Though a protagonist’s eyes, we experience new worlds.
Playing a video game for the first time, the main character provides a means, through which we experience the world of the game. If the game is fun, dramatic, action-packed, the protagonist should generally reflect that. And of course, some protagonists do this job far better than others, bringing far more to the table than most.
These protagonists are my favorites in all of gaming. Their individual personalities, the ways in which they let the player experience the game, their general design, all combine to create memorable characters that stand as some of the best of the video game medium–at least, in my eyes.
Having said that–here’s my personal top ten protagonists of gaming!
10. Kirby (Kirby Series)
The Super Tuff Pink Puff starts off my top ten, being undeniably one of the CUTEST protagonists of gaming. Iconic with his simplicity, and cemented as a legend by virtue of his great, fun games, Kirby as a protagonist is defined by his colorful nature, both literally and figuratively.
Every detail we can glean about him from his games, speaks to his general innocent, happy nature. He helps people who need helping, doesn’t stand for the stealing of his food, and enjoys being with his friends. For a series that aims to be family-friendly, easily accessible, and just plain fun, I can’t think of any greater protagonist than Kirby.
From his pink design, to his voracious appetite, and the way he devours his enemies whole without a second thought, Kirby is just a fun protagonist, for a fun series, that I’ve personally had a lot of good times with. Simple as that.
9. Travis Touchdown (No More Heroes series)
If Kirby was the representative of good, wholesome, family-friendly fun, Travis Touchdown is the video game essence of strange, decidedly un-family friendly fun.
A 27-year old assassin with a beam katana, who also happens to be a pro wrestling and anime enthusiast, Travis Touchdown is a rather crass, uncultured, brash individual. He lives in poverty, becoming an assassin for the United Assassin’s Association, purely to buy more video games, with the knowledge he has accumulated from his days of watching wrestling and anime. Along the way, he finds himself increasingly motivated by love, friendship, and the promises of sex, to become the greatest assassin, and to exact revenge on those people who’d hurt his friends.
It’s a ludicrous concept, further exaggerated by his sadistic, yet strangely honorable personality. But somehow, it works so well.
No More Heroes is a game that makes fun of all sorts of stereotypical action-adventure tropes, and Travis Touchdown as a protagonist is perfect for making fun of said tropes. It’s a fun adventure, made more fun by having such a snarky asshole of a protagonist the one you’re in control of. However, he shows just enough honor, just enough moral strength, to be a protagonist that you can get behind and genuinely like.
He’s a strange guy, but you know, it works for him.
8. Arthas Menethil (Warcraft III)
I realize that Arthas is very much NOT a protagonist for much of the lifespan of Warcraft. In fact, he is probably one of the most notorious antagonists of the series as a whole. However, in Warcraft III, you get to experience the events that made him that way first-hand, and they provide some interesting insight to his character.
Arthas, Prince of the human kingdom of Lordaeron, should have been one of the greatest paladins of humanity, a King to be revered and respected. However, as fate would have it, in his vengeful wrath towards the new Undead Legion, he began to lose sight of himself. Taking up the cursed blade, Frostmourne, he unknowingly surrendered his soul, ultimately taking command of the very forces he set out to destroy.
The thing about Arthas as a protagonist, is that throughout Warcraft III, the player gets to see for himself, just how slowly Arthas lost his way. He was pretty honorable fellow at first, a man who had romance in his grasp, and was driven by a deep-seated care for his people. But so gradually, so subtly, that care was poisoned.
As the main playable character for most of Warcraft III, you get a first-hand experience of this corruption, and it is a downright pleasure. The player can feel his power rise, through the story and through the gameplay, allowing for Arthas to become, in my experience, one of the most engaging protagonists of gaming.
He really does end up becoming quite messed up though, and I love him (as a character) for that.
7. John Price (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Trilogy)
Captain John Price, let’s be honest, is probably the best part of the Modern Warfare campaigns.
Throughout the events of the three games, Price is a top-tier badass. The epitome of a proud military man. Leading numerous secret operations, essentially stopping World War 3 on his own, and fighting for the sake of his comrades-in-arms, Price consistently displays a personal sense of honor, grit, and determination. Whether it’s refusing to follow the misguided orders of his superiors, hunting the head of an ultranationalist terrorist cell without any backup, or simply looking out for his men, everything John Price does, you follow.
Call of Duty has become a worn-out title, but somehow, Price’s actions and words helped me to feel that sense of duty that the series so clearly seeks to provoke. Many of the first-person shooters I’ve played have attracted people based on their story, or the cool characters, or the fast-paced action, but none have created a protagonist quite like Price.
