Meet 2012's BFFs
What makes a great videogame character is not what makes a great character in film and literature. It's been a long learning process for developers, but videogames have become increasingly nuanced and impactful in storytelling and characters are a part of that.
That same sort of progression also applies to the types of characters we've seen this year: Characters of color, intelligent children, a gay character that avoids stereotypes, and female leads that don't make us grimace. Black, white, it's all just virtual. But a great character can transcend and make us swear we had some real moments with them. These are those characters.
Mr. Scratch (Alan Wake's American Nightmare)
Clementine (The Walking Dead)
I hate child characters. The mawkish kids in Dexter? Hated them. The self-entitled, shrieking Dawn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Despised her. The useless Carl in the TV version of The Walking Dead? Hate him. Child characters are often the most lazily written in all of entertainment -- either underdeveloped burdens that exist merely to provide conflict for the protagonists, or selfish smartasses that whine and moan about everything. We're supposed to sympathize with them just because they're children, and the lazy writer doesn't bother fleshing them out any more than that, instead relying on the audience's parenting instincts to elevate any sense of investment in the character's future.
Handsome Jack (Borderlands 2)
Handsome Jack is easily one of the best villains in videogame history. Not only does he have some of the funniest lines in Borderlands 2, but he is also detestable enough that the player is motivated to get to the end and kill him. While fighting through Pandora, I would always try to find a quiet spot to listen when Handsome Jack came on the ECHO, to hear some anecdote for which I would equally love and hate the man. Perhaps the most important trait of Handsome Jack is that he believes himself to be the hero of Pandora, delivering it into an era of prosperity. He constantly refers to the Vault Hunters as "bandits" or "bad guys" and shows genuine incredulity when he is finally defeated. Those who delve deeply into the lore find in Handsome Jack a man who cares about his family and wants what is best for them, though he has skewed ideas on how to achieve that, and he eventually loses sight of it for the sake of his own ascension to power. For being simultaneously hilarious, deplorable, and relatively believable in the alien world of Pandora, Handsome Jack is the character from 2012 who I will remember most.
Eve (Mass Effect 3)
It took us three games to finally get a glimpse of a non-Asari, female alien in the ME universe. While it wasn't a game changing experience, it was one of the things the game did right. It would have been easy to write her off as a needy, helpless NPC, but even in our limited interactions with her we quickly learn that Eve is not the type to sit idly by and mourn the plight of her people. Like Wrex, she seeks change and wants to save the Krogan race. To this end, she endures the trials to become a Shaman and a leader of the other females of her species. In a society where the female's role has been delegated primarily to breeding purposes, it was refreshing to see them holding as much power over their male counterparts as Eve displayed, ending arguments and coming up with the plans that saved the day. Add into all of that a dry sense of humor, and it's easy to see why Urdnot Bakara makes the list.
Lee Everett (The Walking Dead)
In an age filled with camo clad, jingoistic American soldiers, dreary space marines, and smarmy Indiana Jones wannabes, Lee Everett is a breath of fresh air. Not only a rare example of a positive black character in video games, he’s a plausible hero with motivations anyone could sympathize with. Much like the player, his actions fill him with doubt and regret, and while he could have been the blank canvas that so many characters in choice driven games often are, instead his personality and reactions drive the drama forward.
The horrific scenarios presented in the five episodes of The Walking Dead’s first season may have pushed him to do some extreme things, but his dedication to protecting Clementine and, to a lesser extent, the other survivors made even the most radical choices he made completely believable. With the countless zombies put in the dirt by axe or gun, Lee offers empowerment, but it’s when he’s making sacrifices and decisions during moments where he doesn’t really seem in control at all, that he's at his best. So here’s to Lee, my favorite video game history buff. Take that, Nathan Drake.
Corvo can be direct in his attacks, as he kills at will while bursting through the front doors, or methodical in his approach by finding unique ways to infiltrate enemy lines and discovering powerful occult skills to assassinate his targets. And while choice is defined by the player, the characters in his world never make the player feel like any choice is any different than what Corvo would do. All of it is unique, all of it is in-character...and all of it, every player chosen approach, decidedly badass.
Cortez (Mass Effect 3)
From the moment Bioware producer Casey Hudson mentioned that a male gay character ("romance option") would be aboard the Normandy, the internet predictably flipped its shit and demanded refunds on pre-orders. While Sterling's brilliant send-up of this fan over-reaction showed how ridiculous it all was, as a gay gamer, I personally still saw red flags in this decision and wondered how shoe-horned the character would feel. As images of the musclebound Jersey Shore looking James Vega began to stream in, my concerns only grew. I thought, "Here we go again, another irritating stereotype that's supposed to represent me based on an incredibly narrow view of how sexuality affects identity."
Kat (Gravity Rush)
In Gravity Rush, you'll never be exactly as precise as you need to, and you'll sometimes whiff on a flying kick. It's the same way with Kat's character development, as her powers and growing role as "Gravity Queen" of Heksevile doesn't come naturally or easily, making players trip, miss, and fumble their way to maturity. It also helps that Kat actually seems to act like a girl her age. It's refreshing to see a game whose idea of a female heroine is not the dialog and personality of a male character, except with a pair of knockers taped on.
Zero III (Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward)
Vaas (Far Cry 3)
What is crazy? Or, rather, what isn't crazy in a videogame? While I wouldn't call any character in the world of Far Cry 3 normal, Vaas definitely takes the cake for being exceptionally abnormal. He's a strange, disturbing, and unpredictable villain. Even as Vaas makes an exit, he carries with him an aura of mystery. Vaas delights in torturing you and your friends, cowers before his boss, and screams at his cronies, showing a different facet of a mad man that the player will never truly know. The nuances in his animation and the vocal performance set a new standard for videogame villains. No other character this year amused me so much while simultaneously making me scared.
Cain (Binary Domain)
Hideo Kojima didn't write Binary Domain, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that director Toshihiro Nagoshi (Yakuza) consulted with Kojima in creating Binary Domain's outlandish cast of characters. I love them all but I love Cain, the smooth talking Parisian robot gone rouge, the most. It says a lot that I included him in my party solely for his company, because he's an awful shot and horribly underpowered with a weak pistol. Nevertheless, I always had him on my team and laughed while he hammed it up. Cain is the throbbing heart of Binary Domain: Decidedly cheeky and dumb and boy does the game know it.
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