“Brains! Brains brains. Brains brains. Brains! Brains brains brains! Brains BRAINS brains! Brains. Brains BRAINS… braaiiins. Brains! BRAINS! Brains. BRAAAAAAIIIIINSSSS!!”
Allow me to tell you about the halcyon days of 2005. Max Brooks had just written The Zombie Survival Guide two years prior; Danny Boyle’s fast zombies were still a novelty (I don’t care what you say – they’re still zombies); Shaun of the Dead (read: the greatest non-Romero zombie movie) was only a couple years old; and zombie apocalypses were only found in games that were specifically about zombies, instead of being shoehorned into World War II shooters, open-world western games, and Japanese crime sagas. In short, it was a good time for zombies. However, even if Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel without a Pulse were released today, when “Games with zombies in them released in 2012” is synonymous with “Games released in 2012”, it would still have no problem setting itself apart from the crowd… er, horde. This is because in Stubbs the Zombie, you don’t play as a shotgun-toting survivor fighting against an endless onslaught of the undead. Rather, you are placed into the tattered shoes of one of the living dead, fighting against an endless onslaught of delicious, delicious humans – and it is bloody satisfying. Or maybe I just have a special place in my heart for any game that includes urinating as a gameplay mechanic.
Given their usual status as inhuman, ultra-expendable enemies designed to be disassembled by the survivors in the messiest way possible, a game in which you play as a zombie may not seem very fun. Fortunately, Edward “Stubbs” Stubblefield is not your typical Zed. Firstly, he’s a pretty stand-up guy. All he wants to do is eat your brains. He’s not unreasonable; I mean, he’s not gonna eat your eyes. Secondly, he is much more durable than a standard ghoul, and quite resilient to boot. He also displays an alarmingly fast metabolism for someone whose organs don’t actually work: munching on enough brains allows him to regenerate limbs, which lets him tear off and throw his hand at an enemy to gain control of them, or even use his head as an explosive bowling ball. Lastly, Stubbs is rather intelligent for a corpse: throughout the game he has little problem organizing groups of other zombies, attacking strategic positions of enemy encampments, or driving vehicles. And on top of all that, he’s a hell of a dancer. It’s just too bad that he insists on wearing that atrocious tie….
28 Days Later Meets 127 Hours: When Stubbs rips off his hand, the health meter (which is shaped like Michael Ja—I mean, like Stubbs) loses its hand as well.
“It’s probin’ time!”
Much like Stubbs the Zombie, Destroy All Humans! is an “Other Side of the Coin” type of game, in which you assume control of what is normally a villainous role (in this case, the extra-terrestrials in an alien invasion), and proceed to massacre a large number of people. Also like Stubbs, this is an off-beat third-person action game, albeit with more emphasis placed on projectile weapons. And yet again like Stubbs, Destroy All Humans! is largely a parody of 1950’s America, complete with giant tesla coils, horrendous beehive hairdos, obsession with nuclear power, and more McCarthyism than you can shake a hammer and sickle at. [As a Wisconsinite, I would like to apologize for the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and wish to let you know that I have put plans into motion for a protracted and expensive “Recall McCarthy” campaign.]
Cryptosporidium-137 (known to his friends as Crypto), is quite simply one of the greatest living American actors. Along with Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, and Meryl Streep, he is one of only four people to be nominated for an acting Oscar in five consecutive decades. He is well known for roles such as Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, and Jack Torrance in—
Wait a second…. I’m thinking of someone else….
Crypto is an alien (specifically a Furon) who enjoys drinking, chain-smoking, wisecracking, and murdering the hell out of whoever looks at him funny. If he seems like an unpleasant sort, that’s because… (how do I put this gently?)… he has “performance issues.” You see, Furons are born without… uglies to bump, and in order to procreate, they must clone themselves (hence the numbers after their name). And if you’ve ever photocopied a picture, and then photocopied that copy, and kept photocopying the copies ad nauseam (I get bored at work sometimes, alright?!), you’ll know that each progressive copy loses a bit of quality. Therefore, the Furons occasionally need some pure DNA, and it turns out that we humans have tiny bits of Furon DNA in our brain stems. So that’s why Crypto needs to destroy all humans. But if you can look past that, he can be a pretty entertaining guy. Just don’t call him a little green man. He’s not green.
