The Subtle Art of the Sidekick…

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. 

Image of Indiana Jones and Short Round

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.

Image of Lydia from S

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.

Image of the Companion Cube from Portal

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.  

Cmpanion cubes are all over Reddit

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.

Reliable Transport

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 FalconSerenity, 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 FlushEleanor from Gone in 60 SecondsBetty 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.

But give us time, we’re going to figure it out.

The Issue with Aliens

You knew we were going to get here sooner or later, didn’t you.  One of the most interesting things about aliens showing up in videogames is that they often serve the same purpose as they do in broader science fiction.

So let’s talk about aliens in videogames a little bit. You knew we were going to get here sooner or later, let’s be honest. When you say “science fiction“ to your average person, rocket ships and aliens are the two things that come to mind first.

Rocket ships we will tackle another day.

Video games love their aliens. When games first started out, decades ago, there was a resistance to having human-form enemies. Mowing down ranks upon ranks of little pixelated people was simply not the way things were done. Never mind the fact that the state of graphics at the time gave you “people” that were on a par with your two year old’s first chicken scratch attempt to write his or her name.

In response to this, having your game take out hordes of aliens, or zombies, or skeletons was an easy way to get humanoid looking enemies while not crossing that invisible line that denoted people as bad-guys was one step too far for light entertainment.

When games went from arcades to early consoles and PCs, the restrictions on enemy “humans” got lighter, but by then it had been baked into the culture.

And as an industry we have used aliens heavily ever since. Not always in science fiction stories (okay, granted, some might argue that the mere presence of an alien from outer space categorically defines a work as science-fiction, but I would argue that you’d need to look at the use-case… *cough cough GTA*). Sometimes it’s a tongue-in-cheek presentation, sometimes there’s a key element of plot that revolves around an alien presence, sometimes they’re just there as enemies, as friends and all the grey* spaces in-between.


Faceless opponents:

Faceless hordes are the oldest trick in the book where videogame aliens are concerned. Earliest games like Galaga and, of course, Space Invaders just threw hundreds of copies of the exact same sprite (or pre-programmed set of pixels) at you over and over.  Sometimes in waves, sometimes in small strike forces and every so often you got to fight a big, bad boss. Because the levels were often “procedurally generated” (ie, created by the software following a set of rules, rather than designed by hand) these games could literally go on forever, if you had enough quarters in your pocket.  

Space Invaders

These types of “wave tactic” aliens show up in literary science-fiction as well. Novels like “Starship Troopers” boast aliens who rely on the kinds of military tactics that involve throwing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of bodies at an opponent, overwhelming them by sheer numbers rather than brinkmanship. While literature has the time and pacing to go deeper into the motivations of these kinds of aliens, in “wave” games the focus is usually tightly tied to the gameplay mechanics and the motivations are left to the imagination of the player.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

While many of the early 8-bit games relied on this kind of wave attack to extend gameplay time (and to keep you feeding quarters into the machine), more recently they have evolved into RTS (Real Time Strategy) experiences.  The pace is a little slower, but the enemies keep coming and, beyond the basic “invasion” premise, the specifics of why they are invading and who they are tend to stay very sketchy in-game.  They are invading, you’re defending, get down to business.

They’re not all bad:

The alien with the heart of gold is a popular idea, not least of all because game players love the idea of a redeemable villain.  Sometimes the alien is the protagonist (as played by the gamer), sometimes a sidekick or sometimes a helpful NPC (non-player character).

Alien Hominid

Most of the time when we find the “not all aliens” idea popping up in games, we have a clear point of reference between the “good guy” alien helping us out and the cast of characters arrayed against the hero. (This, by the way, is a different scenario than a traitor “mechanic” which is rare in videogames, but pops up a lot in traditional tabletop games).  In order to make this effective, the presence of the “good guy” alien is often revealed later in the game and the player is often privy to the events that cause this change in the alien’s mindset.

Halo 2’s Arbiter.

In Halo 2, for example, we are introduced to the Arbiter, a disgraced Elite warrior of the Covenant who is offered a chance to redeem himself by taking on the mantle of Arbiter (a position nobody holds for long).  The game then splits the player’s gameplay time between the Master Chief and the Arbiter as both storylines head towards a collision.  By the time they meet in-game, the Arbiter has achieved a greater understanding of just how his people are being manipulated and the Master Chief has come to understand that the Covenant are not just a monolith.  There may be a way to bring some of the Covenant factions over to humanity’s side of the fight.

They are way cooler than us:

The deeper we get into the backstory of any aliens involved in a videogame, the more narrative elements the game is going to have.  On the simplest end, we have our “invading aliens” shooters like Space invaders, but at the complete other end of the spectrum we have large, complex action RPG’s like the Mass Effect series of games.

Not only does the braided narrative of Mass Effect allow the main character to develop along the lines of a player’s personal preferences, but it incorporates multiple smaller storylines as well as an extensive Codex or world and background information on pretty much everything in the world a player might need to or want to know.  This level of depth allows the game to deliver multiple elements on the theme (Forerunners, as an example) that would normally be more effectively done in a literary form.

Much like different races (Orcs, elves, etc) in Fantasy RPG’s, aliens in these larger-scale properties tend to be better than humans along a particular axis.  Stronger, faster, better able to use certain technology, psychic, whatever the improvable characteristics are, you will find them sorted between the different alien groups with humans as the “base standard”.

Comedic intent:

Funny science fiction is a subset of the genre that comes and goes depending on the talent that’s available to write it.  Some years we have works of literary genius, some years everything seems to fall flat.  Comedic intent can be anything from wry tongue-in-cheek references to popular culture and alien bobbleheads popping up in your hot-rod’s glove compartment to full-on situational comedies involving romance, mistaken identities and good old-fashioned fart-jokes (because every culture, on every planet, has a place in its heart for fart jokes).

There is an inherent ludicrousness in the presence of aliens in standard urban environments and scenarios.  In the much beloved “Surgeon Simulator” we find a game that already borders on the silly, due to the sub-par physics-based nature of the controls, taking it one step further by handing the player an alien autopsy to take command of.  Sometimes they are a perfectly serious inclusion in an X-Files type scenario, sometimes they are an out-of-the-box type situation (a-la Valente’s Space Opera) where the entire narrative, from the aliens to the circumstances is so far outside the norm that everyone involved just accepts the wackiness and moves on with their lives.

*speaking of humor, you didn’t think I could avoid working at least one pun in here somewhere, did you?

Wrap Up:

In videogames, aliens are one of the most versatile elements you can work with.  From providing much-needed comedic relief to setting the basis for a well-balanced race and class system, adding aliens can mean adding critical gameplay elements and narrative backstory that will improve a wide variety of game styles and genres.