Interactivity lends as much challenge to the art of storytelling as it does engagement. Games have the unique ability to make the players feel like they’re part of the narrative, but the distractions of gameplay often mean that conveying more complex ideas is a challenge. Cutscenes can carry these concepts, but many players resent having control taken away… and even if they don’t, removing the interactivity removes the only thing video games do better than other media. The medium still struggles with writing as a whole- my partner has said it’s plainly worse than other media. To me it seems like more skill is required to clear the hurdle- it’s harder to make a well written game than a well written movie, given the demands of accounting for interactivity. In some areas we may never outperform film or books where writing is concerned.
One area we do shine, however, is in creating empathy and likeable characters. With player characters (PCs), this is often conflation of writing and experience- the gamer associates the fun they had with the gameplay with the character they played as. Master Chief is not astonishingly well written, but his visual design is so iconic, and Halo’s gameplay so beloved, that the character holds a special place in people’s hearts. Certainly exceptional PCs have been done, but more often they’re simply a player surrogate with a little flavor to make them fit in with the world they inhabit. The true magic is in your NPC companions- their personalities, and your relationships with them.
For some games, these relationships are the attraction. I’m not referring to dating sims, though they undoubtedly put relationships in a starring role. No, I’m talking about RPGs- East or West, companions are what drive these experiences along. Certainly, the mechanics of combat and exploration are solid, and I don’t mean to slight them, but would Persona 4 be half as captivating without Chie there to kick a tank for you? Did you not rush down to see what Garrus had to say in Mass Effect 2 after each mission? These relationships are what drive the game along- the genre of dialogue trees, party-based combat, and character-specific equipment runs on interesting companions.
The curious thing is how differently East and West approach the player’s relationship with these characters. The West treats each companion as an “ally”- you and they have a common purpose, and are working together to further it. Much of the relationship progression is them opening up and beginning to trust you: at first, they’re willing to fight at your side, but you’re little more than a coworker. Their personal life is off limits to you, and you have to slowly win their respect to learn about who they are. The ultimate manifestation of this is loyalty- you know a companion in a Western RPG trusts you if they will follow your orders even when they disagree with the call.
By contrast, Japanese RPGs aim to pair you up with “friends.” By the time they’re in your party, you’ve already broken bread with them and they enjoy you as a person. The cast of Chrono Trigger hangs out around a campfire late-game and waxes nostalgic about the great times they’ve had together. Aerith (Aeris if you’re feeling retro) from Final Fantasy VII asks you on a date when you visit the Golden Saucer. The fighting men and women of Squad 7 from Valkyria Chronicles, a strike force of trained milita soldiers fighting to defend their nation from an overwhelming invasion, find time to have a beach party and chat about gardening. It’s not all business, and you don’t have to fight to get into their lives- they welcome you in, and are glad to have you there.
These different approaches have their different strengths- it certainly feels natural for a bunch of superpowered commandos in Mass Effect to have a healthy respect for personal space, just as it makes sense for high schoolers in Persona to be eager for new friends. One area that demonstrates a clear divide in the effectiveness of their approaches, though, is when companion relationships turn romantic. There’s really no way to sugarcoat it- the West is really clumsy at the transition. It’s a dramatic shift from a companion telling you that their past is none of your business, to sexily running a finger down your chest. The shift is palpable and jarring, never feeling truly natural. At its best, the games run with this- Alistair in Dragon Age: Origins was written to get incredibly tongue-tied and awkward the moment things turned romantic, transforming the clumsiness of the transition into part of the joke. More often, though, these scenes shatter the game’s carefully constructed illusion, throwing you out of the reality of the world and reminding you, painfully, that it is just a game after all.
The romantic writing in JRPGs is often just as clumsy if not moreso, but the transition from friend to romantic interest is infinitely more believable. P4’s Rise spends half the game hitting on you anyway- if you begin to reciprocate, it simply feels like the natural development of the relationship. Similarly, when the playful banter between characters in Fire Emblem: Awakening gives way to flirtation, there’s nothing unnatural about it. Two characters who clearly enjoy one other’s company slowly feel that friendship give way to affection, in a story as common in life as in fