What if I told you that you actually didn’t know all that much about some of your old favorite games? Why it resonated with you so much or perhaps even what made them so great in the first place? What if there were some aspects in those very games that you took for granted, when in actuality they were flashes of brilliance in game design?
That is exactly what I’m going to tell you right now.
Don’t believe me? Read on and welcome to “Brilliance in Gaming.”
When creating a story, one of the most important aspects to consider is how to get the reader involved in the world and care about its characters. A writer could craft a world of intricate design and depth, filled with multi-dimensional characters with fantastic developments over the course of the story. However, none of that would matter one bit if the reader never makes a connection with the characters, and ultimately never ends up caring what happens to them.
While the concept is simple and easily recognized, the solution to the problem is not so readily apparent. In the medium of books and movies, the methods to do so are quite limited. The easiest and most common way is to make the characters relatable and likeable. That’s why an archetype such as the underdog is so prevalent in entertainment media. We often consider ourselves as underdogs going through the trials and tribulations of day to day life, so when we encounter one in a story, we end up rooting for them. Given books and movies are purely a non-interactive medium, the creator gets to choose everything the reader/moviegoer sees- nothing more and nothing less.
In the medium of gaming, the avenue in which the developer can help the player feel more invested becomes larger, but also more convoluted as well, due to the introduction of the all-important interactivity that makes games what they are. After all, when the player is free to choose to go around the world spending the minimal amount of time interacting with its characters, how can the creator have the player even begin to care about the world that they’re in? Many games would go with the route of unskippable events and cutscenes to deliver the necessary information and personality to try and grab some attention from the players, but that’s no different from what they do in movies. Isn’t it a missed opportunity when they have the almighty tools of choice and interactivity but end up falling back on what other mediums are forced to use because they lack creativity? Wouldn’t it be better if they could somehow use a mechanic in the game play itself to encourage the players to learn more about the world and its characters?
That is exactly what Persona 3 and 4 managed to do with the introduction of the system, “Social Links”.
The premise of Social Links is rather simple, but its effectiveness resonates throughout the entirety of the experience. Each significant character the player runs into is assigned an “Arcana” such as Strength, Devil, Tower, Lovers, Chariot, Fortune and many more. As the player spends more time with the character associated with a certain arcana, the ability to fuse personas of the same arcana type increases substantially. When the Social Link is maxed, the player is given access to fuse a new high-level persona, which ends up being some of the best personas in the game.
Given the personas the player brings to battle dictate their combat potential outside of standard equipment, it’s not an understatement to say that fusing powerful personas is essential to success.
Outside of NPCs, spending time with the main characters of the game, that will all play a major role in the story as party members, has additional rewards on top of what’s offered normally. As the Social Link ranks are leveled up, they gain access to new great passive and active skills. The ability to help up a knocked down ally or even a skill to guard a blow for the player that otherwise would’ve been fatal are a few of the many rewards to entice one to spend more time with the main characters and learn more about them. Considering they’ll be the ones to see the most screen time, it makes sense to prioritize learning more about them first.
It behooves the player to spend time with the characters in the game for the game play related rewards, but essentially that’s just a catalyst of encouragement for the much greater intrinsic reward. Each and every character in the game has a unique personality, many of which might not seem so obvious until the player gets to know them better. Social Link ranks are divided by numbers from one to ten, and while the early levels will have the player simply shooting the breeze and hanging out, by the end it’s not uncommon to have helped in a life-changing event for the character. Giving advice and seeing each character make mistakes and grow over time is its own reward. While the player is unlikely to enjoy the stories that every single character has to tell, I would be rather shocked if at least a handful doesn’t feel compelling, hitting close to home to many relationships we’ve held in the past.
Persona 3/4 are games with strong emphasis on time management. The players are allotted a limited number of days to accomplish their goals, and the game will eventually end when enough days has passed whether the player wants it to or not. That means every action that the player takes has a consequence to a degree, and the choice to spend time with someone when there’s much else to do in the world has significant weight associated to it. This will mean that the players are able to pick for themselves who the interesting characters are and enjoy spending time with them, while ignoring the ones that do not appeal to them, essentially tailoring the overall experience to their own personal tastes.
Also, the idea of how we are connected with each other and strengthened by the bonds that we share is a central theme in Persona. It’s something that can resonate with just about anyone in the world because it rings to true to reality. After all, just who are we really without our family and friends to support us? Just as we count on them, we yearn to be needed by others and take solace in a sense of interdependence that makes the world go around. The Social Links highlight this fact, and emphasizes its necessity both in game play and story.
You could be wondering, “how effective is this system really?” If that’s the question you’re asking, I challenge you to name five characters from a recent, more prolific RPG. Go ahead, name me five memorable characters from Skyrim, and no, the guard that took an arrow to his knee doesn’t count. I’ll bet that you most likely can’t. However, a game that I bet most people will be able to name five characters from is the Mass Effect series. You might be wondering what Mass Effect has to do with Persona, but did you know that there were rewards for talking to your crew in the form of bonus powers, equipment and paragon/renegade opportunities? The same thing applies to the vast majority of Bioware games, with Dragon Age games also having a similar system in place even though their scope and effectiveness is decidedly smaller than in the Persona games.
It’s no coincidence that all the Persona games that came before 3 and 4 didn’t have Social Links, and never quite received the critical acclaim and fans that the recent titles enjoy.
While most other developers were busy making games be more like movies with high budgeted cut scenes to tell their stories, hoping that the players will give a damn, Atlus decided to take matters in their own hands to craft a system that encouraged the players to care. It single handedly tied together the central themes of the game while allowing the players a great deal of freedom in who they could interact with, essentially tailoring the experience to their own personal tastes. Then, they complemented the system by giving the players a limited amount of time, which gave weight and greater meaning to all the choices they could make. Ultimately, we would laugh and cry along with the characters, and feel compelled to see the journey to its end. When it’s all said and done we would put the game away, feeling as though we were saying farewell to a dear friend.
All of that facilitated by the introduction of one single system.
Fun Tidbit: I highly recommend everyone check out Persona 3:FES available on PSN and also P4G on the Vita which I consider the definitive version of the game.