We Need a Hero

We Need a Hero

We’ve idolized them, loved them, drooled over them

We’ve idolized them, loved them, drooled over them, despised them, fought for them and laughed with them. The emotional bond we form with many video games is usually a direct link to how we feel about the characters we meet along the way. We take a look at some of gaming’s most memorable protagonists and antagonists, investigate their origins and explore their effect on the gaming world...

Even when video game characters were just a series of crude pixels with two frames of animation, they still held enough charm to be immortalized. Who didn’t feel for that yellow disc trapped in a maze with the eating disorder in the original 1980’s Pac-Man?. Even the seemingly identical ghosts were all given nicknames and programmed with recognisable behavior attributes to accompany their basic colour differentiations. At this year’s Game Developer’s Conference, Pac-Man creator Toru Iwantani stated that the red ghost (nicknamed Blinky) was programmed to chase Pac-Man in an aggressive fashion. Meanwhile the pink and blue ghosts (Pinky and Inky respectively) strategically attempt to position themselves in front of Pac-Man’s path.

This simple piece of code explains why Blinky has become one of the more commonly despised ghouls in the game, despite most Pac-Man related deaths being at the hands of Pinky and Inky. Clyde, the orange ghost simply wanders the maze in a random, demented fashion and has no real gameplan. It possibly explains why he has an odd-one-out, non-rhyming nickname. With no back-story, dialogue or even any real graphical prowess, the ghosts in Pac-Man have all become pop culture icons and adorn merchandise from pencil-cases to shoes.

Sometimes legendary game characters come from necessity, rather than by design. For example, shortly after Pac-Man, Nintendo created one of the most recognized game icons in history, Mario. Due to the graphical limitations of arcade hardware in the early 80s, Mario’s creator Shigeru Miyamoto decided to clothe the character in his distinct red overalls and blue shirt simply to contrast against the background. Therefore making Mario’s tiny pixelated form easier to see when scrolling along the screen.

Even Mario’s recongisable cap was simply so Miyamoto could avoid drawing the character’s hair and eyebrows, as well as avoid the need to animate them as he jumped. Further characteristics, such as his prominent (possibly racist) large nose and his legendary moustache avoided the need to draw a mouth on the small 16-pixel high character. At the time, Miyamoto was so unsure of his character he simply called him “Mr. Video” during development.

Despite humble “Mr. Video” being designed out of convenience and possessing a creepy mo, Mario is now known the world over and has appeared in a ridiculous 200+ video games to date. Possibly more amazingly, he’s a plumber that always gets the job done on time.

Moving on a few years, improved graphics gave way to more detailed characters. Sonic the Hedgehog, in all his 16-bit glory, struck an immediate chord with gamers young and old. His large eyes on a cutesy body with a rotund belly appealed to females while his rebellious and energetic attitude made him a hit with young males. Not to mention he had a pair of sweet red sneakers. But like most videogame characters, even Sonic has evolved to capture new markets and appeal to the masses.

The original concepts for Sonic, drawn up by Sega Japan’s Yuji Naka and Naoto Ōshima featured him with fangs, was a member of a rock band and was always seen with his human girlfriend named Madonna. It wasn’t until Sega America got involved and ‘softened’ his appearance for a US audience. In recent years, Sonic has undergone even further changes, such as an elongated body and adding green irises to his eyes. These subtle design changes make him more anthropomorphic in nature, and therefore more engaging to the player.

As the graphical capabilities of games continued to expand, we started seeing the appearance of realistic game characters. Well, that is if you consider whopping great big polygon breasts to be realistic [Have you seen Madonna? - Ed.]. We’re talking of course about Lara Croft, from Tomb Raider who literally burst onto the scene in 1996. Responsible for geek-boners the world over, Lara Croft’s popularity isn’t exactly hard to explain (excuse the pun). Rumour has it that the creator, Toby Gard, only changed the lead character from a male to female because he thought, if he had to stare at someone’s rear-end for hours, it might as well be a female one. Whether this is true or not, it’s still safe to say that sex appeal was ultimately the cause of Lara’s successful design. Again Lara has undergone numerous evolutionary changes since her conception, changing her physique to suit changing markets and to be more realistic, a trait that many video games have strived to be in recent years. The new Tomb Raider, set for release in 2012, features a more athletic, rugged, and less glamorous Lara Croft.

