Companions and Followers: Why Do We Care?
Though the ideas of companions and followers is nothing new in the Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMO) sphere, Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) is perhaps the first to pin it’s hopes of success on it, trying to set itself apart from the other titles of the heavily saturated genre through the use of intricate stories and fully voiced characters.One of Bioware’s strength’s has always been creating characters that we not only want at our side in a fight, but who we want to know more about.
SWTOR is no different, and they’ve capitalised on this with the companions players can recruit during play.These companions aren’t just for show. They can do just about anything the player can do, from tanking, healing, damage dealing, gathering resources and crafting. Now you’ll always have someone to yell at for not doing what they’re supposed to, something you’d normally have to find a group of people for, and even then you’d usually have to put up with those people yelling back with a fully engaged caps lock. They’re not just there to take punches in the the face for you though. They each have individual personalities and opinions that the player must contend with.
In doing so, you’ll talk to and learn more about each of them, hear their plights, and help influence and guide them. For the most part, the community seems to be enjoying this aspect of the game; the class forum’s regularly have a companion related post on the first page, whether it be a bug fix, a request for newer interactions, or the ability to customise them. People are taking interest in their companions.
This is good news for the story-driven MMO. Much of the weight behind stories comes from the characters within. If a writer can’t make you care about the people in the world, then the story loses it’s traction. Story-driven games have an additional challenge; it’s not enough to simply make a world and populate it, they have to give the player a sense of being part of the story.
Take Skyrim as a recent example. RPG’s are traditionally a genre which is carried by the story and the strength of it’s characters. However, few of us feel much, if any, connection with the majority of Skyrim’s citizen’s. There’s simply too many for Bethesda to individually code with personalities, so instead they are all give a generic base, with slight individual twists where required.
This results in people that feel generic and are hard to relate to or empathise with. For example, every single NPC will fearlessly and with little regard for their own safety, bear down and attempt to beat dragons to death, bare-handed if need be. If I saw a dragon, I’d be running as fast as my crap-filled pants would allow, and surely I’m not the only person who would be inclined to do so. This NPC cookie cutter is the reasons every guard in every town used to be an adventurer, before somebody went and shot them all in the knee. If one happens to die during previously mentioned dragon attack, the player will probably laugh at the crazy AI before looting the hapless corpse. It’s a virtual slap, reminding us they are just lines of code on a screen. Who really cares if the people in this world live or die?
However, it is definitely possible to create digital individuals whose welfare we care about. My secret shame is my pet dog in Fable II (Spoilers ahoy! Consider yourself warned!) I chose the sickeningly sweet good and noble ending, and found myself emotionally unable to continue playing the game without my damn dog at my side, which is funny because at first the idea of that flea-bitten excuse for a companion following me wherever I went really irked me. If I wanted a companion I’d have played a party-based RPG. He grew on me though, and it just wasn’t the same without him.
So why do we care in the first place? What’s the crucial element that gives those polygons a personality? Are these digital persona’s replacing what would otherwise be real-life relationships? Are the loud, angry fear mongers heralding the end of society because of the insidious evil of games true?
Good news is no, so feel free go back to laughing at and photo-shopping them, superior in your knowledge of rational thinking and science. See, we humans form attachments with all sorts of things, from people, to pets and even inanimate objects, the latter being referred to as “Sentimental value”. The more time you spend with something, the more you become attached to it, even if it initially annoys the hell out of you.
An experiment conducted by Goetzinger at the Oregon State University showed that time is all it really takes. A student was covered from head to toe in a black bag, and instructed to keep interactions to an absolute minimum. At first, the other students were outright hostile to the bag, bullying and even pushing it around. Over time though, they became accepting and even protective over their “Black bag”, and all it did was sit in the back of the class, very rarely saying or doing anything.
The trick is getting people to spend enough time with the game or character to develop an emotional attachment. After all, there are an innumerable amount of things you can read, watch, listen to and otherwise interact with out there. There needs to be something that grabs you, something that makes you want to pick it up and put the effort into viewing it, a desire to engage right from the get-go. In the case of Knights of the Old Republic, it’s the Star Wars IP (Intellectual Property).
Most people who have an interest in MMO’s are likely to also have an interest in the Star Wars universe and/or Bioware. That’s the hook. Once you’re playing the game, the next step is getting you interested in the companions, which can be a bit tricky in an MMO. We’ve come to expect the real parts of an MMO to come from end game content, with story driven games being traditional reserved for the single player experience. To that end, it’s common to rush through the story elements, focusing on the quest objectives and experience rewards to reach the end-game content all the quicker. This runs counter – intuitive to most experienced MMO players instincts to speed through content. We’ve been rewarded for skipping past all the NPC story waffle with faster level gains, so what can Bioware do to convince us that staying awhile and listening to people is worth our time?
It’s a three stage process. Firstly, You log into the game and get to have a blast beating stuff up. You have a fun time learning the mechanics, and shortly after you reach the second step, which is introducing you to your first companion, who will talk to you about something or the other, whether it be about themselves, the mission or the mating habits of Ewoks and, very importantly, ask you to give an opinion.
The mere process of forming an opinion, even if it’s totally dismissive or negative, is part of the reason we become attached to things. You’ve given your time and consideration to the character. You’ve become curious as to what will result from future conversations. As you play the game, you’ll continue to interact with that character, and each successive interaction makes it more likely you’ll keep doing so. Put simply, the more times you engage in conversation with the character, the greater the attachment to said character.
If we agree with the character’s opinion, we feel we’ve found a kindred soul who, even though is entirely make-believe, further refines our own beliefs, and future interactions will hopefully have the same effect. If we disagree, then we’ve successfully validated our belief system from a conflicting viewpoint, which always feels nice, and there’s always the potential to later swing them to our point of view. Yes, Sith force users eagerly eyeing your Jedi companions for weaknesses, I’m looking your direction. If somewhere in between, we’ve found something that has made us consider what our opinion and beliefs are, and thinking on that further ingrains us with the character who presented it. Even though the characters are make believe, the way they make us reflect on ourselves is very real, and why we get attached. What if we had the choice regarding the fate of an entire planet? It asks “What if you were presented with this issue in real life?” Do you save the planet, or doom us for shits and giggles?
Either way, you’ve made an emotional investment, either as the planets saviour, or in the role of Marvin the Martian, looking woefully at the planet wondering why, after having pushed the big red button, there wasn’t an Earth shattering Ka-Boom.