Probably the hardest thing about creating likeable characters in videogames is answering this question. What can they do for me?
Characters who are defined by their need to be helped are rarely likeable. There's a whole quest-giving escort-requiring tribe of these layabouts out there, with Mario's passive-aggressive taskmistress Peach at their head.
On the other hand, powerful characters can be just as problematic. If an NPC can do what the player does, only better, they risk trivialising the player's experience. Characters who give out benefits as if they were candy become little more than glorified vending machines.
One answer is to divorce characters from the game mechanics; have them neither help nor hinder the player, but merely talk. If your characters are more hated than Hitler due to their poor AI and complete inability to defend themselves from the most low-level goblins then you might be well-served by this possibility. But for everyone else, it's a cop out.
Players can be friends with characters; they can even do this when characters interface with gameplay. Ico did it reasonably well. The World Ends With You did it very well. And Wing Commander did it perfectly.
I love Wing Commander. It's almost entirely beyond criticism, as are its first two sequels and all of their expansions. The space dogfighing action is very good, especially considering the technical limitations of the time. But what makes it excellent are the wingmen.
You can't think of Wing Commander without thinking of Paladin, Maniac, Angel, Bossman, and the other pilots of the TCS Tiger's Claw. Each has their own backstory, their own relationship with the main character, and their own unique flying style. Between missions they talk about their hopes and expectations, and in battle they back you up to varying degrees.
One of the reasons that Wing Commander's wingmen work so well is that they didn't ask for the assignment. They haven't "tagged along" or imposed themselves on you. In many cases they'd rather be flying solo. They don't want to have to rescue you any more than you want to rescue them.
Another factor is that they don't need to excel to be useful. They're helpful just by being there. Flying with a wingman means that you're taking half as much enemy fire, and enemies are much easier to shoot down when they're chasing someone other than you. If your wingman happens to make a kill, that's icing on the cake.
But probably what works best of all is that they're all annoying in different ways. If you're frustrated that Angel can't hit the broad side of a barn, you'll at least be grateful that she doesn't abandon the mission to chase every enemy she sees. If you're ready to throttle Maniac for completely ignoring your orders, you'll at least be impressed by his above-average kill count. And the wingmen don't try to pretend that they're perfect; the crew of the Tiger's Claw are more than aware of each other's faults, and won't hesitate to bitch about them.
If all that's not enough for you, you're welcome to let the wingmen get killed off. They'll get a moving funeral sequence, they'll vanish from the break room, and any future missions you would have flown with them you'll instead be working solo. But each time they survive, it's another story you can tell. The next time you fly with them, you'll be thinking, "I remember the last time I flew with this guy."
So the selfish gamer asks what can they do for me? The answer is simple; they provide company. They work well because they're such fully realised characters. When you can look out of your cockpit, see only one other ship in all the darkness of space, and know the name of the person behind the stick, it makes all the difference in the world.
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