Fresh from picking the best games of the past decade, we decided to do a deep dive and make fond remembrance of the characters we liked the most.
It’s been an incredible decade for character design, in which facial capture technology has helped burnish excellent performances by actors and voice actors. The quality of writing in games, in terms of dialogue, characterization, and plot, has improved immensely. Writers have begun to move on from two-dimensional action heroes, clumsy sidekicks, and offensive caricatures to paint convincing people who inspire empathy.
The Polygon team picked these favorites based on various criteria, including characters that are transportive, convincing, funny, original, moving, or unusual. We have only allowed one character (or duo) per franchise, but it’s worth mentioning that many of the games listed below have more than one memorable character. We’ve mixed together original characters as well as some who’ve been around for a while, but who made an especially interesting contribution in the last 10 years. The list is presented in alphabetical order.
Please feel free to post your favorite characters from the past decade in the comments below.
Alex is a teenager who, along with a small group of friends, sets out on a jaunt to an island near her home. Oxenfree is a superb narrative game in which the player helps to shape Alex’s personality through her responses. But whether she’s upbeat and friendly, or downbeat and sarcastic, she’s constantly believable and relatable. As the game progresses, we learn of the prior loss of her brother, and her feelings about his death. So convincingly human is Alex that inhabiting her life is a truly transportive experience.
Allie (Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch)
In video games, mothers are often portrayed as villains, or they are killed in order to catalyze the hero’s journey. Allie in Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is emphatically one of the latter group. She dies of heart failure after saving her son (the game’s protagonist) from drowning. He then goes in search of a rumored doppelgänger in a fantasy world. Although Allie comes from the well-worn tradition of tragic moms, she’s outlined with great tenderness by developer Level-5, working in tandem with Studio Ghibli.
Aloy (Horizon Zero Dawn)
While Aloy seemingly falls into the same category of “strong female protagonists” as Bayonetta and early Lara Croft, the narrative world that Guerrilla Games builds around her in Horizon Zero Dawn prevents her from being a one-dimensional character. Aloy’s upbringing as an outcast from her tribe imbues her with an unfailing sense of moral clarity on her quest to discover who she is. She’s pragmatic but compassionate, iron-willed but open-minded. In a 31st-century world with its own norms and taboos, particularly around gender, Aloy refuses to let anyone else tell her how to live.
Batman and the Joker (Arkham series)
Over 80 years, we’ve seen so much of Batman and the Joker. But Rocksteady Studios’ Arkham trilogy offers us an intimate look at the pair. In Arkham Knight, after the Joker’s already dead, he lives in Batman’s head and torments him with visions and dark thoughts. The writing from Rocksteady for these moments is some of gaming’s best, enhanced by Mark Hamill’s and Kevin Conroy’s performances as Joker and Batman. We could’ve gotten something so bland from these two characters, but Rocksteady’s understanding of their need for one another helped them blossom.
The Bloody Baron (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt)
The Bloody Baron’s quest line is the standout moment in The Witcher 3. The Baron comes off charming enough, but reveals himself to be a terrible brute over time. The way the story plays with his horrible flaws, making you feel sympathy without ever letting him off the hook, is gripping. But most importantly, his trial gives us a better look into the otherwise stoic and introverted Geralt. Through the Baron’s trial, we see into the Witcher’s heart, a rare treasure in Wild Hunt.
Callie and Marie, The Squid Sisters (Splatoon series)
Nintendo really took some anthropomorphized squids and made them into pop sensations. Despite the fact that I cannot understand what they’re saying when they sing, these representatives of the amazing music in Splatoon are pop icons. Stay fresh!
Catherine de Medici (Civilization 6)
All the world leaders in Civilization 6 are beautifully drawn and feature a range of emotions from obsequious to enraged. But my favorite is probably Catherine, whose appalling snobbishness and haughty disregard for all things foreign make her a delight to play against. Catherine’s thing is spying on her enemies and waving a glass of Champagne, imperiously, at her foolish foes. Even in defeat, she manages to look down her nose at we barbarians who dare to cross her path.
Clementine and Lee (The Walking Dead)
If you search YouTube for the final episode of the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, you’ll find a miniature industry of players recording their own emotional responses to its devastating finale. Lee is an escaped convict in the midst of a zombie outbreak who finds himself caring for a frightened, vulnerable girl called Clementine. Later seasons show Clementine’s debt to Lee, and the lessons she learned from her redoubtable mentor. These are characters who are genuinely loved by their many fans.
