Bonds Forged In Battle - Relationships in Gameplay
The building blocks of a story are the characters. It’s their motivations that drive the plot forward. They’re ultimately what attract us to a story. Even if we go to movies and games for the bells and whistles, it’s often personalities and relationships that keep our attention. So it makes sense for some games to integrate relationships into the actual battle system. That way, the characters grow personally as they grow in level. Two game series have famously taken a stab at making relationships an integral part of gameplay.
How Relationships Can Snag You Cool Powers
Although Persona 2 had some integration of relationships in gameplay, it was really Persona 3 that started a larger focus on building relationships between characters. You play as a high school student, and when you’re not fighting monsters you can do normal teenage things like hang out with your friends. By hanging out with your friends, or making new ones, you develop bonds which are represented by your Social Link. When your Social Link gets stronger, you can create stronger Personas (which are essentially monsters that make you stronger). Plus if you develop your Social Link with characters in your party, they’ll gain abilities that will help you out in battle.
The Social Link system is something I love and hate at the same time. I love that you can meet these characters, help them out with their problems, and watch them grow as people. It’s also nice that they found a clever way to use hanging out with your friends as a method to power up your own character. The drawback is that the day/night system that the game implements so that you can balance hanging out and saving the world makes everything go slowly. You have to play for hours to get to the next part of the story. And the Social Link part doesn’t help because that’s one more thing that keeps you from moving forward in the story. Plus Persona in general is not a fast paced game, and personally I find the dungeon crawling to be kinda dull, so it all just bleeds together into a slow crawl. And it sucks because the Persona series has some great characters but the game doesn’t attach me enough to them to want to go through the dungeon crawling and test taking that you have to do to continue on their journey.
Ever since the third game in the Fire Emblem series, there has been a Support system where characters that stand next to each other get a stat bonus. And characters could have Support Conversations, which just amounts to them talking about whatever, to lead to a further boost. Various games expanded this system until it got to the latest game, Fire Emblem Awakening. In Awakening you can increase the bonuses characters give each other to four levels: C, B, A, and S. You level them up by having characters fight/defend each other by placing them next to each other or pairing them up into one unit. Then at a certain point you can access their Support conversation and they’ll level up.
S Rank is special among the ranks. Each character can only have one S Rank because when they hit this level, the two characters that have the Support Conversation get married. Not only does this make them a fearsome duo when paired together, but in many cases you’ll be able to recruit that character’s child later in the game. The child’s stats, possible class changes, and abilities are all affected by their parents, so you actually have to think carefully as to who you allow to get married. Effective planning can turn the group of offspring into an unstoppable army… just as long as Cynthia doesn’t trip and Inigo isn’t too busy hitting on the ladies…
I like the Fire Emblem Awakening system a little more than the Social Link system of Persona. The support conversations are quick paced, much like how Fire Emblem in general seems much more quick paced then Persona. However, it still has a deep and cerebral system that you can learn and take advantage of. Therefore it really offers a lot to the gameplay and feels a lot more natural than the Social Link system does. Social Links do have advantages over the Support system. Overall Social Links are rather emotionally involved, so you really get to see a lot of development in them. Support conversations on the other hand don’t always develop characters as individuals. There are some Support lines that do a pretty good job (I don’t usually ship anything, but GOD do I love Lon’qu and Maribelle’s support conversations), but there are some that are kind of weak. The child system is a bit of a double edged sword. It adds an awesome layer of depth but it’s also going to confuse the heck out of people who don’t know beforehand what pairings go well together. Still, experimentation is always fun.
Relationships and Stories... Separate?
There’s just one thing about Personas 3/4 and Fire Emblem Awakening that kind of bother me. The relationship systems aren’t as integrated into the story as you’d think they would be. In Persona 3 and 4 even if you’re in a romantic relationship with someone (or multiple people) it won’t affect most of their dialogue. Chie will still act surprised if you hit on her even if she’s your girlfriend. Rise will still hit on you even if you’re dating someone else. Or her. There is important exceptions in the PSP version of Persona 3, but that version also is somewhat lacking compared to the other two. There’s also an important story event near the end that changes based on your social links, as well as an extra bit of a dialogue if you romance a specific character in the Vita remake, but otherwise your dating choices change rather little.
Awakening is a bit better. Some events will change depending on who is married. Some dialogue will likewise change. Even the part of the game that explains what happened to everyone who survived will change a little bit. But there are still some uncanny moments where it seems like Supports don’t matter. Cordelia will still sulk over her unrequited love for Chrom at points, even if she’s married to someone else. It’s particularly egregious if she admits she’s gotten over him or if the support line doesn’t even mention him. Tharja will still ask where she can stalk your avatar even if they’re both married to someone else. And most of the changes that do happen are more dialogue changes than event changes. Still, it is nice there is some integration.
Despite the issues, I still like how these two games take relationships and makes them a fun way to learn more about the characters and make them stronger. I hope to see more games that do this. If you know a game that I skipped over that you’d like to mention then feel free to leave it in the comments.