Video games always try to tackle certain feelings, certain themes. There are well-explored themes like fear, fun or team-play. But there´s an array of totally untouched themes. One would be love. We´re seeing a rise of sex within popular games right now, but that´s only partly related to “love”. Games that actually attempted to show that feeling´s full scale are rare, one strong example being Final Fantasy 8 or, maybe even moreso, Final Fantasy 10. Unlike love, another big theme is even less explored. That is: Friendship.
Surely, video games are “just” games, but there can be no doubt that messing around with the player´s emotions is big part of modern gaming. And while love can, at least on the surface, be displayed by making use of sex, friendship doesn´t have such obvious features. You cannot have a NPC say “I´m your friend” and the player´s going to think “wow, what a great friend he is.” It´s not going to work. That is why I think that friendship is something that should be explored more in-depth in video games.
First of all, a definition of what friendship actually is should be worked out. To keep it simple, let´s just say: Friendship is something between people that like and honestly care about each other. There are definitely better definitions, but that one´ll work just fine.
It has to be made clear that this concept of friendship has to relate both to ingame-characters as well as to the player himself. There are many games that feature a duo that goes on an adventure together and gives funny comments all the time, but that´s hardly “exploring the theme of friendship”. It´s simple saturday-morning cartoon level of entertainment. To become friend with virtual characters, situations have to occur that make you feel for them. Going through hardships strengthens the bond between friends, so that´s a way. That´s not enough, though, when it comes to video games. Remember Starfox Adventures, a GameCube-action adventure that tried to mimic the Legend of Zelda-games and didn´t really succeed at that. What it did uniquly was the permanent second character, prince Tricky, the little Triceratops that followed you around. While attempting something like friendship, the chosen style of gameplay forbid to make players care for the two of them, Fox McCloud and Tricky. That was because Tricky was nothing but a mere tool to solve puzzles. He had no free will, he didn´t act like an independent character…because he wasn´t. He was there so that the player could proceed through the game. A friend may be many things, but not a tool.
A game did exceptionally well in creating feelings for another characters was ICO for Playstation 2. From the very beginning, you as a player wanted to help weak Yorda on their way out of the castle. It can be criticized, though, that Yorda wasn´t really a friend-character in the game, but rather someone you just had to rescue. So while the game made you care for the characters, it wasn´t the friendship between to equal characters, but rather the compassion for a very weak looking character.
The next example only works for parts, as the actual friendship isn´t really a focus of the game. I´m talking about Half Life 2 and its episodes. And no, I´m not going to talk about Gordon Freeman and Alyx, but rather, Freeman and Dog, the robot. Unlike Yorda in ICO, Dog wasn´t weak by any means. Throughout the game, Dog kept helping you in tough scenes. Not only did he help you, you/Alyx told him to stay back when things got to dangerous. His loyalty sometimes brought me to tears while playing, and even though he doesn´t have that many appearances throughout the game, Dog might be the best developed “friend” in any video games. He cares about you, you start caring about him. And that´s really what friendship should be about.
Friendship is such a strong emotion if done right. It often even surpasses love, which might be diluted by an unfitting sex drive. To give you the feeling of being able to depend on someone, to care about him and break loose should ever something happen to him…that is the potential of friendship in games. While tv-shows and movies have an easy time to portray such feelings, video games are far from that ability. Too often, so-called friends turn into tools or are only to be seen in cutscenes between gameplay-parts. To put a NPC into the game in way that makes him feel like he´s got his own mind, does things his way and doesn´t go the way of the tool, that is the challenge to video game developers. The few shining examples of games that show a glimpse of that are proof of the powerful impression a well-worked out friendship can leave to the player. But that´s also up to gamers themselves, if they want games like that. Or are you content with cinematic games on the one, and multiplayer-focused games on the other hand? I am not, and I could still cry whenever I think about Horror Kid´s story from Legend of Zelda: Majora´s Mask. It´s these emotions that decide between temporary blockbuster game, and timeless masterpiece.