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.
For 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.