets a sequel."

And now she will.

Mii (Wii)


The idea of putting yourself into a game is nothing new - we remember editing our team in the Spectrum version of Football Manager so all our schoolmates were in it.

What Nintendo did with the Mii, though, was allow players to not only create a cartoon caricature of themselves, but then use that same character across a number of different games.

It may have been a simple concept but it was one that lent a lot to the charm of the Wii's most successful games. It worked best when it was at its weirdest: you can't say you've seen everything until you've watched a game of Pro Evolution Soccer with bizarre Mii-headed players.

Vaas (Far Cry 3)

The story goes that Vaas originally didn't even exist. In his place was a massive character called Bull.

However, when Canadian actor Michael Mando auditioned to play the role of another character called Lupo he impressed Ubisoft so much that the studio scrapped both Lupo and Bull and wrote Vaas into the game.

It's easy to see why. Vaas is "one of the most feared men on an island full of madmen", as an in-game description puts it: a crazed lunatic who's been on that island for a little too long and has lost all concept of what is right and wrong as a result.

His terrifying "definition of insanity" speech, below, is easily one of the gaming highlights of this generation.

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Boomer (Left 4 Dead)


One of the few issues of a game designed primarily for mic-based co-op gameplay is that the protagonists are never really given the chance to have fully fleshed-out personalities (since they're voiced by different players each time).

That's why, whenever people think about Left 4 Dead characters, they don't immediately think of Francis, Bill, Zoey or Louis. Instead, they think of the Witch, the Tank, the Smoker and, of course, the Boomer.

It's the enemy characters that are very much at the forefront of the Left 4 Dead experience, and the mere sight of this bile-spewing monstrosity is enough to set pulses racing because players know that as soon as the Boomer is on the scene things are about to get very tricky.

CN-7 'Cain' (Binary Domain)


Some characters are so fantastic that even a simple one-line description of them is enough to explain why they're so well-loved. Take Cain for example.

If you aren't familiar with him (and judging by Binary Domain's tragically low sales there's a good chance you aren't), all we need to tell you is that Cain is a combat robot who has a French accent, dresses like a cowboy and acts like a butler and you should immediately realise why he appears on this list.

Cain's terrible sense of humour and frequent mistimed jokes lead to countless memorable moments in a woefully underrated game. If you're reading this and have no clue who Cain is, please do your best to remedy that situation.

Sander Cohen (BioShock)


Inspired by early 1900s Broadway legend George M Cohan and eccentric artist Salvador Dali, Sander Cohen is easily the most intriguing character in a game full of interesting personalities.

Fiercely proud of his work and extremely unhinged, Cohen is fascinating and frightening in equal measure.

He's the embodiment of Rapture as a whole, a man once thriving in a world of prosperity and extravagance who eventually succumbs to madness while everything crumbles around him.

Lara Croft (Tomb Raider)

It's been a long time since Lara Croft was praised as a fantastic character. While her debut back in 1996 was something of a revelation in gaming, she hasn't been a truly appealing character since the days of locking her butler in the freezer.

Over the years as Lara's become more sexualised she's also become more generalised, turning into a generic action heroine whose only distinguishing feature was a second X chromosome.

That all changed with the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, where Lara finally became a character capable of showing vulnerability, something lacking in her more recent 'badass' adventures.

It wasn't pleasant seeing Lara take all manner of punishment from her environment, but the fact we cared more about getting her though it than we'd ever felt in the series' 17-year history was a massive achievement given our indifference to her since the PS2 days.

Francis York Morgan (Deadly Premonition)


There's something intriguing about a game in which it's never entirely clear if the protagonist you're controlling is playing with a full deck. That's the case with Francis York Morgan, the hero of Twin Peaks inspired grindhouse gem Deadly Premonition.

An FBI agent whose parents died when he was seven, it's hard to completely agree with York's self-analysis that he's simply "eccentric" when his partner, Zach, is imaginary.

It's difficult not to enjoy playing as a character who's essentially a tad unhinged. Whether he's looking for secret messages in his morning coffee, regaling the invisible Zach with movie trivia, or offering his opinion on the Ramones, Agent York is the very definition of quirky.

Johnson (Shadows Of The Damned)


Suda 51 has never been one to shy away from putting quirkier characters in his games: Travis Touchdown in the No More Heroes series and cheerleader zombie killer Juliet in Lollipop Chainsaw are perfect examples of this.

Johnson is perhaps the oddest main character the eccentric Japanese game designer has come up with, though.

A former demon turned into a flaming skull with a British accent, Johnson is the sidekick of protagonist Garcia Hotspur, using his ability to shapeshift to provide him with a gun (nicknamed the 'Boner'), a torch, even a motorcycle.

A Swiss army skull chum with a penchant for innuendo? Count us in.