Video game icons: 7 beloved characters created in the UK
With some of the biggest video games in the world having come from the UK, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many of its most memorable characters have done so too.
The country’s reputation for creating inventive, engaging and – at times – quirky creations has helped inspire a number of truly brilliant lead characters that have stood the test of time.
So we’ve taken a look at seven particularly iconic figureheads to emerge from the land of hope and glory to give a taster of how characters have evolved over the past decades.
Arguably the first high profile character to emerge from the UK video games scene was the Oliver Twins’ Dizzy.
Described on Wikipedia somewhat starkly as “an anthropomorphic egg with big eyes, a smiley face, boxing gloves and minimal identifying features”, Dizzy was created with the intention of being an expressive video game character.
And he was able to show his full range of emotions in the following years. Between 1987 and 1992, Dizzy appeared in over a dozen games across platforms alongside his friends “the yolkfolk”.
Dizzy also made the jump – or, in his case, the somersault – into wider culture, becoming one of the first video game characters to have its own brand merchandise.
Is the Lemming from the Lemmings a single video game character or a cast of identically featured characters participating in a single game?
For the pedants out there, it’s one heck of a debate. But for everyone else, it’s clear that the lemmings are one of the most iconic creations to have come out of the British video games industry.
The birth of the Lemmings was an unusual one. DMA Design, the creators of Lemmings, were working on a follow up to a side scrolling shooter called Blood Money which released in 1990.
While doing so, they created a relentlessly walking sprite that sparked an internal eureka moment. Upon seeing it strolling across the screen, the team quickly started creating puzzles that saw those little creatures being guided (or not) towards an exit.
One quick change of colour and the legendary Lemming was created. And since it was, the game that made its name has – according to creator Mike Dailly – gone on to sell over 20 million units on all platforms.
Lara Croft (1996)
Lara Croft is arguably the most interesting character to appear on this list. Created by Toby Gard ahead of the release of Tomb Raider in 1996, Lara remains one of the most enduringly popular characters to have emerged from the sector. But her legacy also tells us something about video game representation today.
Unlike many of the other characters on this list, Lara Croft’s creation was comparatively difficult.
First, Gard had to overcome significant internal scepticism that a video game could sell successfully with a woman in the lead character role.
Second, even after Gard had won this battle, he wasn’t able to create the character he truly wanted.
His initial creation Laura Cruz – who was inspired by the comic book character Tank Girl and Swedish singer Neneh Cherry – had its name anglicised by executives concerned it wouldn’t play with the public. As a result, Gard left Eidos – Tomb Raider’s publisher – shortly after release due to creative differences.
In the end, Gard was proven right to back Lara. Tomb Raider and its Playstation sequels sold extraordinarily well worldwide. This helped turn Lara Croft into a cultural phenomenon, leading to a series of spin off films starring Angelina Jolie and dozens of entries in the series.
Yet it is also reasonable to say that the true Lara did not emerge until the past few years. The rebooted Rise of the Tomb Raider, which was released in 2015, cast a new light on Lara by providing a much more solid and well-rounded foundation to her character.
So while Lara was a pioneering character, there is much more that the industry can do to accurately represent society as a whole.
Banjo and Kazooie (1998)
Following the completion of 1996 Diddy’s Kong Quest, legendary British video game developer Rare was attempting to create a new project for the SNES. But the studio was struggling to get it going.
Its main project, an RPG called Dream: Land of Giants, was proving unsuitable for the SNES. It was too much of a shift away from the studio’s core work on platformers. And they couldn’t settle on whether their lead character should be a human, a rabbit or, erm, a musically trained bear.
In the end, Rare opted to make the bear – now called Banjo after the instrument they played – the lead in a 3D platformer destined for the N64. By teaming him up with sassy partner Kazooie and setting him off on a multi-world adventure to rescue his sister Tooty, Rare managed to create both a memorable character and a convincing challenger to Mario 64.
From then on, Banjo and Kazooie became established characters in their own rights. Going on to star in a direct sequel Banjo Tooie and then in the (literally) inventive Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, Rare’s bear continues to hold its appeal to players two decades after his first appearance.
Sack Boy (2008)
LittleBigPlanet is a game that is all about creation. The whole central idea behind Media Molecule’s hit platformer is that you – the player – are able to create, play and share the levels that you want to make. So it made perfect sense for the game to feature a delightfully generic hero.
Enter Sack Boy. The central idea behind their design, according to Media Molecule in a 2010 interview, is that they are highly customisable. In line with the thoroughly editable levels and objects, Media Molecule intended for the sack characters to encourage player creativity.
Yet in their own way, Sack Boy and (later) Sack Girl became highly identifiable characters in their own rights. As well as featuring in later direct sequels in the series, both characters went able to prove how memorable they were by earning their own karting game – a distinction reserved to only a handful of iconic series.
Princess Ida (2014)
Monument Valley is one of the most visually engaging experiences in video gaming. In an effort to ensure players took their time to bathe in its beautiful vistas, ustwo wanted to make sure the game drew players in as much as possible.
Enter Princess Ida. On the face of it, Ida looks like a simple character. In a video commissioned by BAFTA, Dan Gray, ustwo’s studio head, emphasised that Ida’s character sprite has few animations and that she rarely expresses emotion.
Yet it is this simplicity that immerses players into the game. By resisting the urge to provide her with character traits, dialogue and other identifying features, Ida was able to become a vessel for the player – transporting them into the world.
In the words of Gray, Ida’s simplicity “makes that relationship between the player and the character that much stronger.” And it is that relationship that has helped so many players to identify so strongly with Ida and the journey they directed her through.
The Onion King (2015)
The Onion King rules Overcooked’s Onion Kingdom. As a figurehead, there are many questions we have: why does an onion rule a kingdom full of kitchens? Why is he having to fight against a giant meatball monster? And why is he allowing the player characters to be the hero when they spend most of their game chopping onions that are, presumably, somehow directly related to him?
Whatever the ins and outs of the Onion King’s murky politics, he is nevertheless one of the more memorable characters to emerge from the British scene in the past few years.
His cheery demeanour, his pet dog Kevin and mumbled dialogue – which was reminiscent of the heroes of Banjo Kazooie – endeared him to players.
But more the Onion King also played an important role in the game too. His existence along with the wider over world helped to contextualise the multiplayer cooking adventure that the player went on.
This helped encourage Overcooked’s many players through to the conclusion of the game and stopped them asking questions about his lax attitude to the chopping of other onions.