Separation Anxiety: Meditations on the Escort Mission

January 22, 2009

It’s that time of year again– time when the weather grows colder, people grow warmer and my personality turns chillier than usual. All my life I’ve been something of a loner, more comforted by the pleasure of my own company than the paranoia of social settings. It might explain my penchant for single-player gaming, and my nature as a writer, perhaps the most solitary of arts. In either case, you don’t need anybody else to get in the way– if something’s worth doing, you might as well do it yourself.

It might also explain my lifelong nature as a self-confessed bookworm, reading just about any novel my hands can pick up and attention-span won’t put down. Reading has always been a favorite pastime of mine since my earliest ages, but as far back as I can remember, I’d never really been interested in fantasy literature. Oh sure, I read The Hobbit back during some summer vacation between grades in elementary school like everybody else, but I didn’t much care for it. When I tried to tackle The Lord of the Rings years later, I found it a monumental bore– it read like a mythological retelling of World War II oral history without any of the poetic grace. The closest I ever got to appreciating the genre was when I started reading C.S. Lewis, whose Narnia series I might actually finish one day if I ever work past my own personal issues as a lapsed Catholic.

Mostly it’s because fantasy never really had a chance to grab my attention from an early age– science-fiction beat it to me, partly because it didn’t expect me to be literate just yet. By the time I was a toddler I pretty much had all of the original Star Wars trilogy memorized, and understood the Star Trek motion pictures decently enough to not require an explain for what V’Ger was, much less a Vulcan. When I finally dove into science-fiction literature itself, my curiosity tended towards the modernist side of things, the cyberpunk playgrounds of William Gibson and the Kafkaesque parables of Phillip K. Dick.

Still, around this time, which coincidentally was around the time I found the siren-song of video-gaming beckoning me back unto the breach, once more, I was finally able to find a fantasy book that captured my attention, sparked my imagination and thoroughly engaged me to the point that it has not only become one of my scheduled visits on an annual reading list, but has also helped to enlighten me on one of the cornerstones of emotional underpinnings in video-game design today.

That book was The Golden Compass, and that gaming trope is the escort-mission.

Now, to say that Phillip Pullman’s novel, the first part of the awkwardly named His Dark Materials trilogy, represents something right up my alley is something of an understatement. Right from the beginning, The Golden Compass presented something of a perfect-storm of subject matters to me– as an alternate-history imagining a world where the Catholic Church is all-powerful and besieged by heretic renegades hoping to open doorways to parallel dimensions in a Miltonian bid to overthrow a tyrant God, it’s got one hell of a conceptual hook. But while all of those are interesting, none of them hold a candle to the dominant thread stringing through Pullman’s book, the single thing nearly all its characters have in common:

Daemons

In His Dark Materials, daemons are creatures that accompany all human beings, from birth to death, and can take the shape of any animal they choose. While existing outside of their humans, they cannot live independently on their own, and if one dies, the other follows. Giving voice to a person’s conscience, fears and deepest desires, they represent the animus and anima for human beings, a kind of exterior embodiment of the soul. A divine, psychic bond exists between a person and their daemon, and when it is broken, both are left spiritually castrated. Humans in Pullman’s world, and children especially, experience a great deal of fear and worry over the thought of losing their daemon, and that separation anxiety is tested numerous times in the series, at moments and in ways that remain as emotionally wrenching as only the best fairy-tales can be.

It’s exactly the kind of relationship a game designer can accomplish between the player and an NPC in the course of an escort-mission based game, and perhaps the best place to start is in the most noted game of its type.

Fumito Ueda’s early PS2 gem Ico has a wide reputation and growing fanbase, mostly concerned with its fairy-tale narrative and aesthetics. But beyond this– beyond the de Chirico-esque landscapes, Tangerine Dream-style music and the Jungian story– is the bare essential simplicity of the game’s core design itself, something that outlasts the charm and quality of its Prince of Persia platforming, its Legend of Zelda dungeoneering and its Another World minimalism. All of these elements keep Ico as tight and coherent as a game possibly can be, but they’re all merely peripheral elements to support the main theme, which is placed directly in the player’s foreground as the dominant gameplay mechanic throughout.

