Digital footprints on our hearts
The best games know how to take a block of binary code and sculpt it into a true friend. A video game fixture since they first materialized in the mid-80's, AI companions (digital allies who are always at your side with some sweet combat moves, spare health packs, or maybe just a shoulder to cry on) have wormed their way through many a cynical exterior, getting us to like them even though we know that all that separates them from an in-game desk lamp is some extra lines of code. They dig deep into our hearts, so even years later it's hard to forget how much they meant to us.
Of course, what makes a perfect AI companion can be hard to pin down, because each player's needs are different. While the problems that make bad companions bad usually boil down to universal technical issues, what makes a good companion good is a much more personal, subjective affair. The closest we can get to the truth is in telling you our favorite AI companions, and why we love them so.
Anthony A has a blast with the Hadoken Prisoner in Metal Slug
Metal Slug is the densest physical comedy in video games. Every little character and piece of the background is doing something. Enemy soldiers chat, barbecue, run away from zombies with their big Tex Avery eyes bugging out their faces, and spew blood as your jaunty little soldier blasts them to kingdom come.
Amongst the most expressive characters in the game are the myriad prisoners of war you liberate in each level, each one of them with the same Jefferson Airplane hair and ZZ Top beard. While most only give you a new weapon for rescuing them, one of them will actually tag along. Does he pick up a gun to smoke fools? Never! This prisoner tosses fireballs like hes straight out of Street Fighter. I just love the personality born of such a weird sight gag; a gaunt, bedraggled POW gritting his teeth and shooting blue fire from his hands at space aliens in bulbous tanks. So great.
Ludwig enjoys Double H from Beyond Good and Evil
Double H is a steadfast and earnest goofball clad in armor, who accompanies Jade for most of her quest in Beyond Good & Evil. While Jade snaps incriminating photos and thwacks goons with a staff while she disassembles a global conspiracy, Double H provides some boisterous brawn to back her up. Theyre all losers, Miss Jade!, hell yell as a polite sort of insult.
Double H - as in Hubert H. - is a member of the planets army and a strong believer of the militarys philosophies. What makes Double H a brilliant companion, beyond being so unfiltered in his bravado, is that he completely subverts the army dude stereotype, instead beaming with optimism and the positive change that comes from working as a team. Jade may not be part of the army, and neither are you, but Double H is inclusive as he constantly quotes the funny wisdom from Carlson and Peeters - shorthand for the armys manual on teamwork.
Remember what Carlson and Peeters says, Miss Jade: D.B.U.T.T. - Dont. Break up. The Team.
Sam has a love-hate thing for 343 Guilty Spark in Halo
He may not have been particularly useful, what with his nonexistent combat abilities, but 343 Guilty Spark still made for great company. From the moment you met him in Halo: Combat Evolved where he demonstrated almost total disregard for your well-being (while simultaneously expressing fascination and delight at the survival of the Flood), you knew something about this smarmy little wise-ass didn't feel right.
By the end of the game Guilty Spark showed his true colors, and tried to kill you. While not the most threatening, Guilty Spark remains the Halo series' most interesting villain to date, his final demise made all the more tragic by his return in Halo 3, where it seemed he was on the cusp of becoming something more than what he was programmed to be. I loved Guilty Spark not for what he did in the games (which was very little, and almost none of it helpful to me as a player), but instead for his personality and character. Other floating eyeball robo-companions will forever sputter in his shadow.
Lucas thinks Claptrap from Borderlands 2 is pretty all right
The CL4P-TP unit is at his companionship best in the second Borderlands, after he's become the only one of his kind but before he's a playable character. And though Borderlands 2 seems dead set on making you absolutely loathe Claptrap's boundless optimism and constant chatter, he's my beacon of light in a desolate morass of bleakness. Borderlands 2's style of humor is often mean-spirited, trying to portray Claptrap as impossibly pitiful - but every bit of dialogue that tries to ridicule him only makes me like and empathize with him more.
I'm happy to carry out Claptrap's every request as his loyal "minion". His ever-chipper enthusiasm for life, love, and beatboxing - despite his lonely living arrangements and a tendency to turn tail at the first sign of danger - feel like the only shred of genuine personality on all of Pandora, far more nuanced than any of the one-liner-spouting Vault Hunters. Throwing the lovable 'bot's seventh birthday party was easily the highlight of the game for me - and even if I was the only one who showed up, it was never "awkward" like the quest text insists. It was just me and my robot friend enjoying some pizza and sweet boombox jams in a world that hates happiness.