He’s a normal guy. No advanced suit like the Master Chief, no special powers like in Bioshock, and no appealing design choices, like in Overwatch. He’s just a normal, tough dude with a British accent, who chooses to fight what he sees is evil and wrong in the world, knowing full well that he might die in the process.
No FPS series before or since, has created a protagonist quite so honorable.
6. Link (The Legend of Zelda Series)
Okay, The Legendary Hero HAD to be on here at some point.
Link is, in many ways, the classic hero of the video game world, what Achilles was to classic Greek literature. He is THE protagonist, with a singular classic character design that endures throughout the ages. With the Master Sword in hand, and the Triforce of Courage giving him strength, he fights back the evil that would threaten the land of Hyrule, the immortal darkness known as “Ganon.”
Nintendo has a knack for creating “classic” characters, but if one were to separate himself from the rest of the pack as a classic “protagonist,” it would be Link. In any game, no matter what, Link just FEELS heroic. Link is going through tough trials insurmountable odds, and by proxy, the player feels that they are going through them as well.
He’s a great protagonist in that manner, in how he is intrinsically defined as the good guy. But, sad to say, that is precisely what keeps Link at only number six on my list. As a hero, Link is undoubtedly one of, if not the best heroes in all of gaming. However, he doesn’t have much independent personality to speak of, so, despite being everything that a playable character needs, he doesn’t distinguish himself very well, as far as protagonists go.
Doesn’t stop him from being awesome though, no matter what game he appears in.
5. Phoenix Wright (Ace Attorney Series)
If we’re talking about personality, then good ol’ Phoenix Wright has got plenty to go around. Awkward, lovable, and caring, with a penchant for defense in the courtroom, Phoenix has tackled many cases that were deemed by many to be lost causes. Turning certain defeat into victory at the last second, Phoenix’s miraculous ability to cause turnabouts has earned him notoriety in the legal system. Starting off as a carefree newcomer, Phoenix grows throughout the series to becomes a veteran of the law, an honest defense attorney, all while staying true to his caring, easy-going self.
Phoenix is a character I really love, simply because he breaks the mold of what you’d expect most video game protagonists to be. He’s undoubtedly one of the most respectable, determined, and talented people in his own universe, while simultaneously being one of the biggest dweebs I’ve ever seen in gaming. From his cheeky smile, to his fierce shouts of “OBJECTION!,” you get a sense that Phoenix is a nerd at heart, but you still get to experience some brilliant moments with him.
He’s a great protagonist for you to experience the game with, but he has such a clear personality, that Phoenix really stands out as his own character. Simply put, he’s a cool guy, and the Ace Attorney gives you ample opportunity to get to know him yourself.
4. Lucas (Mother 3)
Perhaps the best example of dramatic character growth in a video game, the story of Lucas is something that is not easily forgotten.
Lucas, a youth living happily with his family on the Nowhere Islands, in the village of Tazmily, has everything he could ever want. Parents that care for him, a brother to have fun with, a natural paradise to enjoy his days–everything seems perfect. Of course, things don’t remain that way. His mother dies in an accident, his strong brother has disappeared, and his father has been crippled by sadness.
Everything has gone wrong, Tazmily is changing, Lucas is left to grow up in a strange new world, corrupted by the Pig Mask Army. Lucas is the only one that can stop it, with his unique PSI powers, that distinguish him from anyone else. But the question remains: how can this once-weak, scared youth, face his fears and turn it all around?
Mother 3 has earned a reputation as a contender for the most emotional game of all time, and the story of Lucas is a large argument as to why it might very well deserve that title. It’s an extremely poignant tale, probably the best coming-of-age story in all of gaming, and it doesn’t hold back at all. Throughout the game, we receive a clear sense of just what sort of growth Lucas has had to go through, making him both a fun character to play as, and a great protagonist, in a game that’s just as strange and emotional as he is.
Lucas is the character that has perhaps the most “classic,” or “literary,” development out of any character in gaming. His life is a tragedy that you get to experience first hand, and yet, Lucas doesn’t lose his individuality in the midst of the video game. He’s still most certainly a character with his own quirks and traits, one that feels right to play as during the game, and for combining all these factors, Lucas had to be among my favorite video game protagonists.
3. Kratos (God of War Series)
When you think of brutality in gaming, what video game character comes to mind? Well, if your answer is anyone other than Kratos, you’re wrong.
The new God of War, the Spartan Kratos, has had an…interesting life, to say the least. Whether it’s fighting mythical creatures such as the Cerberus or the Fates, or taking on literally the entire Greek Pantheon, nothing stops Kratos’ thirst for bloody, bloody revenge. Driven by both the death of his wife and daughter, as well as the treachery of the Olympians, Kratos makes a promise, to kill every one of the Greek gods, no matter what the cost.
