Anybody who truly knows me knows that my favorite part of any game is almost invariably the characters. Now, odds are none of you know me, so this is a learning experience. Hi, I’m Dan. I like characters. Wonderful! Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about it.
A good cast of characters can carry a game even if the story is lacking. Sometimes even the gameplay and writing can end up taking a back seat to an intrepid gaggle of NPCs. Unfortunately, sometimes even the best of them end up relegated to nothing more than extras. This isn’t their story, after all, so it makes sense. It still seems like an awful lot of wasted potential.
But let’s concoct a hypothetical remedy for that. Today, a handful of these virtual best friends are going to get their own starring roles, courtesy of yours truly. So in no particular order, let’s begin.
(Disclaimer: mild spoilers for each series are ahead)
5. Garrus Vakarian (Mass Effect)
This one may be an obvious choice for fans of the series. To some, he’s the best friend you’ve always wanted. To others, he’s the boyfriend you’ve always needed. To me, he’s the spiky space-Batman who’s done enough on his own to warrant at least his own spin-off. At the very least, his voice actor deserves some recognition. Brandon Keener, you’ve got a voice that could melt wood. And also my heart.
When you meet Garrus in the first Mass Effect game, he’s essentially a wet-behind-the-ears cop whose ambitions are too big for his uniform. By the time you meet him in the second game, he’d single-handedly become the most infamous vigilante on a space station dominated by outlaws. That’s a lot of character development we don’t get to see. It would be pretty cool to see a game set either during this time or after the end of the original trilogy.
Now, before you say anything, yes, it’s possible that he doesn’t survive the series, but that’s not much of a spoiler, considering almost every squadmate can potentially die at some point. Here’s my pitch.
Vakarian: P.I. (working title)
You play as Garrus Vakarian: independent contractor. Taking up residence in a large hub (maybe Omega or the Citadel) after all that Reaper business was resolved, our turian friend quickly found himself back in the criminal justice business. Only this time, he’s discovered the merits of the happy medium. No more vigilante in the dark, but no more playing completely by the books either. He puts himself out there, takes cases, and decides on his own whether they’re worth investigating. It’s a quiet life, at least compared to the old days.
So when one of his cases turns out to be bigger than he imagined, it’s a welcome change of pace. Now he’s traveling all across the station to get to the bottom of this new mystery, meeting plenty of colorful characters along the way. Sure, the galaxy isn’t at stake this time, but who says a more intimate storyline can’t be just as compelling?
4. Athena and Springs (Borderlands series)
I’m counting these two as one because Athena was already a playable character in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Sure, I could have just listed Janey Springs as her own entry, but as a couple, these two transcend anything they might have had going individually, and I REALLY want to see a game starring both of them. (As you may have guessed, I have strong feelings on the subject.)
Athena, the assassin for hire, was already a compelling character before she met Janey, the extroverted mechanic. But there’s something special about their relationship that I honestly have trouble pinning down. True, they aren’t exactly treading any new ground with the whole “two people ending up together even though they’re nothing alike” trope, but they still manage to be memorable. Maybe it has something to do with the protagonist of one game helping a protagonist from a previous game with romance problems. Anyway, pitch time.
Maybe the next Tales from the Borderlands game (because there will be another one, right, Telltale? RIGHT?) could star Athena, going back to vault hunting. Depending on your choices from the previous season, she’d either be working alone, or with remote support from her now wife, Springs. Of course, there’s only one correct choice in that situation as far as I’m concerned. (What can I say? I’m a romantic.) This could also subtly affect the feel of the story, as Athena made a promise to Janey that she wouldn’t take any more assassination gigs. So without the influence of her wife, she might be more prone to violence.
Athena takes a job that eventually points to the protagonists of the first season, who need help. She takes the job either way. If she’s by herself, then it’s just another gig, but if she and Springs are married, then she feels she owes them a debt. For better or worse, Rhys and Fiona are part of her life now. Their actions directly impacted where she is now. So if not to thank them for giving that extra push her love life needed, taking this job would be, at the very least, a means to satisfy her curiosity as to what happened to them. Just the concept of playing through a story like that as Athena while Springs banters over comms is incredibly appealing to me. Sure, it seems unlikely, but I can dream.
3. Faridah Malik (Deus Ex: Human Revolution)
What is it about pilots that make them such prime targets for surprisingly good writing? Mass Effect had Joker and Steve Cortez, Star Wars Rebels had Hera Syndulla, and Deus Ex had Faridah Malik.
Malik as a side character often seemed criminally underused in Human Revolution. Her dialogue and reactions always seemed more “real” than most of the rest of the cast. She’d call out protagonist Adam Jensen if something seemed like a stupid idea, she’d offer to listen to his problems (often giving unexpected insight), and you even got a sense of her own personal life outside of her job. One might see her as someone who takes everything in stride, but then she offers you a side mission in Lower Hengsha, during which she appears visibly rattled by events from her past. There’s a three-dimensional aspect to her character that seems to be severely lacking when it comes to the rest of the game’s cast. Even Adam himself appears barely on par in comparison.
I’d want to see her in a sequel to the current Deus Ex games, or at least something running concurrent to the Mankind Divided timeline. Personally, I’m not a fan of prequels. Not to say I won’t play them, I just prefer not to know how something will end before I even experience it. Now I can hear you already. “But Dan, she’s dead in my playthrough of Human Revolution!” First of all, how dare you. Malik is a treasure and, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll save her every time. Second of all, our girl’s alive. Boom. Confirmed. It’s canon. Hooray.
