The Good, the Bad and the Slippy: Sidekicks in Video GamesPlatforms: All
The dusty church hall was quiet in a manner appropriate to the subdued mood. The squeak of an ill-polished shoe on the linoleum floor sounded wildly loud.
'Sorry, sorry,’ muttered Captain Haddock as he shambled around the legs of the tiny plastic chair, making it look as hard as navigating an army tyre-run.
'Do not concern yourself,’ said a man with pointy ears, ‘we are all friends here.’
Haddock looked around at the other people, hand in lap, the afternoon shakes just about controllable. There was a man in green overalls, an auburn fox, a chubby middle-aged gent in a tweed suit with a old-fashioned doctor’s bag and a huge and hairy dog-bear who sat next to a three foot-tall person who had naked and hairy feet.
‘Would you care to start us off today, Captain?’ said the pointy-eared one in a flat and emotionless tone.
‘Wuthering walruses,’ muttered Haddock, looking at his tobacco-stained fingernails. He heard a dog barking in the distance and jolted back into reality with a wet gasp. ‘My name is Archibald Haddock.’ His head bobbed around on his heavily veined neck, wild eyes bulging above his bristling beard. ‘I am a sidekick.’
‘Hello Archibald,’ repeated the group. The bear creature made a worrying and agonised growl-cry.
Right. This is getting out of hand and there’s a risk of slipping into some Heavy Speculative Psychology, none of which I see ending in a life-affirming manner. Haddock’s character is as dark as hell: a stuttering, rambling, drunk, and he’s one of the more cogent of his compatriots. Why is he like this? What has made him this way? He's a sidekick and that's what we're here to talk about.
When the virtual sidekick comes to mind I think of characters in two titles, the memory of which makes me shiver like I’ve had too much coffee. These games are Lylat Wars
and Resident Evil 4. Lylat Wars was the second outing of the corridor-arcade-flight-em-up Star Fox franchise and was one of the best games on the ‘64. The unquestionable low point of the game was your ludicrous companion Slippy the Toad. He combined the unpleasant characteristics of being stupid, unattractive and cowardly. You’d be racking up a decent score when his nasal voice would belch over the intercom requesting assistance. Once again a fleet of Andross’ bad guys would be on his tail and Slippy would be whining for you to save him. I tried to ignore him, found that impossible and took to to shooting him down to shut him up. At the end of the video linked to below, one of your wingmates says 'Slippy can be such a headache'. Right. Even the other characters in the game hated him. What gives?
Spin forward eight years. Resident Evil 4 was released in 2005 to critical acclaim. The title is brilliant but it all goes downhill when Ashley Graham turns up, the daughter of the President who has the unique capacity of being far more horrifying than any undead horde the Umbrella Corporation throws at you. But unlike the zombies you can't kill her.
There is an awful section of the game where you are escorting her somewhere (it was in a castle, there were cannons being fired at me, the details are hazy) and she had this crazy habit of getting killed every fifteen seconds. You’d be getting along fine but she would go and run straight into the maw of some hell beast or get glitch-trapped in a corner where she would jerk her arms in a sort of delirium, cowering and juddering like a box-stacking robot that’s gone dangerously mad. I remember the controller literally creaking in my hands as I squeezed it with boiling fury. I hated Ashley deeply and profoundly, yet I had to keep her alive. This is the stuff of mental unwellness.
I am not making the point that old games did sidekicks badly. In fact if we look back at the Golden Age early video game sidekicks were far better than those noxious case studies I gave above. 1980s sidekicks were a natural occurrence, the evolution of an artwork variation of the Player 1 character to enable a second person to join in; in the early Mario games Luigi is just a switch of reds for greens. The first games in which some of best known, well-defined, sidekicks appear – such as Luigi in Super Mario Bros. 2 (1985) and Tails in Sonic and Tails (1993) - did not attempt anything as rich as requiring player 1 to rescue, interact or invest any emotional capital in the sidekick. These guys played a fundamentally different role to both Slippy and Amanda and consequently didn't induce fitting. Their primary purpose was – wait for it – fun!
As I reflect on the sidekick in early video games my overwhelming memory is, well, an absence of memories. The fellas were neutral, uncontroversial, vanilla. There was a frisson of excitement at the fact that they played in a different way: Luigi could jump higher; Tails could fly - and that was awesome. Ok, Tails did tend to get stuck behind the scenery but even in the early 90s we were all so blown away by whatever Sega threw at us that sort of behaviour could be forgiven. Perhaps back then I was naïve and should have demanded more, but maybe not; I mean the Gamegear was colour. As time wore on we all became cynical and savvy consumers and our demands for what constituted quality rose. Developers tried to do more, and though it didn’t always work out we should be thankful for that. By the time Lylat Wars and RE4 appeared on the scene we were smart enough to know when something was not quite right and like the squabbling spawn of reality TV stars we made an almighty fuss.