Danny Williams (FIFA series)
The greatest teammate in sports video gaming. Danny Williams begins as a mouthy antagonist to the player-controlled Alex Hunter in FIFA’s The Journey career mode, but then they both end up on the same side in the Football League Championship, and a real bond forms as both guys try to get to the Premier League. Danny’s bravado is a mask for his obvious insecurity; on the pitch, he knows he needs others for him to be great. Playing Hunter as a central attacking midfielder in Norwich City’s 4-2-3-1, with Danny as striker, I was more than happy to help. In a match against Aston Villa, I took a perfect through ball in stride down the wing, and I could have easily driven on and dusted the keeper. Instead I stopped, toe-rolled the ball back a couple of paces, and lobbed Danny a cross, which he headed in — for a hat trick. I would feed Danny scoring chances all day, like grapes to a lover.
Henry is Firewatch’s protagonist, but it’s his unseen boss Delilah who delivers the story’s most layered, intriguing, and mysterious subject. They are both lonesome custodians of firewatch towers out in the wilds of Wyoming. Rookie Henry reports any anomalies to Delilah via radio. In conversations, she’s spiky, sarcastic, and smart. She also has a drinking problem. As the story’s peril ramps up, Henry begins to suspect that Delilah is hiding something. An investigation of her lookout and an inspection of her belongings reveals more of her quirky, slightly tragic personality.
Delilah Copperspoon (Dishonored series)
Deliciously wicked Delilah Copperspoon begins her Dishonored journey as the leader of a colorful, murderous coven of witches. It’s her backstory that lights up her story. Delilah was once a sweet princess, craving her father’s attention. Expelled after being framed for a crime she didn’t commit, she lives a life of extreme poverty in Dishonored’s gritty underworld. Delilah embraces the occult, and returns to the center of power, wiser and sparkling with supernatural malice.
Dutch van der Linde (Red Dead Redemption series)
Dutch van der Linde started his career as a folk hero and revolutionary and ended it as a sad, broken man. Dutch can be read as a proud man who is trying to tread water in a world that no longer has room for him, or a monster distracting from his own cruel, violent whims with grand gestures and patriarchal pressure. His life is a series of closing doors, and Dutch can’t stop making compromises. He never quite loses his sense of drama and performance, even as everything else is worn away by time and civilization.
Edér Teylecg (Pillars of Eternity series)
One of the very first characters I met in Pillars of Eternity, Edér Teylecg was my constant companion throughout that game. He serves as the spiritual center of the story, and is just really chill about it the entire time. I liken it to having Matthew McConaughey in your adventuring party. In the original game, and the sequel Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, he’s voiced by actor Matt Mercer, the man behind the Critical Role series. In fact, including the player character and optional downloadable content, you basically fill your entire party with different versions of Mercer.
Edith Finch (What Remains of Edith Finch)
For much of What Remains of Edith Finch, we primarily see only Edith Finch’s hands. We see them clad in hand-knit gloves as she explores her childhood home, a sprawling, ramshackle mansion in Washington. Finch opens doors, fiddles with mementos, and writes in her diary. What Remains of Edith Finch is a retelling of a cursed family’s stories, filtered through Finch’s eyes.
Elizabeth and Booker (BioShock Infinite)
Despite its overblown story and grandiose setting, shooter BioShock Infinite gives us a memorable duo of Booker de Witt and Elizabeth, whose relationship gradually unfolds as the game progresses. De Witt is a standard video game hero: a violent man with a dark past. But Elizabeth is more interesting. She’s a mage, held captive by an evangelical dictator. As the game begins, we see de Witt as the savior, but it soon becomes clear that Elizabeth has all the power. The time travel story allows us to see Elizabeth at different ages in her life, and to see her sense of moral behavior adjust to the world around her, while de Witt’s somewhat two-dimensional personality both softens and deepens.
Ellie and Riley (The Last of Us: Left Behind)
Ellie is a tough teenage girl, living through the nightmare of a global pandemic. In The Last of Us, she’s teamed up with gruff antihero action man Joel. They make for a well-written mismatched road trip duo. But it’s in the later episode, the more narrative-focused Left Behind, that she comes into her own alongside Riley, a teenage friend who has joined a radical group of fighters. Riley is a formidable presence, but also a free spirit who confronts the world as she finds it. Set as a prequel to the main game, Left Behind explores the two girls’ differences and their closeness as they face inevitable separation.
