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It Takes Two: The Important Roles of AI Partners

There’s a lengthy list of games throughout history that have seen our hero team up with another character to help them along in their quest, be it for saving the world or achieving other goals. Similarly, there are as many varied partners and characters that play these roles as there are games starring them. So why do they exist? What roles do AI partners play in games that make them so necessary?

While the AI partners in some games may never flesh out to be much more than mere NPCs used as the main point of interest for lame escort missions, there are many games that use characters in brilliant ways to connect you to the narrative and to make you appreciate what you’re doing and why. The following are just a few examples of games that not only used AI partners to great effect, but managed to do so in a new and interesting way not seen in a game before.

Lee and Clementine – The Walking Dead

Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a game known for its emotional breadth and connection between the player and the characters on screen. Great storytelling, great voice acting, and nerve-wracking decisions and occurrences all made for one hell of a ride when all was said and done.

And while the game’s cast of characters was made up of many fantastic personalities, few exemplified the power of a companionship quite like the bond between Lee and Clementine.

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There’s something inherently innocent and docile about Clementine that draws you to her. Think about it; this is a world gone to hell almost overnight. People in the game’s story didn’t have much of a chance to get themselves used to the fact that their loved ones and the people living in their town were now feral creatures threatening their very lives.

Furthermore, the world has fallen into an apocalyptic state: food is scarce, survivors are desperate and deadly, and the possibility of death is higher than it normally is in our police, developed society.

The mere setting for The Walking Dead is what makes the relationship between Lee and Clementine work. Being that she’s dealing with the massive change in her world and the disappearance of her parents, Clementine is scared and vulnerable, two emotions we can sympathize with, because they are the very emotions we ourselves would feel, but might be too guarded to express. When we see her afraid, it strikes us in a way that is painfully familiar. And for that, the player is drawn to Clementine in a way they might not be toward anyone else.

The power and effectiveness of Clem’s character was pretty clear from the get go. People latched on to her, critics raved about her character, and there were even people on Twitter saying what they’d do to protect Clementine, using the hastag #forclementine. Essentially, Clementine was a character representing goodness and innocence in a world where the very notion of decency was as scarce as food. And for that, she’s one of the standouts in the game’s five-episode series.

Alyx Vance and Gordon Freeman – Half Life 2

I’ve all but outed myself as a shameless fan of Alyx Vance for a number of reasons. But for the sake of this piece, allow me to explain my reasoning behind her mentioning in this piece.

In many ways, Alyx is the antithesis of Clementine. After all, she’s empowered, she’s smart, and she’s more than willing to put a bullet in the head of anyone who gets in her way or threatens the likes of her friends and family.

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But she’s not just a companion AI that helps you take out waves of Combine throughout the game. Actually, Alyx serves as an interesting narrative vehicle that keeps you connected to the world of Half Life 2 in a brilliant way.

Gordon Freeman is a silent protagonist, meaning he doesn’t speak. Being that you never connect a separate voice or persona to his character, a player’s natural tendency is to assimilate themselves with him and essentially “take on” the role of Dr. Freeman in the most literal sense.

Because of this, you’re going to encounter a world that, with no previous or assumed knowledge, could prove to be a little bit more than confusing. You’ll encounter new enemies, new characters, new areas, and new elements of the world that you’ve had little experience with anywhere else, meaning that without any system or narrative device that cues you in on the events and nature of the game’s setting, you’d be all but lost.

Enter Alyx. While she herself is a great character and an interesting and useful companion to have at your side, she also helps to explain things to the player and point out the important parts of the game’s narrative that could prove useful later on. She’ll recommend where to go and what actions to take, will explain the relationships between characters, and even fills you in on events and facts about the world that might potentially save your life later on. Furthermore, she’s got a caring side to her that makes her somewhat endearing and gives you a reason to like her. No matter how you look at it, Alyx plays an integral role to Half Life 2 and is one of the reasons the game succeeds on so many levels.

Elizabeth and Booker – BioShock Infinite

Being one of the most recent examples of a great AI partner, I couldn’t help but include Elizabeth here. Interestingly enough, she borrows elements from both Clementine and Alyx here, making her an interesting hybrid that is both fragile and empowered.

Elizabeth’s been locked in a tower and denied any sort of meaningful human interaction for most of her life. As such, she hasn’t been properly socialized and has some childlike tendencies and a touch of naivete. This is especially evident in the beginning, when you first exit the tower together and she runs away from you to find music and go dancing.

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But as the story moves along, she shows that she has a courageous and headstrong side to her that compels her to stay her ground in the face of great adversity. Because of that, she’s not only a great companion; she’s a fantastic character with great depth.

But her importance doesn’t stop there. In Infinite, the player takes control of Booker DeWitt, a voiced character with his own personality and set of problems that you learn about early on. As such, he is almost the exact opposite of Gordon Freeman; he’s his own character, meaning that you won’t necessarily assimilate yourself to him quite like you would have with Dr. Freeman.

On top of that, he essentially represents the player in an interesting way. You’re both experiencing the world of Columbia for the first time, and you’re both meeting characters, using powers, and navigating through the story at the same rate. There’s no previous knowledge to Booker, meaning that you only know as much as he does.

This is where Elizabeth becomes important. BioShock Infinite’s narrative is nothing if not confusing and deep, and it’s easy to miss out on key story beats if you’re not paying close attention. On top of that, there are a lot of nuances and details that could be easily overlooked during a playthrough of the game.

Because Elizabeth has existed in the world and is incredibly bright, she’s able to explain things and shed a bit of light on the most confusing elements of a game. She’ll fill you in on story details, explain to a puzzled Booker why certain things happen, and helps you make some sense of her abilities and the world around you. Essentially, she’s the vehicle the narrative uses to keep the player engaged and understanding of what’s going on.

Even more than that, she proves to be an asset in battle. You never have to worry about her getting hurt, she can spot certain items and enemies and make recommendations to help you survive, and she constantly keeps you stocked with Salts, health, ammo, and money. No, she never picks up a gun or joins in the fight like Alyx may have, but she does hold her own in a way that makes her unique and necessary to the experience.

Have any other great examples of AI partners to add? Tell me in the comments below!

 



2 comments
dancingmind
dancingmind

These are great examples of good AI partners. I was wondering if you would look at some (arguably) less successful examples. 

For example people are split on Ico and Yorda from the PS2 days. She was an interesting character but very  annoying to babysit. Still that relationship was the prime gameplay of the entire game.

An example that is total opposite of this can be found in Beyond Good & Evil where our protagonist is a female. This character is strong, intelligent, and the fighter of the group supported by two AI characters occasionally. I really liked the dynamics that these AI partners brought to the gameplay with puzzles and combat.

cmurdurr
cmurdurr

@dancingmind excellent examples. While the retlationship between both Ico and Yorda was at times tedious, I agree that it was definitely unique and innovative.

Great point about Beyond Good and Evil as well. Jade is by far one of my favorite female leads in games, I think. 

Thanks for the read!