An old man in The Legend of Zelda first told Link “It’s dangerous to go alone.” Whether or not developers subconsciously heeded those words, you’ll more often than not find that for singleplayer games, you are never really alone.
With God of War’s release, Kratos’ son Atreus is the latest example of a strong single-player campaign where the protagonist has a tag-along for a journey of self-discovery and complex relationships. Let’s be honest, it’s not so easy spinning a good yarn by yourself.
As someone who’s able to bring out a whole new dimension to Kratos, and prove very handy when trying to tear Norse demons and trolls to pieces, you might argue that Atreus is the game companion at its most advanced. But we can think of some who give Atreus a run for his money. Let’s look back at the top ten partnerships in gaming over the years.
There’s actually been a lot, so just to be clear, we’re focusing on single-player campaigns, so a companion who is essentially Player Two is out (sorry, Tails). Also we’re going to disqualify sidekicks that are quite literally attached to you with the sole purpose of drip-feeding advice or jokes (oh hey, Navi, Daxter – yeah, not you guys). But, as you may find, it’s not always that clear-cut.
10: Elika – Prince of Persia
(PS3, Xbox 360, PC, 2008)
A controversial choice to begin with (and by no means the last), considering the Prince of Persia series has mostly been about solitude and challenge. Elika’s introduction put an end to both those elements, especially for the latter in the sense that your titular hero really can’t die. Whether you’re about to succumb to an enemy’s killing blow or screw up a jump, Elika will always be there to save you.
Sure, it’s probably the nadir of hand-holding in blockbuster games. And in terms of well-behaved game companions, Elika’s far too well-behaved to the point of clingy. But considering we’re going to run into a trend where a male protagonist has to protect a female companion, there’s something a bit different when they’re the ones getting you out of a jam.
9: Quiet – Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
(PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, 2015)
OK, you first have to contend with the fact that she tries to kill you not once but twice. Then there’s that outfit (or lack or one, and let’s not even get into the photosynthetic logic behind it), but if Big Boss is out on a mission, you’re going to want to bring Quiet along.
Bringing a companion on missions is completely optional, and the animal lovers among you may prefer D-Dog. But when you can have a sniper zip across the Afghan desert or African jungles, scout out guard posts and pick off enemies from afar, there’s no competition. It’s a bit of a downside for those who want their playthroughs non-lethal, but once you’ve upgraded Quiet’s rifle with tranqs and a silencer, you’ll be laughing.
But seriously, animal lovers, we’ve got you covered later.
8: Elizabeth – Bioshock Infinite
(PC, PS3, Xbox 360, PS4, Xbox One, 2013)
Of all the Bioshocks, this one catches the most flack in retrospective. Particularly in how it tries to tie themes of slavery, racism, and religion — before it says sod it and has you murdering everyone with a sky-hook. Nonetheless, Infinite went some way to convince many people that introducing a partner in single-player needn’t be a bad thing.
Elizabeth remains a wonderfully animated character. Like something out of a Disney film, if a Disney film included impaling the heads of hundreds of humans. Aside from not being a klutz and walking into enemy fire, she also proves helpful with chucking you healing items, ammo, and money.
Pull back the curtain, however, and this emergent side of her comes across a little disingenuous. For a start, she doesn’t get hurt because she’s essentially invisible to enemies, and isn’t she just creating these items for you out of thin air?
7: Nadine – Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
Not gonna lie, Sony’s first-party efforts have a bit of a monopoly on this list, of which this is the first. We could’ve easily picked one of Nathan Drake’s many companions over the series’ adventures – Elena, Sullie, Sam – but it’s actually the mysterious Chloe Frazer’s own stand-alone adventure that comes out on top.
Nadine Ross makes for an unusual companion, not only because she was last seen kicking Nate’s ass in Uncharted 4, but also because she’s more of a hired hand. Compared to Nate and pals, what makes Chloe and Nadine’s relationship fascinating is that they begin as uneasy, just-business allies, which gradually opens up into something close to friendship.
Nadine’s also got initiative. Whether that’s taking out mercs with military efficiency or solving part of a puzzle without waiting for you to do it. More importantly, how often do you see a game passing the Bechdel Test?
6: Ellie – The Last of Us
(PS3, PS4, 2013)
A bit of a pattern going on with female companions with names beginning with ‘Eli-’. It’s fair to say that Ellie is one of the greatest characters in modern games, partly down to both Neil Druckmann’s brilliant writing and Ashley Johnson’s incredible, BAFTA-winning performance.
We’ve of course had Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead where you’re looking after a child post-apocalypse, but Ellie is neither a game-length escort mission nor does she need protecting. She’s wise beyond her years, more than capable of stabbing the odd infected or hunter, and even saves Joel’s life on a few occasions.
So why isn’t she much higher on the list, you’re probably wondering? As a character, she’s absolutely compelling — even better fleshed out in the excellent expansion, Left Behind. But as a companion, she’s really just there to feed you more story. Literally so when you’re given the choice to press triangle and initiate a bit more dialogue.
She does help you out when you’re in a scrap, but it’s hard to say just how much she’s contributing (not helped by the generally messy feel of combat). Nor does it seem she can ever be in danger. Honestly, watching AI characters run in front of an enemy that doesn’t bat an eyelid kinda breaks the immersion. Which is probably for the better that we’ll just get to play as Ellie in the sequel.
