Along with how a game plays, looks and feels, the characters are a hugely important part of video games. Some characters get multiple outings, some are immortalised in films, books and novelty lunchboxes, and others are forgotten and consigned to the landfill of history (I’m looking at you, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel). Here are just a few of the most influential characters…
Arguably the daddy of all video game stars, Pac-Man was one of the first recognisable characters to appear. In 1980 there were limits to how much detail could be achieved with just a handful of pixels, so a yellow circle eating white dots was what you got. He was even honoured with a Google Doodle in 2010. Special shout out to the ghosts Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde.
Nintendo’s mascot started off as a nameless nobody in someone else’s game! In 1981’s Donkey Kong the player controls a moustachioed, red-and-blue clad carpenter trying to rescue his girlfriend from a giant ape. After trying the super-catchy names “Mr. Video” and “Jumpman”, he ended up as Mario the plumber in 1983’s Mario Bros. He has continually evolved with the times, surviving the Console Wars of the 1990s (sorry Sonic) and stamping his name on some of the biggest games to this day.
3. Solid Snake
While not the first game to use stealth as a major gameplay mechanism (that honour goes to Shoplifting Boy from 1979), the Metal Gear series is definitely the most successful. Metal Gear was the brainchild of Hideo Kojima, a god of video game design. With intricate plots, outlandish bosses and that noise, Solid Snake has seen his fair share of Tactical Espionage Action over the years.
In 1996, out of 150 pocket monsters, this electric mouse became possibly the most recognisable character in the world. Pokémon Red and Blue used the Game Boy’s link cable to let players trade and battle their Pokémon, which changed the game from an individual experience to a social one. The Pokémon series has since grown to 76 games, over 800 different Pokémon, 20 films, a long-running cartoon, manga comics, a card game and even a Monopoly set.
5. Lara Croft
In an art form dominated by male heroes, this pistol-toting archaeologist is a long-standing strong female lead. Along with Metroid’s Samus Aran, she is credited with paving the way for other video game heroines. As with many female characters, her appearance has been the focus of much debate over the years, although in recent incarnations she’s presented much more as a rugged survivor than the caricatured sex symbol of the 1990s.
6. Gordon Freeman
The hero of the Half-Life series is a favourite here at the Science Museum. While most shoot-em-up heroes are muscle-bound super-soldiers, Dr. Freeman is a theoretical physicist who accidentally opens an interdimensional rift and has to battle the ensuing alien invasion despite zero military training. Scientists as reluctant action heroes have since featured in more recent games such as Dead Space and Prey.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a 2017 game about a woman journeying to Hell to rescue her love. It’s also a game about living with psychosis. The developers worked with neuroscientists, mental health specialists and people living with psychosis to produce a powerful, unsettling experience which has been credited with helping to open up conversations about mental health.
That was just a selection of some of gaming’s influential characters. There are many more we could have mentioned, if we’d had the time. Which ones do you think are missing from this list?