Not at Pandemic Studios Apparently: Have you ever seen those “Where the Hell is Matt?” videos on YouTube, with the guy dancing at various locations around the world? That’s Matt Harding, and he actually came up with the idea for this game. However, he didn’t do any work on the game beyond providing the concept because he “didn’t want to spend two years of [his] life writing a game about killing everyone”.
“Might controls everything, and without strength you cannot protect anything, let alone yourself.”
When the first Devil May Cry game hacked and slashed its way onto the scene in 2001, it popularized a certain style of action game characterized by spectacular combat, tight controls, and unforgiving difficulty. It has since become recognized as a landmark release, and has influenced a number of similar action games, including the Ninja Gaiden reboot, Bayonetta, and a certain Greek mythology-inspired title which may or may not appear later on this list (spoiler alert: it will). When the sequel was released, it was met with a decidedly chillier reception, thanks to a less-refined combat system, simpler gameplay, a lower level of difficulty, and a change in the main character’s personality. For the third game in the series, the developers listened to the complaints and tried to make a title that would recapture the magic of the original DMC. The result is a game that takes all of the things the fans loved about the first Devil May Cry, improves on a good lot of them, and combines them into a more cohesive experience than ever before. Many consider DMC3 to be the pinnacle of the series, and at the very least it succeeds at living up to the original’s legacy.
While Vergil technically made an appearance in DMC1, we didn’t get to know him as a character until Devil May Cry 3. As Dante’s twin brother and the main antagonist of DMC3, he serves as a perfect foil to the series’ main character. While Dante is brash, cocky, and sarcastic, often preferring improvisation to careful planning, Vergil is calm, frank, and collected, always calculating the next step of his scheme. Dante identifies more with their human mother, while Vergil embraces the demonic heritage from their father. Of course, this dichotomy is represented in their fashion sense as well: they both have a thing for long coats, but Dante prefers fiery shades of crimson and Vergil favors an icy azure. Admittedly, none of the characters in the series are very deep, but the characterization is so strong (especially in the third game), that Vergil earns a spot on this list.
What, No Love for Petrarch?: Dante is named after the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (often referred to by only his first name), best known for writing The Divine Comedy, in which Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Vergil is named after the ancient Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro (also widely known mononymously), whose best known work is the epic poem Aeneid. Virgil was a major influence on Dante, and even appears as a guide in The Divine Comedy.
“To decide where you will die is a gallant act.” – Harman Smith
Coming in at #7 (rather appropriately) are some characters from Killer7, a game that – along with P.N.03, Viewtiful Joe, Dead Phoenix, and Resident Evil 4 – was part of Shinji Mikami’s infamous Capcom Five, a series of five Capcom-produced games that were meant to be exclusive to the Nintendo GameCube. However, Dead Phoenix was never released, and the critical/commercial failure P.N.03 was the only one of the remaining four games that remained a GameCube exclusive. All of the games were developed by Capcom’s Production Studio 4, save for Killer7 which was developed by Grasshopper Manufacture, making it the first release outside of Japan for auteur/genius/insane person Goichi “Suda51” Suda. The game itself defies explanation; it’s like Suda51 took elements from first-person shooters, action-adventure games, and rail-shooters, threw them in a blender with a sprinkling of RPG elements, and then proceeded to flush the resulting concoction down the toilet before jamming a spigot directly into his skull and siphoning pure, adulterated crazy directly from his brain onto the game disc. The plot and presentation are even more bizarre, with an art style that jumps from chiaroscuro cel-shading to anime to Flash animation and a convoluted, abstract narrative about U.S.-Japan relations that leaves the player uncertain of everything except for the fact that Suda51 probably doesn’t know very much about how U.S. politics works. (Then again, who does? *rimshot*) If you claim you fully comprehend every aspect of Killer7’s story, you are lying – even if you are Suda51. It’s definitely not a game for everyone, but regardless of whether you love it or hate it, one thing is certain: you will never forget this game.
