Why Don’t We Use All Our RPG Party Members?
Instead of feeling guilty for leaving Wrex behind, why can't we send him off to do something else?
Hi, uh, Wrex? Yes, about this next mission to stop the reapers. Yeah, I know you’re excited but hey, listen. Yeah, yeah, you’re strong but look, I am already kinda a warrior here and we decided we would only send teams of three down. Yes, we all voted on that. Yeah so, I’m the captain and me and Garrus, we go like way back so… Yeah I understand, but we kinda need a magic user then. Me and Liara? No, strictly business, why? Aha, I see. Anyway, I am going to need you to stay on the ship for this one, ok? Go out on another mission alone? Well, we do have that thing on the Citadel to finish. No, you know what? Why don’t you, Miranda and the robot girl –Yes, Tali!– why don’t you stay on the ship and stare into a wall until we come back? No, no, you don’t have to do anything. Great! No, you hang up. Ok, bye bye now.
For a genre that puts so much stock in narrative and story, why is it that we only utilize a handful of our well-crafted RPG companions? Whenever I play RPG games I always regret that I only use a handful of its characters. Usually, role-playing games will slowly introduce new characters in the first half of the game. Go to a new area, pick up a party member, rinse and repeat for the first hours. The problem is, that usually by the time you get to your fourth or fifth character, you have already filled out your party. Moreover, you have learned to use the characters you already have, developed strategies for them and started to plan ahead in their ability trees. So, new characters are often put in the closet like unwanted toys you got for Christmas, only to peek out once in a while to show your mom that you appreciate the sentiment.
Narratively, it makes little sense as well. The fate of the world, galaxy or universe often hangs in the balance, but let’s just put half of our brave heroes in the lounge: Go ahead and play amongst yourselves until I come back and need to romance one of you. Imagine that in Lord Of The Rings, Gimli had to stay behind because Aragorn, Legolas and Gandalf already filled up the slots of fighter, rogue and mage? But he didn’t stay in Rivendell, he’s still with you, just following along a couple of miles behind the rest of the gang like some bullied high-school kid. Or, whenever a fight happens, he stays by the cook fire and trims his nails. It is, of course, pretty ridiculous.
Yet, so many games have your characters passively follow you along, waiting for you to pick them for the next line up. Sure, sometimes they have them do some passive task while you’re gone but nothing really substantial. They often just stick around and give you some crafting materials or a consumable when you come back, if anything.
Oh, so you’re that powerful ancient elven mage I met back in act 2. How’s it going? We just murdered the hell out of an elder dragon back there, the dwarf almost got roasted!. Aha, you’ve been reading a book I see. Glad you’re with us bud, couldn’t have done it without you!
Before you say anything, I know the reasons why this is the case in games. I just don’t think it is a very good or elegant solution to the problem.
The reason to limit parties is, of course, to make the game easier to balance. If you could bring all of the characters along, the battles would have to be a great deal bigger and use wider spaces. Additionally, it would be a hassle to keep track of it all. Still, it feels like such a waste not to utilize all the characters that are designed for the game. Because, as much as I find it difficult to go back to DLC that takes place mid-game, after I have already finished the story, late additions to the party face an uphill battle against inertia. I am already doing well with my current party and any new addition would have to truly stand out in order to replace one of the original characters. I would actually love to see some statistics on how many people have chosen to replace one of their first characters for someone you meet much later in role playing games. The most irksome part of it is that the problem has been solved before, at least once.
In Final Fantasy VIII, you took control over an eclectic and diverse group of teenage misfits as you struggled to rid the world from a future space witch-thingie, and hopefully win the heart of the bright and outgoing girl. In other words, typical anime angst and melodrama. However, what Final Fantasy did on several occasions was to divide up the roster of character into different groups. At one point you are tasked with assassinating a certain witch queen. There was a lot of exposition and then you got to arrange your party as you normally do. What wasn’t (and still isn’t) the norm, however, was that you sometimes controlled the “B-team”. The other characters actually had to take part in this important mission and do things. It was by no means perfect: if you never played with any of those characters, the “B-team” would be very under-leveled and not have any good gear. It did make you more acquainted with those characters though, which might make you more willing to use them later on in the game. Plus, of course, it makes more narrative sense that all the heroes actually do something when the whole world is at stake.
This is something that I would really like to see in more modern games going forward. After playing Pillars Of Eternity II: Deadfire, I became really enamoured with the way your followers talk to each other and have their own agendas, likes and dislikes. It is nothing new really, but the way it is put together in Deadfire successfully creates the illusion that your followers are actual characters in their own right and not just an extension of the player. Deadfire even has your characters partaking more in your adventures as during boarding battles all of your companions and your crew will be on deck fighting. You can’t control anyone else but your designated party but at least they are visibly there and partaking in battles. Other games like Tyranny experimented with having only certain characters be able to do certain things. Early on in Tyranny, you meet up with a scholar that can cast spells and throw a quill at enemies. Once you get to explore some of the old ruins in the world, you come across mysterious glyphs that you can’t read, but guess who can! The flirtation with having your characters matter in the story ends there, though, and it is mostly about you, the “chosen one”. The messiah that is to single-handedly end the dark days, save the kingdom and copulate with anything that walks.
So, why can’t you send Wrex and Miranda out on their own quests in Mass Effect, or help with the upcoming battle? Even if it is just a menu option to send them away for a mission or two, it makes a lot more sense than just having them loitering around your ship, castle or whatever serves as your main base. It would also help combat the “chosen one” syndrome that plagues so much fiction but especially video games. After all, the rebellion and Luke didn’t win without help from Han and the others on Endor. Frodo didn’t make it to Mount Doom because he is Frodo, he made it because of Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf and all the other characters that had their own tasks and goals along the way.