Rarer than Unicorns: Escort Missions That Deserve Saving

The Last of Us

As I discuss in a related post, I discussed how escort missions are usually terrible, bringing otherwise fun games to a screeching halt with shoddy mechanics, annoying characters, and terrible AI.

So when escort missions go right

It’s about as close as most of us will ever get to winning the lottery. But it shouldn't be! Both, you know, because I’d be happy for you if you won the lottery, but also because with so many talented game designers out there making great games, they should be getting better by now at making escort missions less of an ordeal. 

To begin with

I should point out that many excellent recent games have, on the surface, been really long escort missions: The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One. Each of these narratively compelling games involves caring about the survival of a weaker NPC, so why don’t they fall prey to the failures that give escort missions their bad name? Because in each case, the escort concept is developed more through narrative than gameplay. These are stories about escorts, not games about doing the escorting.

Elizabeth is invulnerable, Ellie almost always stays out of the fray, and Clementine is only occasionally in danger, and restarting after getting her killed is almost never the minutes-long hassle it is often in traditional escort missions (and is always your fault rather than the fault of crappy AI). What these games have done is realized that a story about protection doesn’t necessarily have to involve escort gameplay.

This is a fine solution to the escort problem—all three of these are amazing games, and they do a good job building the PC-NPC relationship because they can stay focused on story rather than escort mechanics. But it does miss out on some of the potential of storytelling in games, in that the gameplay rarely supports the emotional tension of keeping characters you care about safe.

The decision-based gameplay

Of The Walking Dead does the best job of the three, because it’s clear that your choices can help determine Clem’s (and others’) fate andThe Last of Us psychological development, so you can never ignore her as completely as you can ignore Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite.

Also, both Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us try to overcome the player’s deeply ingrained hatred for escort missions by having their pseudo-escortees provide (rather than drain) useful items and cash from time to time. I’m personally kind of torn about this addition.

On the one hand, I think it makes the characters seem less useless, which is a good thing for the stories. On the other, it sucks that even on Survivor difficulty mode, The Last of Us has Ellie provide health almost every time Joel is getting close to death. Come on, Naughty Dog, I’m playing on double hard for a reason. (I haven’t played Grounded difficulty yet, so I can’t speak to that triple-hard setting).

So some games are separating the story and game aspects

Of escorting to avoid frustration. But what about those games that still want to challenge the player with performing a difficult escort? Clever designers (and improved AI) are starting to get better at this, too (at least sometimes).

The occasional escort missions in are well done

XCOM Enemy WithinEnemy Unknown are great examples of this. As a turn-based strategy game, the escortee AI is easier to get right (and to account for as a player) than in a real-time shooter. And the game’s panic mechanic creates a smooth transition from rookie squad members to NPC escortees, so that managing escortees is an extension of the rest of the gameplay rather than a frustratingly abrupt departure from it.

Within the shooter genre, Half-Life 2

(and its follow-up episodes) did a pretty good job making Alyx add to rather than detract from the game. As escortees go, she’s pretty durable, and she helps with combat and tech support. Combined with her narrative interest, she’s one of the best escortees (or at least tag-along NPCs) around. (Now if only valve would get back to Half-Life!)

Valve also created my favorite escortee of all time

In Portal: the Weighted Companion Cube. In a brilliant subversion of all that makes escort missions terrible, the Companion Cube is used against you by a bad AI, GlaDOS (but bad as in “evil” rather than “incompetent,” unlike so many escort mission), to introduce a new gameplay element to make the puzzles more challenging. Meanwhile, GlaDOS tries to make you care about the Companion Cube so that, at the end of the testing sequence, she can force you to euthanize it and then use that against you psychologically. Unlike so many escort missions where I WANT to kill the NPC by the end, but the game won’t let me, in Portal I begin to be fond of an inanimate (but apparently mildly sentient, according to Portal 2) companion only to be forced to kill it (though Portal 2 reveals that this, too, was a trick).

I’ll end with a couple escort-mission games that have left players divided

And explain why I like them. First is Ico. The gameplay of Ico involves puzzle-platforming while never getting so far away from your (permanent) escortee, Yorda, that she can be overwhelmed by shadow beings before you can return to protect her. Yorda works for me because she’s important to the narrative, interesting (Team Ico are good at mysterious, evocative storytelling in the background of games), and her need for protection is understandable, as her physical presence is being drained away by the game’s antagonist. Also, it helps that her visual design is well done—Yorda’s occasionally stumbling and drifting movements reinforces her narrative rather than making her seem mechanical or mundane.

And then there’s Resident Evil 4

Some people love this game about escorting Ashley Graham to safety, and some hate it. I love it. The simple addition of basic escortee commands makes the escorting a slight plus to the gameplay most of the time. You can usually tell Ashley to just get out of harm’s way, and she’ll do it. And at times when you can’t (or don’t), having to rescue her adds some spice to the gameplay without being too tedious. The escort mechanics have their hiccups, but on the whole, I think they’re a sensible progression of this game mechanic.

In conclusion:

I argue that the simple additions of escortee commands in Resident Evil 4 offer an example of how true escort missions can develop in future shooters. Let’s have a game that adds something like Final Fantasy XII’s gambit system so that you can strategically manage strong (but not invulnerable) escortees from time to time. You could mix something like that with a “trouble” system where certain characters get captured or cornered based on their particularly strategic weaknesses, and you have to deal with it.

A simple system to set limits on what escortees

Will and won’t do when you give them a weapon would go a long way toward avoiding the frustration of escortees wasting ammo and items or plunging into dumb fights that will only get them killed (or force you to act recklessly to try to save them). AI has come a long way since the “golden” age of terrible escort missions, so I think the potential is there to do better with this justifiably hated genre of mission/game mechanic type. We can rebuild them. We have the technology.

Personally, I think the potential for narrative tension (and gameplay variation) offered by escort missions can make them valuable contributions to games…when done well. But with a mission type that’s been done so badly so often, I can understand that many would just like to see escort missions (like so many escortees) die for good. What do you think? Is this mission type better off dead? Or is it worth reviving if done well? What are your favorite escort missions in gaming? What makes them good that I’ve failed to mention here?

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Tuesday, 30 May 2023