Elodie (Long Live the Queen)
Long Live the Queen was the first visual novel I ever played, and I was struck with how complex the character arc for Elodie was. Her ascension to the throne is sudden, and comes at the death of her mother. At the start of the game, she’s scared and sad and overwhelmed, and she has very little time to become some kind of ruler. More than in most stories about princesses, you really feel the immense political pressure she’s placed under — while also feeling the responsibility you have to guide her through assassination attempts, court lessons, and plenty of intrigue.
Emet-Selch (Final Fantasy 14)
Villain Emet-Selch’s story was mysterious and a little confusing until the Final Fantasy 14: Shadowbringers expansion fleshed him out and showed who he really was: a guy just trying to bring his split world back together, after his people were eradicated by a god. As Emet-Selch let me into his brain and showed me the civilization he was once a part of, my heart sank, as I knew that I could not sacrifice the universe in exchange for his happiness, no matter how badly I wanted to. There is truly no sadder feeling than sympathizing with your longtime enemy.
Florence Yeoh (Florence)
Florence Yeoh, the namesake of Mountains’ Florence, is a stunning character, one more affecting in an hour’s worth of mobile gameplay than plenty of characters I’ve spent many hours with. Florence is a game about connections, whether those are in friendship, in love, or with family. The game’s design — particularly its clever use of touchscreen mechanics — gives these connections a tactile feel that brings depth and nuance to Florence as we learn about her love, life, and worries.
Ghost (Destiny series)
Destiny’s characters rarely speak, so nearly all the exposition and internal thoughts come through Ghost, every Guardian’s faithful shoulder angel. Nolan North took over for Peter Dinklage in the original Destiny, and continued the role into the second game. Destiny can be very dark and overly serious at times, but North’s Ghost delicately threads the needle between lifting you up and letting you know things just got real.
GLaDOS (Portal 2)
Originally created as a tutorial guide for Portal, snarky artificial intelligence GLaDOS proved so popular with the development team that her role was extended through the whole game. In Portal 2, she returns in an even more malicious form, revealing a dark backstory that kind of explains why she’s so horrid. In the end, she serves up an amusing tale of redemption. Such is her resilience that she’s crossed over to other games, including Lego Dimensions and Bridge Constructor Portal.
Goose (Untitled Goose Game)
The goose became one of the biggest memes of 2019 because it’s a horrible little bastard. In Untitled Goose Game, the goose spends its time tailing, teasing, and torturing the various citizens of an idyllic village. It has the mischief of a child and the selfishness of an adult. Most of all, the goose is very funny.
Handsome Jack (Borderlands 2)
Handsome Jack represents the best of the Borderlands franchise. In Borderlands 2, he is a constant presence throughout the game. The heroes don’t go long without hearing his cajoling, threatening, and joking — and a long story, told breathlessly through laughter, about murdering one poor soul with a spoon. Voice actor Dameon Clarke sells even the most sophomoric dialogue and makes it likable, no matter how cruel the content. Handsome Jack doesn’t have an arc or a greater point — he’s just a smug, theatrical jackass, and while he’s fun to hate, part of me cheered for him until the end.
Hannah (Her Story)
Hannah is that video gaming rarity: a human character played by an actor, without any technological overlay. In Her Story, Hannah is being interviewed by police who are investigating the disappearance of her husband. Hannah, played superbly by Viva Seifert, is often inconsistent in her replies. Her evasive manner is based on developer Sam Barlow’s research into real police interviews, and the way suspects try to fool highly experienced investigators. The player researches Hannah’s testimony in order to unravel a cracking story of love and betrayal.
Herschel Biggs (L.A. Noire)
The lifer sent out to pasture on the LAPD’s arson desk, Herschel Biggs grumbles at wonderboy Cole Phelps’ theories that some workaday house fires are actually connected to a larger or more sinister conspiracy. It just means more paperwork, after all. But then, faced with the hideously charred remains of a family, Biggs busts out. He swears simple frontier justice on the firebug carrying out the plot, but of course this case ends up so much bigger than that. Like a sick man getting his hunger back, Biggs is a crime fighter again. And his moral outrage is the only tear of optimism that film noir is willing to shed: that the bad guys will be gotten, by the book or not.
