Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Burden in Your Hand (and Everywhere Else): A.I. Escort Missions

 They're helpless (usually) dumb and seem to want to die sometimes, and that's when you don't feel like shooting them in the face yourself. So what is it about escort missions that makes controllers fly?

Escort Mission: rarely will you find two words that illicit more groans of pain from the gaming community than these. Whether it was actually thought of as a good idea at some point, or if it's always just sort have meant to be a challenge which must be surmounted to get a reward (which is what the gameplay sections not dealing with escorts are ultimately considered in most cases), the escort mission has certainly become a pariah in terms of how much it's loathed in the gaming community. Of course it's loathed for some pretty good reasons to begin with.

The ground terms for escort missions generally involve the following: the person being escorted cannot be controlled by a living player instead solely by the computer. Most of the time the escort has little or even no means of defending themselves and even if they do it's generally well below the power curve that both you and the enemies progress on. Finally and perhaps most importantly (and infuriatingly) if the escort dies, is captured, or somehow otherwise taken out of the picture in a non-scripted event it's an instant game over. Now, each of those traits in and of itself is perhaps troublesome, but not terrible; when all three get combined though you get some of the most controller throwingly bad experiences that come from games.

Let me elaborate using an old example: when I say the name Rapha (or Rafa) did you twitch a little? If not then you probably haven't played Final Fantasy Tactics, where the aforementioned character plays a role in what to many is one of the most frustrating initial missions when they are doing their first run through of the game. To set the scene: the battle you engage in has Rapha as an A.I. controlled character, and while she can attack and defend herself she's woefully below both you and the enemies you're facing, and if she dies it's game over: no chance to even resurrect her or anything: you lose, good day sir. Factor in to this as well that Rapha's A.I. likes nothing better than to rush headlong into the nearest group of enemies and promptly get herself eviscerated. Entire strategies from making a non-important member of your party a more appealing target, to using the A.I. mechanics to manipulate Rapha into going where you want her to go have been developed; all for the sake of completing a mission that would otherwise be somewhat difficult but nowhere near as frustrating.

Perhaps it is not really prudent to place all the blame on the A.I. when it is limited by an extremely strict set of protocols itself. Taking a look at Resident Evil 4 for example, when the player has Ashley in tow they cannot issue any command beyond mostly what amounts to "follow me" or "stay here". In some cases you can have Ashley hide in places while you take care of enemies -- it really is saying something when in an escort part of the game they just give you a way to not have to worry about it until you've already taken care of business -- but when she's with you all she can really do is stick close to you; this represents a danger in an of itself since any wide range attack can easily harm and sometimes outright kill her if you haven't buffed her health, not to mention that the enemies are programmed to kidnap her and if they manage to get away again, it's a game over for you. The worst part of all of this is that on a scale of true annoyance, escorting Ashley isn't even all that bad, and yet it still seems needless and at times trivially frustrating (just not as often as with other games).

Essentially, what it boils down to is that in some cases looking out for your own ass is hard enough in most games, when you add a character that is nothing but a burden to the mix then in most cases (note here I don't say all) it's just going to be more frustrating. Add to this the fact that sometimes the A.I. just seems to do whatever the hell it wants; like not listening to you when you ask it to come to your location or push a lever or do something you need to progress, and you just have a recipe for a frustrating disaster.

So, have there been any cases where escort missions have been done right? The answer is yes, and will also form the basis for tomorrow's article.


  1. Damn you Rafa/Rapha. Damn you to hell. Extra damning if trying to teach Luso Ultima early.

    One of my many game design ideas/drafts is an RPG that is essentially all escort mission, though in a fun, unique way.

    I hear ICO does it right, though I haven't played the game.

  2. It was pure hell in World of Warcraft before the NPCs learned how to run.


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