From Perky To Pitiless
In the earliest days of the video games industry, developers came to the realisation that, although gameplay was paramount, one particular aspect was just as important. The game’s protagonist, though integral to the finished product, could also be used as a fantastic apparatus, acting as both marketing instrument and mascot. By appealing to gamers, the character could help the title gain a following. Not only are they fundamental to the release itself, but similarly its lifespan and attraction to players. From the old school arcade originals such as Q*Bert, Donkey Kong (although originally the villain!) and Frogger, to the latest high-tech incarnations, Master Chief and Marcus Fenix from the Halo and Gears Of War series’ respectively, these characters continue to be the main draw for consumers.
For many years arcade video games churned out cutesy characters for players to delight over. Eventually, established mascots spawned family members in an effort to keep them current and fresh. Pac-Man gained a girlfriend, Ms. Pac-Man, whose union produced Jr. Pac-Man. Moreover, Donkey Kong increased his video gaming dynasty, gaining a son, Donkey Kong Jr. While the reputable and recognised characters received nuclear families, new additions were still emerging with the likes of Dig-Dug and Mappy now vying for attention.
So Far, So Cute!
With the dawn of the home console, these characters gained a further lease of life. Machines like the Atari 2600 and 5200, for instance, became the unofficial home to these arcade parlour monarchs. While consoles evolved with the emergence of Nintendo’s NES and Sega’s Master System, gaming protagonists did not.
While the actual characters did change, they remained essentially the same staying cute, lovable and inoffensive, in equal measure. Sonic The Hedgehog from Sega and Nintendo’s Mario went on to become gaming royalty. Over the years many imitators came and went, joining the likes of Bubsy The Bobcat, Toki and Klonoa in the halls of gaming obscurity. Rayman, Spyro The Dragon and Crash Bandicoot were the only real contenders, but none ever came close to hitting the heady heights of either the blue woodland critter or the portly Italian plumber!
So Very Bleak…
As video games continued to advance and change, their protagonists also evolved becoming darker in tone and more thematically mature. This transformation occurred in tandem with the technological advancement of the home consoles, and largely happened because of it. Finally, with the release of Sony’s PlayStation, and to a lesser extent Sega’s Saturn and the Nintendo 64, developers could get closer to realising their true vision. No longer were game characters purely mute sprites cavorting on the player’s television screen. They became far more fleshed-out, richly detailed and fully rounded. Furthermore, as cut scenes contained spoken dialogue for the first time, actual scripts were now written with games becoming more akin to movies.
At this time, Resident Evil’s Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid and Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft became gaming most celebrated protagonists. Known for being characters in their own right, as much as for the games that they inhabit, they are still as popular today as they were then. Video game designers took the deliberate move of shifting their focus away from the adorable and affable champion to the distinctly opaque anti-hero, forever bathing uncomfortably in shades of grey. The pleasant and endearing characters, as Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter can attest to, didn’t disappear altogether, but instead became less prevalent than their more savage contemporaries.
In recent years, with the immense power of the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 available to developers, video games have continued to become far closer in style and content to that of their silver screen brethren. Moreover, the gaming protagonist has gotten even more ruthless, enigmatic and violent also. Even now this inclination is still going strong and shows no sign of slowing. They are certainly no longer heroes in the traditional sense, but are now more popular than ever. From the Assassins Creed and God Of War series’ to Dishonored and Sleeping Dogs, games continue on the path to becoming not only more fierce, but also more interesting and innovative from a story telling perspective than either TV or film.
Heroes (Almost) Always Triumph
At the end of the day, players love video game protagonists. Whether they be brutal and bloodthirsty beasts, cute and cuddly creatures, morally bankrupt anti-heroes or suave, gallant protectors, we embrace them all. Back in gaming’s early years, a character simply had to be designed well and appeal to players on a visual level. Take a look at the simplicity and beauty of Pac-Man who is, in essence, a yellow circle with a slice removed. ‘His’ image endures, however, and continues to sell merchandise to this very day.
Nowadays, it is slightly more complicated as characterisation and personality must also be considered. Voice acting and dialogue must be carefully measured, leading the characters, in many cases, to be as rounded and developed as any in cinema. At their very core though, these pixelated constructs are ultimately a fantastic device to sell games. Light or dark, they entice the gamer to take a stand, join their cause and help them, finally, prevail!