Kratos is power personified. Playing as him in the game, is to gain power over the lives of your enemies, over the gods themselves. It’s the ultimate power fantasy, and it is carried out immaculately, through gameplay, story, and of course, through Kratos himself. However, that doesn’t stop Kratos from being a superficial, badly developed character– on the contrary, his honorable anger, his conflicts with the demons of his past, and his struggles with the consequences of his actions, give him a lot of personality, and make him an extremely engaging character to boot.
There are many other characters that attempt to cater to people’s desire for power, from Bayonetta, to Dante, to Asura, but none of them have done it quite as well as Kratos.
2. Samus Aran (Metroid Franchise)
Known to those who fear her as “The Hunter,” Samus Aran makes her case for being the most badass woman in gaming, and a damn good protagonist while she’s at it–perhaps even the best.
In the Metroid universe, the Galactic Federation is the largest sovereign government, the main source of order in the galaxy. However, as one might expect across such a huge space as a galaxy, threats would arise that were rather difficult to track down with any large military force. To combat these new threats, most notably, the Space Pirates, as they arose, bounty hunters were hired–the most famous of which, is Samus Aran. Having battled Space Pirates, Phazon-corrupted planets, and of course, the titular Metroid parasites, Samus has made a name for herself as the best, always there to combat the newest threat to the galaxy.
Samus is a character that has earned notoriety for being the first notable female protagonist in any video game, as well as surprising gamers in the manner in which it was done. Everyone assumed that this armored titan, this cyborg-robot-suited-badass thing was male, and to find out that Samus was actually a woman–man, people still list it as one of the biggest “plot twists” of gaming history.
But beyond this, I enjoy Samus as a protagonist for how well her personality is expressed, through her stoic professionalism. The way in which she is characterized throughout her games is unique, in that she isn’t a mute, but rather, she has the attitude of someone who has a job, and needs to get it done. It’s obvious that she still cares about the well-being of the galaxy, but she doesn’t ever, EVER waste time complaining, waiting around for someone to explain what needs to be done– she finds that out for herself. She is the ultimate gaming icon of independence, she is the ultimate badass of gaming, and she does it all without even trying.
2. Shulk (Xenoblade Chronicles)
The wielder of the legendary Monado, Shulk from Xenoblades Chronicles, is an interesting character, who, all things considered, is rather hard to explain.
In any world, one has to wonder about the highest powers–do they exist? Who are they, what are they like, how strong are they? The Xeno universe makes these questions very clear from the get-go, as its inhabitants live on the two giant lifeforms, the dormant Gods, Bionis, and Mechonis. On the Bionis in particular, lives the Homs race, of which, Shulk is a part of.
He starts off the game as a humble researcher, a kind-hearted soul who was content with researching the legendary Monado, and the world around him, with an objective lens. However, when his town gets raided by the monstrous Mechon, he finds himself thrust into an adventure, gifted by the Monado with the power to see the future. Along the way, he starts to learn more about himself, that the world is a lot bigger than he could have imagined, and that those called “Gods” aren’t as great as they might first appear to be.
Shulk has received criticism from many places, stating that he is a rather bland JRPG protagonist. With stereotypical determination, stereotypical special powers, and a personality that, to many, didn’t stand out much, Shulk has received criticism as a character that blended in far too much with the rest of the cast. Suffice to say, I disagree.
I appreciate Shulk for being a character that doesn’t have to try too hard to have his own personality, and for being someone that, similar to Phoenix Wright, I’d love to talk to at some point. He is a normal guy with lame jokes, and a thirst for knowledge, tossed into a world of adventure, and I really enjoy that dynamic, which is displayed throughout Xenoblade Chronicles. This “normal” dynamic allows for some wonderful thematic moments as the game progresses, as the ordinary Homs, Shulk, ends up in conflict with the gods, championing the power of the average man.
His personality, and presence as a protagonist, is simply pleasant. Shulk had power, Shulk was a fun protagonist to play as, a unique character with his own unique, caring personality traits, but he never felt completely disconnected from me, the player. He was a character that I felt I could walk through the game with on equal terms, a character that I related to in a way that other, more dramatic characters, simply weren’t able to accomplish.
In a world of over-the-top video game protagonists, Shulk came along, and showed that being normal, with normal goals, a normal life, wasn’t a bad thing. The themes of Xenoblade Chronicles were, in this way, perfectly reflected off Shulk, in a way that no other video game I’ve seen has done with its protagonist. It was refreshing, it was nice, and it’s why I consider Shulk my favorite video game protagonist of all time.
So. Who’s your favorite protagonist of gaming? I realize I’ve missed a LOT of wonderful protagonists, so I’m curious to know if there’s any character out there that you think deserves a mention!
Leave a comment down below!