As technology improves year after year, games continue to create better companions for players to journey with. As the writing, gameplay possibilities and A.I. in games continue to expand developers surprise us with a whole host of side characters that outshine even our main protagonists. With the 8th generation of consoles coming to a close, it’s time to reminisce on the characters that were right by our sides every step of the way. This list takes into consideration how interesting or likeable characters were from a story perspective, as well as how prominent their impact on gameplay was.
5- The Boys (Final Fantasy XV)
A road trip between four friends is already a pretty good pitch for a game. Add in the fact that they’ll be driving through the fantastical world of Final Fantasy and suddenly it sounds irresistible. This single premise has a pretty large impact on FFXV’s world. To accommodate the ‘boys on tour’ fantasy, FFXV had to strip back the series’ magical and futuristic inspirations. Instead FFXV’s world is more akin to a fantasy version of the American 60’s with diners scattered across Eos and giant, iconic Final Fantasy beasts lumbering through fields. Also, they all have phones?
But Final Fantasy XV’s world would be nothing, if it didn’t execute on its premise. Thankfully, it does. Prince Noctic’s four best friends Gladiolus, Ignis and Prompto are each a delight to be around. Gladiolus is the muscle of the group, wielding heavy swords to protect his friends. He’s not just reduced to the ‘powerful but dumb’ stereotype either; Gladiolus has a brain on his shoulders and acts as the big brother of the group. Ignis is equipped with daggers and he makes the best-looking video game food, by far. He’s smart, mature and responsible but he’s never a buzzkill. Finally, there’s Prompto who supports the group from afar with his guns. He’s childish and playful but never in an overbearing way.
The most impressive thing about all three of them is how developed they feel despite fitting into archetypes. Prompto’s backstory is surprisingly deep and sombre, especially for such an optimistic exterior. Gladiolus’ obsession with cup noodles is as unexpected as it is weirdly hilarious. They all have big and small parts of their character that naturally reveal themselves the longer you play and their relationships feel organic. Also, their banter and small talk makes the long car drives one of the best things about this RPG.
4- Atreus (God of War)
It’s been said a million times before, but the God of War series was really in dire need of a shake up before the 2018 entry came around. Kratos had never been a compelling protagonist and the series’ formula was getting tired. So how did the 2018 game remedy this situation? Well, just give Kratos a boy.
Kratos’ son, Atreus, is a wonderful addition to the franchise for so many reasons. Firstly, he makes the adventure feel so much less lonely. Every part of the Norse world Kratos explores in 2018 is commented on by Atreus. Their interactions range from hilarious, to informative and occasionally touching. Secondly, Atreus just makes Kratos a better character. The vengeful, one-note machine that Kratos use to be, just isn’t a compelling avatar for players to journey with. However, giving Kratos a son that he struggles to connect with, lays the groundwork for a plethora of dramatic moments. Finally, Atreus is welcome addition to the combat, with his array of flashy spells and arrows.
It’s hard to imagine God of War being half as good without this boy at our sides.
3- Delilah (Firewatch)
In 2012, Telltale flirted with the idea of a single relationship, and a single character that changed depending on how you treat them. However, “Clementine will remember that”, in The Walking Dead, was only ever a prompt at the top of the screen, nothing more. We wouldn’t see this idea executed properly until the 2016, first-person adventure game, Firewatch.
You play as the new fire ranger in a forest, Henry. You spend the entire game alone, in the serene, orange-painted woods that can be meditative on more than one occasion. However, you do have a walkie-talkie connected to your supervisor, Delilah, for company. You never physically meet Delilah but the strength of Firewatch’s writing and voice work mean that it’s never necessary to see her face, to be able to see her as a believable character.
Even if you ignore how thematically cohesive and emotionally subtle Firewatch’s story is, Delilah, all by herself, is an achievement. No matter what you do, or what you say to her, she not only remembers it, she reacts appropriately. You can decide to not say anything and ignore Delilah for the entire game and eventually she’ll stop checking in. You can consistently choose the ruder options and, on one occasion, Delilah will ignore you, at least for a considerable amount of time. Or, you can talk to her, connect with her and in doing so, learn more about both characters. I’ve given these three examples, but in reality, this relationship can ebb and flow in numerous ways. The relationship players form with Delilah has to be among the most realistic and natural relationships ever produced in an adventure game.