That theme is the relationship between its two characters, and the gameplay which expresses it is that of the escort-mission

And when you consider it that way, it’s really a wonder that Ico found any audience at all. By and large, gamers do not like escort-missions. In the games in which they’re featured during a major segment– such as the infamous “Protect Natalya” sequence from Rare’s 007 FPS GoldenEye— they’re largely maligned as overly difficult, frustrating and thoroughly unenjoyable. It’s hard to argue, because the entire concept of the escort-mission is a somewhat difficult design challenge, from the outset– instead of a player simply having to protect their own avatar, which can be difficult enough in most games, the escort-mission asks a player to provide additional support to a non-player character or element, or risk failure.

This poses a difficulty to the player because it asks them to extend the reach of their assignment beyond the avatar to which they already have. Furthermore, this becomes increasingly strained for players, as it means asking them to assign importance to the element in question without necessarily maintaining actual agency over it. After all, the NPC’s in question during an escort-mission often employ some sense of autonomy, a freedom which usually gets them into more trouble.

Instead of the game holding the player’s hand, an escort mission asks the player to hold the game’s hand, and that’s no fun for anybody. Unless it’s handled just right.

That’s what Ico does, and that’s why it’s so special. For the ever-growing cult of popularity the game slowly continues to acrue, Ico succeeds in getting the player to invest their gaming-instincts to a character other than their own avatar for a long period of time. Perhaps it is that long-term commitment that helps foster this sense of ludological generosity, because for almost the entire game, the player’s success is dependent upon how much attention they pay to their NPC charge, the shadowy princess Yorda. Indeed, the player’s relationship with that NPC lays the foundations for the most basic elements of Ico‘s rules, which can be summed up as such:

(1) The player must guide themselves throughout the castle, without falling to their doom.

(2) In order to open various doors throughout the castle, the player must lead Yorda, who acts as a magic-key.

(3) Whenever the enemies of smoke appear, the player must protect Yorda from them, and make sure she is not pulled into their source-pit, or else the game ends.

What’s great about these rules is that they each imply a host of others. In order for the player to use Yorda to open doors, the player must not only find a path which Ico can travel, but both of them, together. Sometimes that means merely leading her by hand around a longer path, performing tasks like pulling switches or setting bombs along the way.

That reliance upon Yorda would be enough, on its own, even with the smoke enemies threatening to steal her away. Without the princess to open doors, the player cannot possibly progress any further, at which point the game would be functionally over. However, by automatically ending the game whenever Yorda is captured away, Ueda cements the connection between her and the player, making their livelihoods one and the same. This is what all true escort-missions do, of course, and the fact that Ico exploits it for as long and consistently as it does shows how it rises as an exemplary case for how to design a game based on that mechanic.

However, for a long time, I’ve always felt this nagging sense of deja vu whenever playing Ico— the umbilical tug of nostalgia, insistent that the basic, core game-design Ueda’s game enjoys is not entirely dissimilar from another. This isn’t merely the similarity that it bears to other titles which feature escort-missions, even prominently– no, this apprehensive memory surrounded two games, a pair of long held favorites whose names and faces escaped the grasp of my memory, and which I have forever been trying to put my finger on.

And then it hit me, two-fold:

First, there was Super Mario Bros. 2, a game whose making-of story has probably eclipsed the notoriety of the actual game itself. Originally designed as Doki Doki Panic, it was quickly reskinned as a follow-up to the original Super Mario Bros. when its Japanese sequel was deemed too difficult for American players. These days it’s usually written off as the ugly ducking of the franchise, inconsistent with the basic mechanics and gameplay of the rest of the series, even though plenty of its assets and characters have been adopted into the franchise as a whole. I always enjoyed the game, but never took it as seriously as the original, or everybody’s favorite, Super Mario Bros. 3. At the same time, though, there were moments in this game that first awakened some of my curiosity into the art of game design, and chief among those moments was straling Phanto’s Key.

What’s great is the simplicity of the challenge– the player needs the Key to unlock a door. Once the player picks up the Key, the Phanto mask comes to life and starts chasing the player through the level. It’s probably the most basic, honest expression of the escort-mission trope, and one which can basically be applied to any escort-mission based game, including Ico. Detractors of the Yorda dynamic of Ico often bring up the point that all she really does is act as a key, and they have a point. There may even be an element of misogynist objectification in the princess so nakedly being purposed as an in-game resource.

