Something that gets discussed around the office on occasion is when it’s cool and not cool to force a player to travel with someone during the game. It’s obviously cool in some cases. Heck, many games force you to travel with someone the entire game — otherwise you’d have game titles like “Ratchet and Occasionally, Only If You Want To Bring Him Along, Clank”. For RPGs, though, it becomes a bit more contentious.
Sometimes for story reasons, even in RPGs, you just have to travel with someone for a stretch. I know it can ruin the “Iron Man” solo experience, but games are telling a story and sometimes you just have to roll with it. But there’s a real tension of when it’s OK to force someone to tag along.
The more “knowns” you have in a story the tighter the narrative and the more dramatic you can make things. So if I know that Farmer Ted is travelling with you during this one stretch, he can be interwoven in the story. He can really shine. But the problem is some people are going to hate Farmer Ted with the fiery passion of a thousand blazing suns. I like to point out in those cases that, “But even if you’re forced to spend time with Ted, you also get to spend some quality time with Slinky Seductress Sarah – and you have to admit, that bit was awesome.” But that’s really an existential point when you want nothing more than to punch Ted in the face.
I can already tell some people would want to say, “Just make two options – one where Ted is fully immersed in the plot and the other where he isn’t.” But people that say that aren’t living in my world. They’re living in a much happier world where developers have oodles of spare time, and they can just quickly whip up complicated alternate adventures in between their busy schedule of playing ping pong. By the way, if someone can point me to that world, I’d happily pay for the plane ticket. I’ll even write a nice note.
On the other extreme, you can make a game where the companions are completely optional. There’s a lot of merit to that. It’s your choice, your game, and if you don’t like Ted then stab him in the face. But by its very nature it makes it hard to have deep moments with any companion. Because in any given area the developer has to take into account that anybody can be there or no one can. And if the plot plays differently with them along, then headaches ensue.
I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Certainly many RPGs aim for that. But is it so wrong to want companions to interact intimately with the world, even if it means that waste of space Ted* is cluttering your screen for an hour?
* I’d like to take this time to apologize to all the Teds out there. I’m sure you’re all very nice people, and none at all of you deserve to be stabbed in the face. Except for one. You know who you are.
Ferret Baudoin is a lead designer at BioWare. He’s worked as a designer at Cyberlore, Black Isle, and Obsidian. His plan is not to take over the world. So don’t pay attention to the silently encroaching mustelid army. Bwahaha.