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Story writing in games has come a long way since the days of Mario but still very few characters stand out as being memorable, the pixelated men and women that could easily pass for fully-developed silver-screen characters . Each gamer has his or her own favorites depending on their own experiences and these are mine. Numerous directors from Hollywood have said that video games will never reach the level of emotional attachment as movies, fair point but if you ask me they have cause to be concerned because the writing in this media is improving all the time.
That being said, here are my own top 5.
This will be followed by my “Top 5 Movie Protagonists” sometime this week.
5. John Marston (Red Dead Redemption, 2010)
Developers “Rockstar” are notorious for giving us games like “Grand Theft Auto” where the player has had the complete freedom to do whatever they want, even if it meant breaking the law of their “Sandbox Worlds”. Historically the protagonists have had very hit-and-miss stories and really, how many gamers even cared when they were having so much fun? Then, along comes “Red Dead Redemption” which took this sandbox genre to the wild west of 1911 and finally gave gamers a really good story to follow. The game puts you in the shoes of John Marston, a retired outlaw trying to go straight while his past won’t let him. Marston’s family is abducted by US government agents and he is promised their return as well as amnesty from his outlaw days if he hunts down the gang he used to run with. With the safety of his wife and son in the balance as well as his best chance of a new life Marston agrees. What makes Marston such a likeable character is that you can tell he is truly ashamed of his past and is serious about trying to go legit. When questioned about his past by others John does not hide behind excuses, he fully accepts the weight of his actions. He is not motivated by greed or power which had become the running theme with Rockstar’s previous titles, his motivation comes from the love of his family who are now in danger as the consequences of his past life catch up with him. As the story unfolds Marston is faced with several dilemmas, ranging from killing men who supported him during his life as an outlaw, to the repercussions he faces when re-united with his family.
This is a man tortured by his past who is desperate to wipe his slate clean so he can lead an honest life with his family, it sounds basic but the way the script is written makes him an epically engaging character that you really want to come out on top.
4. Claire Farron (Final Fantasy XIII, 2010)
Having a strong female lead in a JRPG is extremely rare. It was a genuine shock to me finding a heroine in this genre that was perfectly capable of taking care of herself whilst still being an ‘older sister’ figure to people she ended up in company with. When the story of Final Fantasy XIII starts Claire lives with her younger sister Sarah and is a sergeant in her nation’s military. The sisters lost their parents when they were young meaning Claire had to take over family duties at a fragile age. One day Sarah comes into contact with a force that turns her into an enemy of the state, this prompts Claire to abandon the army and protect her sister. In doing so Claire and her party contract the condition Sarah had and are granted supernatural powers by it. The cost of these powers is that she and her new companions are set a task to complete through a vivid vision, failure to complete the task in due course means eternal damnation as mindless monsters. Due to the nature of the force that bestowed upon them these powers the group suspects that their task is to destroy the homeland that has protected them since birth. Despite having her world turned on it’s head and the apparent loss of her sister Claire acts as the pillar of support for the party. She has a cold, calculating, and blunt personality forged from her experiences raising her little sister from such a young age. Still, despite these flaws Claire is still a really memorable character because she is a very competent fighter with an iron will to match, something of a rarity among female characters in games. Not only this, her personalty gradually thaws during the story and the player discovers that there really is a good-hearted woman in there underneath all this upheaval and strife.