Isabelle (Animal Crossing)
Isabelle is my best friend. In Animal Crossing: New Leaf, she’s the pure, helpful pal opposite Tom Nook’s thieving landlord eyes. But behind Isabelle’s sparkling, there is a certain rage, which she let out when she was revealed to be in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Isabelle protec, but more importantly, she attac. But really, since her debut in New Leaf, she’s become the mascot of Animal Crossing — a very real icon.
Jack and Marguerite Baker (Resident Evil 7)
Some Resident Evil villains are monsters, and that’s what makes them memorable, like Mr. X or the Regeneradores. Jack and Marguerite Baker are human, and that puts them in a tier of their own. Marguerite is trying to offer you hospitality, while Jack serves as the immortal, protective patriarch of his twisted family. This loving mom-and-pop duo has transformed into a simmering pot of supernatural rage, masquerading as your new parents. The terrifying concept sells the scenes of Marguerite’s frantic stabbing, Jack’s relentless hunt, and the dread you feel sitting down to a family dinner.
Jane Shepard (Mass Effect series)
The first human specter, the fearless vanguard, and leader of the Normandy’s crew. Shepard steps out of the role of silent RPG protagonist and takes charge. Jennifer Hale’s voice acting really sells Shepard as both a deadly space marine and a vulnerable protagonist facing impossible odds. Between the various party combinations and the Renegade/Paragon path, there’s no shortage of incredible action movie set-pieces, great one-liners, and heartwarming moments with friends, allies, and even lovers. Mass Effect 3 may have ended the trilogy on a sour note, but we’ll always have Commander Shepard.
Kiryu Kazuma (Yakuza series)
The gangster’s gangster, Kiryu Kazuma is a criminal who abides by a code of integrity. He’ll take the fall to protect his pals, even if it means a long stretch inside. Often accused of crimes he has not committed, Kazuma dispenses justice while taking care not to hurt innocents. He works hard to avoid unnecessary killings, most especially in the world of Yakuza rivalries. Eventually, he turns his talents to running an orphanage and being a dad. In short, he’s a badass hero who appeals to the ideals of self-assertion and duty.
Josh (Until Dawn)
Josh, played by Rami Malek, has to do most of the heavy lifting in Until Dawn. Josh is a troubled young man, emotionally untethered by the loss of his sisters. Initially, he sets off to prank his friends. But when actual monsters emerge, Josh detaches from reality altogether. It’s a hard switch to make, and Malek really goes for it. Some of the lines almost come off as silly in the moment, but multiple playthroughs help cement Josh as a complicated young man ruined by far scarier things than Until Dawn’s monsters.
Junko Enoshima (Danganronpa series)
Queen of despair Junko Enoshima has become a pop-culture icon in the last decade, with her influence ranging from being a wild video game boss to being the center of multiple TikTok trends. Enoshima’s erratic behavior is hard to sympathize with, but her loud and rude personality, as well as her eccentric movements, have made her one of the most well-known characters in anime and gaming.
Kassandra (Assassin’s Creed Odyssey)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that you should play as Kassandra, rather than her twin brother Alexios, in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. As performed by voice actor Melissanthi Mahut, the Spartan misthios feels fully alive. She’s at turns brash, gregarious, and tender. (That’s not to mention her flirty delivery when Kassandra romances NPCs — it makes me blush every time.) Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a huge game, spanning ancient Greek history and mythology. But Kassandra is just so dang charming, I’m happy to spend 100+ hours with her. I defy you not to fall in love with her too.
Kirsten Geary (The Secret World)
MMORPG quest givers are often enablers. Kirsten Geary, the Illuminati faction leader for supernatural horror game The Secret World, breaks the mold in brilliant style. Geary is a type-A corporate perfectionist, which is interesting enough, but on top of that she’s genuinely hilarious. It takes a special kind of character to both rip me to shreds for missing profit margins and make me laugh out loud in the same block of text, but Geary effortlessly pulls it off again and again.
Kratos (God of War)
Created for the original God of War in 2005, Kratos has since traveled as far as any video game character in his depth and personality. In his past incarnation, he took his cues from ancient myths, displaying bone-headed violence and amorality. In 2018’s God of War, he retains his skills as a warrior, but is now a father whose gruff, tough-love approach to parenting belies a touching capacity for love and tenderness toward his son, and a deep grief for his late wife.
