Top Ten A.I. Characters of the Decade

by Matt Miller on Nov 24, 2010 at 10:00 AM

As part of our continued coverage of the greatest characters of the decade, we look at the artificially intelligent characters that have shaped the games we love.

Our list looks back across the last 10 years to find a surprising number of compelling characters whose origin was completely artificial. Whether a malevolent computer program or a sentient transforming robot, these characters showed that science fiction storytelling is fond of the idea of machines that can think for themselves. Three of these characters even made our overall top 30 list. Scroll ahead to find out who else made the cut, as well as our honorable mentions on the final page. Then jump into our comments and let us know which of your favorites we may have missed.

SPOILER ALERT: We talk about each character in detail, which reveals key plot points in some cases. Proceed with caution!

10. Eden from Rez

Fans of the 2002 PlayStation 2 release of Rez will talk your ear off about what makes the game so cool. Ultimately, behind the unique gameplay and hypnotic music is a strange existential story of an AI named Eden. The vast and powerful computer consciousness becomes so overwhelmed by the gathered knowledge of the world that it shuts down, and begins to doubt its presence in the universe. The trippy visuals and music that ensue throughout the game seem to echo the story of Eden’s confusion, and offer players a chance to reflect on similar themes. While Eden never emerges as a fully relatable character, she fills a classic sci-fi role as a foil to the viewers experience, challenging players to consider their own perception of self. Deep stuff for a rail shooter.

9. The Colonel from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Calm down, Metal Gear enthusiasts. We know that Roy Campbell was a real man. But the AI that pretended to be Roy Campbell throughout Metal Gear Solid 2 sure wasn’t. The “Colonel” walked Raiden through a precise sequence of events and objectives throughout the Big Shell incident, using Raiden as a puppet in an attempt to recreate the improbable conditions of the Shadow Moses Incident and further the ends of the Patriot AI system. The Colonel AI’s most memorable scenes came near the end of the game, after Emma Emmerich managed to upload a virus that attacked his cognitive capabilities. As the climax of the game approaches, players are treated to a series of surreal outbursts from the malfunctioning program, adding to the tension of an already heated conclusion.

8. Optimus Prime from Transformers: War for Cybertron

Optimus Prime has appeared in many games beside his transforming brethren, but not until War for Cybertron did he match the coolness of the cartoon original. The story of the game revolves around Prime’s rise to power as leader of the Autobots, and makes clear why all those other robots are willing to follow him. Fearless, committed to high ideals, and more than capable of turning the tide of any fight, the original robotic *** shines in the recent game, and gets his first truly worthwhile video game appearance.

7. Nefarious from Ratchet & Clank

We love Clank as the loveable sidekick to Ratchet, but Dr. Nefarious is just the villain that this sci-fi series needed. Nefarious hates everything about organic life, even though he used to be organic himself. To satisfy his hatred, he spends most of the time concocting overly complicated plans to bring an end to life across the universe. Whether trying to transform every organism on every world into a robot, or changing time so the villains always win, Nefarious’ plots are too ridiculous to take seriously, and just the right challenge for the dynamic duo of Ratchet & Clank. A great villain can make a story, and Nefarious hits all the right notes to fit the franchise.

6. John Henry Eden (The President) from Fallout 3

Wandering the wasteland of a devastated Washington D.C., it’s hard to ignore the repeated radio broadcasts from John Henry Eden, the president of the Enclave that would bring the whole area under its control. Little do players realize that the charismatic voice over the airwaves is that of a computer. The President AI was created prior to the great war that devastated humanity as an amalgam of the personalities of past U.S. presidents. The program eventually gained self-awareness, and took over leadership of the militant organization. In a climactic confrontation, players eventually are forced to either side with the President and poison the nearby water supply, or outsmart the program through conversation until it self-destructs. As one of the great twists in Fallout 3’s story, John Henry Eden fits perfectly into the game’s themes of an America gone horribly wrong.

5. Dog from Half-Life 2

Not every great AI character needs to chat with the player. Alyx’s Dog of Half-Life 2 plays a part in some of the most thrilling scenes of the landmark game. It’s hard not to instantly like the hulking robotic powerhouse, after you’re introduced to him in an exaggerated game of “Fetch” involving a gravity gun and a rusty scrapyard of metal. From there, Dog’s loyalty to Alyx and ability to help Gordon Freeman out of his toughest scrapes wins him points again and again.  Excitable, eager to please, and fun to watch, it’s hard not to love the robotic companion, just like a real canine.

4. Cortana from Halo

The perfect foil to the quiet powerhouse that is Master Chief, Cortana is unbelievably  intelligent, as heroic as any soldier, and to many gamers, a strangely attractive character for something made of light and programming. One of the only characters to appear in almost every major piece of Halo fiction, Cortana was originally created off of a template of Catherine Halsey, the creator of the Spartan II program. Later, Cortana’s “smart AI” capability allowed her to expand beyond her original programming. Even as Master Chief pulls off the heavy lifting that is required to save the universe from annihilation, Cortana works behind the scenes as an equally important component of the partnership. Her wry wit and keen insight make her an ideal companion throughout the Halo games, and secure her a spot as one of the most interesting female characters in games – even if she is just a program.

3. KOS-MOS from Xenosaga

Amid the strange philosophical and religious overtones of the Xenosaga series, one character rises above as a powerhouse that can’t be forgotten. The android shell of a teenage girl holds within it the power to save the universe from destruction, and players are treated to hints of that power throughout the course of Xenosaga’s lengthy story. Even as she summons gargantuan guns and devastating swords to bring down her opponents, an air of mystery always surrounds the character. As the series continues, one of the central reasons to continue onward is to answer the questions that hang around KOS-MOS. By the end, this blue-haired heroine plays a central role in the mind-twisting conclusion, and fans’ questions are finally answered.

2. HK-47 from Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic

Say the word “meatbag” to any gamer and ask what they think of, and many of them will recall fond memories of a certain assassin droid from KoTOR. HK-47 offers a strange form of comic relief throughout the excellent BioWare RPG, declaring his hatred for organic life, and his desire to snuff it out. The only check on his sociopathic tendencies is the loyalty he holds to his creator, Revan. As players journey the galaxy, HK-47 can always be counted on to offer a violent and messy solution to the problem. Play on the light side, and he is a perfect counter to your heroic actions. Play on the dark side, and he probably has some excellent suggestions to keep things rolling along.

1. GLaDOS from Portal

As sentient, menacing computers go, it’s hard to beat GLaDOS. Take Hal-9000 of 2001 fame, and add a sarcastic mean streak and a punishing sense of humor, and you get the hilarious and dangerous persona of Portal’s central antagonist. Constantly goading the player into life-threatening trials, GLaDOS’ quips establish the personality that help transform Portal from a simple puzzle game into a timeless classic. As the game concludes, she voices the now familiar strains of “Still Alive”, reassuring players that she’ll return for another installment, and cementing her position as the greatest AI character in years.

Honorable Mentions:

Jehuty from Zone of the Enders
Chibi Robo from Chibi Robo
Legion from Mass Effect
Jack from Gears of War
Clank from Ratchet & Clank
Glitch from Metal Arms: Glitch in the System
Astro Boy from Astro Boy: Omega Factor
FATE from Chrono Cross

For more coverage of our top characters of the decade, check out our cover story hub.