Even the most minor character can accrue a rabid fandom. If there's no outpouring of questionable illustration following the debut of your single-sentence plot-helper, then you've either failed at fiction or you are deeply blessed. Some breakaway characters begin as a joke, or an afterthought, some as a narrative necessity, or a kind of walking, talking environment art. Others are born as side characters to lighten the story because the main dudes frown too much and Derek from market research says frowns are "cringe". Well, shut up, Derek. You're cringe. Here are nine minor NPCs who became major players.
Johnny - Metal Gear Solid
It is 1998. The soldier guarding your cell in Metal Gear Solid has just had an attack of diarrhoea. He runs to the bathroom, cursing his bowels. What a loser, you think, smearing ketchup all over your body. This fool will open your cell when he returns, thinking the ketchup is blood, and you can go about your action hero business. You will rescue your dream girl, Meryl, and stop the terrorists.
Ten years and several easter eggs later, this toilet joke on legs has become a hero capable of John Wick bullet ballet. At the end of MGS4, you stand at a grave, contemplating death. Meanwhile, Johnny and Meryl have been talking. They're getting married.
Rebecca Chambers - Resident Evil
From dopey new girl whose only purpose is to play a single piano tune to open a secret door, to recurring fender-offer of zombie outbreaks. Rebecca is not so much the anti-Jill as she is the smaller-Jill. Resident Evil characters have a hard time retaining a personality as it is, but she was seen as interesting enough by the developers to make her the co-protagonist of Resident Evil 0, a survival horror in which you can be cartoonishly swallowed whole by a large toad, as if you were playing Crash Bandicoot. Anyway, that's Becs. She's OK. The character that would really make sense for a Resi spin-off is Marvin, the doomed cop of Resident Evil 2. And at least one modder agrees.
Diana Burnwood - Hitman
Diana began her career in Hitman: Codename 47 back in 2000, as a text-only mission summariser with briefings that you will skim-read with all the patience of a dog at the front door. In the sequel two years later, she got voice lines. In the third game, Hitman: Contracts, she gets a mysterious faceless appearance in the final cinematic. Today, she is an assassination mastermind, having risen through the ranks of the Agency to become a shrewd spymaster.
Unlike some breakaway NPCs, Diana doesn't feel like someone elevated to appease fans. Hitmanists have watched her role gradually mature alongside the games. In a late mission in Hitman 3, she shows up in-mission, walking around with everyone else. When all is said and murdered, 47 dances a final tango with her, and you get the sense that here are two old hands, veteran colleagues, with a mutual respect that is inviolate. They have worked together so long, each is the only one comfortable with the danger posed by the other.
Sergeant Johnson - Halo
I saw this man die 1000 times. One of Halo's defining joys was being able to round up a few marines and go blasting grunts with a bargain bucket crew of war boys who clearly watched Aliens on repeat in the barracks. They would inevitably take a stray plasma grenade to the face and be catapulted beyond the realms of human knowledge. The one called "Sarge" was no exception. This cannon fodder co-bulleter would reappear in later levels, like all the others, unscathed and ready to die again. So maybe people shouldn't have been that surprised he somehow survived an entire ringworld being destroyed and showed up in Halo 2 with an actually significant role. Sgt Avery Johnson would later lay down his life proper for humanity in Halo 3, his once-luxuriant immortality dwindling to nothing like spinach in a pan. I still expect him to show up on my doorstep any day now.
Majima from Yakuza
From a couple of boss fights in the original PlayStation 2 game, and a relatively minor role in the plot, to becoming Kiryu's best frenemy over several games. When it came time to remake and expand the earlier Yakuza games, Majima was granted centre stage as a fellow protagonist of Yakuza 0. And in Yakuza Kiwami the developers instituted a policy of "Majima Everywhere", which made him pop up at random moments throughout the story to challenge you to a fight, like some incongruous gopher in a snakeskin jacket. He now appears in places he wouldn't have shown up in the 2005 original. The bowling alley, a whiskey bar, a suspiciously trembling sewer grate. Goro Majima is the violent, hyperactive toddler you encouraged to become an actor, and now you see them everywhere.
Jessie - Final Fantasy VII
I loved Jessie when I was nine years old. She was nice to me on a train. Almost 25 years later, I did not expect to be fending off date requests from expando-Jessie, a woman so desperately thirsty for men with large swords that she makes all the other casual sycophancy of Final Fantasy VII Remake ("you opened a door Cloud, way to go!") seem positively subtle. The original 1997 versions of Jessie, Biggs and Wedge feature as small time freedom fighters dismissed within the first few hours of the game. But in the 2021 remake they get dolled up with longer, more important roles, with some character development to boot. Wedge gets cats. Biggs gets an orphanage. Jessie gets horny.
Eli Vance - Half Life
The steel-legged scientist with the kindly grandad voice supposedly shows up for one brief moment in the first Half-Life, as a nameless guy who asks you to go get help. Of course, the exact same guy appears throughout the Black Mesa facility, with a voice indistinguishable from many other scientist NPCs. Like Sergeant Johnson of Halo, this survivor of physics experiments gone goopy is a classic case of minor reusable character models being given retroactive significance. This is fine, actually, because who cares. And anyway it's a rare exception. Valve are master storytellers. They wouldn't do this often.
Dr Kleiner - Half-Life
Oh, I mean except for Dr Kleiner, obviously.
Barney - Half-Life
Right. Yeah. And Barney.
Derek - this article
Remember Derek? From the intro of this article? He works for Rock Paper Shotgun now. He's got a 6-year-old daughter who wants to be a baker when she grows up. He just bought pastry flour on his lunch break. They're going to make messy treats tonight while mum is working overtime. He told me this as he gently adjusted the family photo on his desk.
One Off The List from... the best zombies in games
Last time we put on our gloves and examined the corpses of the the 10 best zombies in PC games. But one of these cadavers is more putrid than the others and requires immediate burning. It's…
The dogs from Resident Evil 2
"If you look at both the African and Haitian traditions from which the notion of 'zombie' sprung, you will find that they always refer to human corpses or spirits," says zombie pedant 'Faldrath' with spectacle-correcting conviction. "Therefore the RE dogs have to go - reanimated dogs are undead dogs, but not zombies."
Once again, semantics have decimated my list. I welcome such scrutiny. See you next time, list goblins.