Over the years, so many video games have come and gone that it’s hard to keep track of all the franchises and studios. Among those games, some are smash hits while others flop the moment they come out of the door; despite how the game itself may be, there are certain things about almost every game that people remember for years to come. Whether it’s the gameplay, the story, or just the world, depending on what kind of a person you are, you are bound to remember one of those aspects from your favorite game, probably for the rest of your life. One such aspect that leaves a mark on us for the long term is the character we play, the protagonist, and I mean, how can’t they? We play as them and explore the world through their eyes for 10’s, if not 100’s of hours. With so much time spent in someone else’s shoes, it’s hard not to get lost in their joys or weep in their sorrows, especially if said characters are written and developed well throughout the course of the game. Let’s take a look at some of those protagonists and see what makes them special and why we love them so much. Most of the mentioned protagonists here have multiple games to their name, and you should expect spoilers as we go in.
Spartan 117, John, The Master Chief, what can anyone say about this character that hasn’t been said already? Master Chief is an icon and perhaps one of the most recognizable faces(or lack thereof) in the world of video games. Introduced to us with “Halo: Combat Evolved” all the way back in the year 2001, it didn’t take long for this guy to make a name for himself and amass a massive, borderline cultish following to his name. The first “Halo” game not only gave us a main badass lead but also gave us a world and stories we talk about even to this day and some of the finest first-person shooting in any game of this genre. Although the Master Chief is a man of few words, his calm demeanor, iconic voice (thanks Steve Downes), cutting-edge exosuit, and prowess for killing the Covenant makes him a force to be reckoned with and truly the definition of a one-man army. I am sure neither Bungie nor Microsoft would have guessed how big this franchise would become and how much love this hero, who has saved humanity countless times, would get from fans all over the world. The franchise shifted hands from Bungie to 343 Industries, and we saw major changes not just with the gameplay and the story but also with Master Chief’s character development, as 343i gave him a personality that he never had before. The changes they have made have been divisive, to say the least, but I do welcome how they developed Master Chief as a character. “Halo” is one of the most iconic franchises with a massive, dedicated, and hardcore fanbase, and Master Chief is the driving force behind it, the savior of humanity and the hero we always want to spend more time with.
Lara Croft is not just a video game protagonist; she is an icon in every sense of the word. Lara has been around since 1996, when the first “Tomb Raider” game came out, and has seen many iterations, alterations, and changes made to her character, with two things remaining as a constant across them all. The first one is that she is never portrayed as a damsel in distress, and the second is her deterministic nature, which lends her the ability to overcome any and every odd thrown in her way. Lara is fierce, fearless, and a total badass while also being a genius who is incredibly gentle and caring. Violence is never her preferred way of going about things, but she often ends up in situations that demand violence. Tomb raiding is no joke as a business, so when it comes to it, she isn’t afraid to pull the trigger. Among all of her versions that we have seen through the years, I think the most recent trilogy, which is made by Crystal Dynamics, depicts her character the best and gives her many layers that just weren’t there before. We see Lara grow in front of our own eyes here, from somebody who was scared for her life and was afraid to hurt someone during her first accidental adventure all the way up to becoming the fearless, famous, and revered tomb raider that we have known for years. I won’t get into the social commentary about male vs. female video game protagonists, but I will end by saying that if anyone is to make a memorable female protagonist, then make them like Lara Croft. Her presence alone commands everyone’s respect.
Rockstar Games always know how to make incredible protagonists. Whether it’s Tommy Vercetti for “GTA Vice City,” Carl “CJ” Johnson from “GTA Sanandreas,” Niko Bellic from “GTA 4,” John Marston from “Red Dead Redemption,” Michael, Franklin, and Trevor from “GTA 5”, and everyone in between, they all have tons of character developments driving them with memorable lines delivered by incredible voice actors throughout. With so many characters under their belt, how they managed to top all of them and give us a protagonist who is, if you ask me, not only was the best Rockstar Games protagonist but perhaps the best video game protagonist I have ever seen in my life. Introducing Arthur Morgan, the hero(or anti-hero; he was an outlaw; it’s complicated, okay?) from “Red Dead Redemption 2.” At the beginning of the game, Arthur comes off as just another criminal who’ll do whatever it takes to earn money and has no qualms about killing innocents to make ends meet. That all changes when you start to understand him, and the journey we follow in his shoes progresses forwards. Arthur Morgan as a character is a testament to incredible writing and a demonstration of how complex and non-binary characters are developed and handled throughout a story. Arthur knows when to be witty and when to switch gears and put on his serious face. He is someone who people from his camp look up to, but to the world outside, he is nothing but an outlaw and a killer whom the townsfolk are scared of. There is so much to Arthur Morgan that one can write a thesis on human psychology and the complexity of human nature all around this character. I always lose words when talking about this character or the game in general, but I promise you, once you walk a mile in the shoes of Arthur, there ain’t no way that you won’t fall in love with this character, and as his journey comes to a close, you will feel like you have lost a friend or a loved one that you have known for years at this point. Kudos, rockstar, and thank you, Roger Clarke, for your brilliant performance and portrayal that brought Arthur to life.