Still, I don’t see the Yorda-as-Key theory as entirely negative. Ico does SMB2 one better by personifying the game’s key, and turning it into an anchor for the player’s emotional attachment, as well as their gaming instincts.

When stealing Phanto’s Key, all I could ever feel was the fear of the chase and the thrill of success. When rescuing Yorda and escoring her through the castle, I could feel something more positive, and rewarding– compassion. You can’t do that unless the element you’re charged with protecting is allowed to be a character, and is given some autonomy, an occasional will of its own. A mere key can’t have that, but Yorda does, and it’s what endears her to us. However, she’s not the only escort-mission character to exhibit that same dangerous independent streak, which is where the second memory-trigger comes in.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island is a game I’ve long been somewhat embarrassed to enjoy so much. In the face of increasingly bleak, hostile and thoroughly “badass” series like Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil and God of War, it feels almost overwhelmingly outdated. But that’s okay– Yoshi’s Island might not be cool, but it has at least a dozen other reasons to be appreciated. From its crayon-scribbled art-design, to a peppy, upbeat and haunting score that combines the best of Koji Kondo’s musical instincts, and a rigor of platforming as drum tight and rewarding as anything to come out of Miyamoto’s workshops, the game easily caught my attention back then, and still does today.

Most of all, however, what I liked about the game could be boiled down into its story and gameplay, which strangely did a better job of blending narrative and mechanics than any other Super Mario game I can remember, and how, like Ico, it can be summed up in three basic rules:

(1) Yoshi must reach the end of a level while avoiding pits and traps, and defeating various enemies.

(2) While Yoshi travels each level, Baby Mario rides on his back. Yoshi cannot complete a level without Baby Mario.

(3) If Yoshi is hit by an enemy along the way, he is separated from Baby Mario. If Yoshi cannot get him back in time, Baby Mario is captured by bad guys.

This is what made some gamers frustrated with Yoshi’s Island— not merely that Baby Mario would annoyingly cry his head off if you got hit, but that you’d have to fly to his rescue before your enemies flew to his… well… kidnapping. Everyone who enjoyed the game, however, might not have been entirely aware that, like Ico after it, the entire thing is one big, long escort-mission.

What makes it work in this game is how well it fits with the story, a fairly common archetype in any derivation of myth, culture and pop-culture mythology– Baby Hercules was in danger from the snakes, Baby Moses was in danger of the Pharaoh, Baby Jesus was in danger of King Herod, etc. It’s a story old as religion and new as Children of Men, Willow or even The Terminator— the story of rescuing the infant who will grow up to be a hero. And I always thought it was fairly cool to see Mario get that treatment, especially since it was worked so well into the mechanics. Beneath its charming exterior, Yoshi’s Island is every bit the escort-mission showpiece as Ico.

Except for one thing– in Yoshi’s Island, the only moments when you’re functionally separated from Baby Mario are when an enemy hits you, whereas in Ico, the challenges and demands of finding a path for Yorda to travel often mean the player must separate from her, and leave her vulnerable to attacks from the smoke enemies.

This is where Ico really sets itself apart. If there were no moments in the game where the level-design dictated that Ico leave Yorda alone for a while to pull the switches and levers in order to open up a path for her to travel, the player’s connection to her wouldn’t nearly be so strong. There’s a bonding that happens between the gamer and the NPC that is prompted by the sense of urgency created by the distance between the two, and the danger it puts both parties in. It’s what draws Ueda together with Pullman, putting into gameplay what the other talks about through language. Furthermore, Ueda grew more subtle with the strategy, both in terms of focus and detail, on his next game, Shadow of the Colossus.

What SotC has in common with its predecessor is the relationship the player has with a subtly autonomous NPC– in Ico it was the lovely Yorda, and here it’s the player’s trusty steed, Agro, which the hero Wander rides from colossus to colossus throughout the game’s expansive, desolate overworld. Where the two games come apart, however, is the matter of necessity– in Ico, Yorda is an essential recourse throughout the game, as without her intervention the player cannot open any doors, while in SotC, riding Agro is useful in getting from place to place, but unnecessary in the battles themselves, save for two important exceptions. Agro shortens the time it takes to reach a colossus, but it’s ground the player could conceivably travel themselves– it just wouldn’t be very practical to do so.

