Nearly every conversation I’ve had about Baldur’s Gate 3 this year has started with a series of questions: “Can I see your character? And who are you romancing?” More often than not, I’m more interested in hearing how the characters people make and meet are helping them write their own stories than I am talking about the nuts and bolts of their puzzle solving and combat dice rolls.
That’s because some of my most memorable video game experiences have been intimately tied to the personalities of the heroes I inhabited, the companions I met, and the foes we faced. 2023 has been rightfully touted as one of the best years for video games (though torturous for the people who make them), and some of its most memorable games have centered on captivating characters, their intriguing stories, and how even the most fantastical, larger-than-life hero can also embody the triumphs and struggles of just being a person in everyday life.
As we reach the end of 2023, we wanted to look back at some of the best characters we met along the way, and highlight some unsung heroes from the year’s best games. Without further ado, here are some of the most memorable characters in the video games of 2023.
There will be some spoilers ahead, of course.
Mr. Door from Alan Wake 2
In some ways, Mr Door feels like the lynchpin of Alan Wake 2’s narrative: the cool, steady centre around which everything else chaotically spins. This feeling that he occupies a position of power emerges not just from how the mysterious, likely nefarious character functions in Wake’s odyssey, manifesting as a talk show host who, again and again, probes Alan’s neuroses and lays bare the poor writer’s struggles for his adoring (if totally imaginary) studio audience.
No, it’s also the wonderful performance by actor David Harewood, who moves nimbly between thoughtful interviewer, song-and-dance man, and menacing villain. Whenever he’s onscreen, it’s impossible to avert your eyes because of the sheer charisma and intellectual power Harewood radiates in the role. Alan Wake 2 ends with the figure’s true nature and ultimate aims still unclear, which strikes me as a good thing. It’s all the more likely, then, that we’ll get way more of him in a future Remedy game. — Carolyn Petit
Cid from Final Fantasy XVI
Talk about making the most of little screen time. Cid from Final Fantasy XVI isn’t around as long as most of us would have liked, but he is the heartbeat pumping blood through the action-RPG’s veins. He is the Dominant of Ramuh, a radical fighting for the freedom of the enslaved Bearers in the world of Valisthea, and is voiced by the incredible Ralph Ineson, who gives one of the most captivating, recognizable performances of the year. Cid became a fan favorite for his swagger, wit, and because he’s easy on the eyes, but underneath all that bravado, there’s a deeply troubled freedom fighter who bears the weight of the injustice he witnesses every day. Cid may be killed by the first third of Final Fantasy XVI, but just as protagonist Clive takes on his name, his wish carries on, and the game is better for having had him in it. — Kenneth Shepard
Songbird from Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty
Songbird is a mirror image of Cyberpunk 2077’s V. Like the game’s protagonist, she is dealing with a terminal illness, but whereas V’s comes from corporate hubris, hers comes from an employer’s power-hungry apathy. She embodies Phantom Liberty’s exploration of how patriotism rots the mind and body of everyone who blindly follows their country. But it’s not her patriotism that has done this to her, it’s Idris Elba’s Solomon Reed. Songbird has been raised by Reed’s ideals, and her life is nearly forfeited until she decides to fight back. Cyberpunk 2077 has always asserted that, no matter how depraved and dehumanizing they are, systems can’t change: People can merely escape them. Songbird’s bold declarations of her own personhood capture the desperation and hope we all feel to simply be. She is the best parts of Cyberpunk 2077 personified. — Kenneth Shepard
Lifeweaver from Overwatch 2
There aren’t many characters that embody the ideals of Overwatch 2 like Niran “Lifeweaver” Pruksamanee. While Blizzard has had its hands full trying to get its new Support hero competitive-ready, the basis of who he is has been pretty solid from the outset. Lifeweaver is a hopeful fugitive who took his breakthrough plant-based technology away from his corrupt employer and is now on the run as he attempts to use this tech for good rather than profit.
