There’s no shortage of heroes in video games. Since the dawn of arcades, we have had heroes of all kinds, from the more traditional to the new and progressive. It’s extremely difficult to narrow down a list of the “best” heroes, because honestly, heroes are special for the way they inspire the people that play them. I certainly can’t stand up on my metaphorical pedestal and claim this list is the end-all-be-all list. But what I can say, as a gamer, as a writer, as a professor and as an academic, is that the best heroes are the ones that share these fundamental qualities:
- They are called to action, either willingly or unwillingly, by forces outside their control
- They are flawed; a good hero represent the best and the worst in us. They make mistakes and there are consequences to those mistakes.
- Their heroism has a price. There is very rarely a “happy ending” for the hero. Heroism is, in and of itself, a sacrifice for the greater good.
Not all the characters below could be chalked up to a cookie cutter example of “heroism,” but they do share qualities that make these kinds of characters memorable. For this list, I will be focusing on game protagonists from a variety of different games, across a variety of traits, beliefs, and personal qualities. Naturally, this list is based around my own personal opinion and experience as a gamer and throughout my academic career. As much as I’d like to claim to be the expert, I’m just one of many with a passion for a good story and an opinion on who did it best.
10. John-117, The Master Chief (Halo)
In 2001, Microsoft burst onto the gaming scene with the Xbox, a massive brick of a console. With it, they launched one of the most memorable franchises of all time, with Halo. Let’s be clear, in the first Halo, the Master Chief is about as interesting and complex as a wilted leaf of lettuce. But the world we were introduced to, and the core conflict between humans and the genocidal alien collective known as the Covenant, was the first critical stepping stone for a franchise and a company that would come to rely almost exclusively on this futuristic super soldier. Over the last 20 years, the Chief has made his mark in games, books, comics, movies, even a TV show (for better or worse). Through these various mediums, we’ve been able to explore the Chief’s often complex and controversial origins, from a child kidnapped, indoctrinated, and genetically enhanced to create the “perfect soldier,” to an emotionally broken, aging Spartan trying to find his humanity stolen from him. The Chief has always been far more than the sum of his parts, and it remains to be seen where his journey to reclaim his lost humanity will take him as the galaxy continues to wage war.
9. Kratos (God of War)
Kratos has been through a complete revival over the last 5 years. In the original God of War trilogy of games that were released in the mid 2000s/early 2010s, we met Kratos, a Spartan warrior who goes on the warpath to seek vengeance against the Greek gods for the murder of his family and a myriad of other really messed up transgressions. The early franchise was a violent bloodbath, a product of its time. The 2000s/2010s were a time of particularly bloody, outlandish rides within gaming, and the God of War series was no exception. The return of Kratos in 2018 explored Kratos beyond the violent, war hungry demigod of Greece. Instead, we meet a Kratos who has been tempered down from his years of violence, and finds himself fighting a different kind of battle; the one with himself. As a father, Kratos’ fears become apparent; that the same anger and penchant for bloodshed that has consumed his life would be passed to his son, Atreus. Their journey is one of communication, understanding, vulnerability, and redemption. This new iteration of Kratos deserves every accolade he’s received, because he has earned the love and appreciation from both fans of the original series as well as a whole new generation of gamers.
8. Cloud (Final Fantasy VII)
I’d be remiss not to include the moody mercenary with the big sword on this list. Released in 1997, Square’s Final Fantasy VII introduced gamers to Cloud, the amnesiac mercenary who finds himself embroiled in a conflict between Shinra, a corrupt megacorp trying to consume the planet’s treasured resource, Lifestream, and the eco-terrorists AVALANCHE that oppose them. Throughout the story, Cloud gradually rediscovers his true identity and makes peace with his traumatic past, and the losses that led to him creating his false persona to cope. Despite Cloud’s rather unsociable and often cold attitude, it’s impossible to not be drawn to him. He represents the unwilling, fallible hero that must overcome their own personal obstacles in order to be who they need to be.
7. Aloy (Horizon Zero Dawn)
Aloy came onto the scene amidst a cultural shift in the industry. Games like The Last of Us had thundered onto the scene and showed that women were just as noteworthy and heroic as protagonists as any of the men that came before them. Aloy’s strength lies in her complexity, relatability, and her ability to adapt and grow. Her relentless determination to uncover the truth behind what happened in the apocalyptic event that led to the demise of “the Old World,” coupled with her fierce combat skills and resourcefulness, makes her captivating and endearing. Her journey from an outcast to a hero is revealing not only in how relatable an experience that is for so many players, but also in how she never once wavered in her compassion and conviction. This unwavering moral compass and empathetic nature resounded with many players, especially women who felt they were finally being represented in a game in a more meaningful way outside of body image. Aloy is special for many reasons, but that may be the most important reason of all.
6. Commander Shepard (Mass Effect)
Politics, romance, war, intrigue, and a lot of dialogue are at the forefront of BioWare’s beloved Mass Effect trilogy. But what makes this galactic haven so appealing is not just the planets to explore and the space pirates to pulverize, it’s the fact that the series’ protagonist, Commander Shepard, can be whoever the player wants them to be. Your choices matter and shape the relationships your form throughout the game, who you can ally with, romance with, and ultimately, who will side with you against the Reapers in the climactic final battle in Mass Effect 3. Though this concept wasn’t exactly new when Mass Effect was released, the fact that players could see their progression carry across all three games made each decision all the more critical, no matter how big or small. Commander Shepard can’t really be described as a character with their own identity, because Commander Shepard is all of us, everyone who ever picked up a controller and took their place on the bridge of the Normandy.
