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I’m really starting to love how much I hate this robot. Every time I want to explore a new ruin, it’s right there in my face, dissuading me, whining, even going so far as to straight-up lie to me when I send it ahead to scout. When I’m poking around abandoned palaces, hunting for new translations to add to my growing dictionary of ancient words, it’s constantly rolling up behind me, asking to go home—even though it, and I, both know that I only get one shot to glean as much information as possible from these archaeological digs. And even when it’s not getting directly in my way, it’s just a fucking snob; I can’t take it anywhere in the Nebula without it going on about how filthy and dangerous it and its people are. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this thing absolutely sucks. I love it.
For those, like me, who slept on it last year, I’m talking about Six, the robotic companion who follows heroic historian Aliya all over the place in Inkle’s lovely archaeology-but-also-you-fly-a-boat-in-space-rivers simulation Heaven’s Vault. Assigned to her by her boss as a sort of bodyguard/co-pilot/minder, Six accompanies Aliya everywhere, whether she’s walking through cities hunting down leads, or trudging through the dust of hitherto untouched asteroids, seeking out the mysteries of a centuries-dead empire. He’s useful, amusing, and profoundly irritating all at once, to the point that the few times you manage to get away from him for even a minute it feels like a welcome respite from the deluge of questions and obnoxiousness; he’s also a prime example of how good a video game companion character can be, even when you kind of hate its guts.
Games have been sticking players with digital buddies since back before graphics were the norm, of course. Steve Meretzky allowed players to enjoy the company (and mourn the inevitable death) of robot pal Floyd in Infocom’s Planetfall in 1983. And Bioware has made a cottage industry out of crafting companion characters suited to any and all of a player’s dating needs, from big but snarky bruisers like Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Iron Bull, to lithe but snarky badasses like Mass Effect’s Garrus Vakarian. But finding a really great companion character—the kind you’re happy (or at least genuinely irritated) to have alongside you on your adventure, nearly every step of the way—is about more than just finding someone with a compatible 3D model and a carefully assembled library of artistically sarcastic barks. What makes Six so great is that he’s more character than companion, ostensibly serving the player’s agenda, while obviously also working, sometimes at cross-purposes, on his own.
Compare and contrast that sort of servile duplicity with the other great companion from last year’s slate of indie adventure games: Disco Elysium’s Lt. Kim Kitsuragi. A game that lets you get away with as much dumb shit as Disco Elysium does—arguing with locked doors, insisting random passers-by must be part of a missing-person case, or just butchering karaoke classics—needs a consummate straight person to keep things from going completely off the rails, and Kim performs that job beautifully. He’s there to keep Elysium’s drug-, booze-, and disco-addled protagonist gently on track; in that way, he serves the same foil purposes as Six does, except from the other side of the “doggedly staying on point” dichotomy. Those oppositional forces are also what make both characters the source of some of each game’s most emotionally resonant payoffs: Few things are more satisfying than when you can get a small laugh (or even actual trust and approval) out of the Goodest Of The Good Cops; ditto how satisfying it can be to put the irritating little robot in its place when it tries to screw up your next all-important dig. Neither character rolls over at the behest of a couple of correctly chosen conversational prompts, and that stubbornness in the face of what the player might want to have happen is what makes them real companions, rather than just a set of combat powers and a factory-ordered personality.
Partnership is hard work, after all, especially when only one member of the team is human (either in-game or without). It takes a lot of writing—and restraint—to mask that power differential and create characters with the feel of actual companions, despite the fact that they’re just graphics and words printed on the screen. As it turns out, making them be an absolute pain in your ass is a pretty good way to start. What could be more human than that?