Originally published on GameInformer.com February 14, 2014, at 10:00 AM.
Selected for Blog Herding -- The Best Blogs of the Community, 2/20/14.
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Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
We don't fall in love with video game companions, especially those we're not meant to develop strong feelings for. Sure, a strong narrative and character development can evoke our sympathy and even sentimental affection. But gamers would be forgiven for ambivalence toward allies who traditionally make our virtual journeys more dangerous than they might otherwise be.
Take Dom in Gears of War. How many times did we have to save his skin when he ran into darkness and was devoured by kryll residing therein? And what of Flynn in Uncharted 2? It might not come as a surprise, still his determination to rush ahead, alerting adversaries to our presence, was a constant frustration. Nevermind our comrades in any FPS, who have complete disregard for line of fire.
Yes, it's hard to love such incompetent sidekicks. As the saying goes, with friends like these, who needs enemies? My companions in RPGs like Skyrim are no exception. Called "followers" by the game, the irony of such a label can't be lost on Bethesda, no pun intended. Indeed, the greatest danger they face is getting left behind, whether due to sticky terrain or paths that baffle them.
Of course it doesn't end there. Like squadmates in military shooters, they have a knack for crossing my line of fire or just getting too close to my elemental attacks. My two followers to date have died many ignominious deaths as a result, only to be revived by the miracle of save game reloads. However, I do feel a pang of guilt when counting their bodies among my foes.'
In fact, I did develop an affinity for my first follower, Uthgerd the Unbroken. The bond was strong enough that I couldn't kill her when she turned on me. Yes, it was my fault for roasting her in the first place, but I wouldn't have had to if she didn't get stuck on a hillside and doing so wasn't the only way to get her free from that predicament. Likewise, I didn't have the heart to confront her later as demanded by the Companions.
I would have made her my wife if she was so inclined but that never transpired, which was just as well as I found a new companion that I preferred. Illia the mage was a much more formidable follower as her spells made quick work of many enemies. I didn't think I could marry a follower, but have since found under the right circumstances I could marry Uthgerd, though not Illia.
In the meantime, I became betrothed to housecarl Lydia. That prospective union, however, was anticlimactic as her reaction was along the lines of, "Life is short and tough, so why not marry to lighten the load?" Oh, be still my heart! Romantic sentiment, it turns out, is in short supply on the inhospitable Skyrim tundra. It should come as no surprise, then, that my affections turned to my followers.
In any other game, a companion's woeful lack of strategy or even common sense would earn them a gamer's disregard or outright hatred. How many allies have we been blessed with that we would have preferred took a fatal bullet for us and even tried to help that process along? In games where I can, I'll even instruct them to wait while I soldier on, lone wolf style.
Still, despite their shortcomings, there's something about the wide open world of Skyrim, its sometimes barren or otherwise challenging landscape, and the ceaseless assaults of its weather and inhabitants that inspires affection for the brave, foolhardy or simply thick headed followers who agree to accompany us on our long, thankless quests.
How else to explain my inability to accept their deaths, the reflex to load a save game file upon their untimely demise; the panic I experience when I realize I've left them behind, or the pity/guilt I feel upon seeing them look at me helplessly from afar; or the hope I feel that at anytime they might say something in reply other than "What can I do for you?," or "What would you like me to carry?"
With Illia, in fact, I'll repeatedly bump into her or spam the talk button just to get a reaction. In this case, actions speak louder than words, and I always appreciate the zeal with which she attacks my enemies. Yes, she's gotten me in a pickle by making foes of friendlies like soldiers and Companions, who make me laugh with their dry, exasperated remarks at being attacked by my follower.
It's true that allies in most other games fall short of earning such affection, but that doesn't mean I don't ever appreciate their efforts, however misguided or downright meddlesome. I remember how grateful I was, for instance, to be accompanied by squadmates during my daunting Quake 4 expedition, especially after having attempted the frightful solo campaign of Doom 3. Misery loves company, as they say.
At least in squad-based military shooters, ally AI is a little less incompetent. And even if they tend to stumble into danger, we can order them to stay put. I recall having to do just that during some sticky situations in Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, like when we were holed up in a house and surrounded by foes. Few things irritate more than having to rescue a teammate who's fallen out in the open.
We therefore can thank BioWare for giving us relatively competent companions whether in titles like Dragon Age: Origins or any Mass Effect game. Of course being able to micromanage their actions in a firefight is a great benefit, but even left to their own devices they, for the most part, keep to cover and react appropriately to the threat. And unlike most military shooters, they're more than mere cannon fodder.
The impressive accomplishment of Mass Effect 2 is how the game develops each squad member with respective quests before placing the entire squad in harms way. Any death in the franchise is keenly felt thanks to forking decision trees and permanent consequences to your choices. I still regret losing Wrex in the first game. But losing others in its sequel was agonizing. Call it the burden of leadership.
Granted, too few games benefit from the design choices these examples utilize. Whether overcoming ally incompetence, mitigating it somewhat, or simply allowing us to conveniently overlook it, gamers are sometimes blessed with companions that they genuinely care about, albeit to varying degrees. One can only hope that more titles follow this example and reward us with fewer anonymous sidekicks.
My last Skyrim play session reminded me how indebted I am to Illia, whether fighting Blood Dragons, Mages, Forsworn or Trolls or, more importantly, combating the loneliness of a large expanse of wilderness. Besides her strength, I've come to rely on her for her constant companionship, sacrifice and eagerness to help.
Such allies are a blessing, and if I could thank them, I would. Until that's an option, reloading a save file to resurrect their spent lives will have to suffice.
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