Overwatch 2’s story has always been messy, and given the erratic state of its story missions, it’s likely to stay that way. But its characters, who act as summations of an unwavering belief that the world can be better, have held strong against the storm of Blizzard’s bad decisions. Lifeweaver’s entire schtick is that the world and all the people on it are growing into something worth fighting for, and that’s beautiful. His fits being pitch-perfect is just a bonus. — Kenneth Shepard
V.IV Rusty from Armored Core VI
Armored Core VI is about people who sacrifice their humanity to survive, climbing the militarized corpo ladder for a shot at something that can outlive both their flesh and mech armor: a legacy. No one in FromSoftware’s excellent high-speed sci-fi shooter has cemented their status as a fan favorite and lowkey emotional lightning rod like Rusty, the player character 621’s main peer, foil, and potential frenemy. He’s the best friend that makes you feel like the protagonist in your own life, picking you up when you’re down and knocking you over when no one else is willing to, always there to call you “buddy” when everyone else doesn’t bother to mention you at all.
Polygon’s Michael McWhertor put it best. “Rusty […] offers 621 a path toward redemption, toward that ‘purpose,’ toward something more than just another job,” he wrote earlier this year. “In the cold, callous world of Armored Core VI, that’s a uniquely humanizing thing.” When Rusty eventually reveals his true mission and identity it only makes him that much cooler, and the respect and dignity he affords the nameless mercenary that much more touching. Everyone deserves to have a Rusty in their life. Especially Rusty. — Ethan Gach
Jala from Thirsty Suitors
In 2023 I learned the term “girlfailure,” which is apparently the opposite of a “girlboss” who gets shit done and takes no shit. A girlfailure is an absolute loser trainwreck girly, and after I learned this term through descriptions of Jala, she will forever be the face of the concept in my mind. Jala’s story in Thirsty Suitors is—or can be, depending on your choices—all about reconciliation. Jala dares to ask how much of a wrecking ball you can drive through people’s lives before there’s nothing left to repair. She’s gone through life like a bull in a china shop, but she has no place left to go but home; she has to pick up the pieces and put them all back together.
Thirsty Suitors lets you reconnect with Jala’s exes, and if you so choose, you can rekindle long-lost love. But as I played through her story, it felt more fitting for her to fly solo for a while. She spends a lot of time interrogating how she once treated her significant others like they were disposable, and maybe learns after she’s unpacked all that baggage, the next step is to figure out who she is underneath. Jala’s journey is basically going through the reconciliation phase in a theatrical, turn-based fashion, and when you’ve done that, you keep working on yourself before you jump headfirst into a tryst with an old flame. — Kenneth Shepard
Venba from Venba
Venba is probably the most ordinary of our best characters of 2023. She’s not a superhero or Chosen One trying to save the world, she’s a mother trying to make the best of the world she has. Venba’s cooking mechanics personify her fear that her family is losing touch with her culture. Her recipe book is worn around the edges, with swaths of its words and drawings lost to the elements, and in their place are torn pages and smeared scribbles. She constantly wrestles with her fear that, if she can’t preserve her mother’s Biryani or Puttu recipe, will her son Kavin have any connection to where he comes from?
Venba’s story is deeply tied to her Indian roots and position as an immigrant in a new place, but as she attempts to encapsulate her family’s history in dishes to serve to her son—who is more in touch with his Canadian home than the ones his parents left behind—she touches on universal fears of our history being forgotten, and the ubiquitous love of mutual understanding. — Kenneth Shepard
Chai from Hi-Fi Rush
We needed to recognize at least one doofus here, and who better to shout out than Hi-Fi Rush’s human subwoofer Chai? Tango Gameworks’ musical hero embodies the “no thoughts, just vibes” musical energy of this action game, elevated by actor Robbie Daymond’s energetic, quirky, and funny delivery. He’s a lovable dumbass rocking out as he beats up enemies like a concertgoer in a mosh pit. His archetype of slapstick idiot might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s a lot of fun, and constantly moving to the rhythm of the music. He’s just like me, FR. — Kenneth Shepard
The Princess from Slay the Princess
The Princess you’re meant to slay in Slay the Princess appears in dozens of different forms throughout Black Tabby Games’ time loop visual novel. She can be a cold adversary, an attentive lover, or a monstrosity of unimaginable horrors that only resembles a princess by bearing a crown. But just as you fumble through each time loop looking for clarity as to why you have to fight, she is trying to understand who or what she is.