Therefore, the dominant themes expressed in the NPC-player relationships found in the two games differ on that subject. While Ico‘s escort-mission discourse evokes the romantic lingering of symbiosis, SotC‘s prolonged equestrian-escort evokes the pragmatic camaraderie of cooperation.

However, there still are the cases of the two colossi where Agro’s participation is a necessary component– the tenth, a sand-dweller, and the thirteenth, a sky-creature. Following closely upon one another, these two battles help the player grow accustomed to Agro not just as a beast-of-burden that speeds the way from mission to mission, but as an invaluable resource without whom several of these heroic trials would not be possible. Unlike its predecessor, which virtually handcuffed the player to the flighty Yorda, SotC gives players enough time for players to accumulate enough experiences with Agro to feel their connection grow for themselves.

Of course, there’s another primary difference between these NPC-player relationships which cannot go unmentioned– strictly speaking, what happens in SotC is not an escort-mission. Throughout the game, Agro is never in any physical danger of his own, even in the battles in which he plays an active part, and therefore the player never actually spends any time protecting him from anything. As such, the player never has to face the same kind of constant threat that one does with Yorda, who must always be defended from the ethereal smoke enemies. Agro may be a character the player grows to appreciate as time goes on, but also a commodity they will most likely take for granted, until the final battle.

It’s only there, in the approach to the sixteenth colossus, that the player is suddenly confronted with the prospect of losing Agro by the suicide plunge of a wide chasm the player cannot possibly cross on their own, and can only just barely make with the aid of a horse. What’s great about the sequence is how much it achieves by implication– there’s no pop-up hint or big booming voice from the sky which flat out tells the player that they need Agro to make the jump, much less that it will mean his apparent sacrifice, but that isn’t necessary. By the game’s end, the player is expected to know the horse’s abilities and limitations as intimately as they know their own avatar’s, because of how much time they’ve spent in close contact with one another.

It is the very nature of this connection which makes the understated understanding of its termination possible. The relationship between player and NPC allows the separation between the two arrive without announcement or exposition, and underlines the anxiety of its realization with as little distraction as possible from any pathological fanfare. It’s a sequence that hits home hardest because for the first time, Agro is actually in need of protecting, not from external enemies, but from the player themselves.

Now, Ueda’s been working long enough by now for some of his ideas to start rubbing off on fellow designers. One of the strangest cousins of Ueda’s design, however, is a peculiar case– the first time I played it, I first assumed its escort-mission in question was a reference to the Soldier Sacrifice from David Jaffe’s God of War. Where anybody else would see a screaming wretch in a cage, all I could see was a box I needed to push into a furnace, and when I first played Portal, I thought that’s what the Valve designers must’ve seen, too.

Because, c’mon– the Weighted Companion Cube is a joke. And not just any joke, but an incredibly funny, insightful one, the kind that most people don’t get, much less realize how much of it is directed towards them. At first I assumed it had to be Valve’s knowing, winking response to moments in games that are designed to make the player feel guilty. Do you honestly expect me to get choked up about dropping a goddamn cube into a furnace-shaft? You’ve got to be joking.

Even funnier is the fact that plenty of players apparently did get choked up about it, and actually became emotionally attached to an object that’s inanimate even for video-game standards, unless all those people out there make Weighted Companion Cube toys, fuzzy-dice, cakes and porn just for the ironic gesture of it all.

What’s funniest of all, however, is that it didn’t begin as a joke. Listening to the developer commentary, you can hear how they simply slapped some hearts on one of the game’s standard cubes and scripted lines about it purely to remind players that they’d need the cube in order to perform a few tasks ahead. In other words, Valve created the concept of the Weighted Companion Cube simply to direct the player’s attention onto it, and keep them from trying to solve the upcoming puzzles by themselves.

Somewhere along the line, however, they must’ve realized how they’d essentially created an absurdist escort-mission– true, the Weighted Companion Cube can’t be hurt, and in fact is often used to protect the player from dangerous elements instead, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is absolutely necessary as a resource for completing several objectives, and that it exists independently from the player just enough to not be considered a simple tool. It shows how once you give an object importance and physical independence, its use in any sequence-of-events naturally becomes a benign sort of escort-mission.

