Wednesday, February 2, 2011

EXP Podcast #115: Sidekicking It

Batman has Robin, The Green Hornet has Kato, Sherlock Holmes has Dr. Watson: Whenever a hero needs assistance, a loyal sidekick appears to lend a helping hand. This week, we use Brendan Main’s piece about a particularly controversial sidekick to explore how second bananas function in video games. Feel free to type up your thoughts in the comments. Alternatively, you can just tell your sidekick to do it for you.

Some discussion starters:

- On the subject of Navi: Love her or hate her?  Why?

- What are some examples of well-implemented sidekicks? Is their success tied to specific narrative or thematic elements, do they perform a specific function in the game, or is it some combination of both?

- How do multiplayer games encourage or inhibit leader/sidekick relationships? Is there a way to foster this relationship without devaluing the second player?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show Notes:

- Run time: 30 min 58 sec
- “Hey, Listen, I Like Navi,” by Brendan Main, via The Escapist
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. Sometimes you need a sidekick who is willing to play second fiddle to the hero. If you have played DeathSpank sparkles the wizard is an example of good sidekick. He never overshadows DeathsSpank since he has no lines and has powers that aid DeathSpank. He heals, and can create a decoy in order to keep the enemies at bay.

  2. Ico did very will with Yorba, and the 2008 Prince of Persia's Elika worked really well, too (better than Ico, I think).

    I liked Navi. I was mildly annoyed once or twice when she interrupted my flow, but for the most part, she was a welcome companion. I can see how some more... hardcore... players wouldn't like her, though.

  3. When you talked about the credits of a possible sidekick game, all I could think about was the end of Brutal Legend. "A good roadie knows his whole job is to make someone else look good"

  4. If your going to consider a character like cortana who's main purpose was to be a narrative device as a sidekick then i think you probably have to take a look at the way that some games have begun to take play the trust players place in sidekicks.
    The obvious examples are the 'shock' games and in particular the Atlas twist which wouldn't have been possible if we hadn't trusted him.
    The unreliable narrator is a fairly common device in books and films so its not surprising that its started to appear more often in games.

    On a related not Valve's Portal seem to make a deliberate attempt to satire the typical useless sidekick with the Weighted Companion Cube, as well as encouraging players to question their trust of GlaDOS.

    One game which plays up to the annoying sidekick archetype which alot of people think Navi represents is Darksiders (which is widely considered a "zelda clone"). In The Watcher developers vigil give us a sidekick who's personality and cruel behavior give us license to dislike it from the very start, and who while providing the typical walking guidebook/hint system functions is also taunting and berating the player constantly. In one of the final moments of the game the games protagonist War kills this most annoying of sidekicks and (though i have no idea if this is intended or not)this could be took as a that one the player has mastered the game and therefore no longer needs anything this type of sidekick could provide.

    On the issue of multiplayer sidekicks Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light seems like the perfect example of how to balance things. Although both chracters have a shared set of basic abilities they both have unique skills which must be used together to beat the games puzzle based levels.
    (a sub topic regarding GoL and sidekicks is that narratively there is a pretty strong argument that its Lara not Totec who is the sidekick because the games main antagonist is Xolotl is Totec's enemy not Lara's(assuming you work on the logic that the hero is defined by who the antagonists is.)

    Final thoughts are regarding the little sisters in Bioshock 2, i haven't played the game myself but the way i've herd the players relationship with them described id be interested if people feel they are sidekicks or not.

    anyways apologies for the wall of text, and keep up the good work.

  5. @Codicier

    You're drawing out the question of to what extent sidekicks serve narrative vs. mechanical functions. Jorge and Scott touched on this in the podcast too, and I think this is an interesting distinction.

    Assuming that a game tells a story, then the sidekick in that game will always serve a purpose in that story. However, not all sidekicks have an impact on gameplay. For this reason, I'd argue that sidekicks are mostly about storytelling—though there are, of course, exceptions.

    As usual, I haven't played many of the games that have been cited as examples, but I think I understand most of them. Guardian of Light and the 2008 Prince of Persia sound like games in which the sidekicks have significant (even critical) mechanical functions for gameplay. Allies like Cortana, or sidekick-antagonists like GlaDOS, SHODAN and Atlas, serve purely narrative functions. In specific situations, their actions within the narrative might set up gameplay scenarios, but they serve no systemic gameplay function.

    There are gray areas, of course. Characters who provide tutorial functions (such as Navi) or hints (the Watcher) might shade into mechanics. Alyx Vance is also somewhere in the middle, although if I recall correctly, she's heavy on the scripting in combat and so probably falls more on the narrative side.

    Personally, I can't identify an "ideal" sidekick. Because the role of a sidekick is primarily about narrative, the sidekicks that I remember most clearly are the ones who mattered in stories that mattered to me. The AIs in the Marathon games are probably my all-time favorites. (Why so many great AI sidekicks? Maybe because they can be central to the plot while remaining plausibly removed from gameplay?)

    Here we get into the question of where "sidekick" ends and "supporting character" begins, but that's not really an important distinction to my experience as a player.

    Final SPOILER thought SPOILER: what about Zach from Deadly Premonition, who turns out to be sidekick, player and main character all at once? I haven't played the game, but J.P. Grant, Kirbybits and others have done some wonderful writeups about it lately.

  6. Great comments. Yea, I think we are coming to the same conclusions. A gaming sidekick can be either a mechanical or a narrative sidekick, or both. Ideally, the best sidekick manages both well.