Lara Croft (Tomb Raider reboot series)
Few game characters of the olden days have been so transformed as Lara Croft. In her three-game reboot, she shook loose her origins as ’90s boy-gamer fantasy fodder and emerged as an actual person. Now she grapples with a complex past life that shapes her worldview. She shows surprisingly vulnerable insights as she ponders her own life choices. Sure, she remains a stubbornly male creation, frowning prettily as she mows down enemies and occasionally emoting with all the conviction of a mailbox. But she’s come a long way.
Lester Crest (Grand Theft Auto 5)
In a world of over-the-top crime capers and big-time heists, Grand Theft Auto 5’s Lester Crane provides a humble counterpoint. His mobility has been affected by a wasting disease, he’s not driving any fast cars or shooting guns, and he stays behind the scenes. But in a narrative full of unstable, immature men with tortured pasts and uncertain futures, Lester is a welcome presence. He’s a reminder of the real world outside of this unsustainable crime spree, and gets some of the game’s best bon mots to boot. Lester’s sarcasm, vulnerability, pettiness, and greed make him one of the game’s most memorable characters.
Lily Bowen (Fallout: New Vegas)
Lily Bowen is one of the most tragic companions players will find in the Fallout series. A hulking brute with a frightening voice, Bowen is in fact a grandmother, transformed by the Forced Evolutionary Virus. Her condition presents an impossible dilemma: Continue to take her medication and lose the memory of her grandchildren, whose voices she keeps on a holotape, or keep the memory of her loved ones in the near term, and eventually succumb to insanity. Either way, her outcome gets a memorable and heartbreaking narration in New Vegas’ closing montage.
Lincoln Clay (Mafia 3)
The classic up-from-nothing crime lord archetype got a remarkable twist in 2K Games’ 1960s period piece Mafia 3: Lincoln Clay, a black Army veteran, nihilistic and shell-shocked from his tour of duty in Vietnam. His insular world of New Bordeaux (basically New Orleans) comes apart in a series of gangland double crosses and reprisals, and the story unfolds as a classic revenge fable. But Lincoln’s fate depends on how much the player understood him, or respected the truth that all Lincoln wanted was Sal Marcano dead, for betraying the Black Mob. Either outcome is a fitting end, whether the player views Clay as an avenging antihero or another crook who succumbs to greed.
Luca Cocchiola (Battlefield 1)
EA DICE’s World War I shooter opted for a series of human stories that offered various perspectives on the carnage. Cocchiola is an old man who looks back on a battle in the Dolomites, in which he tries to save the life of his brother. Although the action is pure gunplay fantasy, Cocchiola’s interwoven story manages to feel both true and touching.
Madeline is the most relatable character of the decade, at least for anyone struggling with anxiety and depression. Her stubborn determination to reach the top of Celeste mountain, despite a Part of Madeline telling her that she can’t do it, is an apt metaphor for pushing past insecurity and self-criticism. Ultimately, though, Madeline is inspiring not because she destroys her demons, but because she embraces them. When she finally stops running from Part of Madeline and instead joins forces with her, they’re both stronger for it.
Mae Borowski (Night in the Woods)
Returning to her old hometown after college, Mae Borowski finds herself shiftless and uncertain about her future, bogged down with depression and worry. The town of Possum Springs is mostly unchanged, which highlights the parts that are different — the classic feeling of returning home after a long time away. It’s a unique feeling to be able to capture in a video game, but seeing things from Borowski’s perspective, with her commentary on how she feels about it, captures that weird brew of nostalgia, whimsy, despair, and confusion. Borowski’s not always likable, but she’s always relatable.
Marcus Fenix (Gears of War 4 and Gears 5)
Since Gears of War’s debut in 2006, I’ve probably spent more time controlling Marcus Fenix than any other avatar in all of video games. Over the years, the old man has definitely grown on me. What started out as an over-the-top depiction depiction of a no-nonsense infantryman has turned into a much more nuanced character, someone older and wiser. Gears 5 has a ridiculous storyline, but it was still nice to have Bender … I mean, John DiMaggio there when I needed him.
Marcus Holloway (Watch Dogs 2)
While the first title in the Watch Dogs series explored how hacking could complement a gritty vigilante justice angle, the sequel, Watch Dogs 2, placed those talents in the hands of a more engaging and relatable protagonist. Marcus Holloway is emblematic of modern-day hacktivists who understand how the technologies we rely on are also the tools used to manipulate and oppress us. Unlike his series counterpart, Aiden Pearce — a lone wolf fighting back against the system — Holloway is the leader of a movement. He’s a rallying point who inspires and enables others to fight back.