When Link pushes boxes, statues and goodness knows what else around in the dungeons of Hyrule, he’s performing an escort-mission, sort of– certainly more-so than the pretend escort-mission at the start of A Link to the Past, leading Princess Zelda out of a dungeon in which absolutely nothing can hurt her. The player’s sphere of agency is extended to a non-player entity– not quite a non-player character, mind you, but something outside of yourself.

By painting on some hearts and spouting off one-liners about how previous test-subjects started schizophrenic relationships with it, the game invites players to form their own, limited relationship with the Weighted Companion Cube, and shows how they’d already done so before in past games, with far less inviting subjects. Furthermore, to fully cement the player’s imaginary bonding experience, they follow Ueda’s example from Shadow of the Colossus, and do the one thing guaranteed to make anyone feel sorry for the most static of objects.

They tell you to kill it.

Back when I thought about the prisoner-in-the-cage moment from God of War, I realized that the moment of Agro’s jump from SotC was the more emotionally stirring sacrifice– partly because Ueda wanted to make you feel guilty, and Jaffe was likely aiming for the opposite– and with that in mind, I can see that if the “death” of the Weighted Companion Cube owes a debt to any designer, it can only be Ueda, because functionally the two relationships are so strikingly similar.

The primary difference is one of emphasis– Ueda never tells you to feel sorry for letting Agro plunge to his doom, but Valve repeatedly does urge you, one could say challenges you, to sympathize with what essentially amounts to an over sized building-block. Shadow of the Colossus earns the emotional connection the player gains with their NPC through hours of streamlined, subtle interaction and lively, naturalistic animation, while Portal does absolutely nothing. And that’s the joke that Portal is making, the laugh it’s having at the expense of all the other games and players that take the escort-mission convention seriously.

It’s intelligent, no doubt, but I can’t help but wince at the self-superior cynicism I feel from the experience. Still, the point such a joke makes is worth accepting, all the same– if one’s heart bleeds too much, it won’t take much to break.

On the other end, there’s Hideo Kojima, who seems to believe the only heart worth trusting is one suffering from hemophilia. He’s been around for a long time, but as several of his games show, even he isn’t immune to being inspired by Ueda’s craftsmanship. Commentators found in Metal Gear Solid 2‘s Emma Emmerich who must be led, protected and ultimately lost in a sun-lit fortress setting not unlike Yorda and her castle in the mist. Metal Gear Solid 3 marks a high water mark in many ways for Kojima’s discipline, and among other things demonstrates a surprisingly tight and rewarding little escort-mission near the end of the game. Stranded with the game’s requisite love-interest EVA and surrounded by enemies patrolling the jungle, the player, as Snake, faces three primary goals on their journey forward:

(1) Remain undetected by enemy soldiers (the primary rule of thumb for any Metal Gear game).

(2) Keep Snake alive by carefully rationing foodstuffs (the primary rule of thumb in MGS3: Snake Eater).

(3) Keep EVA alive by carefully rationing foodstuffs and making sure she remains undetected by enemy soldiers (the primary rule of thumb for this sequence).

The first thing that interests me is how Kojima articulates the escort-mission first through the hide-and-seek gameplay of the series. He’d given the player NPC’s to protect from enemies before, but only in flashy, non-stealth driven boss battles against hostage takers like Metal Gear‘s Dirty Duck or Metal Gear Solid’s Revolver Ocelot and Psycho Mantis. Snake Eater, however, represents the first time Kojima ever really demonstrated a full commitment to the design trope, and the proficiency with which he does so is admirable, at the very least.

What makes his escort-mission interesting is the same thing that made Ueda’s a standout success– separation. Just as Ico forced the player to leave Yorda alone and open to capture at crucial moments, MGS3 forces the player to leave EVA alone and open to attack now and then to allow Snake a better chance of sneaking up on enemies ahead and dispatching them off-guard. The fact that Kojima gave players the control to beckon EVA forward and order her to stop in her tracks during the sequence shows the degree to which he knew this separation was important, and underlines the lesson learned from Ueda’s example.

