A great protagonist can make a game’s entire experience because whether it’s between levels or entire games, you are waiting to see what your hero is going to do next. The anticipation to see how they will deal with the next set of problems or resolve the ones that were introduced already is exciting.
These characters we connect with over time, and while some of them might not be the most iconic, their stories, grief, struggles, and accomplishments are what stick with us long after we part ways. These are the top ten protagonists in gaming that we love to follow along on their journeys.
Master Chief – Halo
Let’s get it out of the way. The Master Chief may have started out as a near-silent protagonist but through books and proceeding games, his personality and tragedy have stuck with me. From the very beginning where he is just a super soldier that follows orders to the heartbreak of letting down his AI companion to the frustration of dealing with UNSC politics, an aging AI, and the ever-evolving war between humanity and the remnant of the Covenant, the Master Chief has become more than just a character to project ourselves through.
He has become that quiet friend in the corner who looks out for everyone through thick and thin and asks nothing in return despite having a past that could make even Cormac McCarthy cry. We care about him despite him only sharing one or two fun facts about himself because he is the reassurance we need that everything will be okay.
Lara Croft – Tomb Raider
I could not have cared less about Tomb Raider up until the reboot in 2013. Tomb Raider (2013) depicts a Lara that is still figuring things out. She isn’t the all-knowing badass that can easily conquer any situation.
She’s learning, she’s emotional, she’s clumsy, but she still kicks a lot of ass. She will be put into some really dire situation, but she’ll find a way to pull through. This is a brutal retelling of her story and one that makes her feel not only more real as a character but a lot more vulnerable and inspiring.
Ethan Mars – Heavy Rain
Ethan Mars was a family man with a good job, great house, and nowhere to go, but up, it seemed. That is until his son was hit by a car and killed, causing Ethan to spiral. He got divorced and moved into a tiny apartment where his living son, Shaun, would visit him on occasion.
Shaun doesn’t really want to be there with him, and it all just feels so sad. However, Shaun gets kidnapped, which sends Ethan on a manhunt for the kidnapper and save Shaun. We get to see a lot of great emotional scenes with Ethan, and though Heavy rain stars a few protagonists, I was always on Ethan’s side and hoping he would save his son and finally put a stop to the gruesome murder.
Clementine – The Walking Dead
Rarely do we have the opportunity to watch a character grow as much as we did with Clementine. We first meet Clementine when she was just a little girl alone in her home. She was unaware that her parents were long gone, but luckily, Lee Everett stumbles upon her and takes her under his supervision.
He protects her and begins her survival training so that she can continue to survive long after Lee passes away. Clementine is then on her own and must make her own decisions. She goes from being a cute defenseless kid to a survivor, and I hope that she continues to make the best of every situation that is thrown at her.
Ezio Auditore – Assassin’s Creed
The other character on this list that we get to see develop, learn, and change is Ezio Auditore, the fan-favorite assassin for many. We witness many key points in his life from his birth to his death, and the transformation that this man goes through over the course of the three games is striking.
He went from a cocky and arrogant teenager to a skilled killer to a wise leader. The best part is that we were able to come along for the entire journey. I wish extended character arcs like this could still happen in Assassin’s Creed because it made the franchise all the more engaging. Ezio was and will probably always be one of my favorite characters in any medium.
Joel – The Last of Us
Joel was first introduced as a loving and hard-working father that was trying to do right by his daughter, but tragedy tore a part of him away. He became callous and less willing to trust anyone. Until he managed to meet Ellie, who became a daughter to him.
She made him begin to see the beauty in a world so fully torn apart. She gave him hope that there was a real reason to continue to survive, and he even risked all of humanity’s survival just for her. Their relationship became complicated after the first game, but the two always loved one another, whether they were open about it or not. He isn’t the altruistic hero that games try to implement all the time. He’s complicated, broken, and just doing his best.
Kratos – God of War
In the original games, you could simply write Kratos off as a pretty one-dimensional character. His family was torn away from him, and he was taken advantage of by the Gods on more than one occasion. He is angry and vengeful as the games depict him clobbering the Gods and demons. It really is just a trilogy of cathartic emotions, but in the soft reboot, things change. The brutal anger of Kratos has been subdued as he tries to start again.
He wants to leave the past behind and have a quiet life raising his son, but unfortunately, that is not his destiny. He needs to accept his past in order to save his present, and he is meant to intertwine the two for as long as he may live, it seems. The original games gave him a goal, but the reboot gave him a real purpose.
William Blazkowicz – Wolfenstein
“Terror Billy,” the Nazi’s greatest fear embodied–with a heart beating for America and a fist like a bulldozer–Blazkowics is one tough guy. However, there needs to be a little suspension of disbelief for the ridiculous scenarios that he is able to survive, but the relationships that he builds with his fellow resistance members is touching to see.
And though I find them a little heavy-handed at times, even his little poetic monologues give insight into the man that otherwise would only be shooting lead into mecha soldiers. His profession is a killer, but he has the soul of someone who should be going to morning breakfast at the diner with his wife and kid.
Commander Shepard – Mass Effect
Commander Shepard, ultimately, is who the player decides that he/she is meant to be. However, in the grand scheme of the games, they are still a fighter willing to put everything on the line to save the universe from total annihilation. It makes it even better because, unlike every other game that allows player choice and has multiple iterations, the choices that are made in Mass Effect carry over to the next game.
This helps to retain the continuity between entries and make the player feel like their Shepard is the definitive version of the character. He could be a bold leader taking divisive action to save a species or a bumbling idiot flying by the seat of their pants.
John Marston – Red Dead Redemption
I bought Red Dead Redemption on a whim. I had no interest in Westerns and didn’t even think that the story looked interesting. However, I’m so glad that I did because John Marston became one of my favorite characters in gaming. His gentle nature and determination to move away from a past that he was ashamed of was great to see.
I was rooting for him to shake from the last tendrils of the past that were grabbing at him. He was the good-natured man who just wanted to live peacefully on his farm with his family. He eventually was able to do just that, but it was short-lived, and I have never been more shocked at the end of a Rock Star game than I was then. He may have proved his goodwill to the audience, but his sins were too deep to run from.