Max and Chloe (Life Is Strange)
Life Is Strange is much more than a high school time-travel fable. It’s an investigation of two young women and their relationships, both with one another and with the extraordinary people in their lives (shout out to the brilliant waitress / mom Joyce). Like the people in all great dramatic friendships, Max and Chloe are completely unalike; one is shy and studious, the other brash and rebellious. But they bring the best out of each other, creating an interlocking tale of love and learning.
Mira (Donut County)
Mira captures a stern sort of kindness that you don’t often see from characters in any medium. BK is her friend but he’s an asshole, and Mira works a lot to get him to be a better person. Which he naturally doesn’t appreciate nearly enough. But I appreciate Mira. She’s chill but she’s no pushover, and she sticks to her morals even when they’re badly tested. If you have an asshole friend, then you can probably relate to Mira. If you’ve been the asshole friend and been lucky enough to have a friend like Mira, take a moment to let them know you appreciate them.
Mom (The Binding of Isaac)
There is no greater villain in the Binding of Isaac universe than Mom, an abusive religious zealot who stomps on her child with high-heeled shoes. And, because she’s Mom, she knows all of Isaac’s deepest, darkest secrets, which makes her a master of passive aggression as well as aggressive aggression. Granted, there are harder bosses in the game, but none pack the emotional wallop of Mom.
Monika (Doki Doki Literature Club)
Monika wants to be loved, but the dating sim part of Doki Doki doesn’t even include a route for her. What do you do when your favorite NPC isn’t a romance option? Monika takes this into her own hands, self-aware of the limitations of her own genre, and turns into one of the most terrifying video game villains of this decade. She manipulates the game itself and ultimately smashes through the fourth wall. But Monika learns her lesson; she realizes the best way to love the player is to let them be free, which is poetically conveyed in the game’s ending song.
Nathan Drake (Uncharted series)
Quick-witted action hero Nathan Drake is cut from the same cloth as countless Hollywood leading men, from Clark Gable to Harrison Ford. He’s a handsome, modern-day buccaneer whose sangfroid in the face of mortal danger puts James Bond to shame. He’s apt to make jokes about the sticky situations he finds himself in, and the many convoluted conspiracies he faces. But he also displays loyalty to those close to him.
The silent protagonist is a standard-issue tool for games that allow players to insert themselves into the story without having the main character’s thoughts and opinions influence their own. For most of the adventure that the titular Owlboy goes on, the silence around him is filled with the ruminations, opinions, and feelings of others, leaving Owlboy with only the ability to let his actions speak for him. Since he’s a silent hero, his own feelings are never put into question as the plot revolves around him. However, it isn’t until the game’s final moments that Owlboy reveals he can speak, and despite the emotional turmoil others have set upon him, he only wishes to know if everyone’s OK. With a few sentences, the facade built around him crumbles, and the game reveals a character with one of the biggest hearts this decade.
Paarthurnax (The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim)
Dragons are powerful and cruel. And Paarthurnax has certainly committed horrible crimes in his blood-soaked past. But in Skyrim, he is a pacifist who resides atop a mountain, contemplating his own nature and, like a monk of old, battling with his innate desires. He is a study in self-evaluation, remorse, and redemption.
Pagan Min (Far Cry 4)
The Far Cry series has always been good at churning out psychotic, charismatic villains. King Pagan Min is the most colorful and disturbing of the bunch. He’s a dandy “dear leader” type who rules the Himalayan nation of Kyrat with a toxic mixture of personal charm, relentless propaganda, criminal sponsorship, and brutality. But he’s also bursting with internal trauma based on his violent past (his father was a drug baron) and a tragic love affair with his greatest rival’s wife.
Parvati Holcomb (The Outer Worlds)
Parvati is the very first character you meet in The Outer Worlds, and if the internet at large is to be believed, she’s also the very best. The fans do have a point. Parvati is painfully genuine, and serves as a lens through which the player discovers the game universe for the first time. Her quest line in that game also tells a wonderful and important story, one that ties back into the character’s writer on a very personal level. It also helps that Parvati is voiced by the extraordinary Ashly Burch.
