Urdnot Wrex, Clementine, Elizabeth, Claptrap, HK-47: these video game companions all conjure up distinct memories for the people who met them and played alongside them. Those close-shaves, those funny moments, those last minute saves. These complex pieces of code have transcended their unreality by tapping into our emotions from the very primal to the deeply complex.
Which brings us to the games I'm thinking about at the moment. To me, Red Dead Redemption 2 is the closest thing to VR without wearing a headset. I didn't just 'play' it: the world and narrative of Arthur Morgan completely absorbed me. But it's not the only game I'm obsessed with right now. Cinematic and panoramic, Read Dead seems to offer a huge contrast to the turn-based tactical finesse of XCOM 2, my other current go-to, but while these games initially appear very different they have one thing in common:
I'm talking about family. Companionship, friendship - the best kinds of ships.
To put it another way, transforming into the fully bearded Arthur Morgan alongside his trusty steed 'Horsea', carrying a skinned Whitetail Buck ready for his camp companions, has actually taught me to enjoy XCOM 2. The key ingredient is building emotional connections with cannon fodder. I mean, with my squad.
In XCOM 2 players have to invest in the creation of personal storylines and memories with a squad. The knowledge that your decisions have dire consequences creates a strengthening bond, so you feel relieved when a Muton misses their shot or horror when your favourite ranger is killed by a Viper. Again. Life as a squad is extremely dangerous, so spending time tinkering with customisation after a few missions boosts my morale and brings something new into a bleak and violent world.
Equally, spending time back at the camp reveals that the magic of Red Dead Redemption 2's camp companions isn't their graphical realism. What defines Javier Escuella as a person? What makes Dutch Van De Linde unique? What motivates Micah Bell? Every single character has a different but nuanced personality. For all the glitches you get with any complicated open world, the gang in Red Dead emerge as complex people with a sense of their own agency. Because of this, as a player I am less likely to recognise the artificial patterns of video game characters.
The smaller mundane choices available in the latest Red Dead recreate what I think of as the 'silence' of life. Reality isn't amazingly constructed set-pieces, and accordingly I'd argue that friendships are the true set-pieces in Rockstar's latest: the glittering things you remember fondly once the game is done. At the end of the day, the meaning of this game is found in joining the camp cookouts, sitting around the fire drinking coffee, watching arguments between camp members unfold, partaking in camp chores, and bonding through simple quests like finding Sadie Adler's harmonica. Conversations with members of the gang happen naturally while you're walking around, making the group feel dynamic. Equally, companions have their own role in the camp and live within a natural ecosystem regardless of narrative. Arthur Morgan merely lives in this world, the world doesn't actively revolve around him. It's refreshing.
How far things have come! Historically, video game companions were originally pretty stationary or, like Garrus Vakarian, perpetually "... in the middle of some calibrations". Relationships were initiated by the player, who often felt a bit like a puppet-master. When playing XCOM 2, there's still quite a bit of puppet-mastery, but there's also the bond formed through missions, all of which contain elements that you can't foresee or control. This element of chance creates meaningful emotions that, for me at least, stops me seeing the members of my squad as glorified weapon platforms.
And animal companions are having a bit of a moment too these days. In Red Dead, your horse will be the longest and most fragile companionship you will form throughout the game, I reckon. As your bond strengthens through trust that's developed after all that constant riding, feeding, brushing and vocal encouragement, you get an increased ability to - what? Not control your horse so much as communicate with it.
I was horrified when I brutally hit a tree whilst galloping through a forest at full speed, the kind of thing I always do in other open-world games. The detailed physics of this collision, plus having to watch my best friend 'Gallopeno' crumble, and hearing his pained cries, completely broke me. The choice you have in these situations is either to use a horse reviver or put the horse to sleep. I hadn't bothered to buy a horse reviver, so let's leave it there.
After this incident, I'm a much more careful and respectful rider. My new horse, Horsea, is treated like a real horse. His favourite food is oatcakes, he's overcome his fear of alligators and dislikes me carrying all my guns at once. If I'm in enemy territory now, I hitch Horsea far away from any potential action, even though I worry about him getting attacked by either a pack of wolves or a killer jackrabbit.
Again, this feeling of dread and worry, this sense of a desire to protect, is similar to what I feel when I'm on a mission with my squad in XCOM 2. Famously, naming squad members after friends and family doesn't help either. Quickly researching improvements to armour or health is my initial priority now; these members have worked hard to protect each other so my duty is to become a more careful and respectful leader. Permadeath teaches this harsh lesson.
It works, too. In XCOM 2, my companionship story has ended on a high: my squad has survived to save the world, and now we're ready for a bright future. Equally, my favourite moment in Red Dead is probably when I sense that this gang of misguided individuals I've throw in with have formed a real bond. It's stuff like gathering around the fire when everyone is celebrating a successful heist, with Javier playing his guitar, or Pearce reeling off his ridiculous naval stories. Silent moments around the campfire with my friends.