The helpful, the interesting, the unconventional and everyone in between.
Non-playable characters are one of the most important story devices in video games, where they’re used as building blocks for the overall narrative, to help us experience everything the developer has put together – whether it’s the main story or a bunch of side missions – and to mark key moments and developments within the tale. Of course, within the veritable sea of companions, helpers, mission providers and other NPCs in gaming, there’s always going to be a handful or two that stand out; this month, the Doublejump Staff has come together to identify and discuss that handful or two. Enjoy!
Abir: Mass Effect’s Garrus Vakarian
Oh, Garrus, my friend
A strong bond, I contend
On whose support, I depend
Whose people, we defend
Turian, Quarian, or Human
Our companions are many
The best friend I have
In you of any
Your sharp wit and thick skin
Your wit and sly grin
Your strength lies within
You honour your kin
Stay fair, stay true
Your people need you
Our friends need you
I need you
(Something something about “running some calibrations”)
Cai: LISA: The Painful’s Terry Hintz
Oh Terry, you delightful and mostly useless friend.
LISA is not a pleasant game, by any measure. It’s brilliant, as I have often mentioned, but you’d be hard-pressed to describe it as “fun.” It offers only brief moments of relief in a sprawling world of pain and brutality and sadness. One of these moments of relief is named Terry, and he’s the best!
Terry starts the game placing signs around the opening section, teaching you the mechanics of the game and the controls. Already helpful, he takes it upon himself to become your first party member and launches right into combat! Two best pals, fighting alongside each oth- aaaaaand he can’t throw a punch to save his life. By giving you The Hint Master, the game gives you an “extra move” that can’t really fight outright, but can be used for status effects or healing items. No matter what, Terry is there to revive you when you’re down, or hit the bad guys with some devastating trash talk.
Terry is helpful even when he’s unhelpful, but more than that, Terry is the only genuine friend you have in the game. Your other party members join from bribery, blackmail or their own agenda, but Terry just likes hanging out. He may not be the most skilled or helpful party member, but his outlook and positivity make him a joy to have around.
Of course, this isn’t LISA: The Relaxing Stroll With Friends and Terry has one final lesson to teach you. Towards the end of Act 1, you and your best pal in the world are ambushed, and you’ll be offered a choice. You can lose all your valuable and hard-earned items, which are notoriously hard to come by… or you can lose Terry. Terry, the one person on the planet who genuinely likes you for who you are, or your molotov cocktails that could be the difference between winning a fight and losing it?
Time to choose.
Cav: Doom’s Demon Army
They say that the enemy of one’s enemy is a friend. Doom introduced us to the idea that sometimes, that logic could also be applied to anyone in one’s enemy’s line of fire at the time – even other enemies.
id Software’s masterpiece may have entranced us all with its revolutionary 3D graphics, fast gameplay and deliciously addictive ultraviolence, but it was the layers of strategy hidden within its ostensibly simple mechanics that sealed it and its progeny – Doom 2, Heretic and Hexen – as all-time classics. Monster infighting is perhaps the most celebrated of these quirks, the ability to turn your enemies against one another by baiting them to shoot each other.
This goading of enemies into becoming accidental – if temporary – companions is not only great fun to pull off, but incredibly effective. Everyone who plays Doom has at least one anecdote about a time when they managed to scrape past overwhelming numbers by forcing their enemies to thin themselves out and picking off the survivors. It’s why it’s impossible to hate Doom’s demons: the dumb buggers are just too helpful.
Harry: DOOM (2016)’s VEGA
While DOOM (2016)’s claim to fame doesn’t come from any of its story elements, there’s no denying that there’s a slew of interesting characters like Samuel Hayden, Olivia Pierce, and most notably, VEGA; the sentient AI that guides the Slayer through most of his conquest on Mars and Hell. In a game where it feels like everything and everyone is being thrown against you, VEGA provides a stark sense of camaraderie a partnership amidst the chaos.
While DOOM is a mostly linear game, it uses VEGA to incentivize players to explore, complete combat challenges, and find collectibles in order to power the Slayer up, creating a more fulfilling experience in turn. I’m a strong believer that you only get out of DOOM what you put into it, and the more tools you have to play around with, the better. VEGA acts as a smart, subtle way to push the player to hunt for those optional weapon mods, and push to complete the numerous Rune Challenges found in each level.
You develop a connection with VEGA as you play that’s unlike any other relationship that the Slayer has in DOOM (2016), which makes it all the more bittersweet when you’re forced to shut his core down, which subsequently terminates his AI, but that’s not before the Slayer sneakily takes a copy for himself, which we know will return in DOOM Eternal later this year. I don’t know why I’m so fond of VEGA and the way he interacts with the Slayer, but I’m interested to see how the arc develops across the sequel’s campaign and subsequent story expansions. It’s not easy to make an AI companion that’s as robotic as VEGA likeable, but id Software must be doing something right if even the Slayer takes a liking to him.