Player (Sunset Overdrive)
The main character in Sunset Overdrive — simply named Player — captures the hip, in-your-face attitude of the late ’90s, which is impressive for a game released in 2014. Even more impressive is that they’re never annoying. Sometimes they’re rude, or awkward at flirting, but that just makes them more relatable, never off-putting. Plenty of games make the main character vague and silent, to allow players to easily project themselves into them, but Sunset Overdrive bucks that trend, and hard. Player is snarky, meta-aware, occasionally confused, but always along for the ride, and honestly that’s what I strive for in life.
Prince Sidon (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild)
What is it about this strangely buff shark man? While The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is full of unique, memorable characters, none seemed to capture the internet’s heart more than Prince Sidon, one of the fishy Zora people. Yes, he’s got a surprisingly well-defined jaw and a winning smile for someone who seems to be more shark than Hylian, but beneath those fins beats a heart of gold. Who else shows up to cheer you on during the long journey to the heart of Zora’s domain? Nobody. Sidon is relentlessly upbeat, but always reminds Link that he believes in him. That faith in Link is cemented after he lets you ride across the waves in one of the game’s most memorable sequences: a battle against one of the Divine Beasts that pelts the area with rain. His enthusiasm is so endearing that I hope he returns in Breath of the Wild’s sequel.
Ratbag the Coward (Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor)
Ratbag is a craven, dishonest traitor who allies himself with his people’s enemy in his climb to power, for which he has little aptitude. He’s a creature of low courage and even lower intelligence, though he displays a brute knack for survival. He has no problem betraying his friends once they have served their usefulness. He is also self-deluded and embarrassingly boastful. He is destined for the top job, though his inept rule ends badly.
Sam Porter Bridges (Death Stranding)
Death Stranding’s hero is a porter who delivers goods across a post-apocalyptic America, connecting cities to a nationwide network. Sam is cynical about the world, yet he is prepared to be convinced otherwise for the sake of the woman he loves, so he sets out on his long journey in search of himself, and of her. Although he’s mostly a typical grizzled game-bloke protagonist, his character and personality are elevated by a superb performance from Norman Reedus, who imbues Sam with a humanity and need that’s rare in gaming’s leading men.
Samantha Greenbriar (Gone Home)
Though Sam never actually appears in Gone Home (apart from a family photograph), she is the driving force behind the game. What initially seems to be a straightforward mystery story turns into a surprisingly real portrait of adolescent queerness. Sam’s personality emerges slowly and in snippets, like a developing photograph. The picture that comes through is of a funny and creative young woman with a tender and rebellious heart. Years after finishing Gone Home, I still think about Sam. I hope that she’s happy out there somewhere — in San Francisco or Portland, probably — making queer feminist zines with her wife and two cats.
This cheeky little skeleton makes his first appearance in Undertale by doing the shake-hands-and-fart thing. From there we get to know this highly likable chap, who just wants to get through life with as little hassle as possible while cracking excruciating skeleton puns. When he makes a joke, the camera zooms in on him while he winks. It never gets old.
Scarlett and Finn (Blackwood Crossing)
Blackwood Crossing is one of the most underrated narrative games of the past 10 years. It’s the story of Scarlett, a teenage girl, and her troublesome younger brother Finn. Set on a train journey, the game’s various puzzles wonderfully allow us insights into the siblings’ relationship, which has been shaped by loss. The game takes place at a confusing time for the two, as Scarlett moves into adulthood, threatening to leave Finn behind. A genuine tear-jerker.
Senua (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice)
Senua is an ancient warrior who battles with mental illness. Throughout Ninja Theory’s thoughtful game, she struggles with her own psychosis, which she believes to be a curse wrought by demons. One of the voices in her head actually talks to the game’s player, and it’s often unclear if the things she sees are real or figments of her mental distress. Clearly, Senua was researched and written with appropriate respect for a sensitive subject.
Shane (Stardew Valley)
I just started my second playthrough of Stardew Valley and I thought I could resist him, but no dice. Shane is an aimless, depressed alcoholic who stocks shelves at the local JojaMart. He hates his job. He hates me, initially, when I first move to Pelican Town. If I give him a gift of his beloved red peppers, he thanks me warmly. If I follow up with a second interaction, he’ll ask why I’m talking to him. But giving Shane a single gift initiates a surprisingly sweet courtship, where he’ll send me recipes in the mail and refuse to speak to me in person. I’m a sucker for this. Dates with Shane reveal layers of insecurities. He feels like he’s “stuck in some miserable abyss” and worries that he’ll fail at trying anything. Marrying Shane doesn’t “fix” him, but you can give him a home and some chickens to raise, and sometimes that’s enough in this dark world.
