Learning from Video Games: Zelda and the Art of the Game Shepherd

Yesterday, I wrote about the game shepherd NPC. What got me thinking about that character type (or at least, what got me thinking this time) was that one feature that all of the 3D Zelda titles share—their local equivalent of the game shepherd, someone to look over Link’s shoulder and tell him about things that a native to the world (or someone who’s been playing these things for a while) would probably know but that a new player in general might not. These characters, needless to say, often become the most polarizing members of the cast. But between playing the games, and watching the overall trends—who gets the flack, who gets the grudging admiration, certainly which ones I favor—I’ve gotten a pretty good sense of what these characters can tell us about characters of their type and, consequently, about game shepherd NPCs. For the sake of not going for several pages, I’m going to use the most recent two large-console exposition masters, sword spirit Fi from Skyward Sword and snarky twilight-being Midna from Twilight Princess.

Without actually playing the games, you’d think the former of the two would go over better with the audience. Fi’s on Link’s side from the moment she first manifests; Midna’s using her Link from the beginning. Fi manages to keep her opinions (assuming she has any, which itself is somewhat questionable) to herself; Midna throws out the verbal abuse from her first dialogue screen. I can’t stand Fi. (I am by no means whatsoever the only one.) I love Midna to pieces. Since I’m pretty sure it can’t all be explained by my apparent love for characters who are willing to insult mine, what goes?

The biggest issue is the matter of when to exposit and when not to. Most of Fi’s negative reputation comes from the fact that if Link is anywhere but Skyloft and something plot-relevant happens, she will manifest and talk (this webcomic is not an exaggeration. No, not even the part with the bow). Midna isn’t near as likely to pop into a conversation—yes, a good portion of that is not wanting to be seen, but the decreased frequency helps. Most of the complaints I have about Fi boil down to “If I want help, I’ll ask for it.”

It doesn’t help that Fi’s voice isn’t all that interesting. She sounds, put simply, as if she’s dictating a lab report, dispassionate, sesquipedalian, and prone to spouting stats. Yes, she’s an artificial intelligence (no, that’s not a spoiler), but there are a lot of examples of AIs with strong voices in a wide variety of fields (GlaDOS. The tachikomas. Mike from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Shall I go on?), so as far as I’m concerned, being a construct is an excuse, not a justification. Midna’s voice was a lot more distinctive and, at least in my opinion, much more interesting; I rather looked forward to her scripted appearances to see what she was going to say next. Her personality shows through; she has fun for fun’s own sake in the process of saving the world, insults whomever she feels like, shows sympathy, and feels, well, alive.

Then there’s the character dynamic—or, in Fi’s case, lack thereof. While I have not finished Skyward Sword, I am more than halfway through and have yet to see any change in the relationship between Link and Fi; she’s in his sword, she’s on his team, she has no life outside of these purposes (again, logical given she’s a construct made to help The Hero, but dead boring). Midna—well, it starts as a partnership of convenience, warms up as each demonstrates competence, and—well, by the time one moves between the first and second chain of go-here-and-find-this, she’s earned the respect scripted into the cutscenes.

Though those are the important parts, sometimes the cosmetic and mechanical details make a difference as well, and this case is no exception. Due to being functionally parts of the hero’s panoply rather than separate characters, neither has to worry particularly about being the Load or ridiculously More Awesome Than You; they’re working with Link, not alongside him. It’s… not hard to cut a little more slack for someone who provides access to certain locations, teleportation, shapeshifting and a useful multitarget attack than for someone who provides simply advice on gear, a bit of navigation help, and a limited-target directional locator. It’s also pretty easy to draw dubious comparisons between a walking example of the Uncanny Valley with next to no facial expression and someone who avoids the Valley entirely by being Most Definitely Not Human (and has nifty eyes. I’m a sucker for eye detail on animated characters). Qualities like this aren’t guaranteed to apply quite as much to one of our games, mind, but they will probably make a difference.

Long story short, I know who I’d rather have as an NPC party member, put-downs and all.

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