Oh My God, My Daughter Is a NPC
Step 1: Make sure your party is properly equipped.
Right now I'm about three fourths of the way into The Last of Us, and before that my lot was endlessly replaying BioShock Infinite because there is so much in that game that one run ain't going to cut it. The two games have something amazing in modern gaming in common... and it's ruined me as a parent.
The first is the fact that we have vocal protagonists. This is very, very rare. Until recently our heroes like Master Chief, Chell, and Gordon Freeman were mostly mute badasses that barely interacted with the environment outside of gameplay mechanics. Duke Nukem talked... but really shouldn't have. Every time I play one of those games I spend the rest of the day apologizing to random women to make up for it.
We've reached a technological point now where someone like Booker DeWitt can realistically keep up a running dialogue as he passes through the world, and it doesn't feel in the least forced, It's very natural, and the reason is similarity No. 2.
BioShock had Elizabeth, a mysterious girl with powers she doesn't realize. The Last of Us has Ellie, a mysterious girl with a possible cure for mankind. Both of these girls accompany you throughout most of the adventure as sidekicks.
In times past we would have been forced to protect them from monsters, gunfire, etc. Escort missions are frankly the most irritating thing in gaming besides racist twelve-year-olds on Xbox Live... and I'd be willing to bet that might actually even out on a case by case comparison.
Elizabeth and Ellie though, they never or almost never need protecting. They get out of the way, or fight back, and they can't be killed except in some very specific circumstances (In Last of Us you do have to pick off zombies with a sniper rifle before they get to her, but it's actually fun as hell because it's an all-powerful weapon with infinite ammunition!)
Plus, they're helpful. Elizabeth will find you items and ammo, while eventually Ellie provides competent backup fire and stabbings.
These are actually the most minor of the interactions you have with the characters. Mostly, you stroll along and Elizabeth will start talking about something that makes sense to her but that baffles you. You cut her off with, "Over here," and try to get the current objective over with. You like talking with her, sure, but there is a game to play.
Ellie is more practical. Sure, she spends lots and lots of time asking about the world because like Elizabeth she lived in major seclusion, but she's more physically helpful. She points out towers and ways into to buildings, you boost her up, she finds you a ladder, and that's ninety percent of the time you spend with her.
So, the other day I was getting my daughter ready to go to daycare, and this happened.
"Honey, grab your bag. We're moving on."
"OK, daddy. Hey Daddy, what's that?"
"That's a boat. People take them on the water. Now c'mon. Go open the car door and climb in."
I boost her in then go to put the stuff in the trunk.
"We have to go to daycare now."
"That's right. We're going to head down the freeway then..."
That's where I paused. Throw in Songbird or some zombies and almost all of my dialogue could have come right out of these two games. Of all the things that gaming has been able to recreate, from gunfights to guitar playing to being freakin' Batman, the one thing that these two modern masterpieces got the most right was exactly what it was like to try and guide a three-year-old through the obstacle course of the day.
My daughter is a NPC. Except that she's not invincible (And she's, you know, real). These two games have perfectly mimicked pretty much every single morning of my life with her and transported it into an adventure, but unlike my every day nothing bad can happen to her game counterparts.
Maybe that's the true power of Elizabeth and Ellie. Both are surrogate daughters for your character, and I can tell you for a fact it is nice to stop worrying if your kid will be all right for a change.
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