Andy likes shooting the shit with Garrus from Mass Effect
There are plenty of companion characters in games, but few that you actually consider to be a friend. Garrus is very much Shepards friend. While his introduction in the original game is comparatively low-key, his return in Mass Effect 2 (under the guise of Archangel) is a real air-punching moment - you feel great about being reunited with him. Why? Hes honest and optimistic, offering wise comments and cracking poor jokes that make him infinitely more human than most, er, human characters in the series.
And its Garrus who provides the most emotional farewell in Mass Effect 3. His resigned optimism shines through in the conversation he shares with Shep before the final battle, and that moment where you both head to the D24 docking bay in the citadel to shoot cans together and talk person-to-person? One of the best buddy scenes in games, ever. No, Garrus, I didnt miss that last can on purpose. Promise. Sniff...
Justin and Father Gascoigne from Bloodborne have a friendly understanding
Bloodborne may now have AI companions just a bell's ring away, but when it first came out you had to rely on human companions to come to your aid. Except in a few instances - the best of which is Father Gascoigne. That's right - before you fight him, you can summon him in Central Yarnham and use him to help you beat the Cleric Beast.
In his pre-transformation state, he is a man of the cloth and devoted to helping you. He draws attacks. He soaks up damage. Sometimes he dies. All of this so that you can focus on sticking the pointy end of your weapon up the backside of the Cleric Beast. Like Corporal Jones always said in Dad's Army: "They don't like it up 'em".
Leon likes how Ellie from The Last of Us keeps it real
Shes foul mouthed, dangerous, and unpredictable. All reasons that make Ellie one of the best companions around because you just dont know what youre going to get. It feels human to have someone reacting the way she does as Joel transports her through the apocalypse. She gets pissed off, she gets mad at you, she sulks - its like having an actual person there rather than an extra gun. Although having her swing a brick at a passing scavenger means shes far from defenseless and definitely useful to have around.
Its that emotional and uncertain path that makes her presence so impactful and why you care so much at the end. Its not just Joel thats gone on a journey with a new friend, you have as well. Youve effectively seen her grow up and played a part in that grim maturity she gains from everything you make her experiences. Even after all you go through, it ends on such a difficult note - lies, murder etc - that its hard to accept shes just a pathfinding, enemy-attacking pile of code and recorded dialogue.
Dani finds Varric from Dragon Age oddly charming
Of all of the Dragon Age series great companions, Varric is the most real. While everyone you meet during your many attempts at quelling Darkspawn is memorable in their own ways they all felt as though they were there just to follow you. Varric has a life of his own outside of you, you are not the centre of his universe and his heart only has room for one. No, its not you. No matter how much you may want to run your fingers through his dwarven chest hair he only has eyes for another.
Hes also the best friend a saviour of Thedas can have. Despite being interrogated by the Inquisition all the way through Dragon Age 2 he never gives up your location as Hawke, something which comes back to bite him in the best of ways during your journey in DA: Inquisition. Hes also an accomplished writer of smutty novels (much to Cassandras chagrin) and is always willing to share a joke to lighten the mood during an otherwise tense situation. More than anything though he treats you like a real friend would, making you laugh and calling you out when you do anything questionable. Hes there for you through everything.
Connor likes Big Bo from Binary Domain just the way he is
Roy "Big Bo" Boateng knows that Binary Domain is ridiculous. While all your other companion characters solemnly accept their role in the high-stakes melodrama of international espionage and transhuman identity, Big Bo keeps on shouting about how "sa-weet!" that last headshot was. He knows that you're trying to express some truly profound things through Binary Domain's half-baked voice command system and, well, he appreciates the effort.
Binary Domain's cast is back-to-back stereotypes, right down to the ascot-wearing French android, and Big Bo's Straight-Talkin' Black Friend is no exception. He never really transcends that trope, but Big Bo is so much fun to keep around that I never can manage to swap him out of my squad.
Ashley appreciates Larsa from Final Fantasy 12
In series full of warriors that look as unimposing as a basket of week-old bunnies, Larsa Ferrinas Solidor is the biggest basket of all. The poshest twelve-year-old in the Empire of Arcadia, he sashays onto the scene when Ashe and company are about to start a punishing trudge through the mountains, and informs them he'll be joining in on the hike.
Cue the groans of frustration, as you now have to deal with an hours-long escort mission. But it turns out there's no need to worry - the well-schooled and wealthy son of the Arcadian Emperor, Larsa is not only perfectly competent in battle, but rich in restorative potions that he's more than happy to share. He's also a brilliant strategist, who keeps his composure and knows how to think critically when everyone else is losing their heads - it's nice to have someone around who's not afraid to point out how stupid everyone's being in the civilest way possible. Plus, it's genuinely cute (as opposed to Anakin Skywalker "cute") when he tries to charm a girl five years older than him, so let's call that a bonus.