From one criminal with a heart of gold to another, Kazuma Kiryu is the face of the “Yakuza” franchise, and he is a character to remember. What separates Kiryu from other characters on this list is we get to see him grow from a young 20-year-old man who recently joined the Yakuza, all the way up to him becoming the 4th Chairman of the Tojo Clan, then leaving the Yakuza life behind and trying to live a normal life as a civilian all the while his past coming back again and again and haunting him. Kiryu was the leading man of the “Yakuza” franchise for seven straight games before the franchise passed the torch to Ichiban Kasuga (an extremely endearing character) and rebranded itself as “Like A Dragon.” More on Kasuga later. The thing about Kiryu is that if he were to get just a single game to his name, then people may have easily forgotten him because he is your typical stoic good guy. The character is brilliantly played by Takuya Kuroda, whose voice is just incredible, and I can listen to him talk for hours on end. The complexity of Kiryu’s nature lies in his will to always walk the righteous path, all the while knowing that he isn’t a saint. On the surface, he may come off as a buff dude who punches people a lot, but behind that face lies a complex man who is trying to find his place in this world. Since you get to see his humble beginnings in “Yakuza 0” and the conclusion to his story arc in “Yakuza 6: The Song of Life” in a span of roughly 30 or so odd years, his grief becomes yours; you feel as much as he does every time he loses someone, and whenever he gains something, you can’t help but feel happy for the guy. Even Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio can’t seem to leave Kiryu completely behind as he’ll be making a return in “Like A Dragon 8” alongside Kasuga, and as much as I want Kiryu to finally get some rest and live a normal life, I can’t help but be happy that I’ll get to see him again. Kazuma Kiryu is a protagonist who is as stoic and charismatic (not in the traditional sense; think more like an angry young man) as he is endearing.
Okay, originally, I didn’t want to include Kasuga here but plans changed when I started talking about Kiryu, and Kasuga definitely needs some attention and love, if you ask me. Unlike Kiryu, Ichiban only has one game to his name, “Yakuza: Like A Dragon,” and he and RGG studios both had a lot riding on their shoulders when it came to replacing Kiryu and to say that they were successful would be an understatement. Impeccable writing, amazing voice acting, and a script that focused so much on the character development throughout the course of one game that it felt like we had seen and known our hero here for years at this point. It blows my mind that RGG was able to accomplish so much with a new character in one game; massive kudos. Basically, Kasuga is the same as Kiryu on paper: a young man who is trying to fit in this world and has a heart of gold. What separates him from Kiryu is his downright infectiously positive and upbeat look on life. He is charming to the nth degree, and you can’t help but smile every time he is on screen. The word charismatic cannot be spelled with Ichiban Kasuga, and just like Kiryu, you grow attached to him so quickly that everything that happens to him feels like it’s happening to you. There’s a lot to Ichiban as a protagonist, but I’ll leave that for a later date, as I only wanted to give him a brief mention here.
The “Gears of War” series has been around since 2006 and is one of the most iconic and influential franchises under Xbox’s belt. If you ask me, then “Gears” gives “Halo” a run for its money, and that’s saying something. The games have been about a war going against an alien species called the Locust on a planet called Sera and featured incredibly third-person cover-based combat with tons of gory violence and are incredibly fun to play. What makes these games even more worth playing is the leading man, Marcus Fenix, the protagonist of the first three games. There is no other way to put it, but Marcus is a plain badass. Simple as that. Just like any good character, he has a ton of complexity behind him(much simpler this time), but his “get it done” attitude, alongside his ability to lead, is what makes him special and memorable. Once again, on the surface, Marcus is a really big and buff dude(seriously, the “Gears” characters are huge) with a potty mouth and no bs attitude, but underneath all that is a man who loves and cares a lot for his team and friends, and while he acts like he is fearless, deep down, he is scared of what may transpire in the future. The series switched hands with the fourth game and introduced us to Marcus’ son James, but he is still around and kicking Locust’s (now swarm) butt, and fans now affectionately call him “old man Marcus.” At first glance, Marcus Fenix comes off as a meathead, and you won’t be judged for making that assessment, but once you get to know him better, that’s when you’ll realize how cold and badass he truly is.
I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Dante is just plain cool. Period. Whether you know the “Devil May Cry” series or not (it’d be hard not to know about that series), if you are into gaming, then you know the name, Dante. Son of Sparda and Eva, a demon and a human, Dante is known as the devil hunter who saves the world from demonic threats, all the while remaining stylish as hell. He also has an arch nemesis, who is also his best friend at times and is his elder brother, Vergil. I am not going to get into the debate of who is cooler between these two because, good lord, I love both of them equally. Dante’s iconic ashen hair and red coat have been a fan favorite among cosplayers and the community as a whole; they’re just instantly recognizable. As I said in the beginning, this book is short and sweet, and Dante doesn’t need a crazy backstory or tons of character buildup or development (he has both) to be an awesome character. He just is, and you are bound to like him the moment you lay eyes on him. Cool, badass, and charismatic don’t even begin to define Dante as a whole.
Unfortunately, I’ll have to cut the list short here, as if I keep going, we’ll be here all day, and it’s getting pretty long as is. I think it goes without saying that there are literally hundreds of video game protagonists out there that deserve a spot on this list, and I agree. Originally, I had 15 here, so how about we divide this subject into multiple parts? Playstation fans, don’t worry; Nathan Drake and Kratos, and all the others will get covered soon alongside more iconic characters, of course, like Geralt, the Doomslayer, and a lot more. These have been just some of the most iconic video game protagonists, a drop in the ocean, so to speak. If you liked what you read, then be on the lookout for more lists talking about more protagonists from video games in the future, and until then, feel free to check out all the other articles we have here on the subject of video games. See you at the next one.