Games, how they work, and how they should work

Single Player Companions

Ahhh, it’s good to be back. Apart from the crazy weather (hail? In October?) and the massive distance from my friends and family, it’s all going well an uni. Now let’s get down to business. My internet hasn’t been particularly regular recently, so I’ve been falling back on my supply of single player games, and I’ve noticed a few small aspects of character development of companions that have quite significant consequences.

“You go on ahead, I’ll watch your back”

It’s pretty much a standard in single player games to have some sort of friendly AI. It’s pretty hard to depict the main character as a heroic protagonist if they kill everything in sight before if they are friendly or not, but in a very boring sea of similar assistant characters, there’s some strange stuff going on. I first noticed this when playing Half-Life 2 and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, which makes for a useful comparison as both use the same engine and both have similar combat environment*, regardless of the contrasting settings. Note, the following analysis of Dark Messiah is based on what we know about Leanna in early game (before you acquire the skull of shadows) as after that her presence gets… complicated.

*By “similar combat environment” I mean that in both games you have some goal to get to with a number of areas populated with scripted encounters, and your companion follows your lead when they are around,  I don’t mean the mechanics like the grav gun/kicking etc.

When playing Half-Life 2 (and episodes 1 and 2) you go through periods of going alone and with Alyx. As you do this, you establish an emotional bond with her and she becomes just as important to the mission as you, despite not having the trusty HEV. This inevitably makes her soft a squishy compared to Gordon, but her tech skills and dead-eye with a pistol are invaluable. This subtly pushes the player to protect her at all costs with very little prompting. This also, at least in my own experience, makes me want to get through the solo bits as quickly as possible, which helps with the pacing (as most of the story happens with Alyx). Later, in episode 2, (spoiler alert, but if you haven’t played HL2, why the hell not? Go buy it now!) Valve really took advantage of this bond you develop and make you risk your life, and the lives of some rebels and vortigaunts, to save her life. All in all, a brilliant example of character development and emersion.

Now imagine that Alyx was even squishier, hardly did any damage to enemies (yet is suddenly very powerful after you’ve nearly died 4 times in killing everything is sight) and every enemy that could see her swarmed to and killed her instantly. Everything you do with her is now a pain as she has become a liability. That’s exactly what Leanna is in Dark Messiah. Because of some story complications that become apparent quite early in the game, the developers seem to rush Leanna’s character building, giving the player a rather shallow view of her (more on this below). The really detrimental aspect though is her total redundancy in battle. She claims to be this powerful apprentice of one of the greatest mages in the land, yet she only ever uses her power to move around heavy things with her mind at really convenient moments in the story (and you can’t, despite the fact that you too can have a telekinesis spell really early) yet she never thinks to pick up heavy things and put them on top of the fleshy things with swords. Another spoiler warning, (and this is pretty big so skip ahead if you want to play DM. Highlight to view) she suddenly realises her true power when she’s the one you have to fight. Funny, isn’t it? So instead of actually being useful in combat, or even just holding her own when they enemy get too close, she just says “right behind you, Sareth!” Everything we learn about her in the story is disjoint with everything we experience in game-play. What this all means is while I want to get back to Alyx as quickly as I can, I find I want to get away from Leanna as much as possible, and relish the times I do.

“I THINK I WUV YOU!”

So most of that could’ve been fixed  by just letting her just kill stuff (there’s hardly a shortage of solo combat elsewhere in the game) but how her character is developed outside of combat is far from perfect. First, let’s take a look at Alyx’s development as a benchmark. First she saves you, then she respects you as a scientist (without kissing proverbial ass or being patronising) and as you get in and out of dangerous situations together, her affection for your grows and becomes apparent at the same rate as yours for her. This is key, it happens at about the same rate. Contrary to romantic film standards, true affection (but not infatuation) between 2 people, be it romantic or just friendship and trust, is generally mutual. Nothing sucks more than feeling like you have a connection with someone but they make it apparent that they don’t feel the same way. Leanna’s affection, as mentioned above, is very one-sided and happens way too fast. That’s not a spoiler either. It starts from your very first meeting and repeats without anything advancing. Without going into too much detail and making this thing devilishly long, she starts out flirting with you badly as she is shy, then you help her out and she flirts badly again, saying herself that she’s “not very good at this” before doing it some more in the middle of a dangerous mission.

I think that’s enough for now. I’m in danger of entering a blind rage and becoming (even more) incoherent. If you would like me to become a raging ball of critique, do tell me and I can expand more on the problems with Dark Messiah. I must say though, I love the game despite its short-falls. The mechanics are brilliant and interesting from a development point of view, but it hardly has the narrative power it feels like it should have. Until next time, so long! I really need some sort of closing catchphrase that isn’t cheesy, if that isn’t an oxymoron. Comments, write them!

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