It’s February, the month of ~love~, but love is broad and you know we love to interpret words loosely around here. So, we’re talking companions! What makes them fun? What makes them annoying? Why did 2000s Bioware only know how to write one human sci-fi man? Let’s find out together.
Let’s start by getting on the same page. What is a companion in a game? Are there any mechanical requirements? How long do they have to stick around to be considered a companion, rather than just a friendly NPC?
Zora Gilbert: Someone else has to answer first, before I get all descriptivist on this question and ruin all the fun!
Melissa Brinks: I’m leaving that intro in there because it is the most Zora thing I’ve ever heard. I am pretty flexible when it comes to definitions, so I would say a companion is a character who joins the player character for some period of time, even if it’s a short period of time. Pokemon are companions, Auron is a companion, Blackwall is a companion, the person you’re guarding on an escort quest probably isn’t. I’m struggling to think of any characters who stick around for a short period of time, but I’m sure there are some, and honestly you could probably convince me that they’re companions if you really tried.
Sara Davis: I think that sounds sensible, and I might also add that a companion should share at least one goal in common with the player. My buddy in Pokemon Go wants to find candy and earn hearts; I want to find candy and earn hearts! Blackwall wants to mope and pretend to be a Grey Warden; I want to pretend to be a Grey Warden and don’t care if he mopes while we’re doing it. But I dread escort quests because they are rarely in alignment with where I want to go or the way I want to play the game, so I don’t consider those NPCs as companions either. Dogs in games like Fable are companions: they go where you go, fight when you fight, dig up stuff for your inventory. Non-combat pets in Elder Scrolls Online are not companions, even when they have charming animations such as chasing butterflies, because they are purely ornamental and want nothing.
I cannot wait to read the descriptivist response.
Maddi Butler: I have little to add here because I agree with “someone who joins the player character for an amount of time in pursuit of a common goal.” However, I do wonder: is there a distinction between companion and party member?
Melissa: If I like them, they are a companion. If I don’t, they’re a party member. I’m mostly joking, but I do feel like the distinction to me is the function they serve—if it’s purely mechanical, I’d be inclined to say party member, whereas if they’re woven into the story I’d say companion. That definition seems ripe for picking apart, but I think it really comes down to my feelings about the character. I’m meant to build attachment to my Pokemon, therefore they are companions. However, I’m struggling to think of any examples that fit my earlier definition of companion while also being purely mechanical, so maybe there’s no difference to me!
Zainabb Hull: I agree that I think party members can also be companions, but I think the distinction for me is that, as the player, you have more control over party members but not necessarily companions. So, for example, in an RPG, you might be able to choose a party member’s skills or decide how to use experience points to level them up. With a companion, their skills and abilities are fixed, although you may be able to guide them as you play, like by telling a dog companion to search for loot.
Zora: I have great news, Missy, and it’s that I don’t have to be Mr. Descriptivism here because you already did it for me.
Nola Pfau: A companion is anyone who sticks around to be a consistent help within a game, to my thinking. I don’t really see a delineation between companions and party members; to my mind, they’re two terms for the same thing.
Cress: I feel like they need to be helping me along the journey or someone I interact with on a regular basis. They don’t need to be in my party per se, but if we’re crossing paths in a narrative, there’s something of a relationship there.
What makes a companion compelling?
Zora: I tend to like history between characters—I loved Night in the Woods’ style of companionship, where you pick a childhood buddy to have Mae spend a day with and, in doing so, learn more about both characters and their intertwined history. I also love a companion who has their own story, and will potentially be put at odds with my character because of that—no, all of you, get off me, I’m not playing Dragon Age—but I find that if a game leans too far into characters having their own story, their presence in my party can feel forced or flat. For example, for a game with an absolutely banger supporting cast, Tales of Berseria never gave me a good enough reason for why Magilou and Rokurou were hanging around with me, and it really emphasized how tenuous the connections between the rest of the story beats were.
Sara: I am an absolute sucker for banter. What brought the companions to life for me across Dragon Age titles was listening to them talk amongst themselves as we adventured, and especially when they commented on the world we explored together. Even in Skyrim, your otherwise conversationally impaired companions will gasp when you encounter the natural beauty of caves and waterfalls. Companion responses enrich my experience in a world and increases replay value for me.
I just started playing with companions in Elder Scrolls Online; they come packaged with DLC that only recently became available to me. Apparently you can adjust companion banter level via slider—but why would I ever want to reduce the stream of benign chatter from my platonic Golden Retriever Boyfriend, Bastian Hallix? He comments encouragingly when I pick up treasure. He comments encouragingly when I harvest resource nodes. He checks in on me when I get immobilized in combat: “Are you stuck or choosing to remain still?” He got jokes: sometimes, after defeating an enemy, he’ll say, “Mess with the sword, and you’ll get the point!” (He uses a fire staff. I use a restoration staff.) Sometimes he’ll yell, “Taste our steel!” (His staff is made of wood. My staff is made of wood.) Sure, it’s not all Words of Affirmation—he hates it when I drink the blood of my enemies, for example—but for the most part, his earnest banter renewed my enjoyment of the game at a time when I was logging in only for daily rewards.
