Escort missions. Few things in videogames can elicit a Khan-like scream of despair from players so quickly.
You’re progressing through an entertaining, tense, action-packed game when suddenly, for reasons known only to themselves, the designers force you to replay the same five-minute (if you’re lucky) section over and over, trying to prevent natural selection from improving the human gene pool by letting your hated escortee remove him/herself from it through rank incompetence.
Not all escort missions are disasters—see, for example, my article on when escort missions go right —but most are awful, and while designers have tried to learn from the mistakes of earlier games, sometimes that just results in new kinds of escort dysfunction. While the internet offers list after list of worst escort missions ever. So what are the worst escort mission mistakes game designers can make?
1. Make the escortee dumb as rocks.
The absolute worst kind of escortee is the one who spends every moment of screen time actively trying to get killed. Natalya from Goldeneye 007 for N64 is an early notable example, with Natalya blithely walking directly in front of your gun as you fire it, causing restart after restart. Escorting Natalya becomes about using trial and error to memorize every detail of the level so you can kill all enemies with maximal efficiency and reduce (though not eliminate) the chance that she is able to throw herself, lemming-like, in front of a rain of bullets.
Missions like this make for dull gameplay but they also ruin the narrative of a game by making you hate a character you’re usually supposed to like. I am probably not the only gamer who, frustrated by an escortee bent on self-destruction, has from time to time finished one off myself both to hasten the inevitable restart and because I wish that the character could just die.
2. Make the escortee incredibly annoying.
Even escortees who are invincible or not prone to getting themselves killed can be terrible if having them in the same room as your player-character feels like having dental work without sedation.
Take Sticky from Fallout 3, for instance. Sticky is a kid who needs an escort across a post-apocalyptic wasteland to town, and if you agree to the quest, he punishes you the entire time by telling you incredibly dumb stories and generally babbling. Not only has this spawned a cottage industry of Sticky snuff films, but even the designers apparently realized that they had created an abomination of an escort NPC, as if you kill him while he’s saying goodbye to his “friends” just before the escort mission begins, they will apparently all mention how annoying they found him. Bethesda, if you were aware that Sticky is awful, why did you still inflict him on us? It doesn’t matter that Sticky isn’t that much weaker than the average escortee…even if you only run an escort mission once, it’s a bad mission if you hate every minute of it.
3. Make the mechanics for keeping the escortee alive and functional particularly aggravating.
Let’s say that an escortee isn’t actively suicidal or aspiring to Gilbert Gottfried levels of annoyingness. The escort mission will still suck if the stuff you have to do to win the mission is really dumb or poorly implemented.
The Metal Gear Solid series is a particularly bad offender with this one. In MGS2, you have to escort Emma Emmerich (through a water level, but she’s afraid of water…so let’s go ahead and check the “incredibly annoying” box, too), but she’s afraid of bugs, so you spend a bunch of time using bug spray. Which, you know, isn’t usually what people usually buy videogames to simulate doing. In MGS3, you have to escort an ailing Eva around, but she needs constant feeding to keep her stamina up, so the mission devolves into hunting for food and then feeding it to her. I don’t like watching couples feed each other in real life, and being forced to simulate it in a tactical stealth espionage game is also not really what I signed up for Konami, but thanks for playing.
4. Make the benefit of the escort mission not worth the hassle.
This problem isn’t limited to escort missions but it certainly applies to them. Often in escort missions, the escortee isn’t super annoying, or actively suicidal, and the mechanics aren’t particularly bad, but overall the mission just doesn’t offer that much that the rest of the game isn’t already doing better. Take, for instance, the Dead Rising games (at least the first two). Escorting survivors to safety isn’t terrible, per se, but it takes a lot of time, it’s mildly aggravating trying to save the more helpless survivors (and those who turn suicidal hero with a gun in their hands), they’re rarely especially interesting narratively, and the benefits (Prestige Points) are fine, but not spectacular.
This category of escort mission lameness is more mediocre than awful. Missions like this just want something to make them interesting or different rather than needing a fundamentally broken aspect of the mission to be overhauled. Escort missions teetering on the edge of brokenness sometimes fall into this category when a timer is added, turning an otherwise manageable or decent escort into a battle to get the escort AI to behave rationally before time is up. Time me on my ability to play the game, but don’t punish me when I can’t get your escortee to their drop point in time because their AI has them walking into walls or packs of enemies.
5. Have the escortee waste my hard-earned stuff.
As a general tip, if I’m saving your life, it’s considered bad manners to steal or waste the tools I need to do the job. Sheva in Resident Evil 5 (single player, not co-op) is terrible at this, wasting your precious survival-horror ammo (RE5 is still kind of a survival-horror game) like she thinks she’s in Call of Duty or Halo. Many of the survivors in Dead Rising also do this, which just pushes them further along the scale of ‘not worth the hassle.’
So those are my five top ways designers make escort missions terrible. With so many excruciating escort missions already having been inflicted on the world, however, I’m sure I’ve missed some. What types of escort mission disasters have I left out? What are some of the worst examples you’ve every played? Have you ever killed an NPC rather than escort them? Have any actually caused you to give up on a game entirely?