As for my pitch, let’s say that, after the events of Human Revolution, ace pilot Faridah Malik is out of a job and struggling to find work. She finds a job opening for a pilot and applies, only to find out later that they don’t accept aug (augmented individuals) applicants. She’s got some discreet augments of her own, but she’s been unemployed for so long. Money is tight, and she doesn’t like to miss an opportunity, so she conveniently leaves out the bit about having computer bits sloshing around inside.
Over time as she works for this company, Malik begins to suspect some questionable activities going on behind the scenes. She tries to investigate, but can only get so far on her own. You then get the choice to begin adding augs that would aid in this endeavor. Only problem is, the more she gets, the most suspicious the company gets. Do you prioritize the investigation, or do you play it safe in order to keep your job at this increasingly questionable organization? Remember, if you get fired, it’ll make it that much harder to look into things.
Dang, this is cool. I should write it down.
2. Wrench (Watch_Dogs 2)
This one was a bit of a toss-up between Wrench and our resident fixer Jordi Chin. True, Jordi banters like a champion and blows crap up. But as fun as his character is, there’s not really much depth to him.
Wrench, on the other hand, has development that seems to creep up on you. I mean, come on. He’s a dude with an emoticon mask. That doesn’t exactly inspire BioShock-level confidence in the character. But, as you play through Watch-Dogs 2, you uncover bits of his personality. He’s loyal, but never puts all his cards on the table. He exudes a real “party boy” attitude, and yet still gets flustered around a girl he likes. He really likes explosions and good for him, I say.
Now, admittedly, Wrench isn’t exactly the most complex character this side of a John Scalzi novel. He just stands out given his surroundings, and sometimes, that’s enough to boost a character beyond their individual writing. Context can go a long way. But enough about that; it’s pitch time.
I think of Wrench in a starring role, and my mind immediately jumps to Just Cause. Gadgets, flamboyant action, combustible environments, it sounds like a borderline erotic fantasy for him. Plop Wrench in the middle of a sandbox with just one goal: make everything stop being there. Sure, you can add in some story and development. Let’s say he decides to take a vacation from his DeadSec work only to discover his new relaxation spot is under the control of a bunch of Nazis. Yeah. I said Nazis. They’re popular as gaming villains again and I want to take advantage.
He joins up with some freedom fighters along the way and, just for the hell of it, we’ll add in a dating simulator aspect. At this point, why not? Wrench can choose from several romantic prospects: a hardass with one arm who believes the end justifies the means, a fellow hacker with a speech impediment who hates when innocents are hurt, or a sex-crazed maniac who has no motives whatsoever and just wants to have a jolly good time. Everything about a game starring Wrench would have to be super over the top and primarily tongue-in-cheek. Though the more interpersonal aspects could be just a touch more serious. Hey, nobody says you can’t drop a cargo plane on an oil refinery while also having a heart-to-heart with your buddy.
1. Aranea Highwind (Final Fantasy XV)
I’d have to play it again to be sure, but as of right now, I’d say XV is tied with XII for my favorite Final Fantasy. The battle system, the food and camping mechanics, the dynamic between Noctis and his Backstreet Boy posse, it all comes together to continually draw my mind back in half a year after completion. I won’t claim the story is anything special, but you know how it is. If you get to the final boss and have any idea what’s going on, you’re clearly not playing Final Fantasy.
Aside from the story, however. One area where I found Final Fantasy XV a bit lacking is its ultimate portrayal of the character Aranea Highwind. She, along with her underlings Biggs and Wedge (possibly my favorite long-running Final Fantasy gag), initially confronts the party as an enemy. However, it’s hinted from the get go that she really isn’t as gung-ho about the whole thing as her employers are. As the game progresses, she openly questions the morals of the empire she serves, even while hanging out with your party (long story). This eventually culminates in her defecting, later becoming a mercenary dedicated to helping people.
Thing is, Aranea’s screen time doesn’t reflect the amount of care her character gets. Sure, the “enemy contractor eventually switching sides” trope is arguably overplayed at this point. (And we won’t get into how it’s somehow almost always a conventionally attractive woman doing the heel turn in this situation. That’s another discussion for another time.) But whether through her writing, her voice acting (from the incredibly skilled Kari Wahlgren), or something else, she ends up a standout among a sea of blending NPCs. She gets a little more time to shine in the Episode Prompto DLC, but I know I still want more.
So, for my final pitch of the day, what would you say to a sequel of sorts starring Aranea Highwind? Set either during the 10-year gap near the end of the game or somewhere after the main story concludes, it wouldn’t be too difficult to set up her own separate experience. It could be in a similar vein to the sequels to Final Fantasy X and XIII, except, in this case, there would be no real connection, story-wise. Aranea would have her own agenda, separate from Noctis’ quest, with perhaps a continuation of the gameplay mechanics from XV proper.
Somewhere in Lucis (the setting of XV), or even somewhere else entirely, Aranea and her two faithful compatriots, Biggs and Wedge, are adjusting to life outside of the empire. Sure, they were a bunch of douchebags who did borderline evil experiments, but hey, job security is job security. Now, the widely feared warrior dragoon has to find honest mercenary work, all the while convincing clients that she’s actually a pretty cool person. She keeps taking jobs until she eventually learns of something huge going on. Depending on the setting, it’s either the return of Notcis or something else entirely. At this point, the reputation of Aranea Highwind is well-established, and she feels she has no choice but to involve herself. That’s where our story begins.
Sounds rad, right? Honestly, I just want an excuse to play the FFXV battle system again as Aranea.
So there you have it. 5 characters, 5 pitches. This ended up being WAY longer than I expected, so if you stuck around to the end, I hope you had as much fun as I did. Gamers have always been a creative bunch, so if you’ve got any other ideas, I’d love to hear them. I may make another list down the line at some point, but for now, thanks for reading.