Over the past thirty years, gaming has flourished as an industry. While the general argument will always be that gameplay is at the heart of this success, the part our favourite characters play shouldn't be underestimated. Utilising the audio, visuals, gameplay, and story within a game to support interesting characters is the surest way for a developer to engage players and create an emotional attachment. While the technologies available for presenting likeable characters have advanced over time, developers have always focused on filling their worlds with likeable heroes to provide a face for their games, and dastardly villains to serve as the ultimate obstacle.
It’s important to point out that it’s not essential for a videogame to feature a character at all, with iconic games such as Pong and Tetris consisting only of geometric shapes. What I do believe, however, is that it is the characters who feature prominently as playable avatars and in marketing that has been essential to securing videogames a place in popular culture. Iconic characters like Mario, Link, and Crash Bandicoot became household names, ensuring that gaming would never again be far from the minds of the masses.
But how exactly was this achieved? While contemporary games utilise techniques like motion capture, emotive voice acting, and state of the art graphics to present their characters, early experiences had to rely on rudimentary techniques to bring their creations to life. With only a handful of pixels and monotone sound effects, Game Freak were able to create one hundred and fifty unique and charming creatures. Twenty years later, Pokémon is still a worldwide phenomenon that can move copies in the millions.
Of course, it’s not only how each Pokémon looks and sounds that makes them so popular, with the gameplay providing the most compelling reason to connect emotionally with these charming creatures. Catching and training as the core mechanics allowed gamers across the globe to become enamoured with their Pokémon, fighting each battle alongside their unique team of monsters. This trifecta of audio, visuals, and gameplay combined to create a cast that have lived long in the memory.
Early games also existed with only a thin narrative objective, rather than a fully fleshed out story. The Legend of Zelda and Crash Bandicoot see their protagonists on a quest to defeat Ganon and Neo Cortex and rescue their love interests. Samus must investigate the planet of Zebes to eradicate evil. There is more importance on the achievements made in conquering each area and defeating enemies than there is on story objectives, with the attachment the player has to the protagonist and their focus on a singular goal the key to driving onward.
Time has advanced the techniques available to developers, letting them craft experiences closer to film in the complexity of their narrative. Cutting edge graphics, voice acting, and motion capture have allowed for the creation of emotionally complex characters involved in moving stories. Despite the advanced technology used to bring them to life, contemporary characters fill the same role as their predecessors.
Joel and Ellie exist as the best argument for playing The Last of Us. Each character in isolation has incredible depth, with Joel the grizzled and world-weary smuggler to Ellie’s headstrong and abrasive teen survivor. Moments of bonding and argument sees both characters growing in relation to one another and propel the story forward; Joel reluctantly becomes a father-figure who relents to Ellie’s desire for greater independence and responsibility. The result of this relationship is one of the most satisfying experiences in gaming history, with the weight for delivering on this promise resting on the characters’ shoulders.
Characters are not always so perfectly embedded within the stories they are involved in, however. Stories told in videogames (or, for that matter, any other medium) rarely live up to their potential unless they place the needs of the character before the needs of the story. Allowing a character space to breathe and make their own decisions, right or wrong, makes for a compelling emotional centrepoint and leads to a more exciting and interesting story. This is in direct contrast to a story that funnels characters through a path, forcing decisions that push them to a predetermined conclusion regardless of how this relates to who they are.
Two contrasting games in SEGA’s Valkyria series make a comparison that will help shed some light on this idea. Valkyria Chronicles offers a cast of interesting, well-rounded characters who have agency within their narrative, while the recent Valkyria Revolution falls short of it’s predecessor with a cast who act as pawns seemingly bereft of autonomy. The protagonists of each game – Chronicles’ Welkin Gunther and Revolution’s Amleth Grønkjær – serve as perfect illustrations for each approach.
In Chronicles, we meet Welkin as a budding scientist who reluctantly joins the war effort to defend his country of Gallia from invasion. Should he survive the war, Welkin’s goal is to become a teacher in peacetime, giving his every action and decision additional weight as it is not only made to benefit Gallia, but also to see him one step closer to his dreams. His happy-go-lucky nature off the battlefield counterbalances his steely focus in his role as the commanding officer leading his squad
By contrast, Amleth’s fate is predetermined through a framing narrative before he’s seen on-screen. The subsequent story reveals little other than what is learned in the opening moments, with his destination locked firmly in place. Amleth is solely focussed on a plot of revenge against the Ruzi Empire, with his motivations in plunging his country of Jutland into war a self-satisfying means to an end. While this idea is interesting, there is nothing engaging about Amleth, who has a cold and distant personality at all times and speaks of little else than war.
Welkin’s warmth and dedication to his comrades make him a sympathetic protagonist, while Amleth’s surly demeanor and sole interest in revenge paint him as an unlikeable individual bereft of positive emotion. Charisma separates the two, as does the agency the story of each game allows its protagonist. Chronicles gives Welkin the freedom to choose his own fate, treating the character with a respect that is reflected in the game’s rewarding story. Welks is treated with an importance that is denied Amleth, and although this is not the only difference between these games, it is emblematic of the endearing quality of Chronicles and the extent to which Revolution falls short of expectation.
Characters are the backbone of the videogame industry. They allow gamers to put a face on a new experience, a first impression that can make or break the decision to begin playing. Equally, a game’s characters and the player’s engagement with them can also act as the driving force to push on in the face of evermore difficult obstacles. With the progression of technology over time, developers have always sought to give gamers the very best characters with the tools at their disposal. While every facet of a videogame is important to its success, our favourite characters are the element that live longest in memory.