5. Clementine (Telltale’s The Walking Dead)
From the original comics, to several TV shows, to the acclaimed video game series from Telltale, stories from The Walking Dead universe are not in short supply. But Telltale’s series stands out from the rest, both in the way you are able to influence the story (who survives, who doesn’t, who allies with you, who turns against you) and in the way you get to watch main character Clementine evolve through each season. We meet Clementine as a terrified little girl at the onset of the apocalypse who is rescued by convict Lee Everett. Lee teaches Clementine how to survive in a world full of walkers, but it is his untimely death at the end of season 1 that is the catalyst for Clementine’s character arc. Throughout the story and as the years progress, we watch Clementine evolve into a strong, capable survivor, who ultimately comes to care for another young child and starting the cycle anew. What makes Clementine so memorable is not the violence she witnesses or the difficult decisions she is forced to make, but rather, her personal convictions and compassion, which set her apart in a world that lacks both. Players grow with Clementine through the years, and it makes her relatable and memorable.
4. The Hatchling (Outer Wilds)
I’ve already spoken at length about the impact that Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds has had on me personally, but the wider impact that this game has had in terms of its influence on narrative design can also not be overstated. While it is not a linear story, Outer Wilds artfully tells the story of a long lost race of knowledge seeking people called the Nomai, who were mysteriously wiped out and have left marks of their existence all across a tiny solar system. The player takes on the role of a Hearthian astronaut who is otherwise nameless, though is often referred to as the “Hatchling” by other characters in-game. Without going too deeply into spoilers, the Hatchling finds themselves caught in a 22 minute time loop, and must uncover the mysteries of the long lost Nomai and their research to break the cycle. The theme of knowledge that permeates throughout this game, and the burden of carrying it alone, resonates heavily as the Hatchling continues the loop over and over. They are burdened with knowing a terrifying truth that they must live over and over again, loop after loop, and ultimately, their heroism is defined by something else entirely; the nature of the universe and time itself.
3. Link (The Legend of Zelda)
If you’ve been playing Zelda games for any meaningful length of time, then you know that this is technically multiple characters named Link that we are talking about; most (but not all) with a genealogical link (ha) between them. So for the sake of convenience, we will be referring to Link in the collective, representing all the Links within the Zelda timeline. Link takes on the role of a more traditional “hero,” as he has done since the inception of the franchise, but the evolution of his heroism has been both notable and refreshing. What started as a very traditional “damsel in distress” story type has evolved into an exciting universe full of complex characters and worlds that share the same theme; a land shrouded in darkness, knocked out of balance by evil forces, and it is up to Link to restore that balance by restoring the elements of nature that control it. He cannot do this without Zelda, in all her forms and iterations. Link stands out especially because his heroism has a cost. What was once a “get the girl” style of heroism has become one more rooted in sacrifice. To preserve peace, balance, and the natural order, demands a sacrifice that always falls upon Link to make. And you can’t help but tip your cap to him, because time and time again, he has done so without hesitation.
2. Joel and Ellie (The Last of Us)
Yes, it’s technically two people, but Joel and Ellie’s character arcs are so intertwined that it makes sense to list them both. Following a global outbreak of a deadly fungal infection that turns its victims into monsters, Joel loses his 12 year old daughter Sarah and becomes a cold, hardened survivor. In the 20 years following the outbreak, Joel survives as a smuggler, renowned for his ruthlessness. When he is tasked with taking Ellie across the country to a group of militia fighters trying to find a cure, Joel is initially just as cold to Ellie as he is to everyone else. But the growth of their relationship, and their ability to not only trust, but rely on one another to survive an unforgiving landscape, keeps the player invested up until the end. Joel’s “heroism” is subverted in a way that is both shocking and all too relatable to anyone that has ever loved a child. The effect that this has on Ellie, and her evolution through the second game, is resounding and tragic. Joel is a “hero” to no one but the Ellie he holds in his mind, and Ellie is the hero that never was.
1. Arthur Morgan (Red Dead Redemption 2)
This one likely won’t come as a shock. Arthur Morgan tops the lists of most gamers in terms of top playable characters in video games. And for good reason. We meet the equal parts charming and ruthless Arthur Morgan in the months leading up to the dissolution of the Van der Linde gang, a group of gunslinging outlaws led by its charismatic namesake Dutch Van der Linde. For all their killing and robbing, the gang has a lot of heart, and Arthur is very much included. He is complex, in that he understands that the things he does, the life he leads, makes him an outcast; he is responsible for his actions, his choices. He is also smart enough to know that his lifestyle does not come with an easy or dignified ending, which is a tragic foreshadow for the events that come to pass. Despite the circumstances that befall him, Arthur never stops to feel sorry for himself, and instead uses the time, skills and resources he has to do right by the people he cares most about. It’s true that players have the choice to play Arthur as “High Honor” or “Low Honor,” which is earned based on the good or bad deeds you can do throughout the game. Though it is made abundantly clear in the way that the story is designed, that Arthur was always intended to be a man of honor, despite his past and present circumstances. It’s not hard to love Arthur Morgan, or even feel sorry for him, despite all he (and you) have done. And that’s because Arthur is keen enough to know that all actions have consequences, and he is ok with that.
It’s difficult to make a list and call it “definitive” in any regard. New games, new groundbreaking stories, are being released regularly, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this list will not look the same even a year or two down the road. But perhaps that’s what makes this industry so exciting; there are so many new friends, new heroes we have yet to meet. And I can’t wait to meet them.