AI partners in games have changed a lot over the years. Sometimes these end up as the dreaded “escort mission” where it’s your job to protect the partner. Other times they can be invaluable assets to your cause. Let’s look at a select few examples to explore different ways this mechanic is handled.
- Ashley, Resident Evil 4
Your goal in RE4 is to rescue and protect Ashley, the president’s daughter, after she is kidnapped by the Los Iluminados cult. She is very vulnerable, can be attacked and picked up by enemies. You can even shoot her. Although you’d have to try pretty hard as she does dodge out of the way of your aiming. You can tell her to wait for you and follow when you ready. She can also hide in certain things around the map.
She follows the same rules as you and each other character in the game, bullets, axes, traps, ladders, she interacts with them all. This can make her very frustrating, especially if you’re already struggling with the game. But once you really get a handle on the game, she becomes a non-issue. Everything she does makes sense. Once you can predict the enemy and her behaviors, protecting her becomes easy. Story and gameplay are working together, your job is to protect her.
- Ellie, The Last of US
Story wise she is very important; your goal is to protect her and bring her to a specific location. In gameplay, she is invincible, requiring zero protection. She runs around the map willy-nilly. It’s not unusual for her to zip directly in front of enemies you are trying to sneak by. But they just ignore her completely, shattering your immersion. Occasionally she kills an enemy, but these are usually not the ones you are focused on, so it’s easy to miss. The most noticeable thing she does is bring you supplies, which are very scarce in this game.
She feels very ephemeral and doesn’t have a lot of noticeable direct impact on your gameplay once she joins you. Gameplay and story are not working together. Your goal is to protect her, but in gameplay she is actually protecting you.
- Atreus, God of War (2018)
Atreus is a bit like a combination of Ashley and Ellie. He isn’t invincible, but he doesn’t follow the same rules as Kratos. He occasionally gets captured, but it’s very rare. He runs the risk of being like Ellie, barely noticeable, but he is heavily integrated into the combat and exploration mechanics. The square button is your “boy” button. Push it and he fires an arrow. These start weak, but upgrades are cheap and impactful, and his usefulness increases exponentially throughout the early stages. Because you must hit the button, you know he is doing stuff.
He isn’t the total focus of the story like the other two. He is simply accompanying Kratos on their shared journey to scatter his mother’s ashes. Protecting him is rare, and that’s good because Atreus is Kratos’s partner in their quest. It’s also implied that this trip also serves to help Atreus learn to survive and fight better. This is reinforced by the RPG mechanics allowing his gameplay elements to grow over the course of the game.
From the above examples, I prefer Ashley’s integration into RE4. Having her with you creates additional challenge, but she feels like she actually exists within the game’s world. She also does a great job of reinforcing the storyline. Ellie acts only to reduce challenge, but she may as well exist on another plane of existence. This aspect undermines the game’s dramatic themes. Atreus feels like a step in the right direction. He isn’t as “solidly” integrated into his game world as Ashely, but at least he’s there. Unlike the other two, his actions are an integral part of Kratos’s move set. So really, he neither reduces or increases challenge. My problem with Atreus is that his actions are bound to your inputs, making him feel less like his own person.
- Fumito Ueda’s games
Perhaps the best integration of AI partners comes from the games of Fumito Ueda. Yorda in Ico, Agro (the horse) in Shadow of the Colossus, and Trico in The Last Guardian, each of his games revolves around AI partners. Personally, I’ve only really played Shadow of the Colossus out of these titles. Agro is less of the focus of SoTC compared to the partners in the other two games. But he does follow many of the same patterns that made Ashely memorable in RE4. He can’t die, but he still reacts to danger, much like a real horse would. When ridden he doesn’t react instantly to your input, like many other mounts in games. He takes a bit of nudging and prodding to really get moving, and he won’t run blindly into walls or off cliffs. That said he still exists only to help the player. The moments where he is ornery make the moments where he works with you that much more meaningful.
AI partners can’t be too helpful, or too detrimental. Just like working with a real person (or animal) there needs to be upsides and downsides. Integrating them into the game’s rules makes them feel more concrete within the game’s world. A concrete partner that is not too helpful or too harmful is one who creates memorable moments.