It was slim pickings this year for new videogame characters. While many major AAA titles were released in 2018, including Spider-Man, a Tomb Raider game, a new Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 5, the long-awaited Red Dead Redemption 2, and the reboot of God of War, there was still a lot of overlap and repetition among their casts, often challenging the definition of what a truly “new” character really is. There may have been many fresh faces, but most of them weren’t protagonists, which is disappointing but emblematic of an industry focused so much on sequels.
But what unique characters were introduced this year shined brightly, from historical heroes and mythic storytellers, to sassy skulls and socialist livestock. Whether they starred in a big blockbuster a game from a smaller studio, they stood out for their personalities, for their backstories, for the way they made us laugh, cry and think. Through them we pondered the unattainability of redemption, the challenges of parenthood, and the fragile vulnerability of being a child. We processed our own identities, pondered our social impact, and contemplated the acceptance of fate and death. And sometimes we just enjoyed ourselves.
From the comic relief clowns, to the hamfisted puberty metaphors, to the characters that remind us of the power and importance of representation in videogames, here’s who entertained and inspired us in 2018, in no particular order.—Holly Green
While Atreus goes through some seriously obnoxious growing pains through the course of God of War, in the end he’s a sweet kid whose inclusion in the game adds an interesting new dimension to its combat system as well as a new angle to pursue for the future of God of War’s narrative. In both a spiritual and practical sense, Atreus facilitates a rebirth for his father and the series, and is one of the only characters to ever have the guts to challenge Krato’s selfish horseshit. While the current narrative path he’s on suggests trouble to come, especially given Atreus’ true identity, for now, he’s one lovable little dude.—Holly Green
As one of the guns-for-hire in Far Cry 5, Grace doesn’t have a lot of lines, but she’s an Olympic medaling former U.S. Army sniper, which automatically makes her one of the toughest characters in the game (especially compared to the Seed family, who as Paste Games head honcho Garrett Martin once said, look like The Lumineers quit the band to start a series of competing artisanal mustard companies). Add to that the ability to direct her around a perimeter and issue sniper fire while taking an outpost in complete stealth mode and she’s among the most valuable team members, too. I much preferred her company to literally anyone else in the game.—Holly Green
It’s impossible to miss Nigel in Red Dead Redemption 2—you can hear him from several feet away. When Arthur Morgan first meets him during Red Dead Redemption 2, he’s wandering around Rhodes screaming, “Gavin?? GAV!!” in search of his business partner who mysteriously disappeared in the night. While you may expect Nigel to give Arthur a quest to track down his friend, he actually doesn’t, opting to search for his companion himself—leading to a few additional encounters elsewhere, like Saint Denis. Whether or not Gavin was kidnapped or just skipped town is anyone’s guess—if you run into Nigel in the epilogue 8 years later, he can be found in Blackwater, still looking for Gavin, and by now looking worse for wear. A letter on his person indicates Gavin did in fact once exist, but as to what happened to him, there are no clues. Chances are, Nigel never found out what became of his partner, making him a tragic, rather than comedic, character.—Holly Green
I never felt an affinity towards Metroid games or any of the games they inspired. I recognize their importance in gaming history, and the impact they have on players both young and old, but the titles never interested me. But looking at it through the lens of a person of color, I see its appeal, its ability to create a sense of wonder and discovery. The form may have started with the reveal of a white, blonde woman, but time has shown how much this style of game belongs now to women with darker skin and darker hair. Dandara and Lunair don’t flinch at the new places they uncover; they merely keep moving, determined to finish their quest. But as I play I feel my own excitement billow out around me, as if I’ve unlocked something new within myself.—Shonte Daniels
The best thing about Sadie Adler is that she’s completely her own woman. Over the course of Red Dead Redemption 2, she goes from widow to outlaw to bounty hunter, all the while straddling the line between chaotic good and neutral. I expected her by the end of the game to have paired up with one of the other members of the gang (ok, I was hoping she would hook up with Arthur) but throughout the epilogue she remained to true to herself, proving loyal to the husband she lost, and to her own freedom, even years after his death. Above all, she’s level-headed and a fantastic shot, and takes shit from no one. Her actions at the end of Arthur Morgan’s arc also ensured that John and Abby had a fair shot at raising their son and protecting their family, making her among the only true heroes in the entire game.—Holly Green
While Mimir’s role in God of War is a bit hamfisted, positioning him as some kind of loremaster of Norse history, nonetheless it’s an important one. After all, God of War is about mythology, and the reboot sets it in a whole new land with a whole new set of gods, which means a lot of drama and soap opera antics to get caught up on to fully understand the dynamics between all the characters. Listening to Mimir tell stories while adrift on the Lake of Nine was as relaxing as it was illuminating, and Mimir himself is a good moral compass for Kratos as he wrestles with how to raise his son as a god. Here’s hoping Mimir will become a staple of the inevitable reboot trilogy.—Holly Green
