The best game protagonists

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Often, talking about gaming can be reduced to technical aspects alone; gameplay, graphics, AI, that sort of thing, and that’s absolutely fine. After all, they are games. However as the art-form has matured over the years, it has developed into a more and more credible medium for storytelling. It goes without saying that great narratives rest on the shoulders of great characters, and with that in mind, here are the protagonists that have made our gaming experiences more compelling, involving and immersive.

Joel

JoelThe Last of Us famously holds a special place in the hearts of gaming snobs. As one such snob, I find it hard to resist putting the game in every ‘best of’ list. However, fan-boying aside, one area in which the game objectively is fantastic is in its characters. The real star is probably Ellie, the Ellen Page-lookalike whom you must escort across the desolate world of the game. That doesn’t mean that players should discredit Joel though. His transition from everyday-dad to cold, murdering bad-ass is sold better than almost any other video-game character arc in recent memory. Likewise, his eventual evolution back into a father figure is gradual, believable and lacking in cheap sentimentality. And in the end that is what holds The Last of Us together so well, its commitment to emotional development, whilst avoiding schmaltz. In this regard, Joel is paramount to the game’s success. His bond with Ellie is warm and compassionate, but also at times selfish and delusional, as he projects his inability to let go of his dead daughter onto another child. All of this is of course exemplified by the devastating ending, in which Joel’s true nature is revealed.

Who should play him in a film: There are a few contenders here, but Hugh Jackman has the right mixture of warmth and aggression.

Words by Harrison Abbott.

Mario

Counting down a list of video-game protagonists without mentioning Mario would be a gross oversight. Whilst the rest of the characters on this list are complex, brooding and emotionally charged, Mario represents the other side of what a great character can be. He’s simple, he’s upbeat and he’s iconic. He doesn’t need a troubled backstory, he doesn’t have to go through ethical dilemas. He just needs to do all of those crazy things that he does to procrastinate from his day job of plumbing. Thus we have game upon game of him being a rescuer, a kart racer, a brawler, a football player, and even a doctor. Appearing in over 200 games, Mario’s appeal is a treasured part of gaming history and one that cannot be overlooked. Just avoid the movie like the plague.

Who should play him in a film: Someone who sounds vaguely Italian this time.

Words by Harrison Abbott.

Ezio Auditore da Firenzi

The Assassin’s Creed series has given us a pretty good array of characters, Ezio-ezio-auditore-da-firenze-19177008-900-506from all sorts of time periods and settings, but none of these assassins can really hold a candle to Ezio Auditore. While watching a character literally being born may seem a bit off-putting, Ezio remains fantastic. With three entries in the franchise dedicated to his character, we get a game series that spans almost his entire life, from watching his family being executed at the age of seventeen, right up to his retirement from the assassin order at the age of fifty-three. As a result we get to see this character grow from brash, arrogant and aggressively pursuing his revenge, to a more ordered, disciplined person who becomes master of his entire order. But however he is, Ubisoft manage to ground his personality with a strong likability. Be it his charming reliability at the start of the series, or his solemn wisdom towards the end, Ubisoft created in Ezio a character arc that is rich, compelling and enjoyable. Now if somebody could just have a word with Ubisoft about how to apply this to their other characters.

Who should play him in a film: We know Michael Fassbender is starring in the upcoming adaptation, but he presumably won’t be playing Ezio, so…. Christian Bale?

Words by Thomas Davies. 

Martin Walker

Martin Walker is by no means a likeable protagonist, but we arespec-ops-line-screenshot-8 here to discuss the best protagonists, and likability is not necessarily a factor in this. We are introduced to the main character of Spec Ops: The Line as very much the same character typical of modern military shooters. A generic middle-aged white dude with a hero complex. The difference being that while most shooters perpetuate this archetype, Martin Walker is a deconstruction of it. In his attempt to save the citizens of a post-apocalyptic Dubai, Martin Walker continually screws up, escalating the situation through his desire to play the hero. As the game delves further into his fractured psyche and encourages the player to question his actions, Walker ends up serving as a perfect criticism of the ‘All-American Hero’ myth. Martin Walker is not just a protagonist, he is a vessel for the player to ask themselves if they are entirely comfortable with what they have just done, and if the players are truly honest with themselves, the answer should be ‘no’.

Who should play him in a film: Homeland’s Damien Lewis.

Words by Thomas Davies.

Amanda Ripley 

amanda_ripley_1389089946Aside from being one of the biggest surprises in the history of the medium, Alien: Isolation did a lot for gaming. Firstly it added to the increasing ranks of genuinely good AAA horror games that are being released now. Secondly it proved that movie tie-ins can be respectful to their source and fans alike, and don’t always have to be as much fun as genital mutilation. Thirdly it added a tough, resourceful and likeable female protagonist to gaming’s character roster.

