Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.
This week’s Q&A is all about about sidekicks. Here’s the question:
Much of the talk about The Last Of Us has revolved around Ellie, the 14-year-old girl who joins you on your journey through a zombie-ravaged America. Casual observers of the conversation might even think that Ellie’s the hero of the game. Because video game heroes are so often silent, laconic, or at least bland, their sidekicks can have a disproportionate opportunity to shine. What’s your favorite example of a sidekick who, in your opinion, outshines the hero?
It’s not exactly difficult to outshine Chell, the hero of Portal. She’s silent—aside from the occasional grunt—and you glimpse her only briefly when your made-to-order wormholes spill out on top of each other, such that you can gaze on yourself from afar. With a practically faceless hero, in the sterile environs of the Aperture testing facilities, even a minimal expression of warmth and companionship will stand out. And that’s exactly what the Weighted Companion Cube is: the bare minimum. It’s a gray block with hearts on it. True to its name, it weighs something, and that comes in handy. But the “Companion” part of the Cube’s moniker is the salient one. It turns the unassuming block into a receptacle for our emotional projections, and so the Cube becomes our friend solely by virtue of the fact that it’s supposed to be our friend. Although its blankness may seem like a hindrance at first, the Cube’s utter lack of characteristics mean that the only limit to your friendship is your capacity to imagine the bond. Sure, the Cube can never come out and say it’s your friend, but it can never say that it’s not your friend, either, and that non-denial proves compelling amid the solitude of Aperture Science.
What would happen to the classic Batman and Robin relationship if the sidekick were significantly more cool and capable than the hero? I think it would look a lot like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty. You spend the first big chunk of the game playing as Solid Snake—the usual Metal Gear hero—who is just as gruff as ever. Then, after Snake seemingly dies, the game drops you into the tight leather boots of Raiden, a man who can do all of the same things as Snake but with less stoic confidence and more whiny confusion. As Raiden tries to stop a team of super terrorists who are holding hostages on an oil rig—it’s more complicated than that, but I only have so much space—he is assisted by someone calling himself Iroquois Pliskin who looks, talks, and acts exactly like Solid Snake. Throughout Raiden’s mission, Sna—I mean, Pliskin always pops up at exactly the right time to give the player the right rocket launcher or samurai sword he needs to defeat a boss, and he is always several steps ahead in his understanding of the game’s almost nonsensical plot. If you’re going to have a sidekick watching your back, why choose a Boy Wonder when you can have the world’s greatest mercenary?
For me it’s got to be Dogi, the unwavering buddy from the long-running fantasy series Ys. The lead character, Adol, met Dogi in prison. (I think we all know how tight those bonds are.) Throughout 25 years of sequels, they’ve been nearly inseparable. Almost every game starts with Adol and Dogi getting off a boat together. Dogi, for his part, always pulls his weight. He’s enormous, so he’s useful in combat and for breaking down barriers. And since Adol is frequently a silent empty shell, Dogi often has to carry the story. He’s your friendly Mr. Exposition, telling you how to feel about new characters, and snapping cleanly into wingman mode when the love interest appears. There are so many games where I worry about when my closest ally will betray me, but not Ys. That Dogi? He’s true blue.
Enoch is boring. A human chosen by God to be Heaven’s scribe, he eventually becomes the Metatron and is portrayed by Alan Rickman in a Kevin Smith movie. That’s it. No personality to speak of, no witty one-liners, no interesting costume changes—just the same old perpetually incomplete suit of armor. If El Shaddai: Ascension Of The Metatron focused solely on its hero, the game could have been used to combat insomnia. Thankfully, Enoch has a friend in Lucifel, greatest of the archangels and all-around smooth operator. Lucifel constantly breaks the fourth wall, peering deep into the players’ eyes with his piercing red stare. He even travels through time to give Enoch a pair of jeans, just to give the poor schmuck a shred of style and class. Both Enoch’s and Lucifel’s jeans were actually sold in Japan, but the archangel’s black skinny painter jeans were blatantly sexier than the human’s blue boot-cut double-knees. It’s been said that designer Sawaki Takeyasu injected a lot of himself into Lucifel’s personality. If I were designing a game, I’d make myself look like that too—as if Morrissey had been bitten by one of the vampires from Twilight and became too exhausted from being handsome to bother buttoning his shirts.
I’m going with Cortana from Halo. I’ve never been that big a fan of the series, but I always found Cortana to be far more interesting than the relatively silent, emotionless, and faceless Master Chief. Cortana is really the heart of the Halo franchise, as a digital sidekick that’s more human than the humans around her. That’s particularly true of the fourth game (which happens to be my favorite), which is a kind of doomed quasi-love story between the Master Chief and Cortana. The game’s writers wisely realized that any emotion, humor, or pathos would have to be wrung from Cortana, rather than the game’s heavily armed Covenant-bashing protagonist. When it comes to having real character depth, Cortana far outshines the first-person snooze-fest of a Spartan that is the Master Chief.