It may seem like cheating to fit the entire Smith clan of assassins into a single spot on this list, but since seven of the “characters” are actually dissociative personalities within the mind of the eighth, they are all technically one character. The elderly patriarch of the clan, Harman Smith, spends most of his time comatose in a wheelchair, getting abused by his maid, but occasionally becomes a chess-playing badass with an anti-materiel rifle. The second-in-command, Garcian Smith, serves as the “cleaner”, reviving the other Smith personae when they fall in the field. Dan “The Hellion” Smith is a sociopath who probably gets the most screentime of all the personae. KAEDE “Barefoot” Smith, the only female Smith, wields a scoped pistol, can destroy certain barriers by slitting her wrists (seriously), and was designed by Suda51 specifically to make players uncomfortable. Con, the youngest, smallest, and fastest Smith, is blind, though that exponentially amplifies his hearing, allowing him to dual wield rapid-fire pistols quite effectively. Kevin Smith (no, not that one) is a silent, knife-throwing albino who is so adept at blending into his surroundings that he can literally turn invisible. The dumbest one, Coyote Smith, can pick locks and jump really high or something and no one really cares about him. Finally, the most awesome of the personae is MASK de Smith, a luchador who dual-wields grenade launchers, suplexes giant piles of rubble, and headbutts bullets.
***WARNING: The following bit of trivia has MAJOR SPOILERS***
Dear Alanis Morissette, This is What Irony Really Is: Towards the end of the game, when we see the backstory of the personalities (they were all assassination targets before they became personae), the method in which each one is murdered is an ironic reflection of their abilities. For example, the killer manages to silently sneak up on Con in his own room, and Coyote, who can reach out-of-the-way places, is out-flanked.
In 2001, a small development team from SCE Japan Studio’s Product Development Department #1 released their first game, Ico, which immediately made waves in the industry for its minimalistic yet intensely emotional storytelling, similarly minimalistic gameplay, and striking visual style. The game was critically lauded, and four years later, Team Ico released a spiritual successor, Shadow of the Colossus to even greater critical acclaim (and much greater commercial success). Shadow of the Colossus is most-accurately described as an action-adventure game, although even within that genre, it is strange. There is a large overworld to explore, but there are no towns or dungeons. There are also no native characters to interact with, granting the game a strong sense of solitude. Most unusually, there are only sixteen enemies in the entire game, but each one is quite the endeavor. These sixteen enemies are the eponymous Colossi, and each one is basically a level unto itself. Most of them stand (at least) several stories high, and for each Colossus, you must figure out how to climb up to its weak spot(s) so you can slay it. Shadow of the Colossus is also notable for being an incredibly evocative game. Scaling and defeating an immense minotaur or a gargantuan flying sandworm can give you an incredible adrenaline rush, but at the same time, striking the killing blow often leaves you feeling guilty, and a heavy sense of melancholy pervades the game. It is a beautiful, exciting, depressing experience.
The game centers around a boy named Wander, who journeys to the Forbidden Land with his horse Agro and the dead body of a girl named Mono. The game is sparse with the details of the backstory, so much is left to speculation; we don’t know how exactly the girl died, or what her relationship is with Wander. All we know is that Wander is determined to resurrect her, and will go through hell to do so. In the Forbidden Land, he forms a pact with an ominous presence called Dormin: slay sixteen colossal beings, and Mono will be brought back to life. Throughout the rest of the game, it becomes fairly easy to distinguish what Wander’s two most prominent character traits are: reckless bravery and unflappable determination. Despite clearly having little to no experience with a sword (though he’s a crack shot with a bow), he perseveres through a grueling series of increasingly perilous challenges, often coming within inches of being turned into a bloody stain on the ground, all to fulfill his part of a bargain that he doesn’t fully comprehend. Ultimately, this makes Wander not only one of gaming's greatest underdogs, but also one of the medium’s most tragic characters.
Not Just a Green Day Album: One possible interpretation of the game’s story is that it is an allegory for the Tower of Babel legend. Supporting this theory is the fact that Dormin is Nimrod spelled backwards (Nimrod being the Biblical king who is often associated with leading construction of the Tower). Wander spelled backwards is Rednaw, which has no significance whatsoever.
“Today’s been a very bad day… and it’s put me in a real sh***y mood. Just your bad luck to run into me.”
