Building Stronger Supporting Casts By Setting Them Free

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There’s a common idiosyncrasy pointed out about video games with any amount of non-linearity, which is that the player’s propensity to goof off frequently contradicts the in-universe drive of the protagonist to accomplish their goals. Shepard wastes his time in the club instead of saving the universe, the Dragonborn runs around collecting cheese wheels instead of stopping armageddon, the Sole Survivor pretends to be a superhero instead of finding their son, etc. While this is usually handwaved by lamenting the natural contradiction between having a narrative with tension, and offering players choice, a corollary question emerges: what the hell are your companions doing?

A decent number of games offer the player an ensemble of companion characters, NPCs who you can drag along with you on your assorted adventures, a second set of guns and a sort of Roman chorus chiming in on whatever you’re doing. Usually, these characters are given strong personalities, deep backstories, and goals of their own. All of this makes it all the more demeaning that, in most of these games, these characters become attached at the hip to the player character, being dragged along on whatever dumb garbage the player wants to do. This is completely contradictory to their written character; it makes them feel like some combination of uncaring about their own goals, the player’s babysitters, and servants to the players’ whim.

I only really started to think about this when I recently started to play Far Cry 2. A game who’s whole M.O is “the player doesn’t matter”, Far Cry 2 has a “Buddy” system that on first blush resembles these companion systems, but which has an interesting twist. When you meet a Buddy, they thank you for your help, pledge their services in the future, and leave. They go off into the African wilderness to … do whatever it is that they’re going to do. Probably some flavor of war crime.

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This isn’t to say they vanish. Rather, they instead intersect with your story at its most interesting moments. They reappear for most story missions, offering their own wrinkles based in their own goals (“Hey, as long as you’re in this area, you mind taking out a target for me?”), and sometimes when you’re killed in combat, instead a Buddy comes charging in to save you.

This was fascinating to me, and made me realize that video game companions who stick around through the entire game are a lot like anyone else who you spend a prolonged period of time around: at some point, you just run out of stuff to talk about. Their story, at least for the duration of the game, is yours, because they’re at your side the whole time. All you can get is chunks of backstory and character-revealing dialogue, but the character is rendered passive by their role as your new shadow. Filling out this character’s backstory requires a combination of them oversharing about their life, and them commenting on every little thing the player does (assuming the player is doing anything worth commenting).

By contrast, the Far Cry 2 buddies are interesting in the negative space of their lives. Because you only intersect with their lives briefly, you end up naturally interested in what you don’t see. Why is Flora suddenly a target for kidnapping by the UFLL? What was Paul doing in this desert before he happened across me bleeding out in the sand? It’s reminiscent of when you swap characters in Grand Theft Auto V, popping into one of the protagonist’s lives in the middle of a scene or moment: the unknown of what was happening just before the camera panned in on them makes the player wonder, and that wonder makes the character interesting.

A similar idea is put into effect (heh) in the Mass Effect trilogy. The selection of characters who are actually aboard the Normandy and available for missions varies over the trilogy, but those characters are still in the world when they exit the team, so they’re given some time out of the spotlight to pursue their own goals. This can be jarring at times, such as Liara’s 180 degree turn from naive and curious to stone-cold bureaucrat, but other times it means characters are given a chance to grow and be their own heroes, like Jack’s turn from “vengeful psychopath” to a mentor-like figure. Other characters, whose identities and arcs are strongly rooted in the culture they come from, like Wrex, Grunt, and Legion, are given a chance to reintegrate with those cultures and be changed by them, or to change them. This could never happen if these characters were permanently aboard the Normandy, just playing ping pong between missions.

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Being side-by-side with a companion character for an entire game feels a lot like a John Mulaney bit from his newest special Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, in which he describes having so run out of topics of conversation with his mother that, desperate for anything, he just blurts out “Do you believe in ghosts?” These companion characters in video games are similarly suffocated by the need to be an interesting character for up to eighty hours. However, I think some writers have taken to an almost Hitchcockian approach to writing companion characters, wherein they are decoupled from the character and are given some time out of the limelight, which allows them to grow, act, and shape the world, free from the bungee cord tying them to the player’s waist.

This also ties into that idiosyncrasy I mentioned at the front: by letting companion characters loose from the main cast for a spell, they are able to complete their goals without the player opting in to them, which, from a narrative design perspective, means they’re allowed to have goals unrelated to, or even against, those of the player. A player would be hard-pressed to pursue a companion quest which actively sabotaged them, but having a loyal companion disappear from the cast, only to reappear having chosen their own goals and loyalties over their loyalty and friendship with the player, would be an interesting moment, both for the character and the player.

Untethering companion characters from the protagonist allows them to become more interesting by way of the unseen moments of their lives, and offers narrative designers new opportunities for character development that just aren’t possible when companions are chasing the heels of the player character.

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