It's fun to look back on some of the worst video game characters of all time, but when the top ten lists are done and the laughs die down, these characters actually reveal some deep problems with the game industry. Stop and ask yourself, "Why do characters like these even exist?" The answer may be a bit of a downer.
First, take a look at movies, books, and other forms of storytelling media. Have you ever seen the equivalent of a Slippy Toad or a Navi in even the trashiest novels? No. In fact, characters like that are most often found in trashy fanfiction that doesn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of being published.
Video games, and interactive media in general, are still young in the grand scheme of art. Mankind has been writing books far longer than we have been throwing hadokens or blasting the heads off zombies. So, to an extent, you can explain away these horribly shallow characters as a function of the youth of our medium.
Game developers are still relatively inexperienced at expressing a narrative through interactive media; because of that, we will get far more scripts of Resident Evil 1 quality than of The Walking Dead quality.However, that doesn't excuse all the mistakes we make, because we really ought to know better by now. The first video game was arguably made in 1947 on a cathode ray tube device. That makes gaming 65 years old.
Now, compare that to the film industry. The first movie cameras were made in the 1890s, and hits like Casablanca and Citizen Kane were made in the early 1940s. That means it took 50 years of evolution go from nothing to pure artistic expression.
One can argue that this comparison is unfair, because we had no idea games could even express narrative back in the days of cathode ray tennis. But even if you fast-forward to the mid-70s when the first examples of video role-playing games were created, we can say that narrative in gaming is quickly coming up on its 40th anniversary. Yet we are still developing throwaway characters that serve little to no purpose other than to shout "Hey, listen!" over and over again.
Of course, every time we in the gaming press rant on about games as art, someone always seems to pop up in the comments section to say "Games aren't art! Games are games!" To which I say—aside from the fact that I think that sentiment is bullcrap—this argument doesn't matter in the context of cheap throwaway video game characters. Each piece on a chessboard, for example, has a purpose. Heck, even Mousetrap, the most convoluted board game I can think of, doesn't simply have throwaway pieces.
"But wait," you exclaim. "Video game characters like Navi aren't analogous to board game pieces. Navi was a tutorial character, so she is more like the instructions included within a board game than an actual game piece." Even so, this still makes Navi a crappy throwaway character. Board game instructions are written to be direct and easy to understand. They are a quick reference for all the rules that you need to know to play the game. Navi, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. She frequently interrupted you with information that wasn't needed in order to play the game. Granted, at some points she cut in with an actual useful piece of information, but most of the time she just interrupted game flow. She would have been far more tolerable if her constant audio reminders were made optional.
So how do we build a better video game sidekick? To be honest, we don't. A sidekick is a character who always plays second fiddle to the star. He is less fleshed-out and less vital to the plot than the main character. This concept is old and archaic, held over from the old days of superhero comics. We don't actually need better video game "sidekicks" in the traditional sense. What we need are better supporting casts. We need to take all of our Golden Age Robins and turn them into Nightwings.
We can do this by simply asking about our sidekick's purpose in both story and mechanics. Why is Slippy Toad flying alongside you? What is his motivation in the story? Is his role as your wingman compelling in any way? Why do you have to babysit Ashley Graham through several chapters of Resident Evil 4? Does this make the game more fun? Does it make it more enjoyable? Does it make it scarier? If these questions had been addressed before Star Fox 64 and Resident Evil 4 were published, then these characters might not have been featured on so many "Worst Sidekicks of All Time" lists.
Angelo M. D'Argenio
Date: September 24, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*