You grab tightly at her hand and pull her through another corridor. The sound of rushed footsteps and shouting echo off the hallways behind you. They are closing in and you are running out of options. She stumbles in your grasp as you round another corner but you make sure she doesn’t fall, she’s not ready for this line of work like you are but you’ll be damned if innocent blood is spilled on your watch. Diving down another corridor you arrive at a dead-end and she begins to panic. No way out now, the bad guys are right on your tail. In a last-ditch effort, you tell her to hide in a nearby closet. You can see the horror and awe in her eyes as she realizes what you are doing but she obeys for the sake of her life. When you’re certain she’s safe you walk towards the danger, the shouting getting louder and louder with each step until you see the horde of enemies coming at you. This is it. All or nothing. You charge into the fray in a noble act of self-sacrifice and your determination to make it out alive is just enough to let you miraculously win the fire fight.
On paper this sounds like an awesome concept but the situation I’ve described was one of many situations that occurred in Resident Evil 4’s infamous escort missions. Granted, most people find RE4’s take on escort missions to be tolerable, but as a whole if you tell a gamer they have to do an escort mission you’ll most likely hear a disappointed groan as they try to power through it as quickly as possible. The idea of having to slow down to help another less intelligent AI through a portion of any game will always sound less appealing than just going through a game on your own, but we’ve seen so many examples of escort missions in video games that I think it’s a concept that is here to stay. So today, I’d like to compare good escort missions versus bad escort missions to see if we can find a common thread in ways to make escort missions tolerable.
We’ll start off with the game that is actually just a whole escort mission, Ico.
The precursor to Shadows of the Colossus, Ico has you play as a young boy that must escort a strange and helpless girl through a series of puzzles and platforming segments all the while keeping her safe from the shadows that seek to imprison her. Now Ico was more of an atmospheric game than it was an action game or a platforming game. You were living through a story more than you were anything else which allowed it to get away with this kind of game play. Since you were a child in a world you were unfamiliar with, the small bits of lore you got were from this girl so keeping her safe drove the game forward (See The Link Effect). The most prominent point of the game is the fact that, to get her to move on her own you have to literally hold her hand and guide her through the area which is probably the root of most people’s frustrations. It’s not the worst thing ever, and helps contribute to the relationship the two of you develop (Its platonic calm down) however, it does mean that whenever you solve a puzzle or clear the way you have to run back and grab the girl’s hand to progress. While this is not inherently fun, it is a way to make a game longer than it actually is and add an element to the game that would otherwise make the experience pretty generic.
That being said though, putting in an escort segment for the sake of adding difficulty or a twist on a level is not always great game design. Take a game like Fire Emblem Awakening for example. In Paralogue 3 you’re charged with the task of defeating all the enemies that are trying to attack a nearby village. The twist however, is that three villager units are running for their lives away from the village and while it is not required, its heavily implied that you SHOULD protect the villagers. Damn good alignment…
The map is fairly simple, it’s a flat snow field, with a hill to the left and a river dividing it across the middle. However, for some reason you start on one side of the river and the villagers you need to save start on the other. Even as I describe this to you it sounds epic. The stakes are clear and present, and your objective is now much more complicated than just rout the enemy. And it would have been great if the villagers weren’t so stupid. The three AI are all set on a fixed route to escape the map which just so happens to be down and away from your army. Furthermore, enemy units target the villagers over you, even if you are in a clustered area with the villagers. Because of this there is very little you can do to protect them other than kill the enemies before they have a chance to move towards the villagers. And sure, I’ll admit that the game is trying to make you think and grow as a tactician and I’m not saying that the mission was poorly designed, only that, it would have been so simple to add a “Go” and “Wait” command to issue the villagers to keep them from running into what is obvious death. Unit death in Fire Emblem is permanent so if you charge in gung-ho with the intent to clear out the thick bunch of units that the villagers are walking towards, more often than not you’ll find yourself losing precious units to an optional quest. When I see people’s walk-through of the mission, I often see people spamming the rescue spell in an attempt to keep the villagers from moving, which, while effective, drains you of that precious resource you could use on your actual soldiers. The only other way to really do it is to come back when you are a much higher level than the map, which at that point, invalidates the point of doing it.
So escort missions can be in a game and enhance the experience, but, if the rules of the escort mission are tedious or unrealistic then the escort mission becomes unfavorable. Special attention should be paid to the “realistic” aspect of the escort mission. Part of what makes the escort mission harrowing is the fact that the target you are escorting is often running for their lives. This means they’ll be scared, but also means they’ll be doing what they can to survive. As a player you’ve controlled your character enough to get out of most situations, or know what to do in dire moments, so to get a game over because the AI can’t do the same things you do, invites frustration. Ashley in Resident Evil 4 wasn’t exactly perfect but, she knew how to run when she needed to run, hide when she needed to hide and fight when she needed to fight. Most of the time when she got caught it was your fault for leaving her out in the open.
Another example that comes to mind are the Elder Scrolls games. Through the main story or some side-quests you’ll find yourself opportunities to have other people join your party. Sometimes its a knight, sometimes its a spell-caster sometimes its a dog, but every time it brings something new to the game. Suddenly every fight has a little more weight to it as you need to make sure your partner isn’t getting hit or in the way of your attacks or vice versa with their attacks. The partner can up your combat potential even by doing something as simple as carry some of the loot for you or be more effective against a certain enemy type than you are. You also learn more about them through their battle cries, or through just talking to them in general which may present you with information you did not previously know about the world. In this case, the escort AI becomes an endearing character that you seek to protect and work with to help you along in your adventure.
To conclude, factors that make an escort mission bearable are:
- Competent AI.
- Ability to bring something new to the game experience.
- Not being required to escort for long periods of time.
- Making the reward worth the effort.
Meanwhile things that can ruin an escort mission would be:
- Uncontrollable game over
- Unrealistic actions to increase difficulty
- Characters not fleshed out enough to be worth the effort.
It takes a delicate balance of realism and planning to make a tolerable escort mission in a game. They really should only be added when the game’s narrative directly supports the mission, or the reward for doing the quest is great enough to take on the risk. The reason we groan at escort missions is because they usually disrupt the flow of the game so the best way to move forward in the future is to make escort missions feel like the mean something.