20. 2B (Nier: Automata)
Nier: Automata heroine 2B begins the game as a relatively boring character - she's a no-nonsense battle android, always focused on the mission, and sees her enemies as mere things that need to be destroyed. But over the course of the game, she changes and becomes more forgiving, more accepting, and fights for a larger purpose than the one she was designed for. Her striking visual design has made her a favorite among fan artists and the cosplay community, while what she represents (individual freedom, life's capacity to continue in the face of annihilation, the breaking of cycles) resonates deeply with the game's central themes. 2B makes us question what it means to be human while swinging 10-foot swords and wearing a lolita-style dress, and that's worth some kudos.
19. Samus Aran (Metroid series)
Samus is a simple character: she kills aliens for money and she's very good at it. She's at her best when she's parsecs away from civilization, deep below the surface of a strange planet and surrounded by hostile creatures. The most compelling relationship she has is with Ridley, a fiendish dragon-thing whom Samus interacts with almost exclusively through recurring boss battles (her heartbreakingly brief surrogate motherhood for a baby metroid is a close second). Metroid games that explicitly characterize this enigmatic bounty hunter are universally weaker for it. Some people are defined by their careers, and that's fine for Samus. Love your job and you'll never work a day in your life.
18. Bayonetta (Bayonetta series)
Demon hunters are a dime a dozen, but Bayonetta stands out by killing angels and demons alike in increasingly bombastic and risque fashion. With lovely accent, martial arts expertise, puckish sense of humor, and unique style, it's hard not to want to follow Bayonetta wherever her dangerous missions may take her. Oh, and every time her hair/bodysuit morphs into a colossal creature from Hell, we just want to grab some popcorn and watch the carnage unfold. Never make the mistake of underestimating her - or as she so eloquently puts it, "Dont fuck with a witch."
17. Leon Kennedy (Resident Evil series)
From rookie cop to Secret Service agent, few gaming characters have endured the constant crises that Leon's witnessed across Resident Evil 2, RE4, and RE6. He's experienced the Worst First Day at Work, the Worst Trip to Spain, and most recently, the Worst Trip to China. And through it all, he maintains not only perfect hair, but composure and raw endurance to match. Leon's ability to keep calm and shoot zombies is uncanny, as are his skills with a knife in that unforgettable duel against Krauser.
16. The Boss (Saints Row series)
There's no way the creators of Saints Row intended it from the beginning, but The Boss' journey from unaffiliated street tough to President of the United States (with a few dozen stops at the plastic surgeon along the way) is a perfect cartoon distillation of the American dream. The Boss began as a typical create-your-own silent protagonist, but starting in Saints Row 2, they developed a vicious-yet-vivacious personality of their own. Whether you pick the sultry French, zombie, or literally-just-Nolan-North voice option, The Boss' determination and fierce loyalty to friends anchor them as a surprisingly memorable protagonist throughout increasingly absurd situations. I'll never forget those car sing-a-longs we had.
15. Link (The Legend of Zelda series)
Humble beginnings, courage in the face the ultimate evils, and thankless rewards. For over 30 years, Link has taken the hero's journey, often starting as just an average boy then becoming an evil-vanquishing, green-garbed warrior of legend through a path of adventure and personal growth. Being the bearer of the Triforce of Courage, Link never backs down from a challenge, be it facing grotesque monsters, defeating ancient villains, or competing in rupee-gathering contests. Link is not only brave; he is the embodiment of the virtue of courage and heroism, single-handedly embarking on epic quests, helping those in need no matter how small the task, and showing his kind-hearted soul to everyone he meets. Link does all these things for little more reward than the occasional thank you. Then, after his job is done, he leaves those he saves and disappears until destiny calls up a new boy in green to find a sword and shield and go off to a new adventure.
14. John Marston (Red Dead Redemption)
John Marston is the cowboy we've always wanted in a video game. Like an Old Western Robin Hood, he joined a gang, stole from the rich, and gave to the poor - until he was left for dead by his own. He reformed his ways, becoming an honest-to-goodness family man, but he didn't let that transformation dull his edgy personality. John's always down for a little danger - sometimes even a little gambling - and the motivations for his gang-slayin' (and zombie-huntin') adventures are more pure than anything else in the Wild West.
13. Joel (The Last of Us)
Joel, arguably, is no kind of a hero at all, perhaps not even in his own mind. Forced to embark on his journey, and initially reluctant to protect - both traits stemming directly from horrific personal loss - he does not rise naturally to the role of fighter and defender. He's a burnt-out, angry man, shattered by an insane world, and all he wants is to be left alone. And when Ellie, and her unavoidable echoes of Joel's daughter, wakes up the protective side he's long been trying to bury, his response veers far from the romanticized ideal you might accept. Selfish, over-zealous, and deeply, deeply scared, Joel will fight to the death to protect Ellie. Joel will do anything for her, in fact. But when it comes to the bigger picture, ultimately he's still doing it all for himself, to heal his own wounds, not those of the world, and damn any one who tries to get in the way of that. That might not make him a hero in the traditional sense. It might even make him a villain. But it makes for a much more meaningful, much more human journey through the wilderness than the simplistic hero's journey most game would be happy to give us. If Joel was a better man, The Last of Us would be a much worse game.
12. Master Chief (Halo series)
In many ways, Master Chief is a personality void - a super-soldier who typically represents himself with action, rather than words, and is rather dull if you isolate all his key scenes. It's what he represents that sets him apart. He's a figure of hope and reason when the whole universe is losing its head (and limbs), and he's the embodiment of humanity's will to succeed and survive among the stars. He's also a symbol of Xbox history and the embodiment of the respective talents of two major studios: Bungie and 343. So, no, he doesn't have a bunch of clever one-liners, and he isn't a quirky fish-out-of-water struggling to adapt to a horrifying world. He's a symbol, an icon, and a representative of the greatness of gaming - for that alone, he's in the top half of this list.
11. Mario (Super Mario series)
If there's one face who symbolizes games, it has to be Mario. Anyone who isn't into games would see his chubby, mustachioed face and automatically connect the dots to games - not to mention platforms, green tubes, and gold coins - without having ever played a game. Along with Donkey Kong and Pong, Mario is basically the father of the gaming industry, literally putting a face on the bleeps and bloops of home consoles and whiling away the hours sat crossed-legged in front of the TV. It's easy to see why: he's the guy saving the princesses, he's the plumber leaving the toilets behind and reaching for the mushrooms in order to save the Kingdom from Bowser - over and over again. He's repeatedly shown that even an everyday guy can be a hero, and although he's come a long way from his plumbing days, he's still a hero that can bring smiles to kids of all ages.