An Ode to Digital Friends

I’ve been playing video games for most of my life. There’s always been something great about the escapism games offer, and something more about the power and choice games give you. The agency players have is something that you can’t get from books or films. Add that to the vast increase in writing quality for major games. I’d put the writing of a AAA, story-driven game up against any film of the same genre. But in the end, it’s genre fiction, not Pulitzer Prize-level lit.

One of the favorite games of my youth was Chrono Trigger. This is certainly on the list of greatest video games of all time, and still a major favorite of mine, but suffers from technical limitations. The basic plot is incredible, the adventure a pure blast, but the characters are not much beyond those in a print book. Everything is based on the text, the dialogue, the plot events. You cannot hear your companions, nor can you see the expressions on their faces.

That has all changed. Video game technology has evolved to full voice acting and photo-realistic graphics. Now, there is a virtual person on your screen who reacts to your actions, whose emotions are visibly clear. There’s no wonder why people have become attached to these characters.

There are plenty of characters from books and films that I love. There are many in the passive medias whose deaths I have mourned. But there is something different about interacting with a character, about influencing them through your choices. Agency matters. It makes the experience more real.

Especially today, being stuck at home as plague ravages the land, having these virtual friends around is almost a sort of social therapy. I’ve been playing quite a bit in my excessive free time. Most recently I finished the game The Outer Worlds, and had a powerful reaction to a specific companion character. This got me thinking about other virtual characters I’ve bonded with in the past. I’d like to share some of these thoughts.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite modern video game companion characters:

SPOILER ALERT! (Don’t say I didn’t warn you)

Cassandra Pentaghast – Dragon Age

I had a huge crush on Cassandra during my play-through of Dragon Age: Inquisition. She’s just so noble and likable. She would be a very typical medieval romance knight (literary romance, as in chivalry and courtly love and all that)–were she a man. She is honorable, loyal, and ultimately driven by her faith. Interestingly, she play a pseudo-villain in the second game of the series, but turns on a dime in the third game to follow the lead character. This is not bad writing, but rather makes sense due to her strong faith, which carries her in different directions at different times. In addition to being a fierce front line warrior, she is also portrayed as girlish, almost to the point of being cliche. Cassandra, when not bashing bad guys over the head, enjoys reading smutty, pulp fiction, but won’t admit it. A literal guilty pleasure.

Bioware, the producer of the Dragon Age series, has become quite well-known for these sorts of “super-badass yet girly” characters, to the point of becoming an internal trope.

Also from Dragon Age, there’s Scout Harding.
And Ryssa Brin from Anthem.

Moving on, one of my absolute favorite video game series, and one which has had an incredible effect on me both emotionally and creatively, is Mass Effect. This is yet another Bioware game (seems like these folks know a thing or two about characters), and features an incredible cast. But the one who remains by my side, no matter how many times I play the game, is this guy:

Garrus Vakarian – Mass Effect

Some might find Garrus to be one of the blandest characters in the series. He doesn’t have a dramatic, struggle-filled upbringing. He’s a good guy, through and through–not to the level of being a goody-two-shoes, but he’s honorable and generally kind (seems to be a trend in the characters I bond with). He’s got a bit of the classic hard-boiled detective in him, and a sufficient amount of sass. The journey the player takes in helping Garrus face his past–and those who wronged him–is deeply compelling. Big questions of revenge and the value of a life. And it really feels like your mentorship and support matters. All in all, he’s just the sort of person you want on your team when you’re facing gigantic galaxy-annihilating space robots.

And this brings me to what prompted this post in the first place, the character who most recently affected me. She’s one of the companions in 2019’s The Outer Worlds, another brilliantly written game. The development of the game by Obsidian Entertainment was clearly influenced by the great role-playing games of Bethesda, such as Fallout and the Elder Scrolls series. In fact, Obsidian developed a Fallout game for Bethesda in the past (Fallout: New Vegas), so this sort of story telling is in their veins.

Ellie Fenhill – The Outer Worlds

Ellie is perhaps a character who best represents the world she lives in. She was previously a wandering surgeon who eventually became a space pirate (of sorts). Her whole life was one of disappointment, in a world that was crumbling around her. Greed and self-service were the drivers of daily life. You come to find out she is the daughter to a rich family who lives in the wealthiest city in the colony. However, when she ran away, her parents really didn’t bother to look for her. Instead, they claimed Ellie was dead and cashed in her life insurance. When you, the player, take Ellie back to speak with her parents, their sole concern is not losing their insurance income. They’d rather have the money than their daughter. This is the fundamental issue of Ellie’s character arc–she has been abandoned and betrayed so often, she no longer trusts anyone. She responds to the world with cynicism and sarcasm (albeit quite humorously at times). It is such a compelling story. What’s all the more satisfying is turning her around. As the player, you can be that person who gets her to trust again, who brings her back to the noble path of helping people in need, not just looking out for herself. That’s an amazing power to have, something you cannot get from a book or film.

So that’s it, it’s that ability to change and affect these characters which makes the experience real and meaningful. You can’t do that with a book. A print story is set in stone; you’re only there for the ride. And while the ride might be absolutely amazing, it’s not the same as having agency.

This is certainly why I don’t read as many books as other writers. I prefer the interaction these games offer. I prefer to love and hate these characters through my direct conversations and exchanges with them, to see them change, for good or bad, based on the choices I make.

The complexity of player agency is only going to grow with time. I wonder what the next generation of games will offer us.

Thanks for dropping by! But alas, I must leave you for now. A friend needs a favor:

Captain Vasco – Greedfall

~JM

2 thoughts on “An Ode to Digital Friends

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