Roundtable: Companion Characters
Question: What role do side characters have in games? Specifically companion characters, not just NPCs. How do character companions influence the story, drive the narrative, and affect the gameplay?
Ben: Companions, and the way that I view them, have changed since I first started playing games. When I was younger, I think I had a tendency to assign meaning to various characters – even if the game wasn’t giving me a lot to work with. It didn’t matter that Yoshi didn’t have a backstory, I gave him my own. So in that sense, the influence they have on the narrative is largely personal.
This probably changes when looking at more complex companions, like Cortana (Halo) or Garrus (Mass Effect). I think this is especially true with the former, who drives Halo‘s narrative alongside a relatively quiet Master Chief. This is a really easy question to hone in on and then not answer altogether, so I’ll get back to the point: the role that side characters have in video games is bound to change based on the world and game they exist in. Narratively, they frequently have to act as enforcers of whatever rules the narrative has to play by (ie “You can’t go over there, it’s too dangerous!”), because game protagonists are mostly unable to shoulder the weight of a story all on their own.
Andy: I feel like side characters, or companions, are a little bit of everything. I think they can exist on the spectrum from little involvement to critical involvement. Like the difference between Aku in Crash Bandicoot (a mentor and scarce in gameplay) and Ellie in The Last of Us (the initial crux of the narrative, becoming playable at a later point in the game, and literally impossible to progress further without her). Their role depends on what the story or gameplay requires.
That being said, I believe Ben is on to something when he mentions rules. Sometimes they’re the boundaries of play, and other times they’re the ones who either break them or help you break them. The Narrator from Stanley Parable, GLaDOS from Portal, Elizabeth from Bioshock, and Reznov from CoD: Black Ops are great examples of side characters that really flip the script whether narratively or with regards to gameplay. There’s a lot to side characters, and our discussions in a round-table I feel could only ever scratch the surface.
Blake: I wonder how much both of your arguments apply to games like Final Fantasy, where at least six characters play the role of companion. But specifically to the trope of main character and singular companion, I think you both are spot on. Great examples all around. I’m personally drawn to the example of Jak and Daxter where the line isn’t precisely clear where exactly main character ends and side character begins. They even made Daxter his own eponymous PSP game. I think we’re all touching on this idea that side characters serve as creative constraints: whether verbal (“don’t go that way!”), emotional (“please don’t kill him!”), or physical, these characters all place helpful limits on the protagonists of the stories we are mentioning.
Preston: I see companion characters as story boundary makers, like everyone else said, pieces of interactive lore who change in reference to the story and the main character, as that same lore concept which comments on the story and main character. I see companion characters simply as foils for a main character and, complexly, foils for a theme in a story. I think it is important to note that companion characters also act as side quest containers. When opened, they produce a quest for the main character. All of these statements have examples in Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, etc.
Andy: I’m really curious now about the idea of “interactive lore” regarding companion/side characters. It makes me think about what type of lore the main character is. Embodied lore? Companion characters seem to serve multiple purposes, often times being just as complex but ultimately less explored than our experienced lore through the main character. Ravus Nox Fleuret is a prime example of this idea. I would have preferred FFXV to be entirely about Ravus than Noctis if I’m honest. It would have made a much more dynamic, well-rounded plot with plenty of twists and turns riddled with tragedy and nobility. There’s so much to his history and such a great deal he’s involved with that happens just outside the knowledge/information granted to Noctis, and he plays a critical role in advocating for Lady Lunafreya, his sister. He serves the purpose Preston mentions in that he is a foil for the main character and theme of the overall story: interactive lore. Figuring out his fate is not something you have to do, but is something that you quite easily stumble upon through the events of the main story.
Noctis’ (our) perspective becomes an experience of that interaction, thus signaling to me that there is a certain distinction between lore which is immediately relevant to main characters, though not experienced (even if it sometimes should be), and the exact embodiment of the story through the primary perspective. I think Preston is onto something, but I’m not sure exactly how to break it down yet.
This Roundtable was written by Blake Guthrie, Preston Johnston, Ben Vollmer and Andy Webb. Check back every other week for the latest Epilogue Gaming Roundtable. This roundtable was edited by Blake Guthrie. Follow us and our thoughts on @EpilogueGames or @LudonarrativeFM on Twitter. If you’d like, consider supporting our work on Patreon for as little as $1 a month.