There’s an unwrit­ten law of nerd con­ver­sa­tions: nev­er ask what their favorite video game char­ac­ter is if you ever plan on hear­ing the end of it. Being an iras­ci­ble hip­ster type, when I had a con­ver­sa­tion about favourite games char­ac­ters, I imme­di­ate­ly scoured the dark­est cor­ners of my brain to come up with an answer peo­ple wouldn’t expect. What makes a tru­ly icon­ic char­ac­ter in gam­ing? What ele­ments make up a bril­liant char­ac­ter? Is a char­ac­ter defined by a game, or vice-versa? The answer to the­se ques­tions has evolved with gam­ing as a medi­um itself, so let’s take a jour­ney back into the annals of gam­ing past.

mario__link_and_samus_by_ppowersteef-d5b749i-300x180For many, cer­tain Nintendo char­ac­ters eas­i­ly come to mind: Mario, Samus, Link. They are almost inex­tri­ca­bly linked with the very notion of video games. Back in the ear­ly days of game con­soles, it seemed most char­ac­ters became icon­ic sim­ply by virtue of being released. This too in a time when the lim­its of the tech­nol­o­gy meant that it was incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to tell a com­plex or nuanced sto­ry, and the most suc­cess­ful games were dri­ven by the game­play. If Donkey Kong would have been a medioc­re game, the char­ac­ters would nev­er have become as pop­u­lar as they are today. In the ear­li­est days of gam­ing, it’s cer­tain that nov­el­ty was a pow­er­ful aspect of a character’s appeal, but the abil­i­ty to refine cer­tain traits is some­thing that can real­ly make a dif­fer­ence. The rea­son peo­ple love to revis­it par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ters over and over again has to be based not only on a unique design and per­son­al­i­ty, but how the game func­tions as well.

Take Mario for instance. In his first appear­ance in Donkey Kong (1981), he was named ‘Jumpman’, his name prop­er would come into use a year lat­er in the sequel, Donkey Kong Jr. Tweaking the basic ele­ments can be a bril­liant thing, espe­cial­ly if some­thing doesn’t quite work in the first attempt. In ear­ly gam­ing his­to­ry, the nov­el­ty and expand­ing nature of the field meant that if some­thing wasn’t con­nect­ing with fans, a com­pa­ny could make a few tweaks and change it for the bet­ter. Characters which were deriv­a­tive of the more nov­el, unique trend­set­ters nev­er real­ly achieved the same sta­tus as the icons they were pan­der­ing. A par­tic­u­lar­ly European exam­ple is the Great Giana sis­ters. This was a game released in 1987, and was basi­cal­ly a car­bon copy of Super Mario Bros. So sim­i­lar in fact that Nintendo brought a law­suit again­st the com­pa­ny who released it. Ask any­one nowa­days, and who’s heard of the Giana sis­ters? No-one oth­er than the most geeky of games enthu­si­asts. That sort of thing was ubiq­ui­tous through­out the 80s and 90s. The pat­tern of emu­lat­ing pop­u­lar char­ac­ters con­tin­ues to this day, with a recent exam­ple being Shadow of Mordor being an (albeit very good) emu­la­tion of Assassin’s Creed.

This was the case right through the 90s. Unique and mem­o­rable char­ac­ters dom­i­nat­ed the world of video games. Crash, Spyro, Lara Croft; all char­ac­ters which proved them­selves over and over again as each formed lega­cies through the decade. Platformers and action games had been done for a few years, the­se games were sold on the strength of the lead char­ac­ters, much like the Nintendo-dominated decade before it. In fact, the idea of char­ac­ters get­ting by most­ly on being nov­el began to change in the late 80s. The games which had been estab­lished were start­ing to become repet­i­tive, and there was a risk of the nov­el­ty wear­ing out. Games start­ed becom­ing more and more intri­cate in the sto­ries they were start­ing to tell. Characters such as Link, Zelda, Samus and Sonic imme­di­ate­ly ascend­ed to the pan­theon of icons seem­ing­ly upon release. For char­ac­ters such as the­se, it seems that the strength of their back-catalogue has made it so that no mat­ter how awful the games are that come out, they’ll still have the same leg­endary sta­tus. Towards the end of the decade though, the advance in mem­o­ry & pro­cess­ing pow­er allowed much more to be exploit­ed from the medi­um. Stories were now being pushed to the fore­front. That’s not to say they hadn’t in the past in gen­res such as text-based and adven­ture games (Myst imme­di­ate­ly springs to mind), but now intri­cate and envelop­ing sto­ries were being told in action-adventure games.