Anthony John Agnello
Maybe it comes from being a younger brother myself, but I’ve always loved Protoman, Dr. Light’s first attempt at making an adaptable peacekeeping robot in the Mega Man series. Mega Man is tough and capable, but he’s never cool. Look at him, with his gawky stare and exaggerated blinking. The guy always looks like he just woke up and forgot it was his birthday. Protoman, or Blues if you’re a Japanese-version traditionalist, is a badass. The scarf, the sunglasses, the yellow shield; he’s got all that and he’s shrouded in mystery since he’s always disappearing right after showing up. He’s helpful sometimes, saving Mega Man’s life in Mega Man 3 and loaning out his dope shield in Mega Man 7. What elevates him as a wingman (Wing Man! How have they not done that?) is that he also tests Mega Man, pushing you to be better as a player, in addition to lending a hand. Just like a great big brother.
“Clarification: When I said ‘death before dishonor,’ I meant alphabetically.” This is just one of the countless pragmatic, hilarious chestnuts of wisdom put forth by HK-47, the assassin droid who accompanies your character in Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic and its sequel. Star Wars has never been the most self-aware or humorous of fictional worlds. Han Solo has his moments, but on the whole, it’s all pretty dry. HK-47, who constantly discusses his love of murder (”Conclusive statement: And it is not as though I walked into the Senate chambers with a carbonite explosive. I could continue slaughtering politicians for decades and not make a dent”) and his hatred of humanity (he regularly refers to organic beings as “meatbags”) is the exception to the rule. In any Star Wars game, the tendency is to play as a Jedi, and stack your party with other Jedi, if possible. HK-47’s character is so wildly entertaining that he immediately becomes the only indispensable party member, despite his not being necessarily the strongest available. It becomes almost a secondary goal in the game to mine HK-47 for his homicidal nuggets. Not only does he outshine every other character in KOTOR—I would argue that he’s the greatest sidekick in the history of games.
I’ve always preferred Luigi to Mario. I’m guessing that infatuation began because green was my favorite color, and 3-year-old Matt just wanted to play as the green dude. But I can confidently say my choice was right on the money. Mario is a blank slate—a bundle of Italian-American stereotypes wrapped in overalls. His younger brother, though, showed some charm as early as Super Mario Bros. 2, the game in which his signature legs-flailing, gravity-defying jump debuted. Since then, Nintendo has left the silent-hero schtick to Mario and let Luigi grow into a reluctant hero with a wicked inferiority complex. The last 12 years are full of fantastic Luigi character moments. His transformation from sidekick to brainwashed supervillain in Super Paper Mario. His taunt in Super Smash Bros. Melee—a silent “Aw, shucks” sort of kicking-up-dirt motion. But nothing was more endearing than his portrayal in Luigi’s Mansion. His tendency to hum along with the game’s theme to calm himself. His voice cracking as he calls out for his lost brother. Heck, it takes no more than watching Luigi run, with his bulbous nose bouncing and arms gyrating like a choo choo train, to put a smile on my face. This guy’s got star written all over him.
Pop culture has long made heroes out of man’s best friends, but none can touch a strand of chin fur on Dogmeat. The Australian cattle dog from the Fallout series, intended as an homage to Mad Max’s canine companion from The Road Warrior, makes Lassie look like a lazy bum. Once I recruited the pup from Fallout 3’s Scrapyard, he instantly became a useful scavenger, fearsome fighter, and loyal friend. It didn’t matter if my actions were good or evil, Dogmeat’s high opinion of me never wavered. Even when we got separated on our journeys in the Wasteland, he waited for me faithfully at Vault 101. I began to care way more about my dog than the Lone Wanderer—and for a time I found myself constantly saving and loading whenever Dogmeat died at the hands of bandits. But eventually, the emotional strain of putting the dog in danger grew too much, and I asked him to stay put at my house in Megaton so that he could be safe to greet me whenever I got back from a long day of post-apocalyptic mayhem.
Flying is awesome. Humans have done truly ridiculous and dangerous things to take to the air, and even dinosaurs, arguably the coolest creatures ever, gave up that distinction to become birds so they could fly. So when Sonic The Hedgehog 3 gave me the choice to play Sonic’s sidekick, Tails, there was no contest. Tails can fly, and Sonic can’t. The two-tailed fox can also swim and haul the game’s spiky blue namesake around, making him seem way more useful. Plus, his character is cuter. Later, Tails would ruin things for me by talking and revealing he’s kind of obnoxious, which knocked him back into the annoying-sidekick realm. But as far as I was concerned, Tails was the star of those early games, and Sonic was just the character I let my little brother play.