This article comes a day late because… I’m not going to offer an excuse. You’re just going to have to live with the mystery.
I assume that most of us who have played games have at one point (at least) come across a non-playable character that we became attached to. But sometimes we don’t become attached to characters who the game makers want us to get attached to, and sometimes we get more attached than we are supposed to. While quality narrative can do wonders for making a character appealing, I have found that players often base their connections on the mechanics of the character instead (and this sometimes causes problems).
Examples of player attachment that I often enjoy bringing up come from Team ICO. First, in Ico we are tasked with escorting Yorda though a dangerous maze filled with shadow monsters. While she is required to open some doors for us, she is honestly mostly just a hindrance as we have to fight off monsters from dragging her away because she doesn’t run away or fight back. The narrative says we should care for her, but most players seem to find her an annoying hindrance upon their adventure. Counter to this we have Aggro from Shadow of the Colossus, whom players did grow quite attached to without the narrative telling them they were supposed to. Unlike Yorda, Aggro was invincible and was extremely useful in your journey to fight the colossi. Aggro allowed you to traverse an expansive setting more quickly, but wasn’t required except for a few tasks.
Just using this example it feels like mechanics heavily influence which characters we get attached to. As a further example there was a great discussion on Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’ about the ending of Fable 2 (I’m not going to bother with spoilers because hell, I haven’t played the game and still know this part). At the end players were asked if they would save a city or save their family, and after doing so could continue playing the game as an open-world sandbox. But for many players there was an issue. Fable 2 added in a dog companion which helped the player in a multitude of ways. Many players didn’t acknowledge the dog as that big of a deal until they made their decision to save either their family or the city. This is because if you don’t choose your family, you end up not having the dog for your new sandbox. The companion you had for the entire game is gone. The HAWP discussion ended up revealing just how many players couldn’t keep playing after they lost their digital animal friend.
However, there are examples which show that player attachment doesn’t just come from usefulness. In some games the characters are either the same mechanically or at the very least equally useful, and it is at this point that the narrative begins to matter. Games by BioWare (Mass Effect and Dragon Age) show this off quite nicely. Then there are games which have useful characters which no one cares about, like the companions in Diablo 2. I expect this is because Diablo 2 companions have no risks. If they die you can revive them with no real effort.
With this evidence gathered together I think player attachment is strongest/more likely to occur with narratively positive or neutral characters that provide in-game use who players are at risk of losing or who the player loses unexpectedly. Does this match up with the experiences of other players? Let me know in the comments. Does it match up with attachment and relationships in the physical world? Don’t let me know in the comments.