Solid Snake is a great exam­ple. Of course, he didn’t debut on the PlayStation, he was intro­duced to the world in 1987 on the MSX2 sys­tem. Prior to his 3 dimen­sion­al debut, he’d been a fair­ly stan­dard char­ac­ter in a pret­ty inter­est­ing stealth game. Upon the release of Metal Gear Solid, he trans­formed into leg­end. I’m of the opin­ion it’s based on the strength of the entire game that he became an icon. Snake is, for all intents and pur­pos­es, a lit­tle bit of a blank slate. He’s a per­fect sol­dier, and that’s about it. We learn more about him as the game pro­gress­es, and he becomes much more well-rounded. Does that not indi­cate a great char­ac­ter? Yes, but I’d say it indi­cates a great char­ac­ter in a great game. And that’s become the evo­lu­tion of what now deter­mi­nes the icons of lat­ter day video games. It’s not only depen­dent on the char­ac­ter them­selves, but also the sto­ry you’re being told. Games have become so much like films in this regard that it’s fas­ci­nat­ing.

So, who are the char­ac­ters of recent years who will be remem­bered? To be classed as a mod­ern day icon, it seems like you have to come from a game which bal­ances sto­ry, design and strength of per­son­al­i­ty, some­thing that’s incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to do. But not impos­si­ble. GLaDOS, Andrew Ryan, Faith. These are char­ac­ters that emerge from bril­liant games. Are they as icon­ic as Mario? I’d say not, but that’s fine, they don’t have to be. The games are now tak­ing cen­tre stage, one can no longer stick a well-known char­ac­ter in a sub-par game and expect it to be a block­buster smash i.e. Duke Nukem. The games them­selves have to be good. The lev­el of mar­ket sat­u­ra­tion means that the oppor­tu­ni­ty for a nov­el and mem­o­rable char­ac­ter becomes much more dif­fi­cult in a well-established gen­re. There’s much less room for games in gen­er­al to be tru­ly unique, at least in the main­stream mar­ket. That means the games as a whole must be excel­lent to estab­lish icon­ic char­ac­ters in the mod­ern world of video games. Basically there’s much less room for nov­el­ty since so much has already been done. Nowadays, true nov­el­ty is found in the indie scene, with char­ac­ters like Meat Boy and Quote being huge in the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty, but they haven’t found the same lev­el of pen­e­tra­tion due to the small­er mar­ket. Given the right sce­nar­io, I can eas­i­ly envi­sion an indie game spawn­ing a char­ac­ter who has the poten­tial to be the next Mario, the main bar­ri­er being the size and com­plex­i­ty of the mar­ket. If a devel­op­er could get the right bal­ance between nov­el­ty, design and game­play, the sky’s no lim­it.

Ezio, in my opin­ion, one of the great­est video game char­ac­ters of all time, and one of the char­ac­ters I imme­di­ate­ly think of when I con­sid­er my favourite. Everything about the char­ac­ter is bril­liant. The look, his cocky atti­tude, the way he grows and matures after the events of the game. They were nev­er quite able to recap­ture the suc­cess of Ezio in my opin­ion, but char­ac­ters such as him demon­strate just how far we’ve come. I think there’s a heck of a lot of pro­gress, which can only be a great thing. BurtonConsoleOpinionPCVideo Game Characters,Video GamesThere’s an unwrit­ten law of nerd con­ver­sa­tions: nev­er ask what their favorite video game char­ac­ter is if you ever plan on hear­ing the end of it. Being an iras­ci­ble hip­ster type, when I had a con­ver­sa­tion about favourite games char­ac­ters, I imme­di­ate­ly scoured the dark­est cor­ners of my brain…
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John Burton
John is a tat­tooed astronomer. He hearts games, movies & beardy music. He also bakes a lot and looks through tele­scopes less often than he’d like. Helps with GamerGiving char­i­ty stream­ing as well!
John Burton

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