A look at some non-traditional companions
Aah, companions! What a wonderful addition to a game experience right? Having someone to talk to, someone to share your experience with and maybe help you out in a sticky situation. On the surface it seems like a great idea, but more often than not, they don't live up to our expectations. Furthermore, if they aren't intelligent enough, they get in the way and are likely to ruin the experience.
Another important factor is the personality of the companion. Do you make them as neutral as possible and hope they are liked universally? Or do you give them a strong personality which fits the narrative but at the cost of alienating a few players? There doesn't seem to be a magic formula for this. There is a lot of diversity in the characters that have succeeded and failed. Personally, I prefer to go solo in campaigns and adventures so that it ends up being a more personal experience. Companions, especially humans, annoy me after a while especially if they are too talkative or if they are they move clunkily - not scripted to keep up their pace and then to snap to a location. To lend credit to my points, I'll try to go through three non-human companions that I felt were cohesive parts of a game and their absence would have greatly detracted from the experience.
1. Dogmeat - Fallout Series
Fair warning: I may be extremely biased here because I have an unreasonable amount of love for dogs but hopefully my points remain valid.
Dogmeat is the perfect companion when exploring a vast wasteland! Exploring such a huge territory on foot can get lonely and Dogmeat's character in the game emulates a dog's unconditional love accurately. The biggest example of this is that Dogmeat's attitude towards you never changes towards you, whether you help stand up for an oppressed citizen or blow up a settlement. The other human characters like or dislike your actions based on their own moral compass and it feels like they are judging you throughout. Occasionally, he will wander away, curiosity getting the better of him but then he rewards you sniffing out special items which, considering his canine background, makes sense in a way.
He's also an able companion during fights and can store some of your items so there's a lot of utility to having him as a companion, which blends perfectly with the setting of the game. The fact there is no unnecessary dialogue but I can still interact with him whenever I want to, make him one of my favourite in-game companions!
2. HK-47 - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
"Expletive: Damn it, master, I am an assassination droid... not a dictionary!" ― HK-47
The companion doesn't even need to be a living being. Star Wars is known for it's personality rich droids. But we are mostly exposed to the ones with good intentions. On the other end of the spectrum is HK-47: An assassin droid with a checkered past that involved a lot of killing, sometimes including his own masters. The best part of his personality was his upfront nature and the deadpan delivery of his views on violence. You might brush them off as a joke initially but you could never be sure of what was stopping him from killing you in your sleep. I do not believe any human character could have pulled off the same personality and kept the tension balanced with the humor.
Having a robot companion has a lot of advantages. We have an innate tendency to associate our metal pals with durability. Even if they aren't resilient, we feel that we can always 'fix' them. Even when dealing with droids that have personality, you know that it's all programming and don't have to walk on eggshells while dealing with dialogue choices. This makes interaction with them easier and there is less baggage involved when you have them by your side. Overall, in a violent setting, I rather walk into battle with a companion who can keep up with my aggression than someone whom you need to babysit continuously.
"Definition: 'Love' is making a shot to the knees of a target 120 kilometers away using an Aratech sniper rifle with a tri-light scope... Love is knowing your target, putting them in your targeting reticule, and together, achieving a singular purpose against statistically long odds."
3. Weighted Companion Cube - Portal
Portal took the non-living companion concept one step further and introduced us to the Companion Cube. This inanimate cube features in only of the test chambers but the interaction that the player has with it makes all the difference. There are several weighted storage cubes throughout the game and they are vital for successfully completing the test chambers. However, you only treat them as disposable objects and don't give them a second thought once they have served their purpose.
The companion cube was not dull and boring as the other cubes. It has an interesting shape, a friendly pink colour and a heart icon instead of the standard Aperture logo. The importance of the cube gets overemphasized by the antagonist - GLaDOS and at this point in the game, you start believing her. The cube is more resilient than the others before it and makes it past much longer into the level before you euthanize it. There is a funny story behind this entire sequence of events. The developers wanted to make the cube for this level more unique and noticeable as the playtesters would leave the cube behind akin to previous levels and thus would be unable to pass the puzzle. Little did they know that their minor humorous change would be strongly embraced by the players and the attachment to the cube would live on forever.
The awful end of the companion cube serves a dual purpose: it adds a lot more sinister character to our already pretty sinister AI while simultaneously training players to use the incinerator, a key component of the final level. The training has a nice dramatic payoff, since players later get to avenge the death of their good friend the companion cube by stuffing some of the AI's important parts into exactly the same type of incinerator. ― developer commentary
In a weird way, all of this makes sense. If I were a lone person stuck in a seemingly never ending test chamber, I could see myself growing attached to an inanimate object just to get over the isolation a little bit. And I did. It also helps that the cube managed to make its way back to me. Even after we threw it into an incinerator. It's a true friend!
BONUS: Human characters
Design doesn't have fixed rules and even if it did, there would always be exceptions.
One of the best examples to counter my 'non-humans are better' argument is Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. Even as a young female companion, she was capable of taking care of herself and would always help out the protagonist with resources. Since she was a major plot element, there were other aspects to her character which were pivotal in moving the story forward. She kept the conversation interesting, introduced light hearted moments within the game and her own character was complex enough to add depth to the story. Overall, her character perfectly balances the responsibilities of a companion without getting in the way of your experience.
Now that I think about it, Alyx from Half Life 2 and Ellie from Last of Us had very similar character traits. All of them complemented their silent brooding protagonists very well and players complimented the narrative in all these games. Maybe this combination is a recipe for success!
Elizabeth - Bioshock Infinite
Alyx & Dog - Half Life 2
Ellie - The Last of Us
Blog post title picture credit: http://www.turtle-entertainment.com/