These lists are getting awfully specific lately, but such was always my intent. I relish the opportunity to dig through my collection and find games that fit some obscure description. Stian sent me to work figuring out my 10 favorite explorers in video games. A query made all the more difficult because I don’t like adventure games and haven’t played a Tomb Raider title since I was… too young to play them.
What do we count as an “explorer” for the purpose of this list? Well, I want to keep things uncomplicated, so I am counting a variety of different characters. These might be people who are literally explorers by profession, those who self-identify by that image, or I might just dub them an explorer because their games are built around exploring lands foreign to them.
As always, we would love to hear some of your personal favorites or characters you feel I may have missed.
#10 The Player
Starting out on a potential cop-out, I feel it is important to point out that games don’t play themselves. Every journey, adventure, and battle exists because of players who want to do those things. Games feature exploration because gamers like us enjoy exploring places.
As for myself, few games bring out my exploring spirit as much as Minecraft. Though its worlds are randomly generated, the game always manages to create such captivating landscapes filled with tunnels and adventure. Sure, you can sit somewhere, create a sustainable place to live, but you can also keep wandering and live of what you find, trade at villages, hunt animals, and create makeshift camps to help you survive the night.
Minecraft is such a vast game that I have yet to tire of it… even though my first screenshots of the game date back to when I was still in school.
#9 Pitfall Harry – Pitfall!
Possibly the first tried and true explorer in video games, Pitfall Harry was the hero of the Atari 2600 and the star of Activision’s classic Pitfall! game. Harry had to navigate a thick jungle to uncover all its treasures within a time limit and while avoiding obstacles that deduct points. The greatest treasure in the world is, after all, the top position on the leaderboards.
Harry earns this spot for being the first gaming character that really fits the description we are looking for. He, and the developers behind him, were true pioneers that sought to do great new things with these weird video games. His jungle capes may not hold up to the likes of Uncharted nowadays, but Nathan Drake should respect his elders. It was them who put the platform-adventure genre on the map, after all.
#8 Link – The Legend of Zelda
This list was never going to be written without paying homage to my boy Link, who first got me interested in playing games that were more than linear platformers. Each incarnation of the time-traveling, dimension-hopping, shape-shifting hero of Hyrule will have to explore the world in search of treasures, useful equipment, temples filled with puzzles and monsters, and that one darn NPC that advances the story.
Link has taken me on some of my most precious adventures in gaming, guiding me into the flaming depths of Death Mountain, enchanting Zora cities, magical forests, and scorching deserts. Wind Waker had players map out the islands on the open sea by themselves, Breath of the Wild had players rediscover a destroyed kingdom years after a cataclysmic war, and Ocarina of Time taught gamers the world around that any odd-looking rock or patch of grass MUST be hiding some secret. Don’t even get me started on cracked walls…
Still, despite his many achievements in exploring and adventuring, I keep Link low on this list because we are looking at characters here, and he is, largely, a blank-slate protagonist. As stated in the #10 spot, it’s really the player deciding his wanderlust and how long they want to stray from the story path. We can do better than that.
#7 Wander – Shadow of the Colossus
The story of Shadow of the Colossus is not exactly upfront with its lore. What we know is that Wander is a warrior from a faraway land, who has journeyed to a forbidden place to beseech a sealed deity for its help. He wants his beloved to be brought back to life and Dormin, totally trustworthy God that he is, will do that for him if he slays the dozen-or-so colossi hidden in the area.
Wander’s quest is one I reflect on often. He willingly explores this haunting land, characterized by enormous open spaces and abandoned ruins. There is not a soul to find, nobody to meet on the journey, just him, the dense atmosphere, and a finely-crafted world with breathtaking sights and awe-inducing creatures.
Still, as much as I admire the man’s resolve and fighting prowess, Wander is also a fool and it should be abundantly clear that he should never have started on this venture. The more you play and explore, the more colossi you slay, the more of a toll it takes on him. While I cherished every moment of this adventure, I was constantly dreading its conclusion.
#6 Captain Ash – TimeSplitters
Captain Ash is the perfect stereotype of a 20th-century explorer. A dopey British guy bumbling his way around the jungles, a big gun on his back and a flask of alcohol at his hip, ready to raid some ancient temples, murder natives, and make off with their women.
Ash has the curious honor of being one of the only two characters to appear in every TimeSplitters game as part of their story campaigns. That is, if you are willing to accept that his design and character changes drastically with each new entry, gradually pushing him to be even more comedic and reckless. In 1920 we join him as he raids Aztec temples in search of a Time Crystal and in 1924 we help him recover the Jungle Queen, his lover who returned with him from South America.
Captain Ash is a lovable doofus and his cooperation with the Jungle Queen helps him avoid iffy moral questions that plague adventurers of his era. A shame TimeSplitters is indecisive with its storytelling, because there is much that could be done with characters like him.