Jake: BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth
BioShock Infinite is easily one of the finest video games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing, and although Columbia was full of intriguing characters, lore, mysteries and storylines, it’s impossible to go past Elizabeth as one of the main reasons why. It would be easy enough to say that she’s the central figure in one of the best-written, best-constructed stories I’ve experienced in any medium and call it a day for this entry, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg; so much more of BioShock Infinite’s greatness as a game rests in the way Elizabeth works as Booker DeWitt’s companion slash “precious cargo” throughout the game.
Escort missions are second only to underwater missions on the list of Worst Mission Types Ever: they force you to slow down and stay so close to your “cargo” that they can read the washing instructions on your shirt, your companion will often do at least one really stupid thing that you can’t control, and they’re usually next-to-useless in any form of combat. Not Elizabeth. Although the game tells you to protect her from the moment you find her until the game’s absolute brain-melter of an ending (and her child-like enthusiasm and innocence often lead her to go off on her own) you never really have to – she stays out of danger, is self-sufficient enough to find her way around, and generally avoids doing anything stupid or even glitching out. What’s more, she’s actually helpful, tracking down weapons and health packs (or conjuring them using her unique power) when you need them and even revives you if you get yourself killed.
Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine told Eurogamer that the studio’s primary motivation behind developing Elizabeth was not only to give BioShock’s first-ever voiced protagonist someone to interact with, but to create the first “great AI [companion]” since Half-Life 2’s Alyx Vance. That wasn’t an easy task – members of the team wanted to cut her out of the game entirely because they simply “didn’t know how to manage her” – but I’m so, so glad that Irrational succeeded: the game wouldn’t have been the same without her, and it probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.
John: Spyro the Dragon’s Moneybags
Moneybags’ first appearance is suspect: in Spyro 2’s first level, Glimmer, Moneybags waits by the edge of a gap that Spyro can’t fly over. He lazily gazes at the gem-studded cave ceiling and gently sways his literal money bag with a gem printed on it by his side. Run up to him and he’ll blackmail you into paying his fee to open the bridge like a common troll.
This is the first time they’ve ever met and this fucking bear in a suit jacket, monocle and wingtips (but no pants) stares him down with his beady green eyes and his melodious Frasier-like voice and forces him to cough up some gems to have a chance of even leaving this place, because there’s no way out of Glimmer this early in the game. Spyro has no options and Moneybags knows it. He’s basically mugging the guy.
Moneybags holds up Spyro a total of 12 times during Spyro 2 and 12 more times during the sequel Year of the Dragon. It’s implied that before Spyro arrives, he’s been blackmailing the natives of these worlds into crossing their own bridges or opening their own doors. He also seems to use magic to block their way, meaning he’s straight-up terrorizing these people for monetary gain.
Year of the Dragon at least gives the hero a little backbone and lets you choose between a defeatist acceptance or a blatantly insulting refusal; you still don’t have a choice but at least you can be a dick about it. It’s also where Moneybags jumps from being a blackmailing conman to an accessory to kidnapping: in each of the four hub worlds during Year of the Dragon, the bear will ‘sell’ Spyro the release of a kidnapped sentient creature on behalf of the Sorceress. He also prevents Spyro from saving kidnapped infant dragons by extorting him every other level. Good stuff, Moneybags.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: Moneybags is wonderful. He’s a Monopoly Man personification of the progress blocker, a bear who seemingly named himself after his own sack of gems and will never not be swayed by a bribe. He’s also a remorseless monster with no reservations in profiting from other people’s misery or imprisonment. He’s also a recurring character in games meant for children. Who’s to say he isn’t the series’ true villain?
Kristian: The Wolf Among Us’s Snow White
Serving as a secondary character to the playable Bigby Wolf, Snow White acts as a peacekeeper, helping to keep Bigby from accessing his inner beast throughout The Wolf Among Us’s story. She is equal parts assertive and kind-hearted, and occasionally cautions Bigby if the player makes him too forceful in questioning witnesses – notably with Mr. Toad’s son, TJ (above). She also possesses strong leadership qualities, and ends up being named Deputy Mayor of Fabletown due to her actions.
The reason why I like her so much is that she is a far more compassionate and sympathetic character – the moral compass of Fabletown – compared to the more fiery Bigby. There are also a few moments in the game where it’s easy to tell Bigby pulls in the reins a little and avoids acting recklessly or hurting someone too badly simply out of respect for her, which is a great dynamic to see.