It's a fact of life that we can only really appreciate how terrible some things are if we have a point of reference to compare them to. I am led to believe that the unchanging nature of the population of Milton Keynes is due to the minefield of roundabouts that prevent the residents getting out and seeing anywhere else. A lack of perspective dulls the soul and leads to the holding of stunted, withered opinions. On, then, to the good examples of sidekicks that let us see Slippy as the grotesque and wart-ridden war criminal he is.
In the second outing of Bioshock, you take on the role of a Big Daddy, a pumped up hulk in a diving suit with a mining drill for an arm. To progress you need to upgrade your plasmid abilities (for plasmids, read magic spells – lightening, flames, bees etc) and to do that you need that sweet, sweet ADAM that only the Little Sisters – genetically modified primary school girls - can produce. And there's the rub. Do you sacrifice the girls you rescue for a quick ADAM fix or do you adopt them and carry them around to find dead bodies for them to extract the Good Stuff from? What the game presents is a fantastic moral choice for the player, making you think and decide, almost like a real person. Are you going to be good or bad? More to the point, in this twisted Hades that you're trapped in what is good and bad? Through your choices you develop a relationship with the sidekicks that is unlike anything else a game has thrown at me to date.
I opted to let the girls harvest the ADAM and fight off the waves of enemies that came; no smash-and-grab for me. On the whole I dislike defence sequences but here I found my attachment to the little sisters made each encounter to a heart pumping and engrossing experience. I'd set up traps, buy extra ammo and make damn sure none of the dirty gene-freaks that prowled Rapture's halls got within a rotting arm's length of my little slug-bellied buddy (If you haven't played the game and don't know what the hell I'm talking about, here's an example of someone doing it:
The thing about Bioshock 2 that takes it a step further is that the 'good' route, saving all of the sisters, is still a huge ethical mess. This is not another aside, before you skip on; it's an Important Interjection that will support the points I've made so far as we careen headlong towards a conclusion. So: to get the most ADAM you'll want to let the girls harvest the dead bodies and rescue them afterwards, thereby getting the most of the ju-ju juice for you and curing the kids of their condition. The issue is that in doing so, in using the little sisters as gingham-frocked drug stills, it makes you as morally complicit as the people who made them that way in the first place. You're using them for your own purposes and though your intentions are good, do the means justify the ends? I wonder whether subjecting the girls to endless ADAM-gathering trips and then saving them is just adding to their budding psychoses? This layers up yet another slice of delicious complexity onto what must be the ultimate expression to date of the intellectual shooter. Whamm! Your head a splode! The point (I promised there would be one): extraordinarily nuanced narrative makes sidekicks even more relevant.
From Andrew Ryan's sub-aqua city of Rapture to Cave Johnson's subterranean Aperture Laboratories. Portal 2 was sublime. If you haven't played, the basic idea is you have a 'quantum tunnelling device' that can shoot portals to let you move between two unconnected walls. It's a puzzle game but it's a lot more than that. At the start you are greeted by Wheatley, a giant eyeball robot voiced by the recognisable Bristolean lilt of Stephen Merchant. Wheatley's script is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny and I understand from interviews that Merchant ad-libbed quantities of it (much easier to do for a character without a mouth to animate). I found myself emphasising with the little guy, even when things go a turn for the worse half-way through the game. I have no doubt that Merchant's acting was a major contributor to my warm fuzzy. If Valve had chosen, say, David Beckham, the experience would have been quite different.
The positive experience I had of Portal 2's sidekick is clearly the outcome of some good writing but a decent script-jockey isn't going to solve what are essential sidekick issues. Slippy (remember him?) could have literally spouted Shakespeare and I would only have liked him less. Think about it:
Slippy: (as he is chased across the Corneria skyline by several enemy spacefighters) O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!
Fox: Frailty, thy name is Slippy.
No! Ugh. I feel dirty. Some things cannot be fixed. Portal 2 brings humour and charm in bundles and does a fine job of incorporating the sidekick into the essential story of the game. When in the early part of the game something happens to Wheatley and you're separated from him I found that I actually cared. His presence added to the mystery and delight of the game, right up to the mind-blowing denouement.
