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)
Whilst in the original Alan Wake, the adversary was a vague concept of an ancient evil spirit, American Nightmare made the clever step of giving Alan a more human adversary to battle against. Enter Mr Scratch: a psychopathic but charming and remorseless killer, formed from Alan's own mind. Mr. Scratch communicates mainly through TV sets, taunting Alan whilst dispatching numerous victims in his motel room, all the while, offering insights not only into his mind but Alan's too. He's the personification of a person's dark side; seductive, confident and .... free? "No fears, no doubt, no weaknesses, no self-deception here." Scratch is the Alan Wake that Alan could be if he let go and truly go and embraced the shadows he's been fighting against.
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.
Clementine is not this. She is a smart, capable girl who manages to be sympathetic without being cloying, who needs protection but is not useless. Her role in the story is more than just that of a faceless conflict ball. Genuine effort was put into Clementine's character, giving her a fully realized personality. The work paid off in spades. Gamers care about Clementine not just because she's a generic child who needs protecting out of obligation -- she's been developed as a person, with likes and dislikes, a strong moral code, and an affection for the player character that feels incredibly genuine. At times, she's shown as being more perceptive and smart than even the adults around her, as evidenced when she drags Ben away from an argument the rest of the group are having. At other times, such as when her walkie-talkie breaks, we see her struggle against her own childlike traits to be responsible and grown up about the situation. Seeing a child act like a child is nowhere near as heartbreaking as a child who has every right to act like one but has been forced by the world around her to not.
This is Clementine, one of the kindest, smartest, most sympathetic children you could ever virtually meet, who has been denied her childhood, and never once complains. Over the course of The Walking Dead's five episodes, she will be battered, she will be broken, but she will never stop going, even after enduring things that would tear an adult to pieces. More importantly, she will be more real than almost any other child character in any other medium. She is a masterclass in how to write a child that the audience actually cares about, wants to protect by choice rather than obligation, and doesn't infuriate with inane chatter and spoiled attitudes. She shames the efforts of experience movie and television writers, and deserves more recognition than the best videogame character of 2012. She's one of the best new characters across all fiction, period.
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.
Kenny (The Walking Dead)
I didn't like Kenny at first. Alright, I hated him.
I thought that his overwhelming desire to protect himself and his family superseded everything, to the point where he would annoyingly ignore anything and everything else. In the end, he redeemed himself -- but it was a journey to get there -- a journey that I got to see unfold right before my eyes.
Kenny calling Lee "urban" in Episode 2 kind of sums him up as a character. He's flawed. Ok, so he has a lot of flaws. But ultimately, despite his insensitivity in that situation, he was trying to make sure the group was ok, albeit with a strong sense of paranoia. Slowly but surely, despite his tragic breakdown in Episode 3, he starts to redeem himself more and more.
When Lily takes the RV, he doesn't immediately blame you. When the shit hits the fan near the end of the game, he recognizes how much you've helped his family, and offers to help you out no matter what the cost -- even though he has nothing left.
Is Kenny going to be everyone's top choice for favorite character in The Walking Dead? Probably not. Even still, I felt like I spent more time with Kenny than with Clem, and his flaws had an effect on me in a much different manner than Clem's innocence did.
Aveline de Grandpré (Assassin's Creed III: Liberation)
You don't see a game centralized around slavery very often. It's a fairly dicey topic, and one that can easily be tackled the wrong way. Thankfully, Aveline made the setting extremely easy to deal with, as she tore her way onto the scene as the first ever female Assassin's Creed protagonist.
Born into a family of wealth, Aveline is similar to Bruce Wayne in many ways, in that she uses her social standing to help solve issues that stand in her path. It also helps that she has a ton of gadgets, and the Assassin Order at her disposal. Her tumultuous relationship with her trainer (a former slave) also adds to her allure, as does her tragic backstory, and the loss of her birth mother.
Aveline showed us that Ubisoft can, with great certainty, handle a spin-off Assassin's Creed game and create a strong female lead. I'm interested in what Ubisoft has up its sleeve for the next franchise entry, and I hope Aveline returns or there's a brand new trilogy with Aveline's descendant.
