Rockstar Games is known for creating generation-defining games, but the publisher has also created some of gaming’s most compelling protagonists.
Protagonists in Rockstar Games‘ titles can be a mixed bag, but oftentimes that’s on purpose. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a key example of this: Trevor, Michael, and Franklin all have some endearing qualities, but never any excessive character depth that interrupts the game’s encouraging of reckless destruction. In the end, the set-pieces and chaotic gameplay are usually the spotlight of a Grand Theft Auto game. Compelling character arcs have usually been reserved for narrative-focused experiences like Red Dead or Max Payne. These games prioritize engrossing adventures, and while they do inject elements of parody like in Grand Theft Auto, it never supersedes the intent to tell an interesting story.
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Throughout the publisher’s history, Rockstar Games have created many generation defining games, but only a few have had the most compelling protagonists. Some of Rockstar’s best games hoist protagonists as the pivotal focal point to the adventure. One franchise in particular comes to mind, but there’s also been a few outlier protagonists who’ve also had a compelling story arc. Here’s some of Rockstar Games’ most famous, but more importantly, most impactful protagonists in the publisher’s recent history.
Max Payne – The Max Payne Series
While it’s a bit cliché that Max Payne’s dulcet tones are a constant narrator throughout the Max Payne games, with each entry his self-reflection became more poignant and refined. Max’s poetic inner monologue matches well with the absurd bullet-time shooting gameplay, as if he’s living out some subconscious noir fantasy that he’s secretly wanted his whole life. It’s definitely not perfect, but it does help carry the linear gameplay to some extent, especially in Max Payne 3.
Max’s story finds a comparatively strange conclusion in the third entry, but Max’s narration arguably reaches its peak in his finale. Even prior to the third game, Max Payne did a serviceably good job of telling a noir/detective story in video games. He housed more character depth than Rockstar’s more recent noire story in L.A. Noire, where Cole Phelps’ character arc is far less memorable.
Niko Bellic – Grand Theft Auto 4
Generally, whenever someone talks about Niko Bellic from Grand Theft Auto 4, the dreaded “ludonarrative dissonance” is always brought up in the conversation. That’s largely true, but in terms of the game’s narrative, Niko’s story arguably becomes more compelling because of the gameplay. Coming fresh of the boat from the former Yugoslavia, Niko strives for a much more peaceful life opposite of the violence he saw as a child soldier. Of course being a Grand Theft Auto game, that doesn’t come to pass, but that’s also a big part of Niko’s character development.
Niko’s story throughout Grand Theft Auto 4 is all about a violent man attempting to distance himself from his past. And yet, despite all his best efforts, Niko’s dragged further into a life of violent crime than he ever wanted. This is epitomized by the game’s multiple endings, leaving players with a choice that ultimately kills one of two important characters in the game’s story. Regardless of choice, Niko’s driven by his violent streak and desire for revenge. The life of violence he tries to escape inevitably follows him throughout Grand Theft Auto 4, which actually makes his character arc far more interesting than at first glance.
John Marston – Red Dead Redemption
Often touted as one of gaming’s best protagonists in general, John Marston’s respective tale of redemption is still impressive to this day. Even without the context of the prequel, John Marston’s hunt for the remaining Dutch Van der Linde gang explores a subtle exploration of his character and life over time. While the immediate goal of finding Bill, Javier, and Dutch is enjoyable, the inklings of John’s life before he left the gang are even more interesting. The opening hours of Red Dead Redemption portray John as a brash and headstrong protagonist, but he illustrates an unexpected amount of experience and intelligence as the game goes on.
Humanizing the outlaw was an overarching theme for Red Dead Redemption, but was especially emphasized by John Marston. Marston’s not some stoic cowboy badass with a gun who mercilessly kills and quips throughout the game, even though he can be witty at times. Rather, Red Dead Redemption spends a majority of its playthrough taking the time to get to know the real John Marston. He’s vulnerable, contradictory, not always the brightest bulb but never too oblivious either, he’s surprisingly human. John’s roped into the bounty hunting escapade of Red Dead Redemption to protect his family from the cycle of violence Dutch’s gang once produced, which makes him one of the most relatable cowboys ever produced in media in general.
Arthur Morgan – Red Dead Redemption 2
Of course it wasn’t until the game’s sequel, Red Dead Redemption 2, where another tale of the outlaw’s redemption stole the spotlight. Red Dead Redemption 2‘s Arthur Morgan set an even higher standard for Rockstar’s character designs, artfully conducted by Roger Clark’s depiction of the outlaw who became the most important member of Dutch’s gang. Arthur Morgan’s development from Dutch’s right-hand man to his own moral strength is one of Rockstar’s best told stories so far.
Arthur turned his misfortune into a changing of perspective, which resulted in an indelible impact on John Marston, Sadie Adler, and the many other surviving members of the gang. While his story takes the term “redemption” a bit more literally than its predecessor, Arthur’s anguish and transformation over the many hours of Red Dead Redemption 2 is a level of vulnerability that’s not often depicted in video game protagonists. It’s no surprise that this list ends with two Red Dead protagonists, but Rockstar Games’ western epics still stand for the publisher’s peak in narrative storytelling thus far.
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