2- Cappy (Super Mario Odyssey)
So, Cappy is a slightly different choice for this list, right? Nintendo can throw as many googley eyes onto Mario’s cap as they want but players are never going to have an emotional connection with it. Instead Cappy is on this list thanks to how drastically he changes Mario’s core gameplay and movement.
Most of Mario’s move-set in Odyssey is familiar to fans of the series. Ground pounds, long jumps and summersaults return to Mario’s arsenal but they’re all enhanced in the most athletic and natural ways by Cappy. Mario’s options open up exponentially when he can suddenly long jump, throw Cappy, dive onto and off of him before finally landing on the ground. Mario is more agile than ever thanks to Cappy. Of course, this doesn’t just effect Mario’s movement. Every gimmick that Nintendo adds to their Mario games impacts every part of that game’s design. So Mario’s more extensive move-set allowed Nintendo to create some of the series’ largest and most vertical stages yet. New Donk City is a highlight for giving Mario a metropolis to traverse like a playground thanks to the stage’s tall buildings that allow Mario to fully utilise his new arsenal.
But since this is Nintendo, Cappy’s abilities don’t end there. Cappy is also capable of possessing almost any enemy in the entire game, (Nintendo calls it ‘capturing’ but let’s not fool ourselves, it’s possession). This gives the designers at Nintendo almost limitless creative options when it comes to making fun and fresh new mechanics for platforming, combat and puzzle-solving. Super Mario Odyssey’s hat throw is a gimmick akin to gravity-bending in the Galaxy games, and the F.L.U.D.D. in Sunshine. A fundamental gameplay idea that impacts every section of the game’s design from its move-set, level layouts and even aesthetics. It’s what puts Nintendo ahead of other developers when it comes to gameplay and it’s all thanks to Cappy.
1- Trico (The Last Guardian)
Director, Fumito Ueda influenced generations of game designers with his first game, Ico. Waves of titles since have adopted Ico’s minimalist design and emphasis on a companion throughout the journey. It’s fitting then, that Ueda’s third game, The Last Guardian, stands as his perfection of this idea, featuring the most convincingly real video game character of all time: Trico.
You might be immediately charmed by looking at Trico. You might be immediately confused. Both are valid reactions since Trico is half-bird, half-dog, and half-cat; if my math adds up then he’s 150% animal. It’s important to emphasise Trico’s aesthetic qualities because of how crucial his animations are to selling Trico as a character. He’ll begin running stupidly the minute you enter the outdoors, he’ll roll around in ponds joyously, scratch and howl at gates when you’re on the other side. There are a hundred different moments like these that sell Trico as an empathetic animal. He’s as expressive as any other human NPC with his own mannerisms and distinct sounds; it’s always easy to tell what Trico is thinking.
As important as Trico’s animations are in isolation, his reactions to the player are where The Last Guardian soars. Unlike other games with rideable mounts, the player never has direct control over the giant beast. The player character can only lead Trico, point at objects or call out to him, but that’s about it. Sometimes Trico will find his own way through an environment and sometimes the bird-dog will completely ignore and dismiss your commands. This could be infuriating for some players that want a more straightforward experience but it makes Trico feel truly alive.
What cements Trico’s place at the top of our list is his growing, remarkable bond with the player character. At first Trico seems to be an imposing, hostile beast. However, over time their bond strengthens in the most subtle and heartfelt ways. Trico begins to act differently when the player is in danger, is far away, or petting him. The most astounding thing about this development is that The Last Guardian’s gameplay and systems depict this relationship and tell its story, rather than cutscenes and dialogue. The interdependent relationship between the player and Trico is unlike anything else in the medium and overall, its message about how we should interact with nature is as resonant now as it has ever been.