When most people hear about Yakuza for the first time, they assume that it’s basically the Japanese version of Grand Theft Auto. While the series does tell stories about organized crime in a quasi-open world, that’s where the comparisons end. Traveling in a car is a rare occurrence, and disputes are resolved less often with gunplay and more often with fists (and swords and baseball bats and iron pipes and chairs and tables and bicycles and daruma dolls and…). Rather, the series has more in common with Shenmue, with elements of Virtua Fighter and River City Ransom/Streets of Rage thrown in. There is a heavy emphasis on narrative, and also a heavy emphasis on kicking several kinds of ass. (Wandering around and talking to people is also kind of important.) In its native Japan, the Yakuza series has enjoyed considerable critical and commercial success – the first two games each moved more units in Nippon than The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (with Yakuza 3 and 4 only trailing by about 20,000 units each). Unfortunately, Yakuza has failed to find a foothold with Western audiences, which is odd, since it would seem that the series’ combination of gritty violence, light RPG elements, and a gruff pragmatic protagonist would be right up our alley. Maybe we just aren’t ready for the concept of hostess clubs….
If sheer badassery were the only metric for these lists, Kazuma Kiryu would stand a great chance at claiming the #1 spot for 2005. With a disposition that would make a honey badger seem like Woody Allen, he spends the better part of four games (five, if you count Dead Souls) beating the everliving snot out of just about every thug and mobster in Tokyo. (While I stated that as a protagonist, he would be right up our alley, I do not actually recommend entering a back-alley with Kazuma Kiryu – you will not likely depart with your skeleton intact.) That isn’t to say that Kazuma is a mindless punching machine; behind his perma-scowl lies a competent mind. He is fiercely loyal to his allies, and when he says he only trusts you as far as he can throw you, it’s a compliment. He also makes a habit of defending the defenseless, namely children and animals. (In fact, the above quote was delivered to about a dozen street punks that were tormenting a puppy.) Granted, Kazuma’s success as a character depends largely on the characters around him. If the supporting cast wasn’t so endearing, we wouldn’t cheer as hard when Kazuma fights by their side, and if the villains weren’t so utterly despicable, reducing them to quivering piles of loosely-connected muscle tissue wouldn’t be so damn satisfying.
They Might Be Marketers: The Yakuza series has become known for using product placement (in a surprisingly non-intrusive way) to help fund the production of the games. The Don Quijote stores in the games are based on an actual chain of discount stores in Japan and Hawaii with a super-catchy theme song. Sadly, you cannot buy Staminan Royals there.
“I used to be just like you. I believed in humanity, the newspapers, soap commercials, politics, and history books. But one day, the world kicks you in the teeth, and you don’t have any choice but to see things the way they really are.”
Fahrenheit – released as Indigo Prophecy in the US (one of the only nations known for actually using the Fahrenheit temperature scale) to avoid confusion with the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9/11 – is the second of three games to date developed by French video game developer/motion-capture studio Quantic Dream, the first being the David Bowie-tastic Omikron: The Nomad Soul and the third being a merry jaunt through the Uncanny Valley called Heavy Rain. If you’ve played Heavy Rain (and judging by the sales figures, that’s the only one of the three that you’ve played), you know mostly what to expect from Indigo Prophecy: quicktime event-based “interactive drama” style gameplay, top-notch animation, a mildly futuristic aesthetic, a handful of gratuitous and awkward shower/sex scenes, and most importantly, an intriguing and gripping storyline. What you will not be prepared for, however, is how Indigo Prophecy becomes completely guano loco in the final act. Partially because executive meddling forced a truncated development cycle, and partially because designer David Cage apparently watched the Matrix trilogy entirely too many times while developing this game, what starts as a well-crafted tale about three normal individuals struggling to cope with increasingly bizarre circumstances eventually devolves into a non-cohesive series of dei ex machina.
At the outset of the game, Lucas Kane comes to in the bathroom of a greasy spoon to find that he has just straight-up murdered a guy. He doesn’t remember committing the murder, he doesn’t even know the victim, and he’s reasonably sure that he’s not the kind of person who is predisposed to carving ritualistic designs into his arms and killing strangers in diner lavatories. In fact, prior to the events of the game, Lucas was just a normal dude: he pays his bills with a tedious 9-to-5 at an IT company, he plays guitar and reads Nietzsche in his free time, and the extent of his fighting experience involves a punching bag in his (unreasonably large) studio apartment. After hiding the evidence of the murder and making his escape, Lucas starts trying to figure out what the hell happened in that bathroom, all while trying to stay several steps ahead of the police. (Interestingly, the other two major playable characters are detectives on the case, so you will often find yourself working against yourself.) To complicate matters, Lucas starts experiencing terrifying hallucinations, in addition to the premonitions that he’s had since he was a child. After a few days, he even develops superhuman physical abilities. Unfortunately, just like Neo in the Matrix trilogy, he becomes significantly less interesting after he gains superpowers and ceases to be a bewildered everyman/audience surrogate reacting to forces that are seemingly beyond his control.
