The Power of Friendship While Being an Asshole, or the Doormat NPC
Maybe a game doesn’t have to explore every facet of interpersonal relationships but it should not uniformly trust the player’s engagement with the world, and it should certainly hold the player accountable for being an asshole. There should be more to relating to a game’s NPCs than sitting down and nodding.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been absorbed in Persona 3. The fourth in the Persona series is usually credited as the one that left the biggest impact on its players (Leigh Alexander, “High School Memories”, Polygon, 4 April 2013), but, though I’ve only played halfway through its predecessor, I can’t imagine any game improving on Persona 3. It’s a truly excellent game, and it’s disappointing that it seems to often get lost in its successor’s shadow.
Persona 3 casts the player as a newcomer to a Japanese private school, where a hidden “dark” hour after midnight puts all but a few students into stasis. During this hour, cracks in the world open up and allow monsters to emerge and suck out people’s minds while they’re vulnerable. The power that the player character and his classmates uses to defend the town, their personas, grows as the player builds friendships with people in everyday life.
The game illustrates a pretty straightforward and comforting point: people can do more with others than they can on their own. To be a good champion of the night, the player character has to meet and keep friends. By virtue of strong characterization, many of the supporting characters are worth spending time with simply because they’re interesting characters with compelling stories. But beneath the level of narrative lies the reason that the player must spend time just to toughen up, a necessary mechanic of building a character in a role playing game. In essence, this reduces the player’s relationship with the cast to what is most often referred to in the genre as "grinding." A player could just mash the confirm button to skip through every conversation and still be rewarded with a stronger character, just as a high level player in a typical RPG can simply mash the confirm button throughout every battle and still be rewarded with valuable experience points. It’s rightfully expected that a game demand more involvement from a battle than lazily tapping the same button until the victory fanfare rings, so why isn’t more demanded from NPC involvement?
The player character in Persona 3 can just nod and smile while their friends lay their hearts before him, and he’ll still gain more power during the dark hour. What’s interesting about Persona 3 is that there is so little time to do everything. In the initial in-game months, the player must pick and choose their BFFs. It’s compelling at first, but it dawned on me: why should the choice of friends be mine exclusively? The PC is treated as a trust receptacle who is rarely asked to submit any of himself to a relationship. Spend enough time with someone and they’ll open up. Outside of a handful tasks upon meeting an NPC, the player doesn’t have to contribute anything to the friendship. All that’s asked of the player is that they show up and tell an NPC how right they are about everything, and the game will treat the event like any other successfully achieved objective. Players don’t have to give in order to get. Friendship, in instances like this, isn’t a meeting of the minds or the experience of forming a bond, it’s exchanging one resource (time) for another (stronger personas). Ultimately, the player isn’t asked to establish an identity or become involved in a community, they’re leeching power from their classmates. They’re being an asshole.
The player doesn’t have to have any influence on the people they meet, they just need to clock the hours, nod along with what their friend is saying, and hope that they’re responding with the right answer. Again, some very good writing went into the game, but the game does not treat me any differently for hanging out with Kazushi because I like him than when I hang out with Kenji because I need his power (even though I think that, as a person, he’s an obnoxious wiener). Kenji won’t recognize that I’m just placating him, and he won’t take my disinterest personally. Theoretically, the player could approach the entire society as an uncharted mine and start shoveling out stat buffs without giving a second thought to the humanity of the characters.
The player character may be one of the few people capable of defending the town from an unknown threat, but he’s collecting trust for the sole purpose of weaponizing it. When the player is an asshole, the game should treat him like one. At no point in the game does the player character discover that a supposed friend has been spreading unseemly rumors about him, the player character is never confronted by an acquaintance who feels used, and the player character is never caught between cliques that hate one another. All that rings false in a story that takes place in high school.
In a game that celebrates interdependence and community, it makes no sense that potential relationships can be pared down to stat-boosting sidequests. The player must never choose a friendship with one character at the expense of another, they don’t have to even like the people they’re talking to, and they can can still just reap all the rewards that an NPC offers by effectively pretending to like them. There isn’t even anything that the player can do to damage a relationship beyond repair. Friends will treat the PC as warmly after being avoided for two months as they would after spending every day after class with them. The player character can fill up on persona power, one friend after the next, and the whole world will still be waiting to love him.
It isn’t just Persona 3 that perpetuate this attitude. In many games, players need only sit down with an NPC and tolerate a conversation to get everything they want from them. That isn’t how relationships work. People know when they’re being used, and -- even if they’re being used for the sake of the greater good -- they can’t help but be hurt by it. Sometimes people just click and form unbreakable bonds. Sometimes they don’t get along because they don’t like each others’ faces. There are countless hidden variables to people and how they interact. Maybe a game doesn’t have to explore every facet of interpersonal relationships but it should not uniformly trust the player’s engagement with the world, and it should certainly hold the player accountable for being an asshole. There should be more to relating to the game’s NPCs than sitting down and nodding.
Games have had mixed success in creating believable relationships, but they’re largely too forgiving to completionists. Even if it is possible to be liked by everyone, it’s not possible to be friends with everyone. If there’s a simple way to make simulated friendship more believable I would suggest returning to a dice roll. Sometimes even the most honest kindness hits a brick wall because of a bad mood or sometimes people have enough friends by the time a new person comes along interested in starting up a new friendship. In any case, trust should not be portrayed as a thing to be harvested.
Late last year, Kim Moss wrote about this very idea as it applies to video game romances ("You Know What’s Gross? We Often Play Nice Guys™ In Games With Romance Options", Nightmare Mode, 3 December 2012), and it’s worth making note of this tendency in any game, but especially in those that put social relationships at their center. I’m not willing to part with my great-grandfather’s two-handed Broadsword of Exquisite Icy Death just because you cleaned out my cellar. I only help my friends and people I like, and I can tell when you’re trying too hard. NPCs can’t be treated like people when the player can get away with being such an asshole.