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.
The Town of Strange (The Real Texas)
The Real Texas is one of the most bizarre and unique titles I've ever played, largely due to the setting. Strange lives up to its name, acting as a purgatory for both the main character and NPCs. Each character is so quirky, making it impossible not to fall in love with most all of them. Whether it be the aspiring hip-hop star (he even raps in his sleep) and father of two Garrett or Star, a horse, the lines of dialogue are always witty and often hilarious. Throw in some cute children, wacky wizards, and adorable aliens and you have one of the most memorable "characters" of not only 2012 but of all time.
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.
Ah, the silent protagonist. Whenever you step into the shoes of a new character, especially in an FPS, you're quickly thrust into their world with no way to shape them. When playing a character that doesn't speak, it can often make the player feel as though they're just going through the scripted motions, taking the reigns of what ever badass du jour the developers lay out for you. And while that may be partially true in the case of Corvo, the player has the unique opportunity at defining how badass he'll be. Will he be stealthy and manipulative, slaughtering from the shadows? Will he be benevolent and spare the lives of his foes, choosing only to knock them out?
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."
Instead, I met Lt. Cortez. What makes Steve Cortez such a great character has little to do with the fact that he is gay, unless of course you decide to romance him. Cortez is an extremely dedicated Kodiak pilot who maintains the armory aboard the Normandy along with Vega, but he is also a man who is grieving the past and frightened of having to face his grief head-on. Cortez has lost the love of his life in a Reaper attack, though he soldiers on bravely as a reliable ally to Shepard and the crew. The worst thing one could say about Cortez is that he is not what one would describe as glamorous. He is affable, dedicated, and, if you care to get to know him as a friend, appreciative of your help in getting him out of his shell. The triumph of Cortez is actually in his perceived mediocrity. He is simply another brave member of the Normandy, allying with Shepard to try to end the Reaper invasion once and for all. Cortez is no grotesque caricature but an actual character with complex emotional bonds and a vulnerability he hides through busywork.
Kat (Gravity Rush)
Gravity Rush's lead may have the power to bend gravity to her will, but one of the most charming things about her sheer power is how she handles it. At its core, Gravity Rush is a superpowered coming-of-age story, and all the awkwardness and growth that comes with it. It's even supported in the play itself, where -- thanks to the way the game controls -- there's none of that strange disconnect you get when playing original superhero games (i.e. Infamous, Prototype, Assassin's Creed), where the bumbling, unsure hero of the cutscenes disappears once the expert gamer takes over.
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.
Also, her powers come from her cat. The cat has stars inside it.
Dennis (Hotline Miami)
You might think that the nameless, faceless murderer you control through the slaughter of Hotline Miami isn't much of a "character" per se. You're right. He isn't. I'm talking about Dennis, the wolf-faced mask you can don at the beginning of a mission. How is Dennis a cool character, you ask? Well, taking him along on a job in Hotline Miami starts you off with a knife. The knife is the best, most useful weapon in Hotline Miami. It's a brutal tool for murdering white-suited bald mobsters, and it swings like the wind. Dogs, dudes with bats or pipes, and even other knife-wielding criminals: none are safe when you've got what Dennis gives you. Plus, you can throw a knife and it's the only thrown object that can reliably score a kill instead of just a knockdown.
Dennis, you're the man. Or rather, the wolf-man. Wolf-man mask, I mean. Knife.
Zero III (Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward)
Many bad guys like to sarcastically mock their enemies. Few will assign their enemies cute pet nicknames.
With his playful speech and manic attitude, Zero III could easily pass as a scrappy cartoon mascot if it weren't for the fact that he'd love nothing more than to see all the participants of the Nonary Game dead. The computer AI rabbit is brought to life thanks to Cindy Robinson, whose stellar voice work helps to nail the psychotic child persona.
Though Zero III is but an envoy of the game's true mastermind -- not unlike Jigsaw's puppet in the Saw series -- every moment he's on screen is golden. You both hate him and love him. You find him annoying yet still hang on to his every word. How is that not the recipe for a great villain?
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.