5: Atreus – God of War
When Kratos’ comeback was revealed that he would have a kid in tow, comparisons to The Last of Us were hard to avoid. It was a way of providing a new mature depth in Sony Santa Monica’s murderous anti-hero than we thought was possible.
It would be easy to say that Atreus is an evolution of Ellie, who not only helps with solving puzzles (or at least conveniently crawl through a tight space leaving Kratos to figure out how to get through another corridor of spiky deathtraps), but also develops in combat as you progress. He even has his own skill tree!
Yet as you play, it’s hard to say whether he is an advanced AI companion or merely an extension of the player, not behaving as independently as you’d be left to believe. Especially as you can order him to fire arrows when you like. The way he immediately jumps onto your back as soon as you’re climbing makes him feel as inseparable as old-school platforming duos Banjo and Kazooie, or Jak and Daxter.
Then there’s also how he likes to remind you, “Let’s go explore – there’s so much more content, don’t trade me in straight away, please” — that’s just a bit too underhanded, Boy.
4: Ashley – Resident Evil 4
(Gamecube, PS2, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii, Android, iOS, PC, 2005)
Given how far storytelling and technology has gotten in games, you’re probably wondering why a 13-year old game’s companion is this high up on the list, and one that’s so undeniably retrograde. The president’s daughter Ashley Graham is as textbook a damsel as they come. She’s the girl Leon not only has to rescue but then spend a good portion of the game protecting, as she is completely unable to fend for herself.
Yet, it’s that level of vulnerability that sort of makes her stand out. Look, put your liberal pitchforks down for a second — female characters in games have clearly become more sophisticated, capable, and not just a pair of “ballistics.” But in terms of gameplay, doesn’t it feel hard to care about the companions who are invincible? By actually needing to actively protect Ashley – sometimes sacrificing your limited supply of medical herbs to keep her health up – it keeps the moment-to-moment gameplay tense.
And while there’s a bugbear about vulnerable companions dying too easily, Ashley is much less a hindrance than you’d imagine. Plus she’s got no qualms hiding in a dumpster when you tell her to. It’s just one of many elements showing that even to this day, Resi 4’s campaign hasn’t been matched (don’t @ me).
3: Delilah – FireWatch
(PC, PS4, Xbox One, 2016)
Another controversial choice, and one you’d probably assume completely breaks the rules. After all, this isn’t a character you ever even get to meet!
While it’s true most first-person narrative adventures (or, ahem, walking sims) tend to rely on disembodied voices relaying a story in past-tense, fire lookout supervisor Delilah (a BAFTA-winning performance from Cissy Jones) is very much an immediate presence you can interact with moment-to-moment via your walkie-talkie.
Choosing to stay silent and distant, making observations of things you see, or playing along with her cringe-worthy puns all have an effect on how your relationship develops. There’s even an early moment where you can end up pissing her off, causing her to step away for a short period. In a mostly solitary environment with just you and the world that’s almost devoid of other characters, it’s amazing how Campo Santo cleverly creates the illusion of another individual’s presence in a naturally flowing conversation. We’re surprised no one else has tried stealing the idea.
2: Trico – The Last Guardian
Animal lovers have been waiting for this, though not nearly as long as it took for Fumito Ueda’s game to escape development hell. But playing The Last Guardian, it’s clear that all the years were spent on making the most perfectly realised game companion possible, which is to say that imperfection is the secret ingredient.
Compared to the examples who blindly tag along and obey your instructions, Trico – a beast hybrid of dog, bird, and cat – is slow to listen to your boy’s commands, and often requires a bit of coaxing or repetition until you’re about to go nuts. Yet Trico’s unpredictable nature is precisely what makes it feel like a living breathing creature with its own quirks and temperament that you need to understand.
Feeding it those strange barrels, pulling out enemy spears and just some general TLC are all important attentive actions that help build trust between you over time, and makes for an utterly unforgettable adventure. And look, if you don’t start getting tears down your face towards the end, you’re the real monster.
1: Yorda – Ico
(PS2, PS3, 2001)
Look, you can have the most photo-realistic visuals, the most advanced AI, the most detailed dialogue branches, but forget all that. This seemingly simple PS2 classic – and still frankly Ueda-san’s masterpiece – has the greatest video game companion.
Once again, it’s easy to reduce the waiflike Yorda to being another outdated damsel or an inconvenient walking keycard, but that would be all missing the point. Like Resi 4’s Ashley, her vulnerability is partly what makes her integral to the gameplay. But more importantly the bond created with her is a very physical and proactive one.
Yorda may sometimes follow you but it’s not guaranteed unless you hold her hand by literally holding R1, which also generates a very subtle haptic feedback, a beautiful use of the DualShock’s feature which up to that point had mostly been used to convey more in-your-face feelings like fast cars, gunfire, and explosions.
Whether you’re protecting Yorda from the smokey spirits trying to whisk her away through an ominous portal, or stretching your hand out to her, calling for her to make a jump across a chasm, or making sure you’re both sitting together on those bizarre couches just to save the game, those are unique bonding moments that continue to resonate years later.
There may be smarter, more capable, more talkative companions, but none will ever be as memorable as Yorda, a firm clasp of her hand, and never letting go.