Furthermore, in expanding the game’s medical-healing and hunting-and-feeding mechanics to EVA, MGS3 obliges the player to put distance between their avatar and their charge directly through the management of resources, expressing the mutual sacrifices of separation anxiety through the mathematical economies of health and stamina. Hell, Kojima even manages to sneak in a sly Biblical joke through this gameplay by having Snake feed EVA the fruits of the jungle. If the escort-mission of Yoshi’s Island follows the tradition of Jesus brought out of Egypt, the escort-mission of Snake Eater performs the passion-play of Adam and Eave cast out from Paradise.

Kojima continued an escort-variation in the tranquilize-and-recruit mechanic of Portable Ops, making every enemy life valuable by making it possible to turn hostile soldiers into allies. More prominent was the dynamic of MGS4‘s battlefield karma, which had a nice, similarly functional edge to it– follow rebel soldiers and help them fight the enemy, and they’d watch your back too, even lending supplies if you were weak. That light-escort theme in Guns of the Patriots was magnified for maximum clarity in the noir-ish Eastern European level, tasking Snake to follow a member of an underground resistance while protecting him from PMC patrols, challenging players to hide not only from enemies, but also from the resistance member himself.

As an escort mission, it puts into gameplay a philosophy worthy of Machiavelli or Sun Tzu– keep far from your enemies, and even further away from your friends.

While most escort-missions focus on making the player guard their NPC by sticking as near by as possible, MGS4 forces the player to keep their distance, either remaining behind to follow from safety or scout ahead to take out enemy units ahead of time, acting as a kind of guardian angel– appropriate considering the heavy-handed religious exposition and the boss battle with a winged mercenary. As such, it feels like a more refined version of the stilted Little Sister escort-mission from BioShock, where the player never got a chance to truly bond with the frivolously independent NPC they protected, except by the experience of “harvest-or-rescue” choices.

Furthermore, Kojima previously spent a lot of time exploring the basic ideas the escort-mission revolves around in a whole breadth of moments in the Metal Gear series, stretching as far back to the original MSX titles and as recent as the series’ latest installment. In a sense, the entire series conveys a kind of escort-mission style pacifism, encouraging players to confront enemies with non-lethal force, or avoid them entirely. Still, the moments in which Kojima previously came the closest to designing escort-missions are not ones where Snake must protect an NPC per se, but where the player assumes command of a remote-controlled item, and Snake himself becomes the NPC.

One of the oldest weapons in the Metal Gear arsenal, the remote-control/Nikita missiles, featured prominently in the initial MSX games and the first MGS installment, requires the player to direct the path of a rocket while Snake himself remains stationary. In the MGS4, one of the player’s most useful and versatile items is the Metal Gear Mk. II, a miniature robot which can be manually controlled to scout ahead, perform reconnaissance and engage the enemy in a limited capacity while Snake himself remains behind.

In both cases, the player temporarily sacrifices agency over Snake for another element, and leaves their previous avatar alone, stationary and vulnerable to the enemy. However brief the moments may be, whenever the player deploys a Nikita missile or the Mk. II, the game suddenly becomes a short but nonetheless engaging little escort-mission. True, there isn’t much time for the player to become anxious, but in the quick-paced fight-or-flight scenario that any Metal Gear game can become once Snake is discovered by the enemy, such temporary dislocation can prove a powerful source of suspense in a game already soaked in the adrenaline-fuel of espionage.

Thanks to the relationship the player builds with their avatar over the course of the game, such moments can even carry the paranormal-tinge of an out-of-body experience, the power-transferal of a remote-controlled agent articulating the supernatural wonder of an astral-projection through thoroughly modern military gadgetry, mirroring the relationship the player enjoys with their on-screen avatar, itself a remote-controlled agent of transferred power. It’s a note that is hammered home if you pay close attention to Snake when he’s handling the Metal Gear Mk. II unit– position the camera just right, and you can see he’s using a PlayStation controller.

