Companions. Can’t live with them, can’t dismiss them.
Can you really call yourself a gamer if you’ve never shot Natalya? Companions have come along way from just being a cool addition that quickly became a major annoyance. But they’re often the thing that you remember most about a game; they go on the adventure with you, express the reaction you’re having. They have something to say when your character can’t.
What follows is not friendly NCPs, mission specific characters, static mission-givers or dismissible followers (there’s too many; even in just Fallout 3 - where does Fawkes go?), this is about permanent pals, the ones that are there throughout, that you can’t get rid of even if you shoot them. There’s some well-loved sidekicks missing, like Ellie from The Last of Us and Master Chef’s Cortana, but that’s only because I’ve never played them. My loss apparently. This isn’t an ‘all-time best’ list, this is just companions that stayed with me after the game ended, that stuck with me whether I liked it or not. Follow me.
Oblivion. There’s only one life-companion, the man who would be king, Martin. Not a permanent follower, he only accompanies us a few times but he’s more than a mission-giver, he’s part of the journey, an anchor to keep you focused. We become his confidante and him our cheerleader. And when the going gets tough, he suits up and fights alongside you – even if you accidentally knock him out. Okay, so he's not a proper side-kick, but the reason he makes the list is, in the end, Oblivion was his story not yours; I was the sidekick. But like every good hero, he’s worth following.
I do feel forced to mention Dogmeat (Fallout 3). I know I said no followers but Dogmeat gets promoted to companion because he’s a dog – and you don’t just dismiss a dog. Even if, as soon as you get him you turn into Fenton’s owner, screaming for him to leave the Bloatfly alone, chasing to stop him going over a cliff. Eventually I fast travel to Megaton and leave him in the hut before he gets eaten. Any human who was this accident prone you’d let die but he’s a doggo. Stay boy.
I completely missed the point that a cube with a heart on it should be loved (Portal). I was aware of GlaDos’ prodding but I incinerated the ‘weighted companion cube’ immediately; it was only when GlaDos said no one else killed it that quickly that I realised I was supposed to love it. It can’t even follow let alone accompany so I don’t know why I’m even mentioning it. But Potato GlaDos (Portal 2) was something else. It’s such a good relationship; antagonistic (and one-sided) but we get to understand GlaDos and realise she’s not bad, just programmed that way. The two of you do bond, stuck in a situation you both need the other to escape from. Meanwhile Weatley, who would make my most-hated sidekicks, gets interesting once he takes her place. Switching companions for villains and vice-versa is a ballsy, brilliant move – considering her meanness it’s something special that you like her in the end; when GlaDos gets plugged back in I get sad – and scared - to see our relationship deleted.
Daikatana is awful and its companions have a lot to do with that. It’s bad enough having one sidekick whose AI can’t even manage self-preservation, but Daikatana had two; Superfly Johnson and Mikiko. Their deaths meant yours too so instead of equal followers it’s a game-long escort mission; they idiotically fall into things, get shot, shoot themselves. And that’s when they weren’t getting trapped in doorways or absorbed into walls. And of course, disappearing or refusing to walk through the goddamn exits. But … while I’m not about to claim Daikatana was ahead of its time, there is an argument that the companions were. Don’t dismiss me yet. It really tries to create a situation where you’re all in it together and more importantly, they’re a part of the storyline not set-dressing, which was rare back then; and the betrayal is an awesome twist. As characters they are great; as sidekicks though, they're horrific. Later versions of Daikatana removed them from the gameplay. It’s better to just remove Daikatana.
Another lovable liability is Telsia from Elite Force. This woman is a master at doorway blocking. If you met her walking in the opposite direction you’d be side-stepping each other forever. But unlike Daikatana’s lot she’s capable and a team player, even if she’s always the one to get kidnapped, trapped, shot or touching something she shouldn’t. The game does everything it can to build relationships, between the Elite Force team and others aboard Voyager – But it’s all about Telsia. The way we develop a subtle romance is a really nicely done touch. If you can pick her out from all the other similar looking NCPs. Elite Force is long forgotten but Telsia stayed with me.
You call this archaeology? Possibly the most basic companion in the list, but come on, he’s me dad. In Indy and the Last Crusade when we rescue Henry – after that infuriating maze castle; why don’t any guards want to buy my fine leather jackets? - he then spends the rest of the game needling and annoying his son. It’s great, and despite the game’s basic look and feel it still somehow works as a great partnership. That might be the magic of the movies; I imagine Connery’s voice when Henry text-speaks but still. He’s worth rescuing.
