After playing through Final Fantasy 12, I realized the only character I liked was Balthier for his wit and humor. It got me thinking, “What makes me like characters?” and the answer was the most pathetic thing that ever crossed my mind: “Relationships”.
Before I start, I’m not a weeaboo who declares a fictional character as “mai waifu” just to get that out of the way.
A concept I’ve seen almost exclusively in JRPGs and visual novels, is being able to form a degree of a relationship as either a side thing or a core mechanic of the game. They might do subtle things, nothing at all, visual things, or be an integral part of the game to where pursuing them is all but mandatory.
On the subtle things, the dating scene in Final Fantasy VII has a choice of Aerith, Tifa, Yuffie, or Barret. Aerith and Tifa worked on points, and if you treated both of them like crap and basically worshiped Yuffie, you’d get Yuffie. If you were a complete misogynist it would be Barret. Other than implied sex at the end of the game, this had no other effect. Final Fantasy X has similar, depending on your relationship with Yuna, Rikku, or Lulu, one of them would be the one to throw the Blitzball for Tidus’ ultimate attack.
As for core game mechanics, this is easily visible in most visual novels. Many of them drive the plot based on how you interact with other characters, with different characters having their own routes, often ending up with you and them between the sheets at some point. Other games that have relationship elements turn this up several notches.
Persona 3 and 4 have relationships as a major theme of the game. The “social links” in the Persona games have multiple gameplay effects. For non-player characters, your relationship with them gives tremendous EXP boosts when you fuse a Persona of their respective tarot Arcana. If the person can be in your party, they’ll do things like take a fatal blow for you, follow up attacks, help someone who is suffering from ailments and stunning, and so on. Though these are minor at best, some of them can be a huge advantage at just the right time.
Visual novel style games with gameplay elements like Sengoku Rance and Galaxy Angel are much better about this. Getting your relationship up with the characters to a point lets you improve on their combat abilities, which is quite handy. There is a second aspect to in-game relationships however, you begin to care about the world’s inhabitants.
Even though the dialog of Persona 4 isn’t hot-blooded like Asura’s Wrath or epic like God of War, I care about the characters. Why? Because the limited time you have and decisions you make are an investment that may or may not be worth it. By interacting with the characters, their depth slowly increases at a certain pace. The pace is often chosen by the player, and I don’t have some broad I don’t even like jumping down my throat with all her problems and pushing me off because of a convoluted or forced romance plot. Looking at you Chrono Trigger, Lucca is better than whatshername.
There is a major difference between a romance plot and relationship mechanics. If I can go through the entire game without building up a relationship, it’s mechanics. If I find myself shoehorned into one, it’s a plot. Final Fantasy for example often has a relationship plot that’s unavoidable. Zidane has Garnet, Cloud has Tifa and Aerith, Squall has Rinoa, and Tidus has Yuna.
I have always believed a character-driven plot has a stronger impact on the player. Even though the game has no relationship mechanics, the first time a game made me cry was the death of Gremio in Suikoden on the PSX. As for Suikoden 2, I cared thiiiiiis little when Nanami took a crossbow to the chest because of how little the relationship was built on.
If I had spent a long time building a relationship in the likes of Persona, getting benefits, dealing with the issues that come with it, and so on, I’d be satisfied. If the plot at some point messily slaughtered, critically maimed or otherwise removed them from the party, it would have a real effect on me. If Fran died in FFXII, I wouldn’t care. If Balthier died, I would miss his dry wit. If Basch died, I’d be out the one guy who can equip the Zodiac Spear. Easily replaced. If Penelo died I’d say “Good riddance”.
The games that best tear at the heartstrings are ones that make you work towards something, and then mercilessly destroy it. When it provokes sadness or anger at the story or the game itself varies, but when done right, it guarantees people will talk about it. A game with a story that genuinely provokes emotions towards the game itself is a rarity, but when they surface, nobody talks bad about them. It’s not mushy, cheesy, or taboo to do it, meaning the more developers that embrace a non-linear relationship mechanic, the sooner we get a cast we can greatly enjoy on our own terms. Not the plot’s.