Slay the Princess is ultimately about how we perceive one another. Its key players in each time loop and route are just projections of possibilities of who they could be rather than who they are. The Princess explores every path alongside you, even when she’s pitted against you as a mortal foe. Her quest for clarity and purpose in all the carnage is one paved in blood—hers and yours. Even as Slay the Princess escalates into universe-affecting change, at its core it’s just a person trying to find out who she’s meant to be and deciding for herself what she wants to be, resisting the answers forced on her by someone else. — Kenneth Shepard
Turgle from Star Wars Jedi: Survivor
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor isn’t an amazing Game of the Year contender because of Turgle. But the internet’s favorite frog-like alien dude sure helped.
The loveable, short, and cowardly Turgle is both a little freak and a little stinker. You’ll find him running (and hiding) around the planet of Koboh completely nude. And he’s always getting into shenanigans with space criminals and deadly raiders. Perhaps, you think, that makes him annoying. But nope! Turgle is such a goofball and sad sack that you can’t help but like him, even as he keeps almost getting killed after screwing over more criminals. Never give up Turgle, we all adore you. But maybe stop getting into so much trouble.
Ah what am I saying? I can’t stay mad at the little bastard. — Zack Zweizen
Garl from Sea of Stars
Garl is the definition of a ride-or-die. He anchors Sea of Stars’ team of heroes with his positive outlook at even the darkest times. He’s always keen to cook up a good meal to make sure his friends are fed as they fight their way through the Fleshmancer’s forces. Garl accompanies his friends through impossible challenges, but he’s not there to be the hero. He shows that everyone has something to contribute, no matter their skill set, as long as they’re willing to help the cause. Each meal he makes is an expression of his loyalty to the mission and his love for the friends around him. While the hero of each story will be the one who gets statues built in their honor, it’s through the support of people like Garl that they’re able to accomplish anything to begin with. — Kenneth Shepard
Manon from Street Fighter 6
Manon was easily the standout in Street Fighter 6’s roster of incredible new characters. Her grappler style, which increases in power with each successful grab attack, is terrifying to face, but she also pulls off these moves with so much grace and style that she is captivating to watch. Her ballet-influenced fighting style makes every fight a performance, with her throws making her opponents an unwilling dance partner. Street Fighter has always blended fighting and culture, and Manon is a stellar blend of capable fighting with artful execution, perfectly summarized in every graceful punch, kick, and grab. Watching her fight tells you everything you need to know about her, and you know she is not to be trifled with. — Kenneth Shepard
Alex Casey from Alan Wake 2
The protagonist of Alan Wake’s novels may be named Alex Casey, but for those of us who’ve been playing games for the past 20 years or more, the sight of a detective with Remedy creative director Sam Lake’s signature scowl who talks like the hardboiled hero in a dime-store Raymond Chandler knock-off conjures another name: Max Payne. Throughout Alan Wake 2, this figure—phantoms of him, at least, lurking in the dark alleys and at the grisly crime scenes of the nightmare New York Wake is trapped in—appears before Alan constantly, and it’s just so delicious.
