It's no coincidence that the most memorable party-based RPGs feature a fine supporting cast. Titles like Planescape: Torment or Barkley, Shut Up & Jam: Gaiden benefit tremendously from unusual, well-written characters who, in their roles as party sidekicks, serve to expand the plot and provide interaction with the protagonist in a distinctive fashion. There is one title that sticks out as a shining example with its atypical characters and original storytelling but it is not very well known: Anachronox, created by at John Romero's now-defunct studio Ion Storm.
Like Romero's own Daikatana, Anachronox was headed by a co-founder of id Software, Tom Hall, and, like Ion Storm's Deus Ex, it pushed at the boundaries of its genre. Writer Richard Gaubert's skill with the digital pen ensured that this splendid sci-fi RPG was both well-written and genuinely funny. Though it never found the same level of popular adulation as Deus Ex, Anachronox still inspires cultish dedication. Given the chance to interview Tom Hall, it was impossible for me to resist blowing a third of my questions on Anachronox. "Millions were spent making it, and upon release, $50K advertising it," he told me, explaining its semi-obscure status.
Much of the love for Anachronox stems from its characters, which for the most part eschew RPG convention in favour of the gloriously bizarre. Even the one-off NPCs in Anachronox are elevated above quest signpost status, which means encounters with personalities like an artistically-challenged doorman are excuses for great gags, not flat exposition. At a cursory glance, some of Anachronox's characters appear to be painted with pretty broad strokes: there's the wise old man, the talking robot and the mad scientist. Not exactly tradition-busting stuff, but it doesn't take long for a greater depth of characterization to emerge.
Grumpos, the old codger, is no wise mentor cliché. One of his special skills is "Yammer," with which he bamboozles enemies in the manner of Grandpa Simpson telling a particularly laboured and tedious story. PAL-18, the talking robot, is loyal to his human "master" up to a point, but also expresses periodic empathy for his robot brethren. There weren't many credible female characters in videogames from the early '00s, but Dr. Rho Bowman, a rebellious scientist, is one of them. She's unhampered by ridiculous (and unexplained) desires to get inside the main character's trench-coat.
Other plot-crucial characters are even more inventive. Fatima isn't recruitable in the traditional RPG sense. She is Boots' secretary, but due to an unfortunate case of ceasing to be alive, is now trapped inside the triangular device that serves as your in-game cursor. This brilliant abstraction explains why a vital game mechanic is continuously present in the world, without the need for the player to suspend disbelief.