Companionship in Games

15 April, 2010

I never really thought about it too much before, but there haven’t been too many examples of companionship in the games I have played recently. Certainly there are games that focus on companionship, and the reason I started thinking about this seldom used facet of games is because I watched this review of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. My brother had actually bought Shadow of the Colossus a year ago and presented it to me after trying to describe “there are no enemies, just colossi.” I was amazed by the game. The companionship between the hero and the horse was so subtle I didn’t realize how engaging it was while I was playing. My friend had also rented the game a few months ago, and while I watched him play the bond of the hero, horse, and player started to sink in. My friend was in the middle of a fight, running around off of the horse, trying to find a weak spot to attack the colossus with. In the background the horse was running around trying to avoid the colossus while being close to the hero. My friend then had to climb on the horse while being attacked and flee to a safer area. Without the horse the game would be boring, the player would have no companions to help along the way, no aid when things became difficult. But its not just that, the player feels connected to the horse. They always know it will be there when it is needed, and in areas where the horse can’t reach I actually felt lonely while exploring. I have never played Ico, but I’m sure the bond between the two characters is just as strong (from what I gathered from the video).  I know Zelda does well with the bond of characters too, but I haven’t played many of the recent ones (shame on me).

This is the kind of companionship I am talking about in games. The kind of companionship where each character relies on each other. A companionship where there is a palpable bond between two characters. One where players actually care about the outcome of two characters. I’m not just talking about the story either, because I know most RPGs focus on this side of the story. When things actually happen, like the characters are fighting a boss, you don’t depend on the special connection of certain people, only their powers. Chrono Trigger had an interesting system where the players you had in your team actually affected what spells you could cast. I thought this was a brilliant system that many games overlook. I played Marvel Ultimate Alliance with my cousin and it was similar, but those are the only two games that come to mind. Perhaps what happens is that developers think the story will iron out the characters, and that the player will feel a bond between them when there are cut-scenes or dialog.  This is very misleading. Players tend to bond with characters because they control the characters. When characters bond to each other without any player involvement the player may feel cheated or not immersed.

So what then is companionship between characters? Well, suppose there is an obstacle to overcome, say a stack of boxes. Now the boxes are blocking the path to a cave where a dragon is living. Your task is to kill the dragon. Yet you can’t move the boxes because they are too heavy, and you can’t climb over them because you aren’t tall enough. The dragon has done a pretty bang up job of barricading itself in the cave with a stack of boxes. What if you had a companion though that could lift you on their shoulders so you could climb over the boxes? Suppose you knew the companion couldn’t come with you because of their fear of caves or dragons. Would you still ask for their help to lift you up? Would you leave them behind while you fight the dragon, or would you find some other way for them to help? Do you expect them to ask for something in return for helping you? Would you expect them to be there when you come back? There are so many options that can be explored with interactions between two characters. These interactions are meaningful to the player as long as the decisions are not just a device to add a challenge or to advance the plot. This also bridges over to suspending disbelief in games. When two characters actually care for each other like they would in real life, then that is companionship.

How should developers go about companionship? Well, I know it is difficult to imitate an actual person in a game, which is why AI is so difficult. There are though a limited amount of things that can be done in a certain situation. There can also be emotional ties, where if you treat a character poorly in one situation they will be less inclined to help you later on in the game. Perhaps a continuous flow of emotions, instead of a 5 second memory that often happens in games. Maybe if there is a problem you have encountered before your companion will recall what you did last time. They might talk about what happened last time you tried this task, “Hopefully this wont take twenty minutes like it did before!” or “I remember last time you tried to pull me up you dropped me, I’ll try to find another solution.” It doesn’t have to be too advanced, just a little reminder that they are a person too, and the two (or more) of you are in this together.

Perhaps there are more games that involve this type of gameplay and I just haven’t been exposed to them yet. If you have any suggestions let me know by leaving a comment.


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