Still, Kojima’s expressions are clouded by the many filters they pass through, before reaching the player. Snake’s relationship to EVA is best understood through her health and stamina meters before the behavior of enemy NPC’s is ever factored in. Snake’s relationship to his remote-controlled toys is one that requires an additional conceptual leap in order to reposition the player’s sense of agency. Kojima’s designs are clever and insightful, but as far as building a true relationship between a player and their NPC companions he’s still a bit too abstract and distant a designer, a man of ideas rather than feelings.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s no reason why a game can’t feature a wider reach between the player and NPC’s without still being emotionally stirring. I’m incredibly fond of the recent PSN game, Hindustan Electronic’s The Last Guy, which takes the escort-mission dynamic found in many zombie themed survival-horror games and elevates it to the highest priority. What I found most combelling about that game was the central paradox of the rescue-objective– in order to win the game, you must rescue more survivors, but the more survivors line up to follow you, the more visible and vulnerable you become to the zombies.

It’s a great, simple contradiction of priorities that forces you to do a lot of instant-reflex resource management, factoring how many survivors you can rescue at a time and how many you’re willing to leave behind. The game’s also responsible for carrying a surprising amount of emotional weight with very slight graphics– the survivors you rescue barely amount to dots on the screen, and from the satelite’s-eye-view of the game turns the escort-mission into a race to save the whole of mankind, one disaster-striken city at a time.

It’s a lot done with a little, but as far as a game’s expressive economy goes, the prize for thriftiness still belongs to Fumito Ueda and the absolutely pure expression he coined through the mechanical harmonizing of Ico.

Of its many strengths, plenty of commentators have noted how much Ueda’s first game was able to accomplish with absolutely no non-diegetic asides to the player during gameplay– there are no pop-up instructions explaining the player’s role, their job of protecting Yorda or fighting off smoke enemies. The player doesn’t even have a life-bar for Ico or the princess, an aspect which has been heralded by many, such to the point that Shadow of the Colossus was viewed by some with disdain for condescending to mainstream players by supplying HUD.

What these people miss, however, is how the player’s relationship with Yorda winds up substituting for life-bars in a surprisingly diegetic way– the more danger Yorda is in, the more danger the player is in. The closer the smoke monsters drag her into their oily pit, the closer the player veers towards a game-over. Ico doesn’t need HUD because Yorda is the game’s HUD, an external representation of the player’s success-rate that Ueda is cleverly able to insert into the game itself.

In the end, that might be ultimate potential of an escort-mission– if so much importance is assigned to the well-being of an NPC, that NPC’s well-being can be the only resource a player need keep track of in order to do well in the game. As much as The Last Guy is a game about rescuing exact numbers of survivors, most of the time you can do a pretty good job of figuring out how you’re doing by the line of people trailing behind you. Better than any numeric counter, those little dots tell the player how much danger they’re in, how much risk they’re taking and how much reward they stand to gain.

Still, the player-NPC dynamic, no matter how powerful it can be, will always be a very limiting game-design convention. Done wrong, it can be awkward, frustrating, and ridden with failure, while done right it very often can do no more, though for different reasons. Escort-missions, at their heart, are a very sentimental mechanical trope, an archetype of gameplay that’s best used sparingly, responsibly and cautiously. Tugging the heartstrings is all fine and good, but unless you want to turn your game into a love story an escort-mission might not be the way to go, because like it or not, an escort-mission is a love story, plain and simple.

Now, I’m not a very big fan of Jason Rohrer’s indie-hit Passage— in fact, I don’t even enjoy it at all, quite frankly. But I can give its creator enough credit to say that no matter what you think of the game, it is entirely successful at expressing its subject matter through gameplay, even if there isn’t very much for you to do on a purely functional level. As a game, it takes the convention of minimalism far past the logical point of no-return and delivers an unbearably static experience, but even so, it’s impossible for even me, an avowed detractor, to deny that it offers a singularly moving moment predicated on the player’s choice in one, crucial area:

Instead of traveling the game’s relatively empty-space alone, you can pick up a girl at the beginning, and have her by your side, only to watch her slowly grow old and die, leaving only a tombstone behind.

She’s never in any danger, and there’s nothing you can ever do as the player to keep her safe as an NPC. But it works at the most bare, naked and honest artistic level as an instrument of game design, because at the end of the day, she’s part of an escort-mission, and escort-missions are always about love. Rohrer’s not the guy who pioneered the trick, or even delivered its most articulate expression, but at least he’s the guy who pointed it out for everybody else who wasn’t listening, because even a lonely, lovelorn cynic like me knows this much is true: an escort-mission is always a love story.