Melissa: I love a character with layers. I want companions to have a complex relationship with my character—while it’s great when everybody gets along, it’s even better when they don’t, whether they disagree with my character or one another. Like, sure, I love that my Pokemon presumably all get along fairly well with one another. That’s nice. But I love that Alistair and Morrigan in Dragon Age: Origins fucking hate one another, and that I love both of them, and sometimes they fucking hate the decisions that I make because I think they’re both sometimes ridiculous (and clearly I am always right). If we’re going to simulate relationships, let’s really simulate relationships and let characters be annoyed or frustrated or just downright hate one another.
Of course, it’s possible to take this kind of thing too far. It’s been a while since I played Mass Effect, but I feel like there were some characters in that series who either should have been totally incompatible based on values, but they were toned down to sort of force them being in your group to make sense, or that were so at odds you began to wonder why one of them didn’t just leave. Lulu and Wakka in Final Fantasy X are believably at odds with one another (and even Wakka and Rikku!), but each one has a personality that helps explain why they stay, and they’re challenged and bettered by one another’s presence. That’s what I like to see.
Maddi: I also love banter and deep interpersonal relationships among characters in video games! I think the thing that makes a companion most compelling for me is what they bring to the game’s narrative. Do they enhance the story? Make the world feel larger and more fleshed out? The first example that came to mind was Yennefer in The Witcher 3. She maybe isn’t a companion in the strictest sense, but she’s integral to the story and the game takes time to develop her character.
Zainabb: Yeah, interesting companions are fleshed-out characters who seem to have a life and opinions and experiences of their own. It’s peak problematic fave, but I loved Tali and Garrus individually in Mass Effect, and one of my favourite aspects of those characters was learning that, if you don’t romance either of them, they end up romancing each other. It’s a small touch that makes those characters feel like they have their own lives and internal feelings beyond what you experience as Shepard. And I totally agree with Sara that the conversations between party members in Dragon Age and Mass Effect quickly became something I looked forward to. It also made me want to try missions with different combinations of party members just to learn more about the different relationships and dynamics between characters.
I also think that animal companions are inherently compelling, at least for me, because I don’t need any reason to love and try to protect animal friends. Although I guess it backfires a little for me in terms of a companion mechanic because I will do anything to keep my animals safe, including not actually having them around as companions—I literally never took my dog out on missions in Fallout 3 because I was always terrified of them dying.
Cress: I think it’s exciting if I either empathize with them or I can understand what drives them, even if I disagree with it. A lot of the Final Fantasy Tactics talk had me thinking a lot of Delita. He wishes to change the corrupt system, but in doing so, starts using vulnerable people as pawns in much the same way he and his sister were used. He’s not in your party for the majority of the game, but being the childhood friend of Ramza and the deuteragonist of the story, definitely cements him as a companion and old friend who has gone astray.
Antagonistic companions can be really fun too! Patches from the Soulsborne series are not trustworthy from the jump and will push you down holes. I was annoyed at first, but as I’d find him again and again, it became more like “silly patches, what shenanigans are you up to now?”
Nola: As a lesbian, I find companions compelling when they are attractive women.
Who is the worst companion of all time and why?
Melissa: There are worse companions out there, but I simply cannot forgive Oghren in Dragon Age: Origins. I love every other member of that cast. Why the fuck is Oghren there? What is he bringing to the table, aside from being a dwarf and therefore your connection to Orzammar if you’re not a dwarf yourself? His story is actually interesting, but his crude, hard-drinking personality feels like a cliche for dwarf characters in fantasy fiction. Everyone else feels very fresh to me, so Oghren really sticks out as just… ugh.
Zainabb: Oghren definitely feels like a cliche, but I did love every Dragon Age: Origins companion, except for Leliana, who I found interesting as a character but really boring to actually interact with, and Wynne who I found super uninteresting as a character, despite really wanting to bond with Grandma Mage. I always forget she was even in the game.
While I don’t know that I’m able to pick out a single worst companion, my least favourites are absolutely characters that replicate the kinds of people I don’t ever want to be around in my real life. Ashley from Mass Effect, for example. I appreciate that some people find her character interesting and maybe, with enough work, you can make her less racist. But fam, I have spent too much of my life trying to encourage people I’m forced to work or coexist with to be less racist. It rarely works and it’s now something I only do if I absolutely have to. I certainly don’t want to replicate that exhausting emotional labour in a game, during my free time, for “fun”?? I don’t have a visceral dislike of Ashley because, thankfully, you don’t have to interact with her all that much and you can opt out of including her in your party for the majority of the game. But I never appreciate games that force bigoted or gross companions onto you—and writing this sentence, I’ve just realised the worst companion of all time is Issun from Ōkami. Fuck Issun.