Well, That Explains the Bad Girlfriend: Judging from his music selection, Lucas is a huge fan of the band Theory of a Deadman, specifically the songs that are eerily apropos of his current situation. However, none of the stuff that Kane knows how to play on guitar sounds remotely like ToaD; he prefers to play the blues, bossa nova, or “cool”.
“Your abilities have grown immensely. But it also does my heart good to see that you remember the basics of what I taught.”
Founded in 1995 by three medical doctors, BioWare cut its teeth with a series of critically-acclaimed licensed games, adapting the likes of Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, and the Shiny Entertainment game MDK. A decade later, the company decided to try its hand at its first original IP (unless you count their earliest project, Shattered Steel). The result was Jade Empire, which seems to have been based on a meeting in which someone said “You know what would be cool? A game based on all of Chinese mythology. Seriously, dude, all of it.” Throughout the game, your character will battle animal demons, ghosts, and sorcerers throughout a fantastical facsimile of ancient China, with dragons, chi, and heavens serving as major motifs. The game even co-opts a bit of Jewish folklore by adapting golems to look more like soldiers in the Terracotta Army. Like most of BioWare’s oeuvre, Jade Empire is an action-RPG featuring a dark but brilliant narrative, a strong ensemble cast, extensive character customization, branching dialog trees, a karma meter, and maybe a little sexy time if you play your cards right (read: romance options). Also, the game occasionally takes a break and lets you play a 1942 for a little while. While Jade Empire wasn’t met with the same level of success as Mass Effect or Dragon Age, it is still fondly remembered, with fans clamoring for a sequel.
Of course, no tale about ancient China would be complete without the wise old martial arts guru – a venerable man whose elderly, graying demeanor belies his complete mastery of combat, and who chooses to spend the waning years of his life passing his martial arts knowledge to one or more students, usually through borderline abusive means. While he’s definitely on the less sadistic side of the scale, Master Li fits this archetype exquisitely, right down to the long white whiskers and the facial scar that proves that he’s seen his fair share of battles (or maybe that he’s just clumsy with the hedge clippers). He runs the Two Rivers martial art school, and when assassins attack the surrounding village and kidnap Master Li, it serves as the impetus for the player’s quest.
***WARNING: The rest of this entry contains MAJOR SPOILERS***
I actually left out three very important words from the end of the character quote: “…even the flaws.” Master Li says this to you right after you complete your quest, before abusing said flaws to murder you because you have outlived your usefulness. You see, he’s been planning this entire thing (even his kidnapping and the razing of his hometown) for decades in order to gain complete control of the Empire, and you were just another puppet to do his dirty work. Up until this point in the game, there is a looming question about whether Master Li and a legendary figure known as Sun Li the Glorious Strategist are really one and the same, and it turns out they are. This guy is such a chessmaster that he makes Keyser Söze look like a toddler playing tic-tac-toe. (Or rather, “Go-master” might be a more appropriate term, given Go’s higher level of complexity and ancient Chinese origins.) The only reason he doesn’t get away with it – and therefore isn’t quite in the same league as Sun Tzu, Garry Kasparov, or David Xanatos – is that, in this universe, death is not necessarily the end.
Gao the Lesser Aims to Misbehave: Jade Empire marks the only non-Halo video game role for Nathan “Holy crap it’s Mal Reynolds!” Fillion.
“I am not the same man you found that day. The monster you created has returned… to kill you!”
Once upon a time, a young, candid, outspoken man named David Jaffe had a dream. He had already made a video game about cars killing each other, but he wanted to design a game about something beautiful. A game about grace, agility, and the majesty of the human body in motion. A game about rhythmic gymnastics. Except when the gymnast danced, everyone around him died, because he wasn’t twirling ribbons; he was twirling chains with swords on the ends. And then put it in ancient Greece, because Minotaurs and Cyclopes are wicked awesome. Might as well throw some nudity in there as well. Yeah, that would be sweet. And then he made that game.
