It's a new year and as such, I've been spending my time reflecting on the past but not in the obligatory end of year list way as one might think. The basis of this week's musing comes from a realisation I had about iconic and memorable contemporary video game characters... namely, where the hell are they?!
One could argue that the reason it's so difficult to call to mind characters of this nature is that a lot of post 2000 titles assume that gamers want total immersion and as such the player becomes the protagonist.
This is fantastic if you enjoy customising your appearance or really living the story but this has left a brightly coloured, cartoonish and possibly anthropomorphic hedgehog shaped gap in the gaming industry.
Remember all of those epic characters from our childhoods? Pacman, Sonic, Mario, Link. I'd like to see someone today try to sell a game about two plumbers who have to continually save a princess from a dragon/turtle/thing. Not to mention the fact that they eat mushrooms to grow, which is odd considering they have a friend who is essentially a talking toadstool. Or what about Sonic? Sega's heroic blue hedgehog is just as bizarre. Perhaps the last truly big icon from my own youth was Lara Croft - PlayStation dominated the CD based video game market and their wasp-figured heroine became their poster girl.
Despite their eccentricities, these character were very memorable, unlike many of their contemporary counterparts. But whereas television, movie, literary and musical idols differ from games, is that a lot of these characters (if not all) are still around, having been continually rehashed, re-released and resold to us in various incarnations over the years.
Games used to rely on memorable protagonists, both visually and in character, but when did this change? Doom? One the first games to start to the trend of first person gaming and the idea of an invisible protagonist, where the player steps into the characters shoes and sees the world through their eyes.
It's possible, as with most things, to only see an iconic character in retrospect. Today's gaming protagonists, even the invisible ones, might well become the Marios and Sonics of the future and I wonder what we have now that will live on as infamously in status. Well, wonder no more because your good friend Emma-Jane has selected the following contemporary characters for your consideration (you're welcome):
Oh and just before I get started, Nintendo are instantly disqualified from this list as their main characters are the same as always. Sorry.
Sackboy is perhaps the closest contender in line with Mario or Sonic. Sony's knitted sack-like poster boy is cute and as you're reading this online and are therefore two clicks away from kitten pictures, cute is everything. A character for the meme generation, Sackboy stands out for being different and customisable. His uniqueness and imp-like nature makes him appealing to both kids and adults alike.
Master Chief may not be the most talkative character but, hey, he was cryogenically frozen for years in space only to wake up with hostile aliens, the flood and an overly chatty A.I. for company, so give the guy a break. Other characters in the series look up to the Chief and he was created to be the very best. His reputation precedes him, he's known by other Spartans for his title rank of 'Master Chief' as opposed to his actual name. He's a an enigma and we all know enigmas are damn cool. With his blinding reputation, cool efficiency and pretty bitchin' armour, he's definitely one of this generation's gaming icons.
Next on the list is Ezio Auditore da Firenze. You could also argue in favour of Altair or Desmond.. or perhaps even Connor but I foresee that the one assassin that will stand the test of time will be Ezio.
He's like the Batman of Renaissance Italy with all of his gadgets from Da Vinci, a silent assassin climbing over buildings with his cape billowing in the wind, except Ezio, unlike Batman happily kills his targets, in brutal horrific ways, before disappearing into the crowds. His fiery personality is entertaining and seeing him grow and develop from the inexperienced, rash young man in Assassin's Creed 2 to the knowledgeable, greying master in Assassin's Creed: Revelations is incredibly rewarding.
Gordon Freeman is a man of science. A smart, intelligent yet slightly damaged soul who puts up with a lot of lip from Ms. Vance and her father. I mean he has headcrabs enough to contend with as it is! This choice may seem odd when you consider we never really see Gordon visually, but that's where the power of effective video game box art steps in. Hear his name and the first thing you see in your mind's eye is his big old face with glasses that frame his slightly sorrowful eyes. Despite his muteness, Gordon is a character full of presence. He doesn't need to talk because he conveys his thoughts and feelings with actions.. and a crowbar.
Short for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System, GLaDOS oversees the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre with little disregard for humans life. As with all A.I. computer programs turned rogue, she's unpredictable and her voice, lacking any emotive traits, can make a sentence seem both humourous yet terrifying. Continually manipulating subjects with false promises of cake and idle chit-chat, GLaDOS is an excellent example of a well-written villain, demonstrating the ability to go from threatening to benevolent without a moment's notice. The Portal games wouldn't be as amazing as they are without her.
There might be a lot of them but the characters from both Left 4 Dead games definitely qualify. If I shout "God damn it, Louis!" Or "Shut the hell up Ellis, no one wants to hear about your freaking cousin" anyone who has played the game will know exactly what I'm talking about. My main reason for the L4D cast being on my list is that the games are so incredibly social, their arcade nature makes for fun, memorable experiences and embodies the joy of 4 player co-operative games. In 10 years time, I think we'll still be cursing Ellis and impersonating Francis for hating vans, planes, woods, subways, stairs and basically EVERYTHING!
You may also be wondering why I haven't mentioned anyone from the Call Of Duty franchise, or games like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim. Well quite frankly, these games are too vast. There are too many characters in these games, making it harder for any one to really stand out. Come to think of it, the same can be said for Final Fantasy characters. Visually memorable but try to describe the key personalities without using the words awkward or quirky.
Perhaps the time of iconic gaming characters is up, maybe too many gritty mute FPS's have destroyed the golden age of characters? With games developers gearing gameplay to a heightened state of immersion (Kinect's "You are the controller" comes to mind), we may be left with a sea of titles populated with blank slates.
Or alternatively, what I'm suggesting, may in fact be the product of something I abhor. The reason so many of these characters come to mind could be because I've seen them everywhere! In other words, sequels.
So, it's kind of a double-edged sword really. Either we are provided with countless cleverly designed, decent games with anonymous leads or we put up with mediocre sequels to staple the legends of the industry.
If you disagree then please let me know which characters you think possess true iconic status in the comments section below, I'd certainly be interested to hear your thoughts.