The best anti-companion is Mona Sax. Although we only have a few missions with her, she’s a strong influence throughout Max Payne 2 and when she’s not about, Max is muttering about her. I would have liked to see more of her – and I’m not talking about that nude mod. She was a great, ambiguous character, reflecting Max in many ways, except that her fatalistic attitude was well adjusted. They were made for and mad for each other, but Max can’t have nice things. She lived in a disused fairground too, how cool is that?
Alyx. Alyx makes Half Life 2. She’s hot but not cliché hot; there’s nothing wrong with being sexy, unless a character is sexy purely for our benefit, running around a battlefield in a bikini and jiggle physics, but smart is sexy too, even when it’s in jeans and a hoodie. Although she tends to come and go in Half-Life 2, her attitude, impetuous nature and playfulness really makes her feel real. You can’t control her (you wouldn’t dare) but she’s not just someone who explains the plot. And she’s got a sidekick of her own, D0g, who’s adulation for Alyx mirrors our own. When you get the gravity gun and all go play together its the best hidden tutorial of all time. Once you get to the Episodes though, things take a turn – for the even better. No longer a sidekick, she’s an equal, more than just along for the ride; Alyx is the hero Gordon’s too reserved to be – she’s got flair, and when she practically does a Hutch-slide across the dragster hood you fall a little bit in love.
Valve even managed to make her vulnerable without making her a victim; her sadness at seeing the Combine’s acts, her nervousness about Ravenholm – none of it is in animated cut-scene; it all feels real. I develop a friendship and a crush on her (Zombine!) and her carrying a torch for Gordon just adds to the feels. Her heartbreak at the end of Episode 2 moves you – then galvanises you; the Combine will pay. Just you wait. Still waiting, Valve. FFS.
The Darkling from The Darkness II. He’s like Stripe if Gremlins was rebooted by Guy Ritchie. Scampering about in a Ginger Spice vest/dress with a dead cat on his head for no reason, cackling in a mockney accent, calling us Monkey and pissing on dead bodies, he’s a vile stroke of genius who lives for mayhem and has a great line in dark humour. I guess you develop a sick sense of humour when you’re an underworld mini-demon paired with a possessed gangster who might actually be imagining all this. That you can pick him up with your demonic tendrils and lob him at gangsters is just a small example of how handy he is to have around, but he’s also a pal, constantly questioning our motives, needling us and trying to make our antihero accept that this is going to go horribly wrong. We even get to play as him briefly, and he enjoys slaughtering way too much. His sacrifice at the end (‘try not to fuck it up, monkey’), is a great example of a good friend – they know it’s a bad idea but support you anyway. The rest of the game is poorer without him. I’m glad he’s on my (dark)side.
Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth. She only makes my list so I’m justified in bitching about Bioshock Infinite. Here we have a classic fairy-tale character, a girl trapped in a tower by her evil alt-dad. But this Disney princess has extreme and terrible powers, able to ‘tear’ reality; and then never uses it in any exciting, dangerous or useful way. She doesn’t. Instead she just follows us about, flinging ammo and shrieking. Considering what she’s capable of she is criminally underused and utterly useless without our wet-drip of a lead, Booker; she can alter reality but never changes from damsel in distress? Insulting. She should be compelling; did we even do right letting something this dangerous out? Who knows, the game doesn’t bother exploring it, just opens a tear to its own arse. And then she returns for more insults in the risible Burial at Sea. God I hate that game. But I do like the idea of Elizabeth; a compelling, dangerous, multi-layered multiverse victim/god. Which the game turns into a passive, powerless follower. Meh. She deserved better.
When one follower isn’t enough, Mass Effect has you sorted. It has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to pals. You develop friendships, relationships, sacrifice and lose some, and by the end, turn them into a family. I have my faves (Ash, Jack, Liara, Miranda, Tali, Kasumi, Samara, Kelly, Traynor, EDI, Uncle Rex) and everyone has their faves too; or not. Hate them all if you like, that’s the beauty of ME; it’s the only game where your feelings and friendships factor in instead of being forced. The squad follows you to the end, and in that end, they’re what you’re fighting for – even if, like me, you muck up the romance by flirting with everyone. Tartshep.