In all seriousness, the God of War series is quite possibly the pinnacle of the 3D hack-and-slash genre, and it’s definitely the greatest franchise in the genre developed by a Western studio. God of War took the fast-paced gameplay and responsive controls pioneered by Devil May Cry and cultivated by the Ninja Gaiden reboot and combined them with exemplary level design, spectacular boss fights, some of the best graphics on the PS2, an unexpectedly competent story, and of course, sex minigames. Surprisingly, despite the gallons of blood and several characters with exposed… tracts of land, God of War didn’t attract very much controversy when it was released, with crazed anti-gaming advocate and (now disbarred) attorney Jack Thompson only mentioning it in passing (possibly just to maintain the status quo).
***WARNING: God of War 1 spoilers follow.***
Kratos, one of the PlayStation’s de facto mascots and a hell of a Quan Chi cosplayer, rose to fame as the youngest and most bloodthirsty captain in the Spartan army. However, after Ares, the reigning god of war and a literal fiery redhead, tricks him into killing his own family, Kratos vows revenge. The interesting thing about Kratos is that, even though he is best known for brutally slaughtering anything that a) looks at him funny or b) hasn’t been brutally slaughtered yet, his story arc in the first God of War game follows the template of Greek tragedy remarkably well. He begins as a character of high status, commits several atrocities that (regardless of his intentions) ruin his reputation, and after realizing his crimes, is overcome by despair (note the “gods of Olympus have abandoned me” scene).
So if Kratos is iconic, easily identifiable, and based on the very foundation of theatrical storytelling, why isn’t he #1 on this list? Excuse me while I check to make sure there isn’t an “O” floating above my head before continuing….
Okay, good. Anyway, Kratos is ranked #2 because in the sequels (into which David Jaffe had only minimal input), he became a caricature of himself. He goes from being a violent but ultimately very human character to a cartoonish ball of rage and belligerence. Making you unwittingly kill your own family is a fairly understandable reason to swear vengeance on someone, and even then, Kratos only targeted Ares when the other gods asked him to intervene and beat Ares’ punk ass down, but in the sequels, it seems that Kratos vows revenge on anyone that knocks his sand castle over or whatever. It is exceedingly hard to relate to or sympathize with a protagonist who is constantly getting stabbity with everything that moves. So while the actual gameplay improved with each successive installment in the franchise, Kratos became a progressively shallower character.
Nike Got the Short End of the Stick, Too: There was actually a Kratos in Greek mythology – the personification of strength and power. (In fact, “krátos” is the Greek word for “power”, from which we derive words like “autocrat” and “democracy”.) At time of writing, the Wikipedia page for video game Kratos was over 38 times longer than the page for mythology Kratos, because no one cares about mythology Kratos.
“Home? Back there I was just like you were, Dogen – punished by my own family, for having powers I never asked for. But here, I have a chance to be something, to make a difference. They may come for me, Dogen, but they’ll be expecting Raz: the boy. But what they’ll find – what they don’t expect – is Raz: the Psychonaut!
Have you ever watched Inception and wished you could play a game in which you run around inside peoples’ minds, battling projections that their subconscious summons against you for being a foreign entity? Do you have trouble finding games that combine interesting gameplay, fascinating level design (both mechanically and conceptually), brilliant and hilarious writing, fantastic voice acting, and a colorful but twisted aesthetic? Are you constantly 100%-ing your N64-era collect-a-thons and wishing that they’d give you even more crap to pick up? Then Psychonauts is the game for you! Initially passing under the radar, with less than 100,000 units shipped in the eight months following its release, it has since become something of a cult classic, making an appearance just about any time someone compiles a list of games that deserve a sequel.
Raz is a ten-year-old boy who was born into a circus family. When he develops psychic powers, his father urges him to suppress them and focus on acrobatics instead (possibly due to resentment of a band of gypsy psychics from a rival circus who cursed everyone in his family line to die in water). As an act of rebellion, Raz runs away from his family (in a reversal of the “run away to join the circus” cliché) and makes his way to Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp where he can further develop his mental skills. Rebellious and confident, if a bit reckless and naive, Raz is an extremely likeable character, and his charm only increases the more you play the game. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Richard Steven Horvitz (aka Invader Zim) had a MIGHTY NEED to provide Raz’s voice.
