Getting back to Resident Evil 4, I find it useful to compare Ashley to the sidekick of Resident Evil 5. The former a whining, inept, unskilled ball and chain that clings to your back like the monkey she resembles, the latter a smart, sassy professional agent with multiple guns and a kick like a bear trap. But Resident Evil 4 is the better game. Because as much as Ashley didn't pull her weight, at least she didn't use up all my fucking ammo and health items shooting at the indestructible carapace of a giant murderous crab.
But that wasn't technically an escort, that was NPC support. The difference being that an escort is designed as an additional challenge for the player, while NPC support is supposed to aid the player with the challenges. In theory. They do exist on the same plane, because NPC support that has their own health and ammo can swiftly turn into an escort quest. If you can imagine a horizontal line, with efficient, helpful, and unintrusive NPC support on one end and something like the Companion Cube escort level on the other, then the kind of escort mission that gets annoying is directly in the middle of that line.
My first theory for the formula of a successful escort quest is one you don't really have to pay attention to most of the time, like the ones in Dead Rising 2, but on second thought I realized that in a lot of cases there wouldn't be a game at all, not when escorts are supposed to be one of the central challenges. I never found the prolonged escort sessions of Ico too hideous, despite having to constantly run after Yorda when shadow monsters were dragging her into the basement. I wanted to look after her because she was a helpless, fragile thing against the big black rowdy bastards.
So my final, updated theory goes that an escort subject remains tolerable as long as you are not expected to rescue them at any point from trouble they put themselves into, despite allegedly possessing the same level of self preservation as every other life form. So basically, don't have them attack enemies. At all. Like those motherfuckers in Dead Island wading angrily into throngs of beefy zoms with only a sharp stick. Or the lady from Silent Hill 4 whacking slime monsters conjured from the depths of fevered madness with an honest to fucking goodness handbag. Or if you're leaning more towards NPC support, have them attack, but just don't let them die. Or at least don't game over us if they die. No one appreciates being punished for something that totally wasn't their fault.
Besides, I think a lot of the resentment players have for aggressive escortees and support characters is that having them offer combat assistance gives the unspoken implication that the player needs it. The decrepit old scientist charging at the gathered enemy soldiers swinging a retort stand around his head is saying "Hey, Mr. Heavily Armed Soldier Player Character Man, let me show you how it's done! We are equally qualified for this job! Wheee! I've poured so much fucking coloured liquid from one glass flask into another, now it's time to put those skills to use!"
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.