Free Guy follows a video game NPC who becomes aware of the circumstances of their existence and uses that newfound awareness to become the star of a game that they were only ever supposed to be a bit player in. It’s ultimately a look at the little people in video games and how easy it is to ignore them.
Of course, most gamers know that NPCs can be so much more than non-playable characters. While there are some NPCs that are little more than seat fillers in some of the largest and most elaborate video game worlds ever, others have used their supporting roles to steal the show and establish themselves as legends in their own right.
From mistranslated villagers and merchants to dogs and knights, these are some of the absolute best video game NPCs ever.
15. Error – Zelda II: The Adventures of Link
With the immortal introductory line “I am Error,” this humble NPC from Link’s bizarre second adventure found a home in the memories of a generation of gamers that wondered what the story behind this seemingly glitched character was.
It turns out that Error’s bizarre dialog can be attributed to good old-fashioned translation issues, but this is a prime example of a seemingly meaningless NPC’s ability to work their way into our hearts despite being given almost no time to shine.
14. The Merchant – Resident Evil 4
For anyone who played the Resident Evil games up until the release of Resident Evil 4, the joy of encountering “The Merchant” cannot be overstated. Just when you thought you were about to have to battle yet another insane villager in a Wicker Man setting, the Merchant speaks cryptically, opens their coat, and offers you a very surprising helping hand.
The Merchant’s sporadic appearances and unique role made them an instant favorite among franchise fans, but it’s the character’s mysterious nature that makes them so compelling all these years later. We still don’t know a lot about the Merchant, and that’s the way it arguably should be.
13. Jeff “Joker” Moreau – Mass Effect Trilogy
There’s no shortage of incredible characters in the Mass Effect franchise, but since we’ve already shown a lot of love to the game’s best squad companions, let’s talk about one of Mass Effect’s best NPCs that can’t join your away team: Joker.
Along with being one of the best pilots in the Alliance fleet, Joker is one of Mass Effect’s most consistently funniest characters. BioWare did a brilliant job of growing Joker’s story arc in future games, but he always remained a source of strength was always there to help make the Normandy feel like a home.
12. Elizabeth – BioShock Infinite
It’s fascinating to see how divisive BioShock Infinite remains eight years after its release, but one of the things that the game absolutely got right was Elizabeth’s role as an NPC companion.
At a time when it was still fairly common to have to babysit your companions (even though there had obviously been tremendous advances in that area by this point), Elizabeth proved to be a more than capable partner who not only used her unique abilities to help you out of tight spots but would even occasionally toss you ammo and health. Elizabeth is an incredible character in her own right, but few games have ever made an A.I. partner feel so invaluable.
11. The Narrator – Stanley Parable
It feels strange calling Stanley Parable’s narrator an NPC given that they’re the main reason that this game is one of the best of the last decade, but this disembodied voice certainly meets the technical requirements for that role.
The narrator’s determination to get you to follow The Stanley Parable’s most obvious path forward is bested only by the dry, witty frustration he exhibits whenever you start to veer off-course. He’s the real star at this look at the relationship between choice and storytelling in gaming.
10. Cortana – Halo (Franchise)
Cortana is absolutely a strong character in her own right, but the thing that makes her stand out among the best NPCs ever is the nature of her relationship with Master Chief and you as the player.
Cortana is the voice in your head that manages to guide you along the path while making the world feel a little more interesting along the way. At a time when gamers grit their teeth at the mere mention of the words “Hey listen,” Cortana proved that it was possible to make such a character feel like an irreplaceable part of what is ultimately the player’s journey.
9. Dogmeat – Fallout (Franchise)
Truth be told, you could fill a list of the best NPCs in gaming history with Fallout characters and it would be difficult to argue with you. However, it’s hard not to ultimately give the nod to Dogmeat. Not only is this companion one of the most consistent sights in the Fallout universe, but their status as the absolute goodest boy/girl is undeniable.
In a series filled with moral ambiguity and complex characters with unique agendas, Dogmeat is…well…a dog. They’re loyal, loving, and willing to help you in any way that they can. They’re as perfect of a companion as you could ever ask for, and they make the wasteland feel just a little less hostile.
