What makes a good video game partner?
It’s such a simple question, and just thinking about it makes one of them pop into your mind, doesn’t it?
Is it Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite? Is it Morgana from Persona 5? Aku Aku from Crash Bandicoot? Maybe even… Claptrap from Borderlands 2? It’s alright, we’re not judging you. Well, maybe just a little.
Having companions can impact games in all sorts of ways. Different video games use these characters differently, but what defines a partner to me, is a constant presence. It’s someone your character talks to, or perhaps someone who talks to you instead. They don’t even have to talk at all, they can just be there, next to you, throughout your adventures. A living, breathing creature who is always with you, whether it is by choice or not.
Take Persona 5, for example. Some JRPGs tend to swing this way, with players being able to handpick a team from a cast of characters to take into the story with them. They’re referred to as Confidants here. In other words, they’re people you trust. When not doing story missions, you can just hang out with them by either taking them places or following them along on their own personal quests.
Persona 5 makes you care more this way. The initiative is on you to be social and hang out with these characters. Get to know them, and you are rewarded with certain useful gameplay tools. Most of the time, however, you strive to deepen your bonds with them just because they interest you. The game almost always does a good job of opening up these characters to you and making you care. They’re struggling, just like you. They have personal issues and trauma to work though. They’re all flawed, and I kind of love that.
Peeling back these layers, investing all this time to get to know them all makes the story more interesting when they take centrestage. If you max out your social links with these characters and they show up during the final battle, you feel that. That’s your reward, not the gameplay boosts. It’s knowing that you meant as much to them as they meant to you.
However, I’d hardly say that these companions drive the game forward. There are many, many things that make Persona 5 so great, from the music to the story, to the gameplay.
Your companions do shape your enjoyment of the game, but the main story can’t be relied on in detailing how connected you are to them. Sure, you’d like it more if you liked the characters, but that’s true of any story.
Persona 5 doesn’t try too hard to make you connect to these characters, it merely offers you the opportunity to do so yourself. The story doesn’t rely on them, it relies on you. Other games do this too. In Metal Gear Solid 5, you have many choices for Snake’s mission companions. D-Horse, D-Dog and Quiet, the mute sniper.
They have snippets of story depending on your bond with them and appear in the main story occasionally, but you use them for how good they are in any given mission, not for how much you like them. They’re not the game. They’re assistants in the fun factor. Sure, you could technically kill that enemy you just spotted with your binoculars, but having Quiet do it is just a load off the mind.
Partners you are stuck with
Can all video game partners be swapped out? Certainly not. Sometimes, a game gives you partners you can’t simply trade away. These are people you have to spend time with. It’s not just compulsory, it’s unavoidable. The whole premise of Red Dead Redemption 2 is that you follow the Van Der Linde gang in a time when gangs are going extinct. Law is coming to America, and with it comes order. The Van Der Linde gang is chaos incarnate, bringing death and destruction wherever they go, often even to their own members.
You play as Arthur Morgan, and follow your gang members along paths often fraught with peril. You interact with them as much as you want when you’re not doing missions, but they’ll always be there. They take centre stage on every mission. They’re the point to every mission.
Getting to know these people and care for them hugely impacts your enjoyment of the game, and so it tries its best to make you care. The game is about bonds, and your companions reflect that. However, the game does give you space from them in the open world, for as long as you want. What about games that don’t give you space?
Partners you don’t want to escape
Perhaps the most famous examples of video game partners overall are Ellie from the Last of Us, and Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. These games were remarkable for placing just one character next to you for the entirety of the game, and having them be the single most important aspect of that game’s story. In Bioshock Infinite and the Last of Us, these companions are not following you on your journey, you’re following them on theirs.
It’s not only pivotal that you build a relationship with Ellie and Elizabeth (both of whom share the same name, I just realised. Wow), it’s necessary for the game’s story to have any impact on you.
In Bioshock Infinite, the grand reveal is that your character, Booker DeWitt, is much more closely tied to Elizabeth than he would have thought. In the end, Elizabeth, and several other-dimension Elizabeths, all drown Booker to break the circle of tyranny that plagues Columbia. This wouldn’t be nearly as emotional if you didn’t care about Elizabeth and Booker’s relationship. You and Booker allow yourselves to die, not just because you can’t do anything about it anyway, but because this is the only way every Elizabeth in every world will find peace with their Booker.
My personal favourite example of just how great a companion can be in a video game is Ellie. Everyone knows how the game ends, with Joel storming a hospital full of Fireflies to rescue her, despite her potentially fatal surgery being, in the end, for the benefit of all humankind. There’s a moment where you finally reach here, just as doctors are about to cut into her, and all of them see you and back up against the wall. You could just pick her up and run. The game practically tells you to by making all these doctors as harmless as possible.
But, no. These people were about murder Ellie. My Ellie. I slaughtered them all, and picked her up and ran. No second thoughts. No mercy. Joel cared so deeply for Ellie after all this time spent weathering the various trials they had been put through, and in the end, so did I.
Ellie asks Joel at the end of the game if he’d been lying to her after the hospital, if the Fireflies had really found a cure without her. He was lying then of course, but he lies again and tells her its true.
You can see the doubt in her eyes when he tells her, but she nods anyway. “Okay,” she says, but not to his lie. “Okay,” she says, instead of believing that he did what he thought was right. Maybe that’s all that matters, and maybe that’s good enough for her. She trusts him completely and believes in him. That’s no easy task for a girl who was born into a world already dead.
People can dissect the story of Bioshock Infinite and the Last of Us to hell and back, but the focus would always fall on the companions. The point of these games was that for once, your partner was put front and centre. They were the story.
For once, people were playing through a game where they mattered less than the people they were playing with. That, to me, makes a damn good video game partner.