—Simone de Rochefort
Shovel Knight (Shovel Knight)
Not only is Shovel Knight a stylishly designed character that stars in one of the decade’s best retro-inspired platformers, he also represents something much larger than himself. Shovel Knight, created by Yacht Club Games, is a lovely symbol of indie successes for the decade. The character crossed over into countless other games, and even became a Nintendo amiibo while still ushering his game and its several spinoffs across numerous platforms. And he did it all while wielding a humble shovel.
Sojiro Sakura (Persona 5)
Persona 5 has a lot of characters, but the warm arc that Sojiro goes through — from seeing the protagonist as a young rapscallion to treating him like his own son — melts the heart. In a world where barely any adults can be trusted, Sojiro supports the Phantom Thieves and provides them adult advice they often need to hear. He also brews a mean cup of coffee and cooks absolutely delicious curry.
Spider-Man (Marvel’s Spider-Man)
Here’s the thing: Spider-Man has been around for a while. If you don’t already know that Spider-Man is a great character, it’s pretty hard to make the case in a short blurb. But suffice it to say, he’s terrific in the PS4 exclusive Marvel’s Spider-Man, where he got his first excellent video game in quite some time, capturing all of the magic and sass that makes Peter Parker the true King of Queens.
Stanley and The Narrator (The Stanley Parable)
Every video game starts with an unspoken agreement. We, as the player, fulfill the tasks the game sets upon us without questioning the process. The plot or a narrator leads us down a path, and we see it through to its end willingly. But what if we broke that agreement? What if we shattered the reality of the game and worked in direct conflict with the whole concept of the game itself? In The Stanley Parable, you can contradict the game’s narrator, who in turn does their best to steer your actions back to the tale it wants to tell. You can repeat this transgression in multiple ways, leading to dozens of endings that are dark, humorous, and paradoxical, and which toy with the very ideas of video games themselves.
Tracer has been a vital character for the Overwatch franchise. Not only is she the cover woman of a competitive shooter, but she’s a gay woman — and that’s been important for a lot of fans who may not have otherwise seen queer characters in blockbuster video games. Like plenty of other Overwatch heroes, Tracer is often portrayed in fan art, as fans have reclaimed the characters and made them their own.
The Traveler (Journey)
This beautifully designed avatar drifts across the sands of Journey, one of the most lovely games of all time. They — the Traveler is genderless — do not speak, but rather chirp greetings to other travelers they encounter. They spend solemn and touching moments with gods before reaching a notoriously emotional denouement atop a windy mountain.
Trico (The Last Guardian)
Trico’s mishmash of cat, bird, dog, and deer was animated so lovingly that it was easy for many players to see a beloved pet in his large brown eyes. Below the surface there was something even more impressive, but also more intangible: his behavior. Ignore Trico’s whimpering, feed him only what’s necessary, and he responds at a leisurely pace. But if you are quick to comfort him when he’s injured and find every food barrel you can, Trico becomes an ardent companion, willing to overcome his mortal fear of stained glass in order to protect you from harm.
Venom Snake (Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain)
Venom Snake is one of the more complex characters in all of Metal Gear — an impressive feat, to be sure. The Big Boss character lost a lot with the switch from series regular David Hayter to celebrity voice talent Kiefer Sutherland. But Venom Snake makes the list because he isn’t the hero. He’s masquerading as the real Big Boss, unknowingly, and represents what a person can be if they’re told exactly who they are. There’s nothing special about Venom Snake, but he plays a convincing Big Boss. Like Venom Snake, we aren’t heroes, but we play them well enough.
Willow Pape (Kim Kardashian: Hollywood)
Willow Pape is, hands down, the pettiest mean girl I’ve ever encountered in video games. From the moment she appears in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, she has a single-minded determination to destroy my reputation and career. Willow’s dialogue — from accusing me of flirting with her ex to starting rumors about me on Twitter — is so delightfully over the top and campy that I can’t help but get sucked into the drama. I’ve never cared about anything as much as Willow Pape cares about humiliating me. Thwarting her is more satisfying than beating a thousand Dark Souls bosses.
Don’t miss the rest of Polygon’s end-of-decade coverage.