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a bit of a contradiction in the sense that it asks the player to believe Arthur Morgan is struggling with his own moral complicity, but then forces them to participate in a lot of bad behavior in order to complete the game. There’s no real way to explore Arthur’s evolution through his personal actions, making it hard to believe Arthur is sincere in his doubts about his role in the Van Der Linde gang. That being said, Arthur seems to understand that he can’t make up for the mistakes he’s made, that he can’t ask for forgiveness or kindness or even tolerance from those he hurt, and that making it right means sitting in judgment and refusing to angle for relief from your guilt. For that, the crusty old cowboy earned my respect.—Holly Green
If you’re someone who rarely sees people who look like you, there is something powerful in playing as or alongside characters that remind you of your history, instead of being asked to constantly empathize with characters who have nothing in common with you. It’s something intimately familiar to any game player who doesn’t fit the mold of the most common protagonist stereotypes, and it’s one that more diverse casts in games can work against. The media that we consume will always affect us on some level. Games have a long way to go before they can reach anything on the level of parity in terms of representation, but it’s games like Battletech, willing to provide a diverse and engaging cast of characters without reducing them to stereotypes or using them as mouthpieces for entire cultures, that stand out as a step forward.—Dante Douglas
While I’m sad to see that Life is Strange 2 doesn’t have strong female leads, the story of Sean and Daniel feels equally compelling and important as the original. The first chapter does a great job of establishing the momentum of the game’s narrative arc. The Diaz boys are very easy to root for, and the pain Sean feels as he must protect his younger brother from the truth of their father’s absence is palpable. The more you participate in the bonding experience of being an older brother, the closer the events seem to hit home. By the end of the chapter, I felt genuine fear for the boys and, while I usually don’t waste time speculating on how a piece of fiction will end, I found myself hoping for the best.—Holly Green
It’s not just that the donkey from Graveyard Keeper spouts off communist rhetoric from the moment you meet him—it’s that he delivers his speeches on workers rights with such conviction that he will literally leave a giant turd in the middle of the path from the farm to the church if you do not pay him for his work. For all that sass from that ass, he’s one of the best characters in the game, despite his otherwise minimal presence.—Holly Green
There are an innumerable amount of women in history who are forgotten or ignored. Dandara, while not completely lost to time, lacks the same sort of remembrance as her husband, but her strength and mystery has certainly lived through her in death. The game isn’t a historical look at Dandara’s life as a warrior and Black liberator, but it uses Dandara’s courage and resilience against oppression as inspiration for the game’s main character. Dandara is as dizzying and mystifying as the woman it’s named after. The game’s story is sparse because its story is simple: When Dandara sees oppression, she fights to end it. What more needs to be said?—Shonte Daniels
It would impossible to single out any specific character from Where The Water Tastes Like Wine so we’ll simply go with them all. Each written by a separate author and reflecting a deep variety of identities and perspectives from American history, and as Garrett Martin wrote earlier this year, “[these] characters and their tribulations are borne out of what lies at the heart of this game. Before American culture became monolithic, before the radio and TV and the internet broadcast the same media to the nation, before franchise stores and shopping malls and Amazon killed local stores and made retail a “one size fits all” proposition, this was truly a country of distinct regions, with distinct citizens and values, and distinct stories that they would tell about themselves and their world. It was an older, weirder America, one where mystery and superstition held more power than today, and where stories about the unusual things that can happen to regular people could pass into legend with an endless array of variations. These stories were shaped by the values of not just the teller, but of an entire region, just one of the subcultures that together made up America.”—Holly Green
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has two playable characters, and if you pick Alexios, you’ve already lost. Despite being an inhumanly skilled assassin in a world where myth still looms large, Kassandra is refreshingly down-to-earth. She’s no-nonsense when she’s working but convivial and non-judgmental when she’s not, approaching every weird side-mission request with an amused skepticism that betrays only a bit of condescension. It’s not just that she has a sense of humor, but that she has a confidence and self-assuredness that’s rare for videogame characters, and which her well-meaning but boring brother totally lacks. This is the first time since Ezio Auditore where I’ve wanted Assassin’s Creed to stick with the same protagonist for at least another game.—Garrett Martin