If you’ve been following these lists, you may notice that Raz is the fourth character partially- or wholly-written by Tim Schafer to appear so far (with Monkey Island’s Guybrush Threepwood, Ben from Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango’s Manny Calavera being the other three) and the second to be ranked #1. (The only reason Guybrush was ranked #2 for 1990 is that Yoshi is kind of a big deal.) This is because Tim Schafer has an uncanny ability to write amazing characters -- characters who are simultaneously hilarious and emotionally resonant; characters who are complex and three-dimensional, but don’t require a psychoanalyst to be appreciated. (Granted, being a psychoanalyst will likely lead to a greater understanding of the symbolism in the level design of Psychonauts.) On top of that, Raz is a masterclass in the art of using characterization to justify gameplay: his background in the circus explains his improbable platforming skills, and the water-related curse provides a reason why Raz – like so many other video game characters – cannot swim.
However, Raz (and Psychonauts as a whole) also represents something we had never seen from Tim Schafer before. This game shows that Schafer actually knows how to write child characters. He knows that actual children aren’t the perfectly precocious bundles of innocence that we see in Disney films. Sometimes kids swear. Sometimes adolescents get excited about making out. Sometimes children enjoy setting squirrels on fire with their minds. Okay, so maybe not that last one, but the point is that children are complex, compassionate, cruel, inquisitive, brave, idiosyncratic, unpredictable creatures, and it’s about time that fiction writers start treating them as such. Tim Schafer is like the John Hughes of the video game world, if John Hughes had Tim Burton’s dark and quirky sense of humor.
What Kind of Dumas Would Use That Name?: Early in development, Raz was named D’artagan (Dart for short) and wore a long, flowing stocking cap. The character design was changed because the hat was “too awesome to animate.”
One Extra Finger; One Extra Bit of Trivia: Raz is one of only two characters in the game to have five fingers on each hand instead of four (the other being his father).
Ashley Graham (Resident Evil 4) – In the years following RE4’s release, the President’s daughter has garnered Navi-strength levels of notoriety for her helplessness and annoying voice, but since the infuriating fairy was given a spot on the 1998 list for infamy alone, Little Miss Big Ears will have to settle for an honorable mention, ballistics or no ballistics.
Stranger (Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath) – Video gaming’s second-most badass bounty hunter. Unless you count Boba Fett from various Star Wars games. Or the fact that you can be a bounty hunter in Red Dead Redemption. Stranger is awesome is my point.
Pretty much any other character (Psychonauts) – We’ve come to expect nothing less from Tim Schafer.
Black Whirlwind (Jade Empire) – “Anyway, by the time I was old enough to swing an ax, my father was dead and my mother disowned me. ‘Course, killing my father might have given her reason.”
Kang the Mad (Jade Empire) – “Next time I hide something, I’m packing explosives around it. Explosives shaped like silver bananas! Stops thieves, monkeys, and monkey thieves in one fell swoop.”
Carla Valenti (Indigo Prophecy) – There’s something respectable about someone as dedicated to detective work as she (even if she did essentially recreate that one scene from Clerks).
Goro Majima (Yakuza) – I know the first Yakuza game was the only one to feature an English dub, but you really can’t go wrong with a flamboyant, psychotic criminal voiced by Mark Hamill.
Agro (Shadow of the Colossus) – Best. Horse. Ever.
Alma Wade (F.E.A.R.) – Yeah, I thought Ringu was a pretty cool movie, too.
Kameo (Kameo: Elements of Power) – Even if her game did represent a ray of hope that Rareware didn’t completely forget how to make good games after being bought by Microsoft, Kameo is little more than a mascot-type character.
Dark Prince (Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones) – Deliciously sardonic, a doppelgänger after my own heart.
Ethan Thomas (Condemned: Criminal Origins) – Notable for being one of the few video game characters to utilize forensic investigation.
As you can see, there were plenty of fantastic characters to choose from in 2005, even if you have to dig through the ultra-popular AAA games to find them among the hidden gems. The brand-spankin’-new Xbox 360 failed to produce any truly great characters in its first 40 days of existence, but the sixth-generation consoles made up for that in admirable fashion. 2005 also represented a significant step forward for video games as an art form: Shadow of the Colossus, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, Killer7, and Psychonauts have all been focal points in the “games as art” discussion at one point or another.
Next up, for the greatest characters of 2006, is the triumphant return of the author who started these lists, Scarletspeed7, who may I add, has excellent timing.
List by Eesgooshee (06/04/2012)
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