By Ben Grandis
I was twelve-years-old when I made my first fictional friends. I’m not referring to an imaginary friend of my own invention. I am talking about the diverse and interesting companions from Bioware’s classic hit, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
At a time when puberty was beginning to take hold and my budding adolescence made real-life friendships confusing and difficult, these companion characters were an incredible source of comfort to me. As the first single-player, story-rich video game I ever played, Knights of the Old Republic (commonly known as KOTOR) introduced me to a world where my choices really mattered and had meaningful impact on my allies and enemies alike. My companions were loyal friends, confidantes, and even romantic partners for my protagonist. On both a narrative and gameplay level, they were essential for success in my intergalactic quest to determine the fate of the galaxy.
With a total of nine companions joining my hero on her quest, I was astounded by the diversity in gender, race, sexual orientation, morals, and even species among these digital friends of mine. However, the game limited me to only having two of them accompany me at a time, which forced me to face an interesting dilemma: who do I take with me and when?
Even though the Jedi companions were generally the strongest fighters, this by default did not always make them the most desirable allies for every situation. In one particular instance, I was tasked with eliminating the violent presence of Sand People on the desert planet of Tatooine. As the Sand People are unable to speak Basic (the Star Wars equivalent for English), I brought along the assassin droid HK-47 in my effort to confront their leader. Despite his generally murderous instincts, the droid was able to act as a translator on my behalf and was ultimately able to not only understand the reasons for the Sand People’s hostilities, but also negotiate a peaceful solution with the Sand People.
Had I approached their base without HK-47 in my party, verbal communication would have been impossible with the Sand People. More violence would have ensued and my character would have been forced to kill their leader. But by bringing the “right” companion along, I was able to avoid bloodshed all together.
Simply having powerful, intelligent, and capable companions doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. In some games, the player must cultivate a meaningful relationship with their allies for true victory. In Bioware’s other sci-fi masterpiece, Mass Effect 2, the player has the option to take on “loyalty” missions for their companions. These missions allow you to learn more about your individual companion’s backstories and help them wrap-up any “unfinished business” they may have outside of the game’s main story. Not only are these quests fun and emotionally engaging, they also allow you to bond with your companions on a deeper level. While not required, these missions enhance your companions’ resolve and increases their skills and confidence in battle. This makes each companion whose loyalty mission you do complete all the more likely to survive the game’s final climactic battle.
In some games, we don’t always get to choose our companions. We may be limited to just one or two at a time that will remain a regular ally throughout the journey. Game developer Naughty Dog is especially good at creating characters who act in this “conditional companion” role. In their post-apocalyptic tale, The Last of Us, teenaged Ellie plays an integral part of middle-aged Joel’s journey across the dangerous wasteland. Rather than play the sexist “damsel in distress” trope that is bestowed on many younger female characters in gaming, Ellie is an agile partner who actively contributes to the player’s survival. While she lacks the physical strength and experience that Joel has, Ellie is capable of sliding through vents, windows, and other smaller spaces that Joel can’t normally reach or get through. As Joel trains her in the proper use of firearms and knives, Ellie becomes helpful support in combat against both the ravenous infected and violent groups of raiders they encounter. For the moments of the plot where Ellie remains temporarily unavailable to assist Joel, the player truly feels her absence. Joel become less empowered and further burdened by the challenges the world presents without her aid. The father-daughter relationship that forms between these two survivors keeps the player invested in their continued survival. Their growing love and companionship make the narrative all the more meaningful.
Not all companions are a desirable ally for the player. In Capcom’s horror classic Resident Evil 4, Ashley Graham remains a constant nuisance and burden upon on the player. Unlike Ellie, Ashley is an archetypical “damsel in distress” character that does little to make the player genuinely care for her. Not only does the player encounter a “game over” if she dies in combat, but she does little to contribute to help the player along in their efforts to rescue her. Once she is in the player’s company, the game essentially becomes a long escort mission, where Ashley is incapable of protecting her own safety. She is ultimately a leech who worsens the overall adventure for the player.
Learning from these different types of video game companions taught me valuable lessons about my own real-life friendships. Just like its important to find the “right” companion for the right game scenario, its also important to find the right friends for all of life’s moments. If I am going to a loud and wild concert or party, I’m better off inviting my friends who enjoy those environments and wish to indulge in that kind of excitement. Conversely, if I am looking to spend a quiet night in watching a movie with my buddies, inviting someone who wants to spend the evening getting rowdy and going to bars may not be the best person to bring over at that time.
Just like good video game companions, it is important to find the right kind of friends who complement your own strengths and weaknesses. If you play a Dragon Age or Diablo game and only bring melee-combat focused Warrior characters in your party, you’ll struggle for neglecting to bring a Mage Healer to help keep everyone else safe and protected in the toughest of fights.
When applying these allegories to real-life friendships, I also challenge myself to become a better friend to those who trust and rely on me. When spending time with others, I ask myself, “how am I contributing to their well-being and our overall dynamic?” If I know I’m sick with a cold and bored from having spent the entire day in bed, I will abstain from socializing until I am better so as to avoid infecting those I care about. Even if I’m craving human interaction, I know better than to make someone unwell for the sake of my own happiness.
I want to be the best possible companion for my peers and loved ones. I force myself to ask “Am I being an Ellie and providing valuable help to who I’m spending time with? Or am I being an Ashley and making things worse by burdening this person with my presence?”
By using this lens, I continually find ways to be a better friend, co-worker, lover, and ally to everyone in my life. Video game companions may be my digital friends, but they will always help me be a better friend to my real ones.