Films and novels as a storytelling medium are widely accepted as the model for how to tell an effective, emotional narrative. Films and novels allow moviegoers and readers to either see portrayals of their favorite characters on the screen or read into their favorite characters’ minds on the page in an attempt to inspire the audience in some way. But are these two forms of storytelling the only ones in which iconic characters are born and character development can shine? No, they’re not. Because those same things happen frequently in a less-regarded, though arguably, more visceral medium: video games. Though they may have a certain stigma, video games can compete with films and novels as forms of storytelling and character development, and they’re definitely able to conjure iconic characters that inspire players in their everyday lives. Below, I’ve compiled a list of five characters from across video game genres that are undoubtedly iconic and demonstrate fantastic character development.
First, let’s talk about Joel from Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. This game alone serves as the perfect example of how to tell an effective, raw, emotional story that everyone, even non-gamers, can get invested in and enjoy. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where infected zombie-like humans roam, Joel, a grisly survivor, is tasked with transporting a 12 year-old girl safely across the U.S. Joel’s character development from the beginning of the game to the end is unlike any movie, novel, or video game I have ever encountered. The Last of Us is able to make Joel seem real, and the father figure role that he plays serves as the foundation for almost every pivotal, emotional scene in the game. I like to tell people that you don’t play The Last of Us, you experience it. This is something that video games can do so much better than films or novels, simply because of the fact that players interact with the characters instead of watching them or reading about them. With The Last of Us, players are introduced to characters that are memorable and have dynamic arcs from beginning to end.
Now, let’s talk about someone a little more..legendary: Link, from The Legend of Zelda. Although sometimes mistaken as Zelda, the star of this franchise is arguably one of the most iconic characters of all time, and his name isn’t even in the title of the work he stars in! On top of this, Link is a silent protagonist, so why do people still know who this guy from 1986 is? Well, he’s saved the world a couple of times, saved the princess (many times) from the nefarious Ganondorf, and he’s been a memorable part of many of our childhoods. Arguably one of Nintendo’s best franchises, The Legend of Zelda series has created an iconic hero that kids and adults alike can identify with,
and they were able to do this through the video game format. Players are given the opportunity to take on different incarnations of Link, a badass hero with a shield and sword who sets out on a quest to traverse the kingdom and save his princess (that’s Zelda), which helps the player feel vital to the plot and more involved. Link’s character is able to develop despite his absence of speech because players are able to step in his shoes and take on his role. The silence provides an opportunity for the player to more fully embody the character, making Link an incredibly iconic figure and displaying the potential that video games have to create famous characters.
For those who think that video games aren’t able to offer a compelling cinematic experience, look no further than the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Hideo Kojima’s epic story of military espionage, cold war politics, and the mechanization of modern warfare presented a mature and thought-provoking story for adult gamers. Solid Snake, the protagonist, is part-spy, part-special ops soldier, and part mercenary. His development across the franchise is impeccable and meticulous, showing just how effective video games can be as a storytelling medium. Players are offered an interactive experience with Metal Gear Solid that asks them to become emotionally invested and be a part of the world. Kojima is able to accomplish this because of the interactivity that video games allow and through a film-like narrative constructed to display growth in the game’s characters. Solid Snake’s character development over the course of many games is unparalleled when it comes to films or novels of the same length because they simply cannot get their audience to be able to interact with their characters like a video game does. Metal Gear Solid created a very iconic character with Solid Snake, and it was able to do so because of it being a video game and it utilizing everything that the video game medium has to offer to the realm of storytelling.
The Halo franchise has seemingly become the face of Microsoft and its consoles. It has become more popular than Microsoft could have ever hoped, and the game’s protagonist, Master Chief, is now the unofficial mascot of the company. Master Chief, as a character, is very much like Link, mostly because there are very rare instances in which the characters speaks. Whereas films and novels rely heavily on dialogue to create iconic characters (i.e. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the Terminator movies, the character of Yoda in the Star Wars movies, etc.), video games are able to do this successfully with little to no dialogue. Although Master Chief rarely speaks, he is still one of the most iconic characters in video game history and even outside of video games. He is a character that players have grown up with and still continue to enjoy, even making ventures into novels and films. His development over the course of the Halo franchise is remarkable, and it has helped make him an iconic character that gamers and non-gamers know today.
Now, how could we talk about iconic video game characters without talking about one, if not the, most famous character of all time: Mario. The Italian-American plumber from New York City has been Nintendo’s mascot since 1983 and has gone on to become a household name thanks to generations of gamers passing on their love for the series. Mario has led his franchise to become the most successful video game franchise in history, and in the years to come, he’s certainly going to be with Nintendo every step of the way. Although he doesn’t offer much in the realm of character development in its normal definition, Mario is a prime example of how video games can create iconic characters that inspire passion and creativity in audiences.
Video games allow players to take on roles unimaginable, while films and novels only allow their audiences to spectate, not interact. Video games as a storytelling medium offer an interactive experience where players can more easily become emotionally invested in what they are doing and allow their audience to actively be a part of the characters’ development and progression because the player is actively playing the game. Video games are able to create iconic, dynamic characters just as well as any film or novel, and their rise in the acceptance of society is slowly, but surely, growing.