This isn’t just a fun reference, a playful bit of fan service. This is Sam Lake making a game about a writer who can’t seem to escape his own legacy, and he does it by leveraging his own legacy, which looms so large in the landscape of early 21st-century gaming. The choice brings rich, exciting layers of thematic meaning to Alan Wake 2. But it is also just a pleasure to once again hear voice actor James McCaffrey dispensing the kind of world-weary observations and hard-earned, hard-drinkin’ wisdom that only true noir anti-heroes like Payne—sorry, Casey—can dispense. — Carolyn Petit
Penn from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
Penn lives in a fantasy world. No, I don’t mean The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s Hyrule, I mean a world where journalism is treated as valuable by corporations and given enough budget and support to be a viable career. The Rito reporter accompanies Link in one of the game’s most involved side questlines in which he travels all around the game’s open-world map to investigate stories big and small. Penn is a class act, has a nose for a good scoop, and is genuinely fascinated by the people he meets and the places he sees. Even as shit is getting real bleak in Hyrule after Ganondorf’s return, he’s a constant source of optimism and kindness for the little guys caught in the crossfire. Soar long, king. I hope you’re in the next Zelda. — Kenneth Shepard
Partitio from Octopath Traveler II
To everyone who plays Octopath Traveler II, I hope you’re also lucky enough to stumble upon Partitio as your first character in Square Enix’s Canterbury Tales-style pilgrimage across Solistia. This guy is a businessman and firm believer in capitalism until he realizes that the people on top will always find ways to pull out the rug from under even the most hardworking people for their own gain. Screwed over by opportunistic capitalists, he becomes disillusioned by the entire system, and leaves his town ready to tear the whole thing down. There’s catharsis in someone realizing the entire game is rigged, rather than claiming the rich “earned” their keep when stories like Partitio’s happen every day. The working class is constantly undermined by the bastards enjoying the fruits of their labor, and Partitio is about to Hoot and Holler his way to a new world order. — Kenneth Shepard
Fang from Goodbye Volcano High
Goodbye Volcano High’s story of a modern society of anthropomorphic dinos preparing to endure the meteor that we all know destroyed them captures a lot of the anxiety everyone feels about deciding what to do with their life. Those fears are multiplied a hundredfold when what little time you have left brings you and your friends’ every lingering tension bubbling to the surface. Fang has spent their high school years wanting to be in a band and tour with their pals. They have aspirations to be in a creative field as their friends, family, and society pressures them to pick a more sensible career. But even as a meteor plummets toward the planet, Fang grasps at any straws they can to create some facsimile of the life they wanted, or at least some validating sense that it would have been possible under different circumstances.
Fang and their friends have to grieve the lives they wanted and accept the hand they’ve been dealt, and Goodbye Volcano High explores every version of that process. Fang has some universal story beats, but as the player, you can express your own rage or acceptance throughout the game. Fang’s story ends on an ambiguous note, but their declaration to be themself up to the last moment is a powerful statement to the very end. — Kenneth Shepard
The Whole Party from Baldur’s Gate 3
Any one member of Baldur’s Gate 3’s merry band of tadpole-infected misfits could have stood on their own as one of the best characters of 2023. We could have put a spotlight on Karlach for her story of pulling herself through literal Hell for a chance to live among her friends. We could have unpacked Shadowheart’s deconstruction of her own religious trauma to become her own person. There’s even a reasonable case that Gale’s hubris breaking down as he grieves his relationship with a god is a profound intersection between religious adoration and romantic entanglement. But rather than single out just a few of them, we figured it would be most appropriate to recognize that Baldur’s Gate 3 has one of the best RPG casts in recent memory.
Their stories can go in wildly different directions depending on your choices as a player, but each of them is the hero of their own story. It’s ironic that the ticking time bomb in each of their heads that threatens to turn them into a grotesque Mind Flayer is often the least of their worries; it just expedites and underlines all their other troubles. Each of them is fucked up in their own way, and it makes half of them deeply unlikable for much of the early game. But Baldur’s Gate 3’s cast rewards every peeled-back layer, quest, and permutation you explore through Larian’s interpretation of this universe. This is a group of characters fans will be talking about for a long, long time. — Kenneth Shepard
You’ve heard our picks, who are some of your favorite video game heroes and villains from 2023?
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