On Bioware’s added companion customization and removed companion killing
by Mark Pajor (follow @mpajor on Twitter)
If you haven’t heard yet, a few big changes to the Companion system were announced at Comic-Con: you can customize their physical appearance, do some new things with their AI, and you can no longer kill them permanently through your story. All three of these things were responses to player feedback in testing, but it’s interesting to note that while the first two give the player a larger degree of freedom and flexibility, the last removes an option that several people were excited for. Why did these changes occur, and what does it mean for player freedom and choice?
Players want to actually be able to change what their companion character looks like… so we’re giving players, and this is just one example, the ability to change, for example, the skin color of the companions” – James Ohlen at SDCC SWTOR panel
While fans have had many questions about Companion Characters since their announcement, one of the biggest was always, “Are we really going to see copies of our own companion running around the world all the time?” It was enough to wonder if George Lucas used the title Attack of the Clones for the wrong Star Wars era, but this is no longer a problem.
It seems like we have almost as much variety in choosing their looks as we do with our own player character: the skin color, eyes, mouth, and even lekku markings have several different options. Besides gender, body type, and species, the four Vettes in the picture at the beginning of this post look like completely different people.
From a player’s perspective, it’s bizarre to think that Bioware didn’t plan visual companion customization from the beginning. Most likely, it was a matter of the creators’ protective nature of their work. Authors like George R. R. Martin are so protective of their characters that they are strongly against the existence of faction fiction based on their works.
No doubt Bioware’s writers have a very, very strong say in the visual looks of the companions they create. Their appearance is made to match their personality, and the looks are a part of the creators‘ vision. For the writers, having their darlings significantly altered by the players might not sit well. It’s understandable, particularly coming from a company that makes single-player games, where companion clones aren’t a potential problem to worry about.
Ultimately, though, player feedback showed that variety, freedom, and immersion were more important to Bioware than 100% dedication to their vision. This is huge, as it relieves one of the major anti-companion arguments from companion detractors. There will still be those that are so vehemently against anything resembling a “pet” class, as well as those who wish for a challenge, that will still refuse to use companions. In general, though, this definitely scores points in Bioware’s favor from the fan base. It shows that Bioware is truly listening to everyone and changing the game accordingly.
James Ohlen also teased the possibility of stronger combat control of companions, but details on this system may be a long way out. It’s possible that TOR will have a tactics screen similar to Dragon Age: Origins, but that’s only an assumption. Either way, most players will view more control and customization of their companions as a very good thing.
If companions can be used more efficiently, having more than the few automatic combat modes that pets have in other MMOs, it will vastly increase the solo player’s flexibility in combat. And with the announcement of end-game solo content on Illum, it’s quite possible we can use a companion in that setting. If so, we’ll need all the control we can get to take on the game’s most challenging solo content.
Some of my favorite moments of the Mass Effect games were the times when a companion’s life was in your hands. When you know that you can eliminate someone from the rest of the entire Mass Effect saga, you really know that your choices matter in the short and long run. There were moments when you thought you might need to kill your companion to save your own life, times when you had to choose between the lives of two companions, and times when your companions could die in ways you didn’t even see happening. These moments help build an emotional connection between you and your companions.
It came as a shocking surprise to some, then, when Bioware announced at SDCC that you can no longer kill your companions in The Old Republic. From the forums to fansites to other gaming websites, reactions range from “I understand why they changed it, but I wish they hadn’t” to “None of your choices matter anymore! I’m boycotting the game!” These reactions are somewhat understandable. At least, they would be, if the companion-killing choices were anywhere near as deep and difficult as they were in Mass Effect.
Here’s the thing, though. The companion-killing options couldn’t have been as difficult in TOR as they are in the Mass Effects. Time and again, the devs had said that if you were to kill your companion, it would be incredibly obvious that it would happen and you would have a lot of warning. So what does that mean?
Could you have had moments where you think you need to kill your companions to save your own character’s life? No. It’s an MMO, and without the option to save, they would never let your character die permanently. Could there have been a choice where you need to save one companion and let another die? No, because every class has five companions and they need to keep things balanced. Could there have been times where you don’t know an action will kill one of your companions? No, because that wouldn’t give you the warning Bioware promised.
Most of the interesting companion-death situations in Mass Effect simply wouldn’t work in TOR. Others may disagree, but I really don’t think we’re losing much here. And if you just want to get the companion in a place where he or she will never annoy you again, there are several non-permanent ways Bioware could let you get rid of your companions. We could have the option to freeze them in carbonite for as long as we want, for example.
Throwing them in the brig and sending them into exile could also work. If they’re in carbonite, you could unfreeze them if you decide you want them back, after all. If you put them in the brig, you could take them back out at any time. If you sent them into exile, there could be a quest to bring them back to your crew.
Note that none of these are in the game (as far as we know). They’re just examples of potential compromises for those who never want to see a companion again. And seriously, freezing your disloyal minions in carbonite, without telling them if you’ll ever let them out, is just as badass as chopping them apart with a lightsaber.
Ultimately, I think the positives of companion AI and facial customization far outweigh the negatives of losing our companion murder licenses. Besides, if you can change your companions’ looks and tactics extensively, your urge to incinerate them with lightning might be easier to control. What do you think? Is this an example of Bioware limiting us too much, or of Bioware giving us more freedom?
Quick update: Based on a post by Georg Zoeller, you certainly do have the option to put your companions in your brig or “bathe them in liquid carbonite”. Now if only we can get the carbonite-companion desk…