50 Most Iconic Video Game Characters of the 21st Century - Rolling Stone
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50 Most Iconic Video Game Characters of the 21st Century

From a blocky hero beloved by millions to the most memorable monsters modern games have to offer

Pull together a list of the most iconic video game characters of all time and chances are there would be very few surprises. Classics like Mario, Sonic, Pac-Man, Link, Solid Snake, Donkey Kong and Samus will always be phenomenally important to the fabric of video games, but all of them first appeared on the scene during a completely different era. They’re unquestionably iconic, and the only argument is over what order they’d fall into the top 10. They each may have appeared in modern games (with varying degrees of success,) but they’re ultimately children of the Eighties and Nineties. If you take that group off the table completely, and focus on the significant characters that made their first appearances this century, you get a very different picture of how video games now present their leading figures. Seen all together like this, they’re a potent reminder that the tone of games, for the most part, has changed dramatically post-PlayStation 2 and Xbox.

We considered more than 100 characters when compiling this list, and there were some heated arguments and strong opinions about what makes a modern game character “iconic.” There are both good and evil faces here that have come to represent whole platforms, entire genres, and others that have become familiar to literally hundreds of millions of players.

Robed Figure, Journey

Robed Figure, Journey

50. Robed Figure

Journey's unnamed figure in a red robe might not have a name or a story beyond the one you write in your own head, but that didn't stop them becoming a symbol of indie games for a generation. Their adventure takes them toward a mountainous destination, with a climax that allows for multiple readings. What most agree on is that it’s in the the meandering, uplifting path that the game’s true magic lies. To risk a cliche, the journey is its own reward.

Iconic Moment: As multiplayer concepts go, a game in which player characters can meet but communicate only in sonorous chime sounds at best overly whimsical and at worst irritating, but the first time you connect with a stranger, it feels a thousand times more meaningful than the verbal manslaps uttered into headsets in your typical competitive shooter.

Vaas Montenegro, Far Cry 3

Vaas Montenegro from 'Far Cry 3'

49. Vaas Montenegro

The most memorable video gaming enemies are those you love, and recall fondly, despite the need to bring about their demise. M Bison. Andrew Ryan. Psycho Mantis. Far Cry 3 might not be revered like Street Fighter, Bioshock or Metal Gear Solid, but its lead antagonist merits mention in the same breath. In Vaas’ drug-addled brain, it’s those he’s holding to ransom on Rook Island who are the lunatics. He seems to genuinely believe that offering "two grand to the first motherfucker to bring me Jason Brody's nutsack” is totally normal, and even funny.

Iconic Moment: His monologue on the definition of insanity, which might vary somewhat from your usual clinical diagnosis. "Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact… same fucking thing… over and over again expecting… shit to change… That. Is. Crazy." Vass would know. 

Jade, Beyond Good & Evil

Jade from 'Beyond Good & Evil'

48. Jade

The most curious aspect of Ubisoft’s whole not-having-a-lady-protagonist-in-Assassin’s-Creed brouhaha from E3 2014? All of 11 years previously, it delivered one of the all-time great female leads, in super-sharp, osmium-tough journo-spy Jade. Martial artist, parkour expert and brainiac all rolled into one, names such as Faith (Mirror’s Edge), Elena Fisher (Uncharted) and Chell (Portal) all boast traits descended from Michel Ancel’s supremely savvy troubleshooter – the most salient that they were undisputed successes without any lazy reliance on overt sexualization.

Iconic Moment: Early in the game Jade fails to save her porcine guardian Pey'j from a slaughterhouse but later manages to revive him with her mysterious, shiny powers in a moment that wouldn't be out of place in a Disney movie.

Gomez, Fez

Gomez from 'Fez'

47. Gomez

For a being without a single enemy in the known universe, Gomez has it tough. This cutest of white walkers (not that kind) was catapulted to fame when, on receiving a red fez, he witnessed the breakup of a golden hexahedron which tore the fabric of spacetime. Result: his 2D world becoming 3D, and a reliance on someone else – that’s you – to steer him around his newly shattered universe. His adorability comes partly through that nephew-of-Stay-Puft mega-head, and partly through his being a delight to bounce around Fez’s treasure-packed, ingeniously-devised levels. Also, that he never admonishes you for letting him die. A lot.

Iconic moment: Gomez celebrating completing a golden cube: he leaps into the air, the center of a fanfare of lights and blorping music, wearing a huge grin and a tiny, cuboid fez, and your eyes can't help but smile. You know that pang of happy nostalgia you feel as the music rises when Link opens a chest in a Zelda game? It's that, only if you'd somehow woken up in a technicolor Boards of Canada album.

