“Companion characters are a big part of how we do our storytelling,” claims Erickson. “There’ll be a very large variety and amount of companion characters that are available for all of the different classes. Everybody will be adventuring with companions. They won’t be like World of Warcraft pets – they’ll be people you interact with, like in a typical BioWare game.”
Guild Wars has it. Star Trek and Star Wars promises it. And players will be divided down the middle by it.
What is it? Persistent non-playable character (NPC) sidekicks — computer controlled dudes and dudettes that journey beside you, help you out and, ideally, form relationships with your character. For some, these “companions” are seen as a huge step back in MMO gaming, which is (to them) all about groups of actual people teaming together, helping each other out, forming relationships and being all manner of social. Yet MMOs have been decidedly turning around in their vision for massive social gameplay by giving players more and more options to play the way they want to.
It’s pretty funny to me that MMO gamers have developed this elitist attitude toward NPC companions, looking down their noses at these “substitute humans” who will only fail in every way that a racist 12-year-old with a spelling impediment would succeed. After all, haven’t these sorts of companions been a bread-and-butter staple for most video game genres to date? Not just solo RPGs, mind you, but adventure games, platformers (thanks for the ride, Yoshi!), FPS titles, and so on. We got them then so we wouldn’t feel totally alone and abandoned in our quest, and that’s a notion that bears merit even in MMORPGs, where other players aren’t always available, dependant or in character.
The latter is one of the best reasons for companion inclusion — NPCs will always, always be in the spirit of the game universe. They don’t break “character”, but instead they belong to that world, and by associating with you, help you to feel as though you belong as well. I’m totally excited to see what BioWare does with their companions in SWTOR, because those wacky NPCs have been a highlight of their single-player RPGs, where you bicker with them, boss them around, manipulate them, even fall in love with them or have them die for you.
For those who still consider NPC companions silly and detrimental to grouping, consider this: you guys are always complaining about how quests never matter, how your efforts never change anything in the game world other than the gear on your back and your levels. But what if your adventures had a long-lasting, persistent change in those who travel alongside of you, who are there to remind you of your past heroic deeds or evil dealings? What if you could do things to them, for them, and they to you — would that be the beginning of an in-game “relationship” that went beyond passing familiarity with NPC quest vendors? I think so, and I truly hope so.
Some of my favorite memories of BioWare games, come to think of it, involve the NPC sidekicks I got saddled with. Baldur’s Gate 2 was a masterpiece of this — I vividly remember Imoen’s kidnapping, Jaheria’s flight from the party, Anomen’s redemption to full-fledged paladin status, and Minsc’s famous battle cries (“Go for the eyes, Boo!”) — but KOTOR wasn’t shabby either (although I did want Mission to die a thousand deaths just to silence her).
BioWare’s certainly leading the charge into this area, although other titles are edging toward it: players have raved about Guild Wars’ persistent henchmen that help them overcome group content, others are excited about having persistent NPC bridge crew for Star Trek Online go with their main characters on away missions (sometimes with other players as well), and even World of Warcraft’s hunters know that there’s something special in capturing, training and fighting alongside of a faithful companion for 80 levels.