8. Phillip “The Bloody Baron” Strenger – The Witcher 3
In a game that’s arguably best known for a collection of side quests and side characters that are better than most of the main stories and main characters seen in other games, it’s telling that “The Bloody Baron” is regularly referred to as the highlight of this epic adventure.
The Bloody Baron may get more screen time than the average NPC, but it honestly doesn’t take long for this morally complex and utterly fascinating character to simply steal the show. He’s one of the best examples of why you should take the time to get to know the various inhabitants of RPG worlds.
7. Sans – Undertale
While it sometimes feels like blasphemy to rank one Undertale character over another given how well-rounded and important so many of the game’s NPCs end up being, it’s hard to talk about the game’s best characters for long without the conversation turning to Sans.
This apathetic skeleton’s most tragically relatable quality is his tendency to pivot between whether or not the futility of his existence is a reason to do nothing or if it’s all the more reason to relax and have fun. He practically embodies this game’s complex morality and wicked sense of humor.
6. Hal “Otacon” Emmerich – Metal Gear Solid (Franchise)
Granted, Otacon doesn’t exactly make a great first impression (he wets his pants the first time you meet him), but this quirky scientist has to be one of gaming’s best examples of how an NPC can grow on you over time.
While it’s easy to champion the way that Otacon becomes slightly more badass over the course of this series, his most enduring qualities are the two things that never really change: his weirdness and commitment to going above and beyond to try to help. He’s one of the most “pure’ Kojima characters.
5. Tom Nook – Animal Crossing (Franchise)
The debate over whether Tom Nook is the quiet hero of Animal Crossing or little more than a loan shark who introduces this quaint world to the joys of capitalism will rage on, but nobody walks away from Animal Crossing without some kind of thoughts about this true icon.
Tom Nook helps you get started in the world of Animal Crossing and is often the character you need to go to whenever you want to move on to the next part of your adventure. He’s kind of a gatekeeper in that sense, but he’s also the thing that keeps the Animal Crossing experience consistently compelling.
4. HK-47 – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
You do technically have the ability to control HK-47 during combat sequence, which means that their presence on this list could be considered a bit of a cheat. However, I dare you to play Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and let that technicality get in the way of giving this character the love they deserve.
While KOTOR’s morality system helped distinguish it from so many other console RPGs of its era, there’s always been something undeniably compelling about HK-47’s wonderfully uncomplicated moral code. He sees every human as a “meatbag” and struggles to understand why you wouldn’t just blast your way out of a situation.
3. Solaire of Astora – Dark Souls
Solaire of Astora is everything that you’re not expecting to find in Dark Souls. He’s optimistic, friendly, and, if you play your cards right, helpful.
While it’s possible for Solaire to succumb to insanity if you make the wrong choices along the way, he’s best remembered for his unusual commitment to the idea that there is hope and good in the game’s overwhelmingly dark world. His viewpoint may be idealistic, but you cannot deny the purity of his spirit and intentions. “Praise the sun” indeed.
2. Cave Johnson – Portal 2
It’s impossible to ignore that GLaDOS is indeed the most famous NPC in the Portal franchise as well as arguably one of the most memorable characters in video game history. Long after “the cake is a lie” became one of gaming’s most overused memes, though, it’s Cave Johnson that stands apart as one of this franchise’s greatest creations.
Cave Johnson is the former CEO of Aperture Science who apparently reached Mr. Burns levels of evilness before he died from moon rock poisoning. His incredible dialog (which, it must be said, is expertly delivered by the irreplaceable J.K. Simmons) includes some of Portal’s best jokes, but it’s when you start to spot the tragedy and world-building in-between his jokes that you really appreciate how much this character accomplishes.
1. M’aiq the Liar – The Elder Scrolls (Franchise)
I love an NPC who practically becomes the star of the show, but my heart goes out to the NPCs who occupy a small part of a game’s world but a large part of our hearts. So far as that goes, M’aiq the Liar may just stand alone.
As the name implies, M’aiq the Liar isn’t always entirely truthful. While those lies are often hilarious and clever, M’aiq is best known as a kind of unofficial developers’ commentary track. He often addresses meta subjects regarding missing features and misunderstood pieces of lore but does it in ways that make it difficult to separate the world-building from the Easter eggs. He’s the perfect reminder of the ways that the best video game NPCs can surprise you.