Tommy Vercetti, GTA Vice City

Tommy Vercetti from 'Grand Theft Auto Vice City'

46. Tommy Vercetti

Basing a video game character on someone as iconic as Al Pacino’s Scarface character is a true gamble. Yet, as we’ve learned many times over the past two decades, Rockstar is never afraid of rolling snake eyes. Vercetti’s story closely mirrors that of one Mr T. Montana: exiled from his birthplace (Liberty City), his path to power is smeared with blood and cocaine, and his sizable mansion and short fuse match that of cinema’s deadliest blow dealer. But one achievement leaves Vercetti in a crime league of his own: when his former employers inevitably turn green eyes into bullets, Tommy survives to become kingpin of Vice City – and, for many, the GTA series, period.

Iconic Moment: That moment of betrayal by Lance Vance in the mission Keep Your Friends Close… "I sold you out, Tommy," says Lance, seemingly unaware of the bullets about to start flying. "I sold you out." 

Agent 47 - Hitman

Agent 47 from 'Hitman'

45. Agent 47

Fans of wrestling know their "Hitman" as “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be”. Bret Hart’s murderous namesake can claim the same slogan pertaining to the assassination business. Forever emulated yet never bettered, IO’s shaven-headed killer's catalog of death methods dwarfs any traditional cookbook, with resumé highlights that include nudging a garbage man into his own truck, and shooting the glass on the underside of a clifftop hot tub. Agent 47 first found infamy in 2000, and – unlike his many victims – has survived four generations by constantly reinventing himself in all ways other than that bald dome.

Iconic Moment: Hitman: Blood Money was the game where it felt like the creators were really having some fun with the whole "my day job is planning murders" thing. The best example is the Vinnie Sinisitra kill at a kid's birthday party, with the option to get deadly as a FBI operative, a pool boy or even a clown.

Freddy Fazbear, Five Nights at Freddy's

Freddy Fazbear, 'Five Nights at Freddy's'

44. Freddy Fazbear

From Naughty Bear to Zangief, the concept of giant grizzlies in video games is hardly novel – but 2014’s Five Nights At Freddy’s turned this animatronic bear into the categorically-not-innocent face of survival horror. You play security guard Mike Schmidt, and must survive a night shift in which cute-but-rogue robots are roaming Freddy’s fast food joint – unlicensed to kill, yet determined to do so anyway.

Iconic Moment: The Golden Freddy: a distorted, eye-less version of the title character, who can appear in Schmidt’s office with complete disregard to doors, delivering the message ‘IT'S ME’ before ending the game. Terrifying. Exhilarating. Deadly. Very, very cool.


Bayonetta from 'Bayonetta' series

43. Bayonetta

Medusa thought having venomous snakes for hair made her a figure to be feared, but she’d have been well and truly hissed if ever cast face-to-face against Bayonetta’s eponymous shapeshifter. Platinum Games’ femme fatale – and never has that term had a more literal meaning – uses her bounteous locks to summon supremely murderous demons. While her superhuman abilities might not be able to turn victims to stone, they do enable an array of balletic, bullet-slinging moves, the moulding of rainwater into spears, and the hijacking of vehicles using her middle finger.

Iconic Moment: It's not the most enlightened attack move in games, but you'll never forget the moment that Bayonetta first uses her hair to take down a foe. Yep, the same hair that usually makes up her clothes. So many questions… not least about fire hazards.

Dovahkiin, Skyrim

Dovahkiin, from 'Skyrim'

42. Dovahkiin

Ahh, that helmet. Dovahkiin – A.K.A. the Last Dragonborn – is a fighter of many strengths, but it’s the Iron Helmet (yes, it's a proper name) which cements his (or her) status as Tamriel’s most elite of slayers. For many, it’s the headwear used to steer Skyrim’s lead through critical conversations with scaly ancestors, amplify countless exclamations of that omnipresent call-sign, and protect the Dovahkiin from uncertain beginnings through Skyrim’s climactic, cataclysmic battle with portal-hopping dastard Aldiun. Behind the headgear, though, is you. Through smithing, enchanting, alchemy, and other configurable traits, your personal Dragonborn evolves like no one else's. Save for the fact that they can all bellow "Fus Ro Dah" with breathtaking, devastating authority.

Iconic Moment: Learning your first shout as a dragonborn, Unrelenting Force, and then merrily "Fus ro Dah-ing" all over the place. Even at the dog IRL.

Lightning, Final Fantasy XIII

Lightning from 'Final Fantasy XIII'

41. Lightning

Final Fantasy VI had Terra, Final Fantasy XII had Ashe, but not until Final Fantasy XIII – fully 22 years after the fabled series’ inception – did Square Enix truly commit to a female protagonist. About time! An official fan vote in 2014 named her the series’ greatest ever female character, perhaps because she’s not that fantastical after all: a down-to-earth (if ethereally pretty) anybody, who just happens to have a steely streak of defiance, and can turn on the bad-assery when required.

Iconic Moment: In Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning summons Odin during battle. He turns into a giant, sky galloping horse – think a killer My Little Pony – and Lightning uses him to charge at her enemies.

In This Article: glixel, Nintendo, PlayStation

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