There’s a cliché doing the rounds that video games fail to provide well-drawn, rounded and, above all, human characters. As with all clichés, the sentiment remains even after the facts have changed—many believing that game characters are made up exclusively of cartoon-like entities embodied by the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog, Mario, Pokémon’s Pikachu and Halo’s Master Chief.
But video games are increasingly providing us with deeply relatable characters, whether it’s highlighted in the friendship between the four protagonists of Final Fantasy XV or the subtle bond that connects boy and beast in The Last Guardian.
Advancements in technology allow for evermore lifelike and expressive characters. The growing perception of video games as an artform is attracting writers and directors to the medium as a vehicle for self-expression. And the broadening of the audience is providing more incentive to design games that aim at every demographic. No longer are games the bastion of teenage boys.
Below is a roundup of the some of the finest examples of great characters in gaming, from those whose charm and complexity is derived from their mystery to those who channel some of the deepest failings of humankind.
HANNAH SMITH (HER STORY)
It’s impossible not to feel touched by the plight of Hannah Smith, a woman being interrogated by police under suspicion of murder. Through a series of video clips of Hannah (in an award-winning performance by Viva Seifert) being interviewed, it’s up to you to read into her mindset and come to a judgement on whether or not she’s guilty. It’s the ultimate example within a video game of putting the responsibility on the player is decide where a character’s backstory rests.
Hannah’s lasting impression on the player is powerful thanks to the level of interpretation that can be applied to her. Without wanting to spoil the plot, there’s a huge amount going on in Hannah’s life and there is no “right” way to read events and decipher how they have impacted her.
That ambiguity gives her a sense of mystery—no matter how hard you try to understand her, you’re always going to be at arm’s length, questioning both her and your own assumptions about her. Just as you never know everything about someone in real life, you never know everything about Hannah.
THE FOUR FRIENDS (FINAL FANTASY XV)
As individuals, the fantastically named Final Fantasy newcomers Noctis, Ignis, Prompto and Gladiolos tend toward shallowness and a feeling of existing only to serve the intent of the player. Their individual motivations are predictable, their desires seemingly built around the most boorish traits: wanting to be “good,” submitting to a sense of adventure, being tough.
When grouped together, however, these individual layers come together to rest upon one another to form a cohesive personality. Combined in this way, the group is beset with conflicts of desire of the sort real people feel every day. Essentially, the four are designed as a single character.
This has the effect of making each component part of the wider personality easily accessible. The playfulness is represented in Prompto, the intellectual in Ignis, the sensible in Gladilos and the risk-taker in Noctis. Depending on the situation there will be certain characters that stand out more readily than others and over time this changing of the dominant personality traits creates a vulnerable, personally sense to the group that feels every bit as human as other characters in this list.
KAITLIN GREENBRIAR (GONE HOME)
As with Hannah Smith, the most interesting thing about Kaitlin is how our means of perceiving her instils within her a sense a humanity. In Gone Home all you do is walk around a house, as Kaitlin, observing objects and reading notes. Some of these items relate directly to Kaitlin’s life and personality, some don’t.
What we learn about her through these observations, however, is ambiguous enough to gives us space to infer things about her character and relationships. The gaps left in our limited understanding of her are the things that make her special in that we can fill in those gaps however we choose.
In this sense, then, Kaitlin becomes a true individual and someone different in the eyes of each player. We like her for different reasons than others like her, just as is the case in with real life relationships.
ANDREW RYAN (BIOSHOCK)
One of the more infamous videogame characters, Andrew Ryan embodies that most destructive of human traits: success morphing into an obsession with power. There are few gaming characters who deliver such an authoritative critique on the fact that the more power you wield, the more corrupt you are prepared to be in order to retain it.
Ryan is the creator of Rapture, the fictional underwater city that was meant to represent a paradise on Earth for those who believe in the idea all people should be free to do what they want without being limited by society’s rules. He is the embodiment of Ayn Rand, the pseudo-philosopher whose “teachings” in the novel Atlas Shrugged had a big influence on Bioshock’s Rapture.
You don’t actually play as Ryan, but his influence on Bioshock’s world of Rapture and, subsequently, on your existence within the game, is an ever-present force bearing down on you and, both consciously and subconsciously, influences how you act and think. He is the perfect embodiment of the idea that, no matter how noble the aim of the ruler, all power eventually corrupts the vulnerable human spirit. If you want to feel what it’s like to be at the whim of an individual who has let himself succumb to the desire for control over others, Bioshock is a good place to start.
LEE EVERETT (THE WALKING DEAD)
Through Lee, developer Telltale Games has done what is so unpopular elsewhere: cast a normal guy, with a normal job and hitherto normal problems—and without white skin—as its leading star. As he battles zombies and protects those around him he never that essence of what makes him so relatable and normal.
A big part of what makes Lee feels human is that he is explicitly not special or out of the ordinary in the typical sense. He recounts and relies upon experiences that many of us have in common, bringing him into the land of the living and away from the otherworldly, impossibly contrived histories and dude-bro persona that most characters populating zombie games share.
Where other stars talk of escaping danger on spaceships or killing a thousand beasts as their qualifications for staying alive, Lee speaks of shared family experiences and his former life as a teacher. He is proof that video games can cast the everyday person and still deliver heroism and aspiration.
IMMIGRATION OFFICER (PAPERS, PLEASE)
If you need more convincing that realistic visuals and high production values do not necessarily lead to characters that feel more lifelike then you should play Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please. As an immigration officer tasked with admitting or rejecting people into a fictional Soviet Union-esque country, the game forces you into taking into account everything from your own livelihood, the wellbeing of your family, the safety of your country and the responsibility you have to those less fortunate than you.
As such, the faceless character you play soon ceases to feel like a character and instead becomes an embodiment of whom you are and how you would act in this situation. Is there any better way to make a character feel human than have the player themselves feel that they genuinely the one are performing the actions seen onscreen?
JOEL AND ELLIE (THE LAST OF US)
A duo that work as individuals but work better as a pair, Ellie and Joel are all about their relationship with one another. Both characters come across as vulnerable—Ellie given her young age and relative inexperience, Joel because the game opens with a harrowing event that deals him major emotional harm. Through their connection with one another the post-apocalyptic Earth they inhabit feels personable and realistic.
Their vulnerability opens each of them up, revealing their emotional cores, and this allows the two to work as a nurturing force in the other’s life. It’s that reliance on one another and an acceptance from both that they are stronger as a union that offers us a glimpse at their inner workings and allows us to believe them as real people, even within the impossible situation they find themselves in.
CIRI (THE WITCHER 3)
Protagonist Geralt might be presented as the star of the fantastical role-playing The Witcher series, but it’s Ciri who provides us the biggest and best reasons to explore The Witcher 3’s Northern Realms setting.
The common problem with characters that you have direct control over as the player, such as Geralt, is that their motivations are whatever you decide upon yourself. There’s little to read into their actions as, essentially, there is nothing to read. Playable characters are, often, hollow shells designed to be exactly that so as to not contradict your own decisions.
Ciri, though, is not under your direct command (most of the time) and her author is therefore free to impart their own meaning and ideas onto her. She reveals herself to be a character with a deep complexity in comparison to the more overt, less defined Geralt. Her motivations are more complex, as it her sexuality, her history and the challenging way she forces us to observe events around her. She feels purposefully confrontational, forcing us to decide whether we want to interact with strong personalities or sit back and find others that are less independent.