Video game protagonists have inarguably become more varied, multi-layered, and well-crafted over the years. Last console generation saw a few too many burly hyper-masculinized soldiers and space marines, but in this generation, we’ve done pretty well.
We have a lot more female protagonists, characters with real tangible growth and change, and protagonists able to laugh at themselves a little. The problem with many games is that they seem to forget that they are usually stories, and if you sit through a book or a film and see little change in its characters, you’ll come away feeling cheated. Games have realized that now, too, and so here we have the results of that realization.
The aforementioned masculine skinhead soldier is personified in BJ Blazkowicz, but the guys at MachineGames did a stand-up job of making this soldier a human underneath all the grunts and guns.
BJ Blazkowicz is a man tormented by an abusive childhood, as his father lashed out and his mother cowered. In the series’ first game, BJ fell in love with a young Polish woman who proves herself to have more than just strength of character, but strength in her actions as well.
Through his relationship with Anya, who later becomes pregnant, we see BJ actually grow. He strengthens and softens in his personality and actions, and changes as a direct result of his relationship with Anya. BJ is a perfect example of a male protagonist who shows actual depth and growth of character.
Stay with me on this one: Doomguy is a voiceless, faceless protagonist in a big green suit. We see through his eyes and encounter story beats as he does. We know nothing of his life and backstory, and he serves simply as a vessel for our demon-killing escapades. Despite this, id Software has managed to create a hilarious, ridiculous character through his actions alone.
As Doom plays out, we are treated to snippets of information through minor cutscenes and dialogue from other characters in the world—usually bad guys—but Doomguy has little interest in what’s actually going on in the world around him. Without your say so, he often decides to cut the conversation short by smashing or breaking console screens and intercoms. He flails angrily and punches his way through everything, assuming it’ll get the job done, and it often does.
He is a fantastically funny character, just through his silent aggression alone. He knows you’re not really in this game for the story, and so he doesn’t make you listen to it. Let’s just get to the killing.
She might be a little whiney, and suffer from an increase in skill, but not so much in confidence. The first game may have some serious issues with ludonarrative dissonance, but the new rendition of Lara Croft has done wonders for the state of female protagonists in action games.
Whereas before she was a form of fanservice (albeit mostly made of angular shapes) for male fans to enjoy, the new Lara is a young woman who goes through cycles of rebirth (metaphorically shown by all those times in the first game that she passes through a dark, wet tunnel into the light at the end) and emerges a hardened, skilful survivor.
Lara learns and grows in strength and understanding, and that is demonstrated through the game's skilltrees and upgrade systems as well as through the journey itself. This series’ goal was to show a young rich girl becoming a strong wilderness predator, and they definitely achieved that.
If BJ Blazkowicz is the archetypal burly male given depth of character, then Joel is almost the antithesis of that; an ordinary working man who suffered the loss of his daughter at the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse, only to then go on surviving on autopilot.
Upon meeting a girl of a similar age to the daughter he lost, Joel’s heart begins to warm and he learns to once again be a father as he and Ellie survive a perilous journey together. Once again, the key to this character is growth, and Joel does this better than anyone.
At the start we see what a good father he had once been, and are then forced to see him at his lowest, only to finally watch him redeem his love for humanity (and even his own self-worth) as he is given purpose. He begins to joke and love and fight harder for the survival of the girl he has learned to love.
Picking up where Lara Croft left off in the fight for the AAA game industry’s acknowledgment and celebration of good, strong female protagonists, Aloy is absolutely worth celebrating. She is a fierce protagonist, once again growing from a naïve young girl to a woman who can conquer her landscape, fears, and enemies.
The game does a terrific job of giving the player a character of intrigue with plenty of room to explore and shape the world around her. Aloy is our eyes and ears in a fantastic post-apocalyptic landscape filled with unique characters and excellent enemy designs. She’s an integral part of the game’s story, rather than a character who simply moves through it, and that’s what makes her work so well.
Senua is unique in that she is struggling through a series of severe and debilitating mental health issues. She is a woman who cannot trust her surroundings and, as a result, allows the player to wonder if the game they are experiencing is really there at all. Her doubts and fears and struggles become ours, in a far more intimate way than in most games.
While so many protagonists provide us with challenges in the sense that their fights are our fights—and our tactics ensure their survival—no character allows such a visceral connection as Senua. Hera mental health indicates how the player perceives and deals with the world of the game and its hurdles and challenges. She is a woman with whom we form a complicated bond with; one that's formed from sadness and empathy.
It is not an easy game to play through, and that’s what makes it work so well; that’s what makes it such a unique success.
These two protagonists are unique in a number of ways, the first being their parallel-but-also-tangential storytelling. The game is designed to be played through multiple times: the first run is as 2B, with 9S providing support, witty remarks, and philosophical questions. The second run is as 9S, experiencing the same story through a different lens.
These characters call into focus the importance of perspective, as the game’s multiple runs do far more than simply alter and mix up the gameplay a little. The disparate experiences and attitudes of these two characters actually allow us a real, tangible sense of empathy. What we experience in any given situation is often unique to us, and felt differently by the person next to us. That’s the biggest gift that these two androids offer us: empathy.
Kiryu-chan is perhaps the ultimate player protagonist. It's a bold statement, but few other characters lean into that very apparent dissonance between incredible story and ridiculous gameplay/side-content.
The Yakuza series is all about two things: complex, family-driven stories about betrayal, violence, honor, and strife in Japan’s gangster underworld; and absurdist fantasies about overpowered macho men beating each other to death on the street between a karaoke session and a disco dance contest.
Kiryu handles both of these things with style and grace. His baritone voice and grim complexion allow for fantastic moments of real somber storytelling as well as hilarious straight-laced comedy on the dancefloor. Kiyru is everything an action game could possibly want in a protagonist, and more.
The first game in the series, Red Dead Redemption (ignoring for a moment what was technically the series’ first game, Red Dead Revolver, for lack of any real characterization), set the bar for what a good protagonist could be with John Marston.
Characterized by redemption, as the name suggests, John’s arc was all about bringing his old gangmates to justice in an attempt to free his wife and son from the clutches of the local government. Going into the second game, it’s honestly hard to believe how they could top that kind of redemptive arc, but by golly they did it. While it’s unfair to discuss what makes Arthur Morgan such a complex character, just know that Arthur Morgan will go down in history as one of gaming’s great protagonists.
As the subject of toxic masculinity has been at the lips of more and more people in recent years, God of War and its wonderful director Cory Barlog seem to have built the new version of Kratos as a response to that topic.
The old Kratos was a two-dimensional, blood-covered killing machine. He was brutality, rage, and amorality personified. He grunted and screamed and rampaged across the world until it eventually led to his downfall. Now, he has another shot. He is learning to be a better man, a good father, a wise teacher. As he teaches his son to be a man, so too he teaches himself how to be a father and a role model. He sees his son, at times, infected with that same blinding rage that so often debilitated him, and he must keep his own anger in check in order to ensure a better future for his son. This nuanced approach to storytelling and characterization is heartwarming, and it’s what makes Kratos the PS4’s greatest protagonist.