Although being an obvious marketing ploy, Tomb Raider paved the way in gaming for strong, intelligent, leading female characters. Up until this point, female game characters were usually getting stuck in castles or were purely for eye-candy in a male-dominated market. However the real pioneer in this respect was Samus, who was revealed as a female at the end of 1986’s Metroid. Older gamers will recall this earth-shattering revelation, but for those younger gamers, it was like finding out Bruce Willis was a dick in The Sixth Sense. However Samus’ curvaceous pixelated female form, complete with red matching underwear, probably didn’t do the feminist gaming movement any good at the time.

In the 2000’s, the game console options were whittled down to a handful of contenders, but new technology continued to push the boundaries of how realistic games could be. With the gaming industry rivalling that of Hollywood movies, a new mix of professional voice acting, epic story-telling and cutting edge graphics allowed developers to form an even deeper emotional connection with the user.

A decade ago the gaming world was introduced to Master Chief in Halo: Combat Evolved, a launch title for Microsoft’s then new Xbox console. The success of Master Chief as a main protagonist goes against every key principal in the game character design handbook. To start with, Master Chief has no visible face and therefore no ability to convey facial expressions to connect with the gamer on any emotional level. Further more, Master Chief is almost an entirely silent character. But as Bungie Studios’ Frank O’Connor points out, the Chief is “so quiet and invisible, that the player gets to pretend that they are the Chief”.

Player immersion is a vital part to forming a psychological connection with a video game. By muting the lead character’s personality, the player then has a chance to project themselves into the game. It’s the whole ‘less is more’ approach to character design and one that has been used in numerous games such as Doom, Borderlands, Bioshock, Myst and Crysis.

On the opposite end of this spectrum is Nathan Drake, introduced with Naughty Dog’s Uncharted. With enough personality to drown a buffalo, he captured the hearts and minds of many PS3 owners in a relatively short space of time. Many would be surprised to hear that the charismatic Drake was actually based on Johnny Knoxville, yes, one of those muppets from the Jackass franchise. Thankfully though, a goulash of other inspirations including Harrison Ford (both Han Solo and Indiana Jones), Bruce Willis and 50’s romance star Cary Grant were all used for Drake’s persona.

Uncharted’s blockbuster success can be put down to amazing gameplay, epic story-telling and gorgeous cinematics. But at the root of the game, it was the roguish sense of humour, charm and overall relatable nature of Drake’s character that brought everything together. The fact that Drake will occasionally stumble while running painted him as a vulnerable human being. His relationship woes and battle with moral decisions made him fallible and believable. We wanted Drake to win because he reminds us of ourselves.

Even leading antagonist characters like Kratos, from God of War still had characteristics that kept him human and therefore able to connect with the player emotionally. Despite him being a ruthless monster, the game revolved around the concept of love, loss of loved ones, revenge, and inner peace that people can relate to. It gave our button-mashing and limb-ripping gameplay a purpose and we wanted Kratos to get his ultimate revenge, no matter how hate-filled and immoral his immediate actions were.

Game developers are constantly trying to get us to engage with the games they make. As a reviewer, we often tend to focus on the controls or gameplay of these games. However, the ones that really stick in our minds are those we form an emotional connection with. Have a think back on your favourite games and you’ll usually find the ones that have stood the test of time, are those with memorable and captivating heroes (and villians).

Other memorable gaming characters not mentioned in this article:

• Guybrush Threepwood (Monkey Island)
• Lemmings (all 8,153,743 of them, Lemmings)
• Link (Legend of Zelda)
• Gordon Freeman (Half-Life)
• Sam Fisher (Splinter Cell)

Have we left your favourite video game character out? Tell us who and why they float your boat below!


