Across all media, from ancient myth to subscriber-only podcasts in walled-garden apps, there’s nothing human beings love more than a fanciful robot. Many videogame robots have stuck with me throughout the years, from the lissome vicissitudes of youth through the stern rigidity of my dotage. Like the games in which they appear, these robots all mean something, something powerful, something primordial and indefinable. From aspirational figures that represent humanity’s ideals, to startling reminders of man’s own hubris, these are the robots you should care about from videogames past, present and future.
Vectorman is my awesome friend, but he’s not top ten material. Carry Vectorman in your heart and he will carry you in his.
Eyebots are just machines that wander around in Fallout 3. These are less characters than they are pure propaganda machines, and they’re glorious. They float down ruined streets and tell you all about the governmental wonder of the Enclave that definitely has a chain of command that goes all the way back to the democratic ideals of the 20th century and certainly isn’t a parasite living in the blown-out corpse of irradiated America. Eyebot doesn’t care, though. Eyebot keeps on trucking.
Look, I’ll be honest with you, I hate this well-loved robot from the equally well-loved Portal 2. I hate his humor. I hate his voice despite liking Stephen Merchant in basically everything else, including Hello Ladies which was, at best, not a good show. I hate the constant joke about his hubris forcing him to compensate for almost everything which then leads us into a calamity that Chell inevitably has to get him out of. I know that if I leave Wheatley off of this list that the literal hordes of Game Robot Lovers will come out of the robowoodwork to rend me limb from limb, and so here Wheatley sits, at a lofty #9, because he’s really not so bad is he?
You’re playing XCOM and you’re doing really well because you’re playing in a conservative way. Your laser rifles have been cutting through enemies all day long, and so you’re feeling a little sassy when the fog of war clears and there’s a weird metal disc flying there in the middle of the map. It floats over to your assault trooper. Your mouth opens as the disc transforms into a walking battle array that promptly shreds half of your team in three terms. You let out a huge holler when you realize how much health it has. Cyberdiscs are awesome.
Somewhere around disc four of Final Fantasy VIII a strange sequence of events occurs that entails a giant stream of monsters funneling themselves from the moon to the planet, and in that giant funnel of monsters is a giant monster that it also an airship. The protagonists hop on it, kill some monsters inside of that monster, and then fly around the world with it. It’s an almost-machine that really opens up the world, and is probably one of the most tolerable characters in the game because it never speaks or shares a longform interior monologue with the player.
Bungie wanted Ghost to have a personality so much that they hired Peter Dinklage to act bored in a room for a solid two hours on a Thursday afternoon at the tail end of a long Game of Thrones shoot. Through all that verbal muck, Ghost still manages to be a fun companion character whose animations and zooming about are actually really funny and engaging. It’s hovering right around the tolerance level of that fairy who is always bothering Link, but without telling you to listen, so Ghost is pretty alright!
Lots of people would tell you that the best Metal Gear robot is Metal Gear REX, the robodino from the first Metal Gear Solid game. It stomps around and shoots you with a laser and ultimately provides an awesome arena for two brothers to get octagon brutal with one another while screaming about war and genetic destiny. I’m here to tell you that that is the wrong opinion. The tiny, cute, hopping Metal Gear Mk.II makes literally no sense and only exists as strange cute fanservice in a game that was pretty committed to giving the audience weird things that they were not wanting or ready for. Thank God for this tiny robot.
I don’t even care for his game series and have never played beyond the “classic” ones, but Clank sticks out in my mind as an awesome robot. I took a look at the Wiki for the games series while writing this blurb and I found out that Clank has some kind of soul and was made by a grand clockmaker or whatever and basically I think that Clank might be one of the most complicated robots ever summoned from game narrative hell. He’s a cool robot and he looks cool and he’s got his name in the title of a videogame, which is better than what I’ve got.
There’s nothing better than a good villain robot. You remember the nuclear robot from War Games? I’d put it here if I could, but since this is a finite list with a very particular goal, the grand general of the Reapers will have to do. I’ve played through Mass Effect 2 a single time, and upon reflection I think that I might not know exactly what happened in the game because I thought that you killed this robot at the end of it. I guess not. Harbinger will often assume direct control of its units and taunt you and generally be a huge robot tool toward Shepard. Bioware did a great job of making this robot seem super inhuman, and the feel of Harbinger talking to me has stuck with me far longer than any specific knowledge has. A good bad robot if there ever was one.
The Robot Factory level of Timesplitters 2 is pretty clearly a time-wasting buffer put into that game to provide some kind of gap between the super well-designed opening missions and the amazing ending escape sequence. Taking on the role of Gretel Mk.II, a robot with a cool red hood on, you destroy the evil child machinist, one of the creepiest villains in videogame history. I spent a lot of time as a teen playing local multiplayer as Gretel Mk.II, and despite being 100% silent, she’s got a big place in my heart.
Horatio is one of the best characters in videogames, period, and the fact that he is a robot is just icing on the cake that allows me to put him number one on this list. The story of Primordia is one of Horatio regaining his memory, and each additional thing that he learns about himself is functionally a hammer to the head of the player. He interacts with a lot of other cool robots as well, and there’s an alternate list where I just rank the robots on the game based on how rad I think they are. Taking care of business and learning his role in the utter eradication of humans, Horatio truly is The Best Robot.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.