I’ve always been interested in what makes a character popular. Some have incredibly detailed backstories on par with any film or book, while on the other hand you have someone like Link or Mario, whose story is minimal at best but ultimately inconsequential. What’s really interesting to me however is when a character comes along who is hated, such as a character who you need to protect in an escort mission.
Anyway, the reason I’ve been thinking about this is that Resident Evil 4 is being re-released onto PC next week, and I’m reminded of Ashley Graham, the US President’s daughter whose rescue is Leon’s primary mission. For most of it, you need to protect her from the endless zombies throughout the game, and while I certainly recognize that the video game escort mission has gained a bad reputation over the years due to bad AI (Natalya from GoldenEye), or a misguided understanding of the word ‘fun’ (GOD DAMN Yorda from Ico), this game does it right. Here are three reasons why Ashley rules.
The two biggest problems with having to protect NPCs is that they either tend to run into the crossfire causing you to kill them, or that they wander away into the hands of the enemy, but Ashley does neither of those things. In comparison, she is actually pretty excellent as far as NPCs go. She is programmed well enough to stay out of your way, and even if you point your gun at her she’ll move.
Yes, sometimes she gets carried off by enemies behind you, but I’ve always felt that’s a stylistic choice for increasing tension. It doesn’t really happen that often except for a few sections, and it requires little more than a well-placed shot at an enemy to get her back. Hell, even in some of the areas where she’s difficult to protect, you have the option of putting her into a box/dumpster until the coast is clear.
She’s just like you and me
So what’s your big problem with Ashley, anyway? Is it that she’s a teenage girl, or is it that she’s running around losing her mind about everything? Well, I’ll tell you what, YOU try getting kidnapped by parasite-infested monsters carrying chainsaws and all other manner of horrors and be all cool about it, and then we’ll talk.
Ironically, in a game and series as ridiculous as Resident Evil, Ashley might be the most authentic characterization in the whole thing because she’s exactly as freaked out as any of us would be in that situation. For the majority of characters who are generally hated, the biggest thread running through them is that they shatter the illusion of our power fantasy and remind us of who we truly are even within an artificial game world.
Her safety matters
One choice made in last year’s BioShock Infinite was to make it so Elizabeth could not be killed or even harmed; the game explicitly tells you this when the two of you join up. At first, many people, myself included, breathed a sigh of relief that we wouldn’t have to drag a dumb NPC around and worry about keeping her alive.
However, I feel that perhaps opportunities were missed to create interesting emergent moments through this mechanic. Maybe being able to manage your proximity to her would affect your strength versus defense, or maybe every time you got her to open a rift it would reduce her health. I don’t know, but the point is there were choices to be made — gameplay choices — and, instead, developers are choosing to avoid any agency or risk entirely.
While I can appreciate one’s apprehension about escort missions in general as a result of it being so poorly implemented over the years, I believe that removing it entirely would be a bad move. There is a specific feeling of being responsible for protecting something or someone, and it can create some incredibly tense, meaningful, and (next-gen buzzword in 3, 2, 1…) emotional moments. Giving the player the power to be personally responsible for another character is something unique to video games, and it’s far too valuable a characteristic to throw out entirely. Capcom understood this with Resident Evil 4.