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Comments Comments (18)

Posted by ZombieRawkMachine
On Thursday 11 Aug 2011 2:59 PM
Ive always had a soft spot for Duke Nukem, there has never been a FPS hero ive liked as much as him, the closest bet would be Sam 'Serious' Stone.
Posted by kalmonipa
On Thursday 11 Aug 2011 3:42 PM
Simon 'Ghost' Riley from Modern Warfare 2. After reading his background on the interwebs, I have an emotional attachment to him. Not in a gay way though.
Posted by KAZUYA
On Thursday 11 Aug 2011 5:32 PM
the main characters of kingdom hearts
Posted by BioGhosty
On Thursday 11 Aug 2011 6:11 PM
11 August 2011, 05:32 PM Reply to KAZUYA
the main characters of kingdom hearts
You mean Sora? Yeah he is pretty freaking boss. Specially in Kingdom Hearts 2. There is just something about going all over the universe, and into the heart of darkness to save the one you love to make a good emotional character.
Posted by octopuskull
On Thursday 11 Aug 2011 6:20 PM
the prince from katamari feel so bad for him when he gets shouted at for doing such good :(
Posted by Funk_Oddysey
On Thursday 11 Aug 2011 7:12 PM
My favourite is April Ryan, easily among the most memorable & human characters I've played as in a Game, zoe from dreamfall was also very likable, waiting for Dreamfall Chapters...
Posted by grieving
On Thursday 11 Aug 2011 9:05 PM
Crash Bandicoot.
Posted by PunisherNZL
On Friday 12 Aug 2011 7:07 AM
My top 3 game heros would have to be:
Solid Snake (Metal Gear Solid)
Jin Kazama (Tekken 3,4,5,6)
Chris Redfield (Resident Evil)
Posted by jamesg
On Friday 12 Aug 2011 11:21 AM
John Marsden. Bad guy gone good.
Posted by leopardsqueezy
On Friday 12 Aug 2011 1:17 PM
Professor Layton. Can't believe you overlooked him.

Who needs over-sized trapezius muscles and frag grenades when you can have a herbal tea set and a fruity accent instead? Pure class. Them jocks off CoD and Gears of War could learn a lot from old PL.
Posted by cortez72
On Friday 12 Aug 2011 2:21 PM
I thought Nigel from Landstalker was a cool character, with a modern backpack and big sword.

The FF7 characters were great. Got to say some of the most popular characters (Cloud was a bit of a douche, Vincent was dry) weren't as good as others. Cid and Tifa had alot of personality.

Role playing characters always take you a massive journey, and end up being quite meaningful to you.

Strider was a super cool character, flipping about with his scalf/ninja mask and able to slash his sword a hundred times in a second.
Posted by leopardsqueezy
On Friday 12 Aug 2011 3:29 PM
12 August 2011, 02:21 PM Reply to cortez72
I thought Nigel from Landstalker was a cool character, with a modern backpack and big sword.

The FF7 characters were great. Got to say some of the most popular characters (Cloud was a bit of a douche, Vincent was dry) weren't as good as others. Cid and Tifa had alot of personality.

Role playing characters always take you a massive journey, and end up being quite meaningful to you.

Strider was a super cool character, flipping about with his scalf/ninja mask and able to slash his sword a hundred times in a second.
It was certainly easier to like jrpg characters before they started voice-acting for all of them...
Posted by ChatterboxZombie
On Sunday 14 Aug 2011 9:11 PM
No way in hell is Nathan Drake as cool as Johnny Knoxville.
I don't see Drake running into traffic signs for no reason.
Posted by mandingo
On Monday 15 Aug 2011 10:35 PM
ultimecia (ff8)
Posted by Inferis
On Wednesday 17 Aug 2011 6:38 PM
Marcus & Harold from the fallout series..
Posted by psgamer16
On Tuesday 25 Oct 2011 5:43 PM
yeah nathan drake =)
Posted by ADz_Nz
On Monday 15 Apr 2013 3:33 PM
gotta love this stuff :) Great Story
Posted by emetic
On Saturday 22 Nov 2014 11:43 AM
> Despite humble “Mr. Video” being designed out of convenience

Haha, well done.