Supporting characters: the best thing about RPGs?

Sam salutes the best supporting party members from recent RPG videogames...

Great RPGs are seldom a one-person show, with games from across the genre almost always bringing in multiple characters to assist the player on their quest. It’s a key feature of the entire spectrum, from the most esoteric JRPGs to the most mainstream western examples. There are few games where we don’t pick up a motley band of waifs and strays along the way, forming memorable bonds with each of these bundles of polygons as we fight our way to whichever villain is threatening the world this time.

Back when we first booted up Dragon Age: Origins, we played through our pre-war backstory as our stoically silent protagonist, slaying rats and collecting loot as we sought to join the legendary Grey Wardens. In doing so, we were partnered with another young hopeful, a sardonic knight known as Alistair, and came across an apostate witch named Morrigan. The two characters with their clashing ideologies grated against one another, and as we journeyed around some dangerous woodlands their snippy comments to each other masked what was an effective fighting unit. 

As the story progressed over its fifty-something hours, Alastair became a phenomenal tank, and Morrigan an exceptional damage-dealer. These two units proved decisive in our final battle, but it was their characters who defined the story. It’s through carefully-written dialogue trees and clear character arcs that we come to honestly care about each of the people in our team.

Spending time around the campfire in between sorties, hearing our party’s hints of backstory and sometimes heart-rending motivations for getting involved in the conflict, the real strength of Bioware’s game was undoubtedly in these moments. It framed the conflict at hand as a truly global threat, affecting all races and creeds, bringing together a disparate band of heroes whose interplay paint a picture as effectively as hundreds of pages of lore documents could.

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The game’s sequel, for all it streamlined the game mechanics, didn’t skimp in this department, with a three-dimensional set of characters all with their own relationships to each other. Dragon Age II’s party banter is great, bringing two sides of very complex debates into the game’s narrative. Each individual member of the party is funnelled down skill trees to their own specialised role, but what’s really impressive is how their personality is similarly malleable. Do we choose to foster Anders’s sense of rage at the treatment of his kind, or seek to lead him down the path of forgiveness? Not only do choices like these have real gameplay consequences in terms of abilities, but they contribute to an evolving, ever-changing narrative experience with side stories not set in stone – it’s different for each player.

The voice performances and writing are so vitally important in crafting a character who is not simply sworn to carry our burdens (sorry Lydia), but a living, breathing human being (or otherwise) who we look out for, and vice versa. Any Mass Effect player will tell you about their affection for a particular member of their party, whom they nurtured into both a lethal weapon and a loyal companion throughout the adventure. Garrus isn’t just a hired gun to anybody.

As we fought side-by-side to stand between the menacing Reapers and galaxy-wide genocide, we went from gunslingers with mutually-beneficial goals, to war buddies and eventually best friends. That kind of arc feels so much more powerful when you’re controlling one side of the relationship, and don’t even get us started on the quiet philosophizing of our beloved Thane in the second game.

It’s another vital way to enhance points of view. Mass Effect 2 introduced us to Jack, the tattooed, shaven-headed convict with devastating Biotic powers that could sweep clean a battlefield in seconds. Peel pack her layers of hostility and aggression however, and a picture emerges of a vulnerable young woman, abused since childhood who sees no good reason to trust the universe or anyone in it. Depending on how you handle the character, she can either succumb to her rage or turn her life around, becoming a vital, functioning member of society or in extreme cases turn on the player outright. It’s finely-nuanced characters like these that mark out the games industry’s ability to explore sensitive character moments in a way that other art forms may struggle to.

Simply put, nothing makes a story tick over more effectively than a set of convincing, endearing people at its core. Final Fantasy VIII has a few classic tearjerking moments, not coming from sulky lead Squall, but from idealistic love interest Rinoa. It’s not a matter of game mechanics that keeps us compelled with that game, but pure, unfiltered emotion drawn out through believable and often strangely sweet character interactions.

Even the relatively straightforward stable of Fallout followers is the same – In combat, there isn’t as much difference between, say, Raoul the Ghoul and Veronica, as there is between Dragon Age: Inquisition’s upcoming polar opposites of Iron Bull and Cassandra, but get talking to these walking backpacks and you’ll soon find yourself taking on often irksome side quests to satisfy their wants and needs.

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In a world where identikit Space Marines head up seemingly ever AAA release, the importance of well-handled, intricately-designed non-player characters is absolutely vital to the creative success of a game. Long after the dust has settled, it’s not often gameplay mechanics we remember, but the guys and gals that tagged along with us as we blasted our way to the final boss. Even harking back to the classic days of the Baldur’s Gate series, it’s not the destination, or necessarily the journey, but rather the travel buddies that make the experience.

These people, when handled right, can become very dear companions as we blast through the various post-apocalyptic, medieval or sci-fi landscapes, and their own development is often far more pronounced than the games’ protagonists. Nothing gives a world colour and depth like a well-drawn set of characters, and in the world of RPG gaming, some of our favourite characters come not as the hero, but the sidekicks.

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