Looking at critters like Pac-Man and Q*Bert today, you might think making a memorable game character used to be easy. Just slap some colorful sprites on a screen, give ‘em a weird name, and wait for the early ‘80s backpack, lunchbox and Saturday morning cartoon money to come rolling in. But just as writing a great pop song is deviously difficult, making a truly legendary character that stands the test of time has always been much harder than it might seem. (Remember Mr. Do?) That’s especially true today, when players expect characters to have dialogue and voice-acting and personalities. Videogames stopped being just games long ago, and ever since developers have had to know how to write and make movies in order to get the most out of their creations.
Despite those challenges, 2016 had a handful of fantastic new game characters that left a mark upon the medium. From the naturalistic YA interactions of Oxenfree’s troubled teens, to the heartbreaking tenderness of our top two picks’ relationships with their human partners, these are the powerful new faces that defined 2016 in games.
10. Alex, Oxenfree
We could’ve put most of the cast of Oxenfree on this list (sorry, Ren), but Alex is the best pick, not just because you actually play as her, but also because she is the most fully developed by game’s end. Granted, because we do play as her, and have some control over how she acts and reacts to others, it makes her less defined than other characters. Your Alex may not entirely overlap with my Alex. But no matter how your Alex behaves, she’s still more natural and human than most game characters, and all of the game’s other believable teenagers exist in relation to her.
9. Emily Kaldwin, Dishonored 2
Okay, Emily isn’t technically new to 2016. The grown-up version that appears in Dishonored 2 is so thoroughly removed from the girl of Dishonored that we felt totally justified in fudging this one just a bit. Although Dishonored 2 is more interested in exploring its world than the now fully grown Emily, we still learn a lot about her through her thoughts, her journal entries, and various letters, articles and conversations spaced throughout the game. Depending on your choices, she grows from a sheltered, if adventurous, young empress into an empathetic woman of action who now knows how miserable life can be for the lower classes, and although that progress isn’t some kind of groundbreaking narrative revelation, it’s better than we usually get from videogames.
8. Lincoln Clay, Mafia III
Let’s get this straight: Lincoln Clay is not a good person. He’s violent, selfish, and stubborn. He cares not whether his actions have fallout for those surrounding him. He wants revenge. And this game does not shy away from violence. Not just acts committed by the main character but acts committed by anyone. There’s an area of the game where you’re hunting down Southern Union members, which is connected to the Klan, for capturing black people and selling them into slavery. You’ll run into white gang members beating black people in the street. And Lincoln can and will kill them all. And it’s all cathartic because we live in a time where a powerful man is allowed to run for the highest public office on the ideals of the enemies you face in this game, ideals that should be forgotten detritus from our shameful past.—Terence Wiggins
7. Henry, Firewatch
“Best” doesn’t always mean the most good, you know? Henry has his flaws. (So does his walkie talkie buddy, Delilah, but more about her later.) He can be a little too paranoid. He maybe didn’t care for his ailing wife the way he should have. His quippy sense of humor might get a little annoying at times. That all just makes him feel like a real person, though, like somebody you might know through work or your softball league or your homeowner’s association. As with Delilah, Campo Santo’s novelistic approach to detail and character development resulted in the sort of character sketch you don’t really associate with videogames.
6. Delilah Copperspoon, Dishonored2
The first of two Delilahs on this list never fully grows out of the cartoonish villainy with which she’s introduced, but Dishonored 2 does pull off the surprising trick of making you feel bad for your unrepentantly evil enemy. When you realize the life she’s lived, you start to empathize with Delilah, even though she’s driven you from your throne and slaughtered your friends and plans on basically enslaving the people of your empire. Again: she’s bad, so the fact that the game is able to guide you towards making excuses for her behavior is a testament to how well she’s written. Toss in fantastic character design, an appropriately hammy vocal performance, and lines dripping with pulpy melodrama, and you’ve got the best videogame villain of the year.
5. Sombra, Overwatch
Sombra is amazing precisely because she is everything that videogame characters aren’t allowed to be: Mexican, female, and over the age of 25. She’s also defies convention, entering the Overwatch canon as a world famous hacker and using her technical skills on the battlefields to maintain an edge that makes her one of the best offensive players in the game. As a fan favorite, she has stolen hearts and won minds, even dethroning Tracer’s butt as the most talked about aspect of Overwatch. And that is saying something.—Holly Green
4. Delilah, Firewatch
As the wisecracking love interest of Firewatch’s protagonist Henry, Delilah maintains a mysterious balance between aloof and inviting. For all her friendliness on the surface, underneath lies a complexity that makes her as interesting as she is untouchable; you get that sense that she’d be fun to have a beer with, but impossible to ever really know. In a medium steeped with caricature of human emotion, Delilah is flawed but vulnerable, self-sufficient but lonely, and honest even as she is a contradiction. It’s not often you meet a character like that anywhere, much less in videogames.—Holly Green
3. Marcus Holloway, Watch Dogs
Marcus Holloway is the kind of character who will sit down and watch a movie trailer. That’s a small thing, but can you think of another person outside of Saints Row that has enough of an internal life to them that they can enjoy watching a movie? Holloway is the product of a dev team taking seriously that a character needs to have character and not just be a cipher for whatever shooting and hollering the mechanics dictate.—Cameron Kunzelman
2. BT-7274, Titanfall 2
The deadpan heart of one of the year’s best action games is a hulking mass of metal known as BT-7274. Turning the previously anonymous mechs into actual characters with personalities was a crucial step forward for Titanfall 2, and with BT it resulted in a character well-rounded enough to both serve as comic relief and carry the game’s dramatic weight. His dry sense of humor, smart advice and unflinching support will make you wish your best friend was a giant robot you can hang out inside of.
1. Trico, The Last Guardian
Speaking of best friends, Trico should resonate with anybody who’s ever owned a dog or cat. He’s entirely wordless and yet has more spirit and character than anybody else on this list, thanks to how thoroughly the developers captured the way animals move and behave. Everything Trico does, and every movement he makes, furthers the feeling that this is a real animal and not just a videogame character; his stubbornness, his diffidence, his playfulness, his obedience, and all his other often contradictory traits will be familiar to anybody who’s ever lived with and loved an animal. That comes through in his symbiotic relationship with the boy, which is as touching as games get.