It literalizes the sloppy poetry doe-eyed newlyweds sob to one another when they’ve made the mistake of writing their own vows, waxing poetic about a love that can form those most mythological of fantasy-creatures, rarer than the hobbits of middle-earth, the talking lions of Narnia or even the daemons of Lyra’s Oxford– soul-mates. And in the end, you can’t tell a story about soul-mates without at least one of them turning into a ghost by the end.

Love can’t have a happy ending, and that’s what makes it lives forever.

And that’s why it has limits, why sometimes a player must mature in their priorities, and outgrow it. At the conclusion of every escort-mission, there must always be a separation, and it must be accepted, no matter how much anxiety follows. If Yoshi’s Island is about Baby Jesus and Snake Eater is about the Garden of Eden, then all escort-missions, in the end, are really about Corinthians, book one, chapter thirteen, verse eleven: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Most of all, sadly, true love is a childish thing, and so is the escort-mission, something akin to the nurturing instinct that drives all children to carry and shelter a favorite doll, teddy-bear or velveteen rabbit. And as long as we can keep on forming emotional bonds with non-player characters in video-games, we’ll always have our inner-children to play with, at our loneliest hours. They may not keep us as much company as we might want, but at least they’ll keep us young at heart.

The best thing that can be said through the escort-mission is that it’s the ludological rhetoric of generosity, rather than the selfish spirit of every-man-for-himself that most other games tend to endorse. As such, I’m glad to see how designers like Ueda, Miyamoto, Kojima and even the likes of Rohrer, Valve collective and Hindustan Electronics have found intriguing ways to make such charity fun, just as Pullman found a way to talk about the better angels of mankind’s wisdom in a series of books supposedly dedicated to promoting atheism.

Until next time, pleasant dreamers, remember that escort-missions reminds us one thing, above all else: sometimes love, like God, demands a sacrifice. The question is whether a game’s designer decides to be the Old-Testament God of Abraham and Isaac upon the mound, or the New-Testament God of Jesus Christ upon the cross…

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2 Responses to “Separation Anxiety: Meditations on the Escort Mission”

  1. Beautiful analyses concerning the emotional journey of the escort-mission. Indeed, story motives would seem irrelevant, when viewed through the gamer’s intuition while playing and forming that connection with the NPC. The parallels to classic history/myth are well done. I remember forming a Baby Mario-as-Moses connection in my head while first playing Yoshi’s Island. I definately think the play mechanic of the escort mission is a tricky thing to pull off for all the reasons you mentioned, be it prone to saccharine love stories of the lowest common denominator or the potential annoyance of baby-sitting play mechanics with an idiot-savant A.I.

    However, I think that while the mechanic would have a somewhat heavier impact as a result of its seemingly resurfacing novelty if only used sparingly like you suggest, I doubt it’s possible to “wear out” the mechanic any more than all manner of others have been done and done and done and re-done (capture the flag, RTS, save the whatever, platform-jumping, etc). It’s basically what you do with it, like you said, and to reflect one of your points concerning ICO, the knowledge that love is ultimately doomed (despite the vehemently opposite opinions of Hallmark cards everywhere), makes that a story old as time and that will never die. The urgency of the moment (seize the day, and all that) and an emotional symbiosis with your charge will always have a place if done well and presented in novel ways, both in storytelling direction and in technological construction and design.

    As one who had originally ignored much of the hype of Final Fantasy VII when it first came out (I owned a Saturn at the time and was concentrating on news and games for it instead), the death of Aeris when I finally did play the game held a watershed moment for me, as it was the first time I can truly remember when I was glued to the screen, feeling a palpable sense of loss at one of my own party, with whom my character, as well as myself, had an emotional connection. The power and the art of gaming really took off for me then, and the potential of forming emotional investments in games not only by proxy but through direct interaction has been a fascination/obsession since.

    And yes, His Dark Materials trilogy kicks massive ass. I just love the idea (and name!) of the Subtle Knife…

  2. […] Paired with the wrapping-level mechanics I’d already explored in Limbo, I figured this would be a nice, quick warm-up and a fun little ditty, but not much else. By the time I started outlining and building the game in earnest, though, this simple dimensional-platformer had turned into something more, and something I’ve long held an appreciation for as a player and designer: an escort-mission. […]

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