The way sidekickerry is handled in these two modern games stand out in stark contrast to their forebears. Not only were the sidekicks non-obtrusive but they really do add to the experience. This reflection is in no way exclusive to these games and I've had similar good times with recent releases. For instance, the Mass Effect series does a great job of tying your squad mates into the story; so much, in fact, that your gameplay and combat style will have a profound effect on which of the others will become your BFFs. Sure ME isn't without some glitches but on the whole I was sold. I'd say the same for Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. All of these were games of stupendous depth and complexity that at the least pulled the sidekick thing off without offence and most of the time left me with a big grin on my face.
So what will the future bring? Based on what we've learned I think there are several ways the video game sidekick may develop. One possibility is the March of Progress leading us to some sort of sidekick nirvana where their contribution is consistently valuable, meaningful and fun. I think almost certainly not. In reality we're seeing developers incorporating well constructed and plot-centric NPCs in new and interesting ways. I'm looking forward to Bioshock Infinite to see how the buddy character Elizabeth plays. Will it be good or will it be gimmicky? ME3 comes out very shortly and we've already seen people shouting at squad mates via Kinect. In the middle of the spectrum of possible futures is a whole universe of 'meh-ness' represented by characters such as the dog in Fable 2 which was OK but in the end just helped you find not-very-interesting treasure. Expect more of this where developers fall just short of greatness – or fail in bringing together the right elements in the right combination. At the bad end of the spectrum there's a risk of terrible creations in the RE4 vein. The son in Red Dead Redemption irritated me, but he only got to about 50% on the Ashley Graham scale. At the bad end too is the cookie-cutter sidekick that the 'Hollywoodised' game throws at you, jimmied into a predictable and dull narrative that feels tired before you've been playing for 15 minutes.
I'm certain the future will bring sidekicks we will love and sidekicks we will love to hate. I do not think it is possible or desirable to go back to the sort of amigos we saw in the Golden Age of games, silent 'Player 2' characters, as neither the industry or the majority gaming community are looking for this. This is right and proper. On the other hand I do not necessarily see game narratives and the inter-character relationships within these undergoing any sort of renaissance. This sort of thing tends to happens gradually. Behind so many mainstream games there is a degree of commercially-driven self-censorship which is expressed in the form of hackneyed characters and plots which is interpretable and unfortunate – see Halo Reach for a five-star game that succeeds despite having sidekick department full of knuckleheads. I want newness, creativity and things that make me think – and it's good to know that there are few developers out there who are working to meet that brief. The sidekick has a bright future that is full of potential and I've got faith that there are a lot of very smart companies who know that if they get it right they'll get the awards, the money and the fans.
Personally I'm looking forward to saving a few more Little Sisters but hear me loud and clear: I’ll shoot down any Slippy that gets in my crosshairs.
Rules for a good video game sidekick:
1. Make it mean something: If your buddy is a six foot bionic rocket-launcher-toting fascist called Boomsplosion Smashface who shouts the same catchphrases over and over (gee, did you see them reds bleed? Get away from my pie hole you @$%!) your game is not going to make that vital connection with anyone other than the chronically ironic and the braindead. Actually, I take that back. That was a good idea and I copyright it. A good sidekick (unless you're making a Golden Age-style game) comes from somewhere and has a backstory that is relevant to you, the player character. Preferably, their struggle is tied to yours and you have a genuine interest in working with them or keeping them alive beyond a message on the screen that says: defend! Defend! If the gamer responds with 'why?' then you, my game-making friends, have failed.
2. You own your destiny: The reason why Slippy and Ashley made me so angry was that I had to look after them or else I would get the big Game Over message. Losing yourself in a game is half the fun and nothing shatters the experience like a fistful of pixels setting the terms of trade. Rule 1 says a player should care enough about your sidekick to want to help them. Rule 2 says the developers should be smart enough to allow you a way out. A gamer should feel decisions are theirs, not that some stupid character is forcing them down an narrative alley. This slight of hand, the illusion of control, is something few do well. In the examples above Bioshock gives you options and Portal manages to make you feel like you're in charge and fighting the good fight whole time.
3. Impact is the measure of success: Oh, its over. Off. These are not positive responses to completing a game. A game should stick with the player and make them want to sit back and watch the credits roll. Of course there's plenty of room for games that aren't trying to do this but if impact is important then getting the sidekick right is important too. I'm not saying this is the most vital thing but in any narrative game the buddy character should be a vital part in creating a satisfying whole. An example: I still remember when Fawkes from my first Fallout 3 playthrough died bravely in a blaze of laser fire. Rest In Peace you crazy Supermutant.
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