This week on The Ringer, we’re hosting the Best Video Game Character Bracket—an expansive competition between the greatest heroes, sidekicks, and villains of the gaming world. And along with delving into some of those iconic figures, we’ll also explore and celebrate the gaming industry as a whole. Welcome to Video Game Week.
This week, we’re discussing “the best video game characters,” and here I’m going to take some liberties with “best.” The most iconic video game characters, such as Mario and Link, are static and timeless. Mario is, well, Mario. That’s not a character. That’s a brand name. The more modern protagonists, such as Ellie from The Last of Us and Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII, are far more conventionally dramatic. They grow, they change. We laugh, we cry. These characters distinguish themselves in the course of a crucial pursuit. And hey—good for them. Good for Nathan Drake or whatever. But in this theme week, we’re also celebrating the unsung class of video game characters: the bombastic weirdos who, lacking any sensible direction, make a glorious mess of whatever story lines produced them.
Here I mean to award some great distinction to the two most bewildering video game characters, locked in my mind as a tie: Albert Wesker from Resident Evil, and Revolver Ocelot from Metal Gear Solid.
What do these two characters have in common? They’re villains, for one: treacherous, triple-crossing masterminds who plot global doomsday scenarios. In Resident Evil, Wesker hopes to spread a series of viruses that transform humans, animals, and even plants into monsters. In Metal Gear Solid, Ocelot defies any straightforward summarization of his goals or motivations; he’s a promiscuous triple agent who serves a variety of masters—Soviets, Americans, terrorists, and a stateless military—across the Metal Gear Solid games.
Crucially, Ocelot and Wesker rank among the most profoundly incoherent characters I’ve ever encountered in any serialized narrative. They’re memorable despite the fact that—or maybe even because—their words and deeds rarely make any fucking sense. Comic books have to create multiverses before they can even begin to achieve the levels of incoherence embodied by Wesker and Ocelot. In each Metal Gear Solid game, Ocelot shuffles his goals, allegiances, and even his fundamental characteristics, such as his accent. Even his voice actors have a hard time settling on his tone. Wesker enters Resident Evil as a crooked small-town cop and exits the series as a deranged virologist with various martial arts proficiencies, bullet-speed reflexes, and a British accent. Ocelot enters Metal Gear Solid as a cartoon cowboy, obsessed with spaghetti Westerns and six-shooters—but turns out to be Russian. He, too, develops a British accent for a couple of games for even more convoluted reasons than Wesker.
I’m not even complaining! There’s some profound charm in the senselessness that these characters bring to bear on a poor, unsuspecting plot. Metal Gear Solid makes the most of its general messiness. The hero Solid Snake and his many rivals, including Ocelot and his leader in the original game, Liquid Snake, are disillusioned soldiers seeking power and purpose beyond the state. It’s a series about the distortion of heroic lineage, legacies, and ideals. In a series filled with ideologues, Ocelot reports to several masters. He embodies a certain, irrepressible mischief in an otherwise serious conflict. There’s a YouTube compilation titled, “Every Time Revolver Ocelot Betrays Someone in the Metal Gear Solid Series,” and the video is 22 minutes long.
Ultimately, Ocelot serves the off-screen antagonist, Big Boss, in a paramilitary rivalry involving clones, nukes, and giant robots. Ocelot spends a couple games pretending to be possessed by Solid Snake’s vengeful twin, Liquid Snake, only to ultimately reveal the possession to be a ruse to deceive the artificial intelligence hivemind which has wrested control of the U.S. government. Nonsense, right? Ocelot makes no sense, and I can’t make sense of him for you. His promotion to series antagonist in the chronological finale, Metal Gear Solid 4, seemed to happen by accident. In the end, Ocelot was just a guy who loved Big Boss. Unfortunately, Metal Gear Solid took several games to even begin to establish this central conviction. And the conviction never mattered as much as Ocelot’s goofy swagger and countless betrayals.
As for Resident Evil, I can intellectualize it only so much: Resident Evil is a series about zombies and monsters. The games spawned a series of silly action movies starring Milla Jovovich. In both the games and movies, Wesker spreads his viruses in order to ruin the planet. He is cartoon evil. Straightforward in his motivations. But his biography is a mess. He’s a crooked cop who betrays his colleagues in service of a corrupt pharmaceutical company that develops viruses to turn people and animals into violent mutants, right? Well, no, turns out he’s also a distinguished chemist and biotech executive. Wesker apparently only masqueraded as a police captain in order to lure his own special forces unit to a rural mansion overrun with his zombies.
For a quarter century since the original game’s release, I’ve struggled to understand why the developers wrote Wesker into such a convoluted pretext. Why not split him into two different characters: a crooked cop working for the Umbrella Corporation and a crooked scientist working for the Umbrella Corporation? The big twist comes once Wesker’s subordinates, Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, stumble upon a secret laboratory and discover a photo of Wesker wearing (1) a lab coat, and (2) his cop sunglasses. Oddly enough, Capcom later released a remake otherwise styled to be a bit more sensible than the campy original game. But Wesker remained Wesker, nevertheless. To make matters worse, the series does in fact introduce the crooked scientist William Birkin, working in collaboration with Wesker and Umbrella, but by then it’s too late for Capcom to walk back the bizarre cop-virologist character it’d already popularized so effectively.
That said, Wesker wouldn’t be Wesker without all the action-thriller soap opera nonsense. And it’s worth noting the Resident Evil movies developed alongside the Resident Evil games. The games influenced the earliest movies, of course, but then the movies—far more flashy and action oriented than the original title—started to influence the later games. Gradually the games and the movies converged into a 2000s action-thriller singularity, transforming Wesker into gun-kata supervillain. He’s not out to destroy the world. He’s out to look as cool as possible—at least by 2000s standards.
To be clear, I love these characters, and so do many gamers. They’re the most masterful embodiments of what me and my podcast cohost, Micah Peters, often call “dumb anime shit.” Albert Wesker wearing a patent leather trench coat and snatching rockets in midair with his bare hands? That’s some dumb anime shit right there—the best kind. Revolver Ocelot exceeds even Wesker in his wonderful incoherence. As the pivotal turncoat in a centuries-long, world-spanning plot to devolve all personal freedom and national sovereignty to an artificial intelligence hivemind? Ocelot could’ve used some more sensible writing—even by Hideo Kojima standards for “sensible” anything. But as a meme? He’s pretty good.