#5 Sir Richard Francis Burton – The Curious Expedition
The Curious Expedition is all about exploring randomly-generated maps and acting as a Western Imperialist psychopath. Curiously for a game about managing resources, sanity, and people while on an expedition, most of its characters are well-known historical characters that aren’t necessarily explorers.
And while I don’t mind the game letting fanboys play as H.P. Lovecraft or Nikola Tesla, credit has to go to Sir Francis Burton for being an actual expedition leader. The man’s achievements in life were legendary and plenty, and he makes for a strong character in the game. His starting equipment covers various necessities and comes with a healthy helping of liquor. He also gets a native scout for increased sight range, a soldier to cover combat needs, and he has the powerful polyglot perk, which means resting in villages does not reduce standing with the locals.
#4 Hemet Nesingwary – Warcraft
A lot of entries on this list concern characters that players control themselves. Not unsurprising, since there is not much point to exploration if it’s not the player doing it. An example of a pioneer not in the player’s control would be the famed hunter Hemet Nesingwary in World of Warcraft.
Nesingwary has been a recurring character in the series since the game’s original version, acting as a questgiver who tasks players with slaying the most dangerous game in whatever region they find themselves in. Ever since first appearing in Strangletorn Vale, Nesingwary has been moving to new places as expansions released. In Wrath of the Lich King, players even go up against his goons on behalf of an animal rights group, who in turn will attack the player if they smell the blood of animals on them.
The hunter has since made his way into Blizzard’s Heartstone as both a tutorial enemy and a legendary card that instantly slays a beast-type foe when played. I know the game also has Harrison Jones, but I can’t for the life of me imagine what anybody sees in him.
#3 Popo & Nana – Ice Climber
When I first got Super Smash Bros. Melee way back as a young teen, I found myself taking a liking to the adorable Ice Climbers duo. Their unique fighting style and fantastic designs made me curious about the games they came from. The GameCube didn’t have any fancy virtual store, so I did the only logical thing and bought an NES and a copy of the game.
Ice Climber is a simple game and, sadly, Popo & Nana would never get a modern remake in the same way Kid Icarus would be revived. I hope this changes, because I would love a game about climbing perilous mountains with an interesting moveset and two lovable protagonists. Until such a thing comes to exist, I gotta be content with playing as the two mountaineers in Smash and beating up all the characters that did get massive franchises.
#2 Hat Kid – A Hat in Time
Hat Kid is the dapper, little protagonist of 2017’s A Hat in Time. An incident caused the timepieces that power her spaceship to fall unto the planet below, so Hat Kid has to venture into its strange worlds and retrieve them. In doing so, she has to meet with the world’s bizarre inhabitants, overcome perilous platforming obstacles, and collect hundreds of little collectibles.
Despite her young age, Hat Kid is a tried and true explorer. She is a foreigner to this world, unfamiliar with its ways and dangers, yet still dives in there in search of what she needs. She is bursting with characters and a perfect fit for the comedic tone of the game and the ridiculous themes and storylines of the levels. She can both be a movie star helping two competing directors, as well as a little rascal running errands across a metro system for a local crime boss. On top of being hella cute, Hat Kid also controls wonderfully with a wide range of moves and gadgets that help her get around the levels.
And that’s a criteria we haven’t even addressed much yet. A character can be an explorer all they want, but players are going to want to actually control them and complicated exploration requires an appropriate moveset. Hat Kid is amazing and fun to control, and that is one of the reasons for why I got into the speedrunning scene.
#1 Madelinde – Celeste
And to conclude the list, we have another example of a character with fantastic controls to her. Madeline from the hit 2D-platformer Celeste is an amazing little heroine on a personal quest to climb a massive mountain, no matter how many people tell her it can’t be done.
Madelinde is fantastic to control and that is a requirement for the game’s spectacularly tricky level design. This is one of those platformers that lets you know how often you died and, for me, it wasn’t uncommon to see that number hit over 300 deaths per level. Still, the moveset leaves little to complain about, so all of those deaths were on me.
On top of controlling well, the story of Celeste I found to be gripping as Madelinde’s struggle is revealed to be more than just a physical one. It deals with heavy subject matter and it’s inspiring to see her fight through that. Madelinde would make the cut on a list of all-time favorite video game characters, and I did not go into Celeste expecting to reach a conclusion like that.
I’ll admit, finding characters for this list was tough and I did have to dig deep to find some of these entries. Stian forced me into a real challenge here and I had to play around with the criteria a bit to even get it to work. A little payback seems appropriate, and since the month of love is ahead of us, I think we need a special list to accompany it.
Stian, could you share with us the characters that you could see yourself fall in love with at any point in your life? These can both be characters that you could see as a partner nowadays, as well as any childhood or teenage crushes. I am not the only loser who had childhood crushes on video game characters, right?… Right???