Let’s talk a little bit about sidekicks in video games.
Up until now I’ve been doing a lot of talking over the similarities between science fiction in games and literature and film. But on the point of sidekicks there is a yawning gap, and it is one of the few places where the requirements of the medium is the key driver.
In literature, we develop a connection to the hero through their interactions with other people. How they behave with both “good” people and “bad” people tells us who they are and why we should be rooting for them. The sidekick often serves as a key element of this. The sidekick is often the one person who sees the “real” hero. They be the vehicle by which new and unfamiliar elements of the world get explained to the player/reader. They are the place in the story where theories can be surfaced and narrative plot points exposed. They help contain exposition and ensure that the player/reader knows exactly what they need to, when they need to.
The more far-future and fantastic the world becomes, the more essential this kind of character is. They serve multiple roles, all of which help to drive player/reader engagement.
Video games have a long history of “waste not, want not”. Every asset is created by a team of people, and as such holds a lot of value. If a pixel is on your screen, then it has a purpose. There’s a reason for it to be there. This goes doubly so for a character. In games, the sidekick usually serves a number of functions. They are there to impart world information that the player might not know, they can carry your swag, they can fight alongside you, they can provide clues and useful information and can keep you following the right path towards the final Boss.
But, in games, the sidekick is not really the medium via which the player/reader gets attached to the hero. In games, the player *is* the hero. Players map themselves, unconsciously or consciously, onto the main character of a game. We don’t have to establish a connection because we *are* the connection. Whether the games point of view is first or third person, whether it’s a strategy game or a puzzle game or a simulation, WE, the person/s playing the game, is always the hero.
So the value of the sidekick in terms of the narrative changes. And, to be honest, it gets a little weird sometimes.
Humans attach themselves to things. Pets, cars, plots of land, other humans. It’s is one of our defining characteristics; that we seek a connection and almost any interaction is improved by the existence of said connection. This includes the arguably solitary experience of playing a videogame. Players in games get unreasonably attached to their sidekicks. Whereas, in literature, the reader is expected to empathise with the main character when their sidekick gets kidnapped, or broken, or killed, that relationship is still one step removed. In games, that relationship is *personal*. The player is not observing from even the comfortable distance of the written word. This is fan-fiction levels of personal.
As an example, the Weighted Companion Cube in the game Portal starts out as a bit of an inconvenience. You need to carry it around and use it to hold doors open, solve puzzles and an array of small tasks. All the while, the research AI keeps talking to you as if the companion cube is an actual living, feeling companion. You are warned that it will never abandon you, that ideally it will never stab you or cause you bodily harm in any way.
There is never any indication that the cube is anything other than an extra-fancy box with hearts painted on it. Players drag it around, use it to advance through the level, giggle at the research AI trying to convince you that the cube is alive and has feelings.
And then the player must destroy the cube in order to advance to the next level.
This moment in the history of game-playing has become near-legendary. This is the moment that the Weighted Companion Cube goes from being an inanimate object, to something that players are willing to fight and die for. Thousands of hours have been spent trying to find a way through this level *without* the need to sacrifice the Companion Cube.
This inanimate cube has spawned poetry, fan-art, postcards, mini-films and even wholly cube-centric game experiences, and this “sidekick” is by no means alone.
In linear narratives (film and literature, primarily) once the sidekick has served their primary purpose, once they have brought the reader into the world, shown them how to love the hero and read them in on everything they need to know, they become a primary plot-driver as often as not. They get killed or kidnapped, held hostage to ensure the hero’s compliance (which never works), sometimes they turn evil.
But in video games it’s almost an unwritten rule that the sidekick cannot be used as a direct plot driver. Which seems a little odd, given the strong responses shown above to Lydia and the Companion Cube. They can retire, they can get married or simply quietly vanish, written out of the story or converted to an average NPC after the last training quest, but the minute you try to take overt *advantage* of a player’s ability to get attached to the sidekick, something strange happens.
The player stops caring.
And this happens for a very simple reason.
The goal of a game is to play the game. This high-level understanding is present all the time in most players (there are, of course, always exceptions). The moment you impinge on this suspension of disbelief, the moment you try to coerce a player into an action through emotional means, the game ceases to be player versus game. The game becomes “player versus game designer”. Players stop playing the game as it is laid out before them, and they start playing the higher-order “meta” game.
Meta gameplay is different from immersive gameplay. In immersive gameplay, the player is functioning as a part of the in-game world. They are in tune with the game’s mechanics, with the quirky physics, the occasional visual glitches. They are *forgiving* because all of these things are part of that world, flawed though it may be. The rules of that world are established and they will accept that cats can be blue and if you just hit the controller buttons fast enough you can fly. The same way the reader of a novel will accept that FTL (Faster than Light) travel is the kind of thing a two-seater life-pod can easily handle.
But once a player starts playing the meta-game, they cease to be immersed. Once the emotional blackmail kicks in, they will take a step back and evaluate everything more rationally. They will break their emotional connection to the sidekick because suddenly that sidekick has become an object. They have become a piece of the game mechanics and as such the player knows they are now disposable in the service of the game’s designer. And in order to complete the game, the player will need to be ready to sacrifice that sidekick.
It is a key point of difference between the use of the sidekick in games and the use of the sidekick in more linear storytelling, like games and film. And at the end of it all, the reader can breathe a sigh of relief that Han and Chewbacca are back together again, but the game-player must mourn the loss of the Weighted Companion Cube, even if they’ve found a way to beat the level so they survive.