Sara: Like Zainabb, I usually just leave my unlikeable companions in the box. You know, my space racist companions, my uncomfortably-jammed-into-someone’s-fantasy companions (I want a better life for you, Fallout 4 Cait), the companions who hate what I love (picking locks and looting). But I feel like the worst companions have to be the ones whose mechanics somehow make them more detrimental to gameplay than not having them. The companions who simply can’t seem to get behind cover in a shootout. The companions that plop right onto the crafting table when you’re trying to fix your armor, so you keep accidentally engaging a dialogue. The companions who surprise you with a cutscene so that you end up in an entirely different part of Skyhold than you were trying to get to, Blackwall.
Zora: Yo Nola hasn’t come through yet and I inadvertently called her answers out in the intro, so I’m gonna give them for her here: fuck Carth Onasi and Kaidan Alenko.
Nola: FUCK CARTH AND KAIDAN. Everyone always goes “oh so you’d rather have the space nazi” when I say that about Kaidan but like, a) I can leave her on the ship and use other party members, and b) the sound of her voice doesn’t instantly fill me with rage the way Kaidan’s does. And Carth’s. They have the same voice actor, didja know?
Cress: Snow from FF13. Most of the cast I dislike, but I liked Lightning, just a little more, when she punched Snow twice into… into the snow, yeah. Stupid to the max. I don’t know why everyone hates Hope, he’s a kid. I was kinda hoping he’d finally get to kill Snow, but no dice.
Also Algus (he was in the party) from FF Tactics. He’s a hugely condescending noble who joins you, betrays you, gets Delita’s sister killed causing his path of darkness, and doesn’t show any remorse for it. I definitely looked forward to taking him out. He’s so hated by the fandom that in War of the Lions there’s an extra map where he’s brought back as a zombie so you can kill him again.
Nola: I’m coming back to second Algus, god that guy sucks.
Who is your favorite companion?
Zora: I have played about two hours of Disco Elysium and Kim Katsuragi consumed my brain to such a startling extent that I uh. Stopped playing the game. So shout outs to Kim, I barely know you but I would have and did die for you.
Sara: It’s really hard to choose, but I have to give a shout out to Silk Fox in Jade Empire. She’s a princess in disguise! She’s beautiful and kind of mean! And she will flirt with a female player character—which, in 2006 or whenever I was playing that game, was the first time that had ever happened to me in a game.
Maddi: I would go to the mat for any companion in either of the Nier games (Pods included), but there’s an especially soft spot in my heart for Emil. At the beginning of the game, he’s living an isolated life and thinks himself a monster because he petrifies any living thing he looks at. Throughout his journey with Nier and Kaine, though, Emil learns to accept himself and the love that his friends offer him, and it makes me really emotional to think about.
Melissa: Yuna!!! My hero, my queen. Yuna’s compassion and self-sacrifice hurt in the best way possible, and I actually love her journey from doomed savior to pop star with a gun. She deserves it. There may be more sophisticated answers to this question, but to be honest, I’m just happy I thought of someone other than Alistair.
Zainabb: It’s Zevran from Dragon Age: Origins, forever and always. There are companions with better story arcs and other companions I love a lot, and I’m sure there are other characters I relate to more at this point in my life. But no character has ever spoken to me as deeply as Zevran did.
Nola: I’ve always loved Tifa and Aerith, but I have to say that the upgrade to Aerith’s personality in FF7-R has really pushed her high up the list. I love that she is one step from being a gremlin at all times. I love that she curses at hilarious moments. I love that she looks for fights to get her friends into. She’s delightful.
Cress: Seconded for FF7 friends! Also love my Garnet, from FF9! She watches her world crash around her, but picks herself up and keeps going. I kept cheering her on throughout. Even the mechanic of her being unable to speak and having trouble casting helped communicate her struggles through gameplay.
Also, I really wish Atlus would do more gender flip options of the Persona series, because I really love P3P’s Junpei! He still has the same rival feelings towards you even if you choose to be a girl (probably because they had already written a romance for him so for once you can have an actual friendship without it turning romantic). You get to hang out with him without major drama. He shares his fears with you, his hopes and dreams. He’s much more mellow and thoughtful when you speak with him like this. But for me, what clinched it was him saying: “It sucks that this place doesn’t have any swings. Don’t you sometimes just get the urge to swing once in a while?” And yes, Junpei, I do.
Who is your favorite frog companion and why are they the best?
Melissa: I had a long and hard think about this and I’ve decided to go with Spiritfarer‘s Atul. Is he a companion according to the criteria we discussed above? Maybe. Is he the best? Yes. I loved every conversation I had with Atul, and when he left the ship, I was heartbroken. I’m heartbroken again just thinking about it.
Zora: Okay so maybe this question was a little rigged, as Atul is objectively correct.
Nola: It’s really down to Atul or Frog from Chrono Trigger, and Atul wins by a mile. Do Final Fantasy party members who get hit with a frog spell count?
Cress: Frog/Glenn forever from Chrono Trigger. Who doesn’t love a failure knight story to redemption? Also his theme kicks ass! I will never forget you, Glenn…
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.