Bulletstorm’s Trishka and Ishi are badass buddies. We first meet Trishka spouting classics like ‘I will kill your dick’ and follows up with mean, hurtful comments while running rings around Grey, our hero. She softens a little as we progress; only a little, and never to the state of victim. She's absolutely a kickass character and not trust-worthy, making it better than the usual 'oh they love each other really' dynamic.
Ishi has his moments too; like his promise to kill Grey if he steps out of line, which doesn’t sound like an empty threat. That saving him is a large part of our mission adds a nice dynamic to their relationship, which unlike most stories, degenerates rather than builds as Ishi starts to become more machine than man.
Grey might be a bit of an oaf but with Trishka and Ishi at his side, they form a dysfunctional team that might turn on each other any second – yet they also influence each other positively. They work incredibly well and it's a really great bit of characterisation which you don't usually get in a shooter. We’ve come a way from Daikatana.
Eleanor from Bioshock 2 perhaps shouldn’t be on the list, but she is. An absent mission-giver for the first two thirds, her rebirth as a Big Sister turns her from helpless victim into a stone-cold killer (Thanks to your influence) and is how Elizabeth from Infinite should have gone. She can be dismissed, so she really shouldn’t be on this list. But like Martin, she’s why we’re doing this, she’s our salvation and we’re key to her survival; early on we’re driven to find her, but eventually we want to save her and in the end, even after the bond has been broken, we stay with her. Their final moment together, while not quite the lump-in-the-throat moment of Bioshock 1’s ending, is heart-breaking. Assuming you were a good Daddy. She’s under used and way more badass than the game deserves; she's one of its few genuine highlights. One thing I always remember about Eleanor though, she gets out the way. Even when I tried to trap her in a doorway, she leaps to the side. Now that’s a follower.
Continuing to ignore my own rules, if Mass Effect can make the list, I’m making a nod to Saints Row 3 & 4. The rag-tag gang that follows our puckish rogue is a work of lawless art. Sexy as she is psychotic Shaundi, self-obsessed Pierce, open-minded Kinzie, smart-alec Oleg, auto-tuned Zimos, Keith David … they’re all just so much fun to have around. They may not resonate like Mass Effect’s family, but they were enablers and supporters of your nusto plan to take over the city; that’s not a plan that’s a goal.
Fellow Wastelanders, we are gathered to pay homage to the great Black Hand, my favourite follower, Chumbucket of Mad Max. Chum’s early scenes characterise him as the classic toady; he danced, scurried, giggled and connived like a poor man’s Gollum. The comparisons are fair; He is utterly obsessed with the Opus, basically his Precious. Max is his Frodo and he is Max’s willing guide, on a quest to find a V8. At first, Chum is grating, but he grows on you. Not just with his friendly chatter and in-jokes, but because he’s just trying to have some purpose in this god-awful, dying world. We become pals; that is until Chum starts to suspect Max is warming up to the idea of leaving with Hope and Glory. Chum’s panic at losing everything sets in motion a horrible chain of events and despite what that act brought down on us, we kinda forgive him as he desperately begs for Max’s forgiveness - but it’s too late. Max drives the Opus to its doom and Chum choses to go with it.
He wasn’t as able-bodied as Ash, or as lethal as Mona; we don’t develop the same feelings as we might for Martin or Alyx; in-game, all he’s really good for is repairing the Opus, and yet he’s a friend; it’s truly sad that his paranoia got the best of him, that he caused such a horrible thing to happen and paid for it with his life – and so many other's lives. It really was the two of them against the world, and the world won. Chum … the wasteland is a poorer place without him excitedly pointing out a Mighty Duster.
Nowadays, companions have become hidden mission markers, demanding we go this way, full of needless exposition like a walking, talking, nagging spoiler alert. I almost miss the old days of them walking into gunfire, getting in the way, suddenly refusing to go any further, spotting something but not telling me what; or just wandering off. Somewhere in the great plains of Morrowind there still resides a half-naked barbarian I was supposed to escort but lost. I’ve gotten teary-eyed over the loss or sacrifice of companions, got annoyed when they shortcut through lava or completely ruin my sneaking. But those pixel-pals really meant something to me, turned a distraction into an experience, and sometimes I wish they could follow me game-to-game Wreck-It Ralph style; I’d love to play Carmageddon with Chum hanging on, or see what GladDos made of SHODAN. Single-player missions can sometimes be lonely.