Other than Aliens, is there anything more science-fictional than spaceships? I think not. From the earliest days of cinema we’ve had a fascination with the kinds of vehicles that get us off the planet we were born on and out into the vastness of space.
So let’s have a little conversation this week about a particular kind of vehicle. Your hero or main cast-member’s one true love. Their one and only reliable family member, the one thing they will fight and die for before the narrative turns them into somebody with a wider gaze.
You know the ships I’m talking about, the Millennium Falcon, Serenity, the Tardis, the Heart of Gold… (just to name a few of the best known examples). The idea of vehicle as compatriot comes through into many other genres, it’s not restricted to science fiction. Travis McGee’s Busted Flush, Eleanor from Gone in 60 Seconds, Betty from American Gods are just a few of these reliable yet non-conversational characters.
It is interesting, isn’t it, that undying love and loyalty often appear in the guise of a machine.
Now in keeping with my usual game-centric theme, I’ll point out that video games don’t tackle these kinds of relationships unless they are working with somebody else’s intellectual property. We don’t tend to build them into our own narratives. There are a couple reasons for this. The partnership of person and machine seems to be outside the usual run of video game protagonists and sidekicks.
Wait, wait, wait… I can hear the laundry list of objections rise to your keyboard and those will be addressed shortly.
To the difficulty in bringing a vehicle to life games is less of an issue with making an inanimate object come to life and more in a question of game design.
So let me ask you, when was the last time you played a game that took place in a single room? Or even a single level? Yes, there are exceptions, especially in the indie game arena, but having the game design a character locked into a single place becomes a challenge. A place that the player has to return to in order to gain a narrative interaction becomes a weight. It becomes the kind of thing that slows a game down. The player may have progressed through the tasks or other requirements, but the psychological heft of that space and their need to return to it can cause a game to feel restricted, held back.
This is a very different effect than having a home-base, like the Tower in Destiny. A companion-vehicle is a character in their own right rather than simply a location. And as a character they are most effective via their interactions with the player. Their very nature prevents them from having any other expressive outlet.
In order fulfill their role as a character they have to be able to travel with the player, otherwise all your gameplay happens in isolation.
All of this means that these kinds of characters have been eliminated from games almost entirely. Instead of the “ship with a soul” video games lean into the “Swiss Army knife sidekick” idea. Our loyal and sometimes less than on the ball machines are no longer vehicles, they instead travel with the player in a much more literal sense. They posses a physical form like the Ghosts in Destiny or they are mobile through the use of communications equipment. In almost all cases they lose the communications barrier that is often used to great effect in film or television. They stop being the unusual, slightly magical vehicle with a soul and instead become a full-blown member of the ensemble cast.
Which brings me to point number two. Communication, or the difficulty thereof.
The trick with nonverbal communication, like the Doctor ranting at something the Tardis has “said” or Han sweet-talking the Millenium Falcon, is that it’s remarkably hard to do in games.
We don’t know if the player on the other end is going to be an extrovert or an introvert. Are they going to be the kind of gonzo player that likes to pull a full-blown “Leroy Jenkins” and go charging into the battle at the drop of a hat? Are they going to be interested in the more subtle world-building elements or are they only going to be interested in which problem to solve next? In order to make an interaction work between player and vehicle work, the nonverbal communication of the machine has to be recognized and understood by the player.
In cinema/television and even the written word, this is a far easier thing to accomplish. Your main character and your sidekicks are matched, even designed, to work well with one another. The doctor never misunderstands the Tardis unless the narrative requires him to do so. Han and the Falcon always seem to know exactly what to say to each other at exactly the right moment.
But in video games we have the randomness of an unscripted interaction. You might have a player who decides they’re not going to put up with this ship’s bullshit and will ignore every type of communication other than the written word. You may have another player who is so into the interaction between themselves and the ship that they fail to execute the rest of the game in any meaningful fashion.
These are both perfectly valid styles of gameplay, but the disconnect between them and the larger game experience becomes a problem in a world where you want a player to feel rewarded and fulfilled by the end of the experience. Both of these play-styles really need their own style of design and the vehicle-as-family is not a robust element on it’s own to base an entire game around.
Add to that the fact that one of the key problems with allowing for miscommunication in video games is that the game player is never sure if it was done on purpose. Was it included for a narrative reason? Did they miss something? Is it a BUG!?! The uncertainty factor is high and can make disruption of the overall gameplay experience a very real possibility if the developers don’t take the proper care.
As a closing example of mysterious communication, I will point you at the Myst games from the 1990s. Created by the developer Cyan, Myst and it successor Riven, were some of the original blockbuster puzzle games. It’s the mystery game by which many science-fiction mystery properties have been held to as a standard and it serves as both an example and as a warning.
More players rage quit this game because they were unable to find a clue then any other game at the time. It was hard, intellectually hard, to get through from start to finish. It required taking, maps, careful thought and even a bit of library research in order to complete. Millions of people played and millions of people failed to gene get pat the first level of the game.
BUT. In order to tolerate that level of frustration on the part of the players, you have to have millions of game sales. It’s not enough to be hard to play, there has to be a compelling reason for players to put up with the effort and trouble. It’s not the kind of thing that you want to be banking a multi-million dollar investment on.
So if you’re looking for that silent sidekick. That quirky vehicle that manages to make sure you end up in the right place at the right time in order to continue the story, video games are probably not going to give you that kind of interaction. At the moment that is still comfortably the purview of film television in the literature, rather than video games.