3. Isaac Clarke (Dead Space Series)
The original Dead Space took a leaf from Zelda in the respect that it featured a protagonist with no spoken dialogue. This meant the player could, through catharsis, imagine themselves in the role. When Dead Space 2 came around it was surprising to see that the once-mute Isaac Clarke had suddenly found his voice and a personality to match. To me this character is the video game equivalent of John McClane (Die Hard); What I mean by that is this is a guy going WAY beyond the call of duty. If Isaac were a space marine (a la’ “Aliens”) it would be hard to sympathize with him because he would know what he might be in for. Instead, Isaac is a ship systems engineer who encounters ungodly horrors during a repair mission in deep space. Only using the tools of his trade and with a total lack of military training he escapes the nightmare with his life but not with his sanity. Dead Space 2 is where Isaac finds his voice and develops as a legitimate character, what we see is a man CLEARLY distraught by his experience. Heck, the story opens with Isaac escaping a mental asylum situated on a space station all the while being hunted by the zombie-alien ‘Necromorphs’, pursued by scientology-esque cultists, and persecuted by ‘EarthGov’ operatives who want to silence him. Despite these overwhelming odds and his decaying sanity Isaac is still able to keep his cool and think logically to solve problems. What I found particularly gripping were the sequences where Isaac sees frighteningly realistic macabre hallucinations of his dead girlfriend, who died on the ship featured in the previous story, probing his state of mind. Is it Isaac subconsciously seeking atonement for what he might well have caused or is it another sign that he is on the verge of a complete mental collapse?
Trying to put aside massive personal and mental problems to stay alive and to help others survive a hellish scenario, good man Isaac.
2. Zidane Tribal (Final Fantasy IX, 2000)
I know it’s unfair to have two characters from the same franchise in one list but I really cannot skip over Zidane. Much like my previous comments on #4 JRPG’s also have an annoying habit of casting emotionally sullen and depressing men as leads (Final Fantasy was a repeat offender of this until this point). This is one of the reasons I like the protagonist of Final Fantasy IX so much, it’s such a welcome change of lead. Zidane is a young thief drawn into a global conspiracy much bigger than himself, and despite all that happens around him, to people he cares about, and to himself, he still keeps an upbeat attitude – but not to an extent where it starts to grind your gears. He has a bubbly personality, but knows when to get serious if needed. He is a bit of womanizer, but gradually learns to love in earnest. He is an extremely talented fighter, but rarely flaunts his ego. He suffers from emotional problems but never shows it, empathizing with people suffering during war instead. The way Zidane interacts with the story’s cast is memorable and a solid sense of comradeship forms within the party through adversity. This is not even going into the love story between himself and the heroine ‘Garnet’ which is one of the few relationships portrayed in an JRPG that I have believed to be plausible. Final Fantasy IX has many memorable characters so focusing only on the protagonist is a bit unfair, I’ll get round to a review of the game someday to give it justice. Suffice to say this character brought such a brilliant change of mood from the “Emo” wretch-worthy leads of previous installments that it REALLY left an impression.
1. Ezio Auditore (Assassin’s Creed II, 2009)
Where to begin with Ezio… If there was ever a counter argument to people saying games do not develop characters as well as directors can on the big screen, it’s this guy. At the start of Assassin’s Creed II we are introduced to Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a young Italian noble living in 1476 Florence. He is depicted as a womanizing, arrogant, cocky, but good-natured 17 year old. By the end of the game Ezio, at the age of 41, has become a cold and ruthless assassin hell-bent on revenge for the betrayal and murder of his father and brothers. How the hell did we get from one extreme to the other!? The player follows Ezio’s quest of vengeance as he joins the legendary assassin order to kill to the “Templar Conspirators” that were instrumental in the deaths of most his family and who operate in corrupt ways to bring society under their control. It is an epic journey through late 15th century Italy spanning over two decades of assassinations of real-life political figures from the era. One-by-one the conspirators fall and through his journey Ezio evolves as a character. Initially the player sees a young man who’s mind is engulfed with rage and vengeance, but we gradually see Ezio put aside his personal vendetta many times for the benefit of society. The story reaches it’s climax during the final encounter between Ezio and Rodrigo Borgia, head of the Templar order in Italy. Rodrigo was the man ultimately responsible for the murder of Ezio’s family but, in a pivotal moment we see just how much the assassin has matured after all this time, he has his blade to Rodrigo’s throat but spares his life saying pa“No… killing you won’t bring my family back… I’m done… Requiescat in pace“. That in itself is a hugely significant moment but seeing how Ezio wrestles with his anger over 24 years and just how he evolves as a hero is epic to see unfold.
Putting aside your own problems to help countless others in the face of overwhelming adversity, and to keep doing it for such a long time, if you ask me is the sign of a hero and seeing how Ezio reaches that stage and where he goes from there earns him the #1 spot.