I am in no way being a contrarian when I say that I actually like Amanda Ripley more than her mother Ellen. Unlike her mother, Amanda is able to be strong and capable, without having to be quite as mean and unnecessarily aggressive about it. Other than perhaps The Last of Us, I’ve never wanted to get my character through a game so badly. After everything she goes through (and she goes through a lot) she deserves a nice narrative resolution. It’s just a shame then, that after 14 or so hours of survival horror intensity, we’re given a cliffhanger/sequel-bait ending that leaves Amanda’s fate in question.

Who should play her in a film: Emilia Clarke.

Words by Harrison Abbott.

Gordon Freeman

There really isn’t much to say about Gordon Freeman, and that is perhapsgordon-freeman-with-his-ants what is most interesting about him. The little information given about the character is as follows; that at the start of Half-Life he is 27, and that he has a PhD in Theoretical Physics, which apparently qualifies for a job pressing buttons and pushing carts into lasers. He also inexplicably has a good measure of combat training, which is certainly useful after he fucks up majorly and accidentally opens a rift in time and space, through which incredibly hostile inter-dimensional beings slip. Which, as far as screw-ups go, is definitely good-going. Unlike a lot of entries on this list, one of the best things about Gordon Freeman is that he is very much a ‘blank slate’, with the story never leaving his perspective. This allows the player to project their own thoughts and feelings onto the character. At no point do we ever leave his first-person perspective, and so never see how he reacts to things. In this sense, how he reacts to any event is simply how the player reacts. We never see the look of terror on Gordon’s face as he makes his away across the precarious scaffolding of an immensely high bridge, but we don’t need to. We feel that terror with each step. Ultimately, what’s great about Gordon Freeman is that his lack of character allows the player to feel like they themselves are the protagonist.

Who should play him in a film: Hugh Laurie.

Words by Thomas Davies. 

Commander Shepard

Roleplaying games had a problem. Despite striving for it, it wasmasseffect32012-07-215yc82 increasingly difficult for them to create a character arc for their protagonists, due to the amount of authority they lend the player (this is, of course, ignoring JRPGs). While characters in RPGs can have their own arcs, player characters get to choose how their characters react to events, which means writers for these games generally have to include very static, binary personalities, which limits development. Bioware offered their solution to this in the form of Commander Shepard, the protagonist of their hit sci-fi Mass Effect. Players in Mass Effect can still choose what Shepard says in response to situations, but dialogue choices actually impact on the story, and as a result, on Shepard. The loose dialogue choices and a provision of a voice actor, also mean that Bioware’s writers had a lot more creative freedom with this character, who actually appears to move and change with what’s going on around them, while at the same time not railroading the player. Even if you stick to a certain path of choices, be it Paragon or Renegade, you definitely get a sense of a character who is actually developing, both independently of, and due to, the choices that you make.

Who should play her in a film: Scarlett Johansson.

Words by Thomas Davies. 

Michael De Santa

qPXRiY5hViolent socio-path Trevor is usually praised as the best of GTA V’s trio of protagonists, for how he so accurately reflects the play style of most gamers, acting out violently for no discernible reason and pursuing absurd goals and activities. But for me, the character I always switched back to at the end of a mission was Michael. There was something about his Tony Soprano-esque narrative that really appealed to me. A retired bank robber, Michael lives out an un-fulfilled, empty existence in Los Santos (Rockstar’s blatant stand-in for L.A), where, after entering the witness protection program, he lives with his family who despise him. It’s become a recent trope for Rockstar to focus on criminals who no longer want to be involved in the lifestyle, such as Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston. However Michael craves the excitement and thrill of the heists as much as we do, which frankly makes him a more enjoyable character to hang out with.

At first he resists re-entering into the world of crime, but it’s only a surface. He was always going to go back, no matter what he told himself, or indeed his therapist. On that subject it’s those optional therapy sessions that offer a lot of the back-story for Michael, as you can delve as deep into the root of his problem as you want. His volatile temper also leads to many of the game’s most memorable moments, like when he pulls down a house with a truck’s cable wire in response to finding his wife’s tennis couch in their bed.

Who should play him in a film: It’s a name that has been thrown around quite a lot for this, but Michael Madsen is a pretty good call.

Words by Harrison Abbott.

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About Author

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I'm Thomas Davies and one of my hobbies is writing in the biographic info section on websites.

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I have the enviable skill of making TV watching, Video-game playing and ranting about films appear to be a legitimate form of work. It's exhausting. Oh and I am the Culture Editor now... that too!

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