In addition, Miss White has the ability to resonate with the population of the grim fairytale city in a way which Bigby cannot. Even though Bigby is the town sheriff, his temperamental behaviour makes others in the town suspicious of his crime solving techniques, and they present an aura of hostility. It’s thanks to having Miss White, who is more peaceful and sympathetic, that Bigby is able to get through to the suspects in Faith’s murder and eventually find out the truth.
Lucas: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s Navi
“Link, get up! Hey, c’mon! Can Hyrule’s destiny really depend on such a lazy boy?”
That’s our introduction to the little blue light fairy that we come to know – and love, and hate – as Navi, who assists the player character, Link, in his quest to save Hyrule from the twisted aberration known as Ganondorf. We’re than shown a quick cut-scene illustrating the importance of the blue light bulb, and it’s true: Navi helps you identify enemy weaknesses, solve difficult puzzles, and simply navigate around Hyrule. That utility turns sour at times, however, when Navi constantly draws the player’s attention away from what they’re doing. She’d even pop up during a battle and freeze the whole thing just to tell you that your friend’s looking for you in town, while the enemies… ideally wait for her to go away.
As much as Navi epitomised the love-hate relationship, players young and old grew to respect and appreciate her presence as she proved a difference-maker when all seemed lost. Not only was she able to light enemies up – allowing the player to lock on and use their ranged weaponry – but she also spotted hidden secrets littered around Hyrule that allowed us to boost Link’s health, magic and abilities. On top of all of that, let’s be honest: the final battle against Ganondorf, the one that saves Hyrule, wouldn’t have been possible without her. Sure, there are times where she’ll pester you like crazy although you’re ignoring her for a good reason, but she’s useful more often than she’s annoying, so it’s all okay in the end.
Matt: The Last of Us’s Ellie
I’ve always seen companions in video games as more of a chore than anything else, but that all changed when I played The Last of Us – which quickly became one of my favourite games of all time as it told the mature, original story of two people who find a purpose within each other. Each character is seeking a companion in their own way: Joel is looking for someone to see him the same way as his daughter did, and Ellie is looking for someone who will care for her in times of need and act like the father she never really had. It’s honestly that simple, but it’s equally emotional and authentic, and that’s why Ellie is one of the most memorable companions to ever feature in a video game.
Aside from Ashley Johnson’s truly incredible vocal/motion capture performance, Ellie simply feels like a real person. The mature story and immersive world certainly lend themselves to this, but Ellie also reacts to them in ways that elicit pure empathy and her journey feels less like an escort mission and more like a determined mission to see things through. On the other hand, of course, Ellie is a capable companion, which removes a lot of the awkward responsibilities you’d think Joel would incur with someone of her age. Aside from her inability to swim, Ellie can hold her own in both combat and conversation, adding emotional punches to the narrative as frequently as Joel does.
Those are all great attributes, but Ellie’s greatness as a character is really cemented when you get to play as her. Playing as your companion characters has always felt a little awkward; they never have the same level of presence and importance, and they’re often underpowered so as to promote difficulty. Think of Mary-Jane and Miles in Marvel’s Spider-Man: they’re interesting characters, for sure, but those stealth missions were a slog. Ellie, on the other hand, holds her own, and it gives you a sense of confidence when you realise that Ellie not only cares for Joel as a father figure, but is capable of saving his life. On top of all of that, let’s be honest here: a badass teenager carrying the fate and future of the human race on her shoulders makes for great motivation to get through the game, and that’s the most important thing.
Zack: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess’s Midna
The Legend of Zelda has plenty of AI companions to choose from, from the aforementioned Navi to Skyward Sword’s absolutely lifeless Fi, but none of them come even close to matching what Twilight Princess’ Midna brings to the table. Most of the other companions serve as little more than a somewhat-sentient hint system – telling the player where to go, how to fight, what items do, etc. – but Midna combines that function with a personality: she doesn’t care one bit about Link, Hyrule or the fate of the world, and it’s obvious. Hell, she actively (and brilliantly) insults you throughout the first half of the story!
It also helps that Midna is actively tied to the game’s story. Most of the other companions do have some stake in the story, but none are as intrinsically tied to the plot as Midna; herself the titular Twilight Princess. This makes her actions and her attitude so much more impactful. She actually cares about what’s going on (and how it affects her), and it results in her making actual decisions throughout the narrative – decisions that aren’t always beneficial to Link, the person she’s supposed to be helping. That alone results in a character with more nuance than all of the series’ other companions combined. Finally, by giving Midna’s story some significance in the overall plot, the writers opened her up to actual character development. She changes and grows in significant, meaningful ways throughout the course of the game, and it’s a breath of fresh air for the series.
As with any Multiplayer offering, there are just so many non-playable characters to choose from that none of us may have chosen your favourite. If that’s the case, hop on over to our social media and let us know who your choice is!
This article was originally published on Doublejump. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, you can support the site further by following us on social media, becoming a Patron, and/or purchasing some merchandise!