Lead Narrative Designer and all-round business person at Lo-Fi Games, with a speciality in writing for non-linear and open-world games.
In this article, I’m turning my back on the main protagonists who usually bask in the limelight of our stories and our conversations. Because today I’m going to talk about the video game characters hidden in the shadows of the heroes, yet always at our side when we need them: Companions.
But what are they exactly? Companions, in my mind, are the lighter kinds of ‘recruits’ we experience in non-linear games and RPGs, as opposed to the heavily scripted side characters or sidekicks like Ellie in The Last Of Us, for example. They’re optional side characters, sometimes expendable, and it is the player’s own effort and choice to get to know them.
Simply fighting by our side is enough alone to create a bond with these companions, but, as game writers, we also have the power to evoke so much more emotion through attachment beyond this. Take a look at the 90s classic, Cannon Fodder, a squad-based shoot ’em up where you controlled a number of uniquely named but expendable soldiers. The guys literally only gave us their name and their allegiance but, hell, that’s all they needed for 8-year-old me to care dearly for every damned one of them. And a name really was all it took.
Whenever a soldier was killed, a tombstone would appear on the hill of the pre-mission screen and the game continued on, the next recruit in line taking his place. On top of this ever-expanding graveyard, the game would show a heroes board and a ‘lost in action’ board, altogether collectively adding those tiny seeds of emotion… Pride, love, loss and mourning. Just to cement that these were more than just avatars. Cannon Fodder is a basic and outdated example, yet it shows oh so well the power in those soldiers’ having even the most basic uniqueness, rankings and lives that could be taken away.
If such technically limited games had such an impact on us way back then, think of the power at our hands to evoke so much more now.
I first met Vorstag in the Markarth inn. He sounded cool and vikingy, also he was kinda hot, so I hired him to join me on my adventures. Vorstag and I journeyed together for many moons (well, like 10 hours) until we were ambushed by a powerful group of brigands. Those tricky brigands proved themselves tough, and after countless reloads I wasn’t sure we’d ever be able to beat them. But! Eventually, we won! Yes! But wait, I thought… where… where’s Vorstag?
Frantically I searched and I searched, but loyal Vorstag was nowhere to be seen. Until… there he was, next to the river, so peaceful, led in a sad heap, great Vorstag now crumpled in the grass, only the serene sounds of the trickling river to fill the air. I should reload! But… also, it took me like an hour to beat those guys so… I sniffed back a tear, scooped up Vorstag’s lifeless body and dropped him in a little wooden boat nearby. I nudged the tomb-boat off and watched him float on quietly down the river, out of my life and into the distance. This was where our journey together would end.
My point is that that attachment to our companions, that camaraderie and those extra choices we’re forced to make for them are so good. That was my moment. It wasn’t scripted, Vorstag was one of many possible companions, but he was my companion. He was different from the others, he had his own quirks and his own story. And we made our own story too…
What was one of the key things that made Vorstag special to me? For one thing, he had his own character. He wasn’t just cannon fodder or another clone, or at least he didn’t appear to be. Obviously, good quality character development is a huge part of likable companions, but the diversity and contrast in their basic nature really separate them from each other and give them their own personas. Skyrim and Dragon Age Origins, for instance, both absolutely nailed the diversity in their companions.
My specialty as a narrative designer lies in open worlds and large scale non-linear storytelling… which means A LOT of companions are needed, and within limited realistic means as a game writer. Hence I’ve been recently working on a modular personality system for companions, which led me to refresh my memory on meaningful character development. Companions don’t often get a whole lot of spotlight so it can be a challenge to actually give them strong characters that define them and help the player form a deep attachment to them.
Most character development methods will rely heavily on controlled situations and linear narrative to manufacture ideal moments for them to shine. Yet companions in less story-driven games typically only have very limited dialogue or involvement in any plot; we often only have dialogue barks, battle taunts, inventory exchanges and ambient chatter to rely on.
But we can utilise those simple dialogues by writing them well. We can still make companions special if we find balance and contrast among our cast of characters’ personalities in those small moments.
A great way to start drafting up our companions is by using the common character archetypes as a base to build their foundations from. Once you start looking into movies, games, books, you’ll find yourself spotting which characters are which archetypes. My favourite to go by are the 12 Jungian archetypes.
Archetype: A collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.
Archetypes are recurring behavioural patterns and narratives that have proven to be pretty universal within people’s personalities. Each of us tends to have at least one dominant archetype and they represent the full range of basic human motivations that drive us. Outside of their psychological use they’ve become valuable tools to writers since they add authenticity and meaning to characters.
I find character archetypes a little difficult to assign to video game and movie characters, especially since I believe a strong character doesn’t always neatly fit into one rigid category. Nevertheless visualising the basic types can help us kickstart ideas and lay the foundations for a cast of diverse characters.
