If you ask anyone who their favorite video game characters are, there is no way in hell you’ll get the same answer from any of them. Some people will point to classic, iconic characters like Mario, simply because he’s so lovable and charming! Others will point out characters like Joel and Ellie for being more traditional but interesting people. No matter who you ask, the chances are that they’ll have a unique answer.
Video games are a very interesting form of media with very unique storytelling potential. At its core, storytelling is about immersing the audience, putting them into the place of the characters and taking them away on an adventure. So, logically speaking, video games should be able to tell stories better than any other medium! What better way to get sucked into the story than by playing as the characters themselves?!
But what separates the great and memorable characters from the long-forgotten ‘icons’? What makes a good video game character? Well… that’s a tricky question. But you know what? I’m always down for a challenge!
Generally, there are two very general types of game characters. The first is a traditional character. You know the ones I’m talking about. These are the characters that would work just as well if you put them in a book, movie, or TV show. They don’t utilize the unique, advantageous attributes lent to them via a video game. Characters like Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us, Kratos from the latest God of War, and Horizon: Zero Dawn’s Aloy come to mind in this category.
These aren’t bad characters, don’t get me wrong. I love every character I listed above! But they don’t have the charm that certain game characters have. They feel like a writer really wanted to write an interesting novel, but then he realized he works at a video game studio, so he just crammed the character he wanted to write a book about into the game. May as well strike while the iron is hot!
The second category is the oldest kind: icons. These are the characters that communicate their personalities entirely through their designs and gameplay. You know who these guys are. Mario, Link, Sonic, Shovel Knight, Master Chief, and others all fall into these categories. These are the characters that aren’t meant to be deep or interesting. Their either meant to make you feel happy or powerful.
Unlike the first category, these characters make a bit more use of a video game’s unique capabilities. They often don’t talk at all, or they talk very little if they do. The story relies entirely on you playing the game to become endeared to the character. People don’t like Master Chief because he’s deep or interesting; they like him because they feel like an unstoppable badass while they’re playing him!
Unless you hate yourself and you’re playing on Legendary. Quick word of advice: don’t do that. Trust me on this one.
Neither one of those categories sounds especially interesting, do they? The first category can be found elsewhere, and likely done better. The second category is certainly fun, but it doesn’t make for a deep or well-written character. So is that it? Is there no such thing as a truly good video game character? Are our most interesting game characters forever doomed to just be identical to film or book characters?
No. There can be a character that only works in a video game. So how do you do it? Easy! You take both of the aforementioned categories and you put them together!
Let’s take a look at my favorite example of this: Kazuma Kiryu from the Yazuka series. This guy is one of the best video game characters of all time! Not because he’s super well written, even though he certainly is. Nor is he memorable because he looks and plays cool, even though he certainly does. No. What makes Kiryu such an interesting and lovable character is the fact that the games manage to flesh his character out so completely through both the story and the gameplay!
If you play through the Yakuza games and only focus on the main story, then Kiryu may come across as a rather dull character. He’s a stoic badass with a heart of gold and unwavering determination. While he does seem like a hulking goliath who will tear your head off without a moment of hesitation, he does have a soft side. He comes across as your typical bad man with a secret heart of gold.
But then you go into the various side activities sprinkled throughout the series. Suddenly, the stoic badass persona disappears. In his place stands a ridiculously dressed Japanese man dancing and singing karaoke without a care in the world who will agree to help a child track down his stolen copy of a video game! You realize that this character isn’t a completely serious hulking mass of wish fulfillment! When he’s off the job, he’s a total goofball!
Kiryu is a perfect example of how to make a video game character! The story itself shows you one side of him and the gameplay shows another! Neither one contradicts the other! They simply manage to flesh out the character, making them feel real and interesting!
This is why video games have so much potential for interesting storytelling! Through clever use of gameplay, you could craft an incredibly interesting and deep character! You could show sides of them that you’d never be able to explore in the story proper without killing the pacing or detracting from the main plot! You could flesh out your characters more than is possible in any other medium!
Sadly though, I doubt many studios will ever take advantage of this possibility. Most people seem to think that video games can’t tell their own unique stories, so they resort to writing a movie/TV show and making it playable. Sure, it’s fine! But it doesn’t have the same charm as the games that will put in the extra effort!
But I guess that’s not so bad. It makes it all the sweeter when they do.