Friendship is Rare

As it turns out, I am a dangerous person to travel with.

First, there was Uthgerd, who I met in the inn at Whiterun. She had a fiery temper, and insisted that we get down to fisticuffs after the briefest of conversations. I gave her a sound thrashing (as heroes are wont to do), but her toughness impressed me. She was happy to find a travelling companion, so with that, the two of us set off into the world.

Our first few weeks together were spent merrily exploring the lands around Whiterun; slaying bandits, dispatching wolves, that sort of thing. Eventually, I decided it was time for us to push our horizons a little further, and we set off to the west to see what adventures lay there. All was well and good until the fateful day I agreed to check out some Dwemer ruins buried beneath Markarth, for it was there that our adventures came to an end. A might spider, far greater than it’s pathetic kinsman we’d been purging from caves across the land, confronted us in its lair. Seeing this foes power, I fell back into the tunnels, using the rocks to my advantage to pepper it with arrows. Uthgerd, on the other hand, did what she always did: ran directly up to it and began hacking away. The spider had her on her knees in a few moments, clinging to life. Mere seconds after that, its deadly poison finished the job and she was gone (or perhaps it was an errant arrow of mine; let’s not dwell on the past).

I felled the mighty beast shortly thereafter, and knelt by Uthgerd’s side to mourn her. Also, to take her armor and weapons so I could sell them back in town. With that brief bit of ceremony out of the way, I returned to Whiterun to find a new travelling partner. Fortunately, I knew I had a housecarl named Lydia more than ready to take the job…

You Don’t Have to be a Doctor to Have a Companion

The concept of the companion is not anything new in gaming: a computer-controlled character that travels with, and fights for, the player. And in most cases, for as long as I can remember, I have never been able to care about them. On the surface, the idea seems sound: provide the player with a character that is out of their control, but that they can begin to feel responsible for. In that manner, the player should begin to connect with them, and thus have a deeper in-game experience.

The problem is that AI companions are usually have about as much depth as the puddle of spilled coffee I inevitably step in on the train. Take Wasteland, for instance, which offers several potential NPC companions through the course of the game. Beyond whatever initial situation you rescued them from/hired them in an alley/agreed to help them with, they really have nothing going on. Once Ace convinced me to go deal with the problems in Vegas, he pretty much just sat around and wasted ammo if I gave him the opportunity. For the most part in Wasteland, you handed your companions a melee weapon and treated them like a glorified pack mule. Now, I know what you are thinking: Wasteland came out over 20 years ago. And yet, here comesSkyrim.

Much like Wasteland decades earlier, Skyrim offers an array of eager companions through its world. Much like with Uthgerd, the player usually has to accomplish some minor task before earning the devotion of these followers. Once that’s out of the way, however, they don’t have much to say. All it took was a few swings of the fist to earn Uthgerd’s eternal loyalty, and as we travelled Skyrim together, about the only thoughts she could muster were that she had  bad feelings about places.

My second companion, Lydia, was no better. Quite literally assigned to me by the jarl, Lydia was – to quote herself – “sworn to carry my burdens.” And carry them she did, back and forth across the lands of Skyrim. She too spoke often, but had little to say. In a fight, she was more than ready to run ahead and get herself hacked to the edge of death. And, much like Uthgerd before her, met her unfortunate end in some forgotten ruin when she caught the wrong end of a fire burst scroll.

No Tears for the Fallen

Now, I know many Skyrim players have become obsessed with their companions (Lydia specifically), but I think that has more to do with being able to remove her armor than any sort of depth she possesses.

The thing is, it doesn’t take much to make me, as a player, care about my companion. In the original Fallout, the player could pick up a handful of NPC companions to travel with them. While Tycho might not have been the most talkative guy in the world, when he did choose to speak up about a location, it gave me glimpses into who he was. Upon entering the Deathclaw lair, for instance, Tycho states: “Note the lack of any animal life for quite a distance. And the piles of bones. Whatever lives here is a real beast. Keep your weapon handy.” Based on Tycho’s already established history as a Desert Ranger, this simple comment helps reinforce that he is a knowledgeable traveler, and someone you would want at your back while navigating the wasteland. A simple thing to add, but with a powerful impact on the player.

On top of that, Fallout – even with its simplistic companions – at least let me give them some combat orders along the lines of “stay back” or “charge forward.” InSkyrim, while I can give them some basic instructions about waiting for me or pulling levers and things, when it comes to combat they pretty much seem to do whatever they feel like. If I’m hurling fireballs down into a pit of draugr, they seem more than happy to dive right in the way. Not to mention their perverse joy in setting off every trap we come across.

With no personal connection to these companions, I can’t really feel that bad for them when they hurl themselves into the line of fire and suffer the consequences. That being the case, I’ve left a lot of dead travelling partners in my wake.

I bring this up because, as with most of the flaws in Skyrim, it stands out so starkly against so much of what is done right. In such a lush, detailed world, why is it that the people that can accompany me on the journey are so shallow?

Bredth, Not Width

In Skyrim’s case, the experience would be better served with fewer potential companions, but more richly developed ones. Rather than just plunking down another 500 gold for a new mercenary, or working my way up to another housecarl, why not trim the fat a bit and give me a more richly-developed Lydia? Skyrim is a huge land with a rich history, so how does Lydia fit into all of that? She must be from somewhere, and surely a skilled fighter such as herself has done some travelling before. Much like the example of Tycho from Fallout so many years ago, Lydia must have some opinions on the places we’re travelling. Even if it is something as simple as telling me that Markath is famous for its dwemer ruins, or even that she really, really hates necromancers. Just a few little touches to give her some personality beyond her penchant for sounding sarcastic. Or Uthgerd could have a habit of insisting we visit every meadery we pass, or of picking fights with giants. Anything, really, to give me some reason to feel something for these walking loot stashes.

I fully understand that in our current world of having to have every single bit of text in a game spoken, adding dialog is not as easy as it used to be. However, I think eliminating some extraneous lines elsewhere, and refocusing that time and money into creating a few richer companions would be well worth it.

In terms of combat, we’ve seen that AI companions can in fact be smarter than a bag of hammers; Alyx Vance managed it over eight years ago in Half-Life 2, so I would hope that we could see some more advancement in that area.

That Special One

Again, I focus on Skyrim here because it does encapsulate how little we’ve advanced in twenty-odd years, but by no means is it an indictment of the game as whole. The developers took a look at the massive world they wished to create, and they obviously put some priorities ahead of others. From my vantage point, though, if it comes down to Skyrim having 10 more semi-identical caves vs. better travelling companions, the choice is pretty clear. A player is far more likely to remember the way Jordis overcame her fear of spiders to bail you out of a tight spot in a Frostbite nest than they are that one fort up on that one hill.

You know, the one with the bandits?

Yeah, that one.

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No Talking Back On This One!