The traditional hero with a plan
Young and naive, they learn harsh reality the hard way
The underdog, from ordinary guy to chosen one
A true visionary, single-mindedly set on one abstract goal
Anything to protect others
An experienced sage, the mentor uses experience to guide others
Hedonistic comic relief, living in the moment
Hungry for knowledge, they use their intellect to change the world for good
Authoritarian who gives the orders and gets things done
Life is unfair, but they won’t settle for it
The passionate romantic who leads with their heart
It’s easy to feel the lure of writing the perfect ‘hero’: The stoic warrior who dives bravely into battle, head first without fear. But the reality is that predictable and unshakable characters are dull. And not only that but when you end up with a squad of six boringly strong warrior characters, battle crying in unison, they become clones with no uniqueness to define them. After all, imperfections can be our most defining qualities.
Hopefully, by using the twelve archetypes we’ve already avoided an army of cliche hero characters crowding up our game. Next, we can draft finer traits to further define companions from one another and to liven flat dialogue:
After we’ve summarized the personality traits of each character we can dust them into every line of their dialogue, their animations, posture and appearance. How do their traits show? How do they act and react when shit gets real? Now, this is pretty much a whole new topic in itself, so for more tips and useful checklists to further deepen the persona of your characters, be sure to check out my character building blog post.
Use companion reactions such as victory barks and battle shouts to set them apart from eachother and reflect their individual personality. How a person reacts during crisis and difficulty reveals a lot about them. Mould their whole appearance to reflect who they are – in their clothing, their posture and mannerisms. Have them express emotions and opinions towards the player’s choices.
The loves and the hates and all the exchanges in between can make a character pop, sometimes in vulnerable or lovable ways that no other scenario can spark. We can show whole new layers to personalities by deepening their relationships with character webs:
Relationships should be interesting and dynamic. For example, take a love-hate relationship: Rivals could be seething enemies on the outside but look a little deeper and you’ll come to discover they actually do care for each other when it counts. Those lovably vulnerable and subtle portrayals of acceptance and love become all the more special when they’re unexpected or out of character.
Bickering companions with differing opinions, delights and irrational hatreds can bring otherwise dull and silent companions to life in entertaining ways. And this is when contrasting archetypes really come in: Are some a little meaner than others? More eager to trample on, bully or compete with their team members? We can have a lot of fun unleashing clashing personalities on one another and seeing the conflicts that unfold.
Here’s a little example of some banter between Alistair and Morrigan in Dragon Age: Origins, one of my favourite games for the ambient chitchat among companions:
Status between characters can be another relationship subtlety to utilise. Both in real life and storytelling we almost always experience – many times subconscious – a vie for power. The powerful will remained poised, steady, relaxed and in control; the powerless will fidget, tense up, dart their eyes and avoid eye contact. For even more intricate interactions between our companions, we can change the power dynamics in different situations.
Set up the different relationships between characters – using a coding system and distinguishing compatible companion ‘types’ can be a good place to start if you have a lot of them. Ambient dialogue and chit chat between companions is not only entertaining to the player, but it also serves as a great insight into their personalities and power struggles. You can really crank this up a big fat notch by having companions react to other companion’s base dialogue too. For example, a louder more excitable character might cheer in a battle victory, while a grumpier type might huff at their incredulousness.
Interesting characters are dynamic; boring characters stay the same. A character should be in a different place at the end of their journey to where they are at the beginning: both in temporary small changes, and great and permanent ones. This growth, whether positive or negative, is what makes their story move forward, whether they’re part of an overarching narrative or not.
To start with, we can consider any main events and how each character has changed to overcome them. For non-linear games, we can reflect growth using more functional measures, for example, skill level or realtime milestones.
Growth can be as simple as the ranks we looked at in Cannon Fodder; never underestimate the power in even the smallest show of character development. But we can also have companions change slightly at various skill or experience checks. Have their dialogue grow tougher, wiser, more loving, braver. Have them act unexpectedly at difficult times, for example, near death in combat, or other times when they are pushed to their limits. Have their stance change. Have them grow muscles!
There’s a very special experience that comes with companions who are susceptible to death during gameplay. Not just getting KO’d and then bouncing back to their feet after battle: Death. Allowing the possibility for companions to be killed in combat adds a whole new level of impermanence and fragility to them. It reminds us that they’re not invincible or above death; they’re a vulnerable human being.
Once we’ve nailed the character building of our companions, there’s not a lot more for us to do to stir much more emotion from their demise. Even the little graveyard in Cannon Fodder sure made the death of characters hit that little bit harder.
Go too far though, and we can cheapen death. Drop the corny death speeches, dramatics and shameless attempts at tear-jerking, because they can more often than not break us out of the immersion. Sometimes a narrative designer doesn’t need to do anything else; death and loss in itself evoke feeling enough.
It’s hard to show strong characters in games where we don’t necessarily have the aid of a story to reveal them at their most dramatic and vulnerable. But by using archetypes as a jumping-off point to add contrast among our cast of companions, we can make sure they stand alone as unique personalities.
We can still sprinkle these characteristics throughout the small exchanges of game dialogue that they do have – ambient squad banter, battle cries, victory barks, healing dialogue and near-death barks as just a few examples. And we can still maximise the effects of such simple acts as levelling up and growing.
We may not have scripted side-kicks in some games, but the special experience we get from having our own companion fighting alongside us who we chose to follow us on our adventure and who isn’t exempt from death, is a whole new barrel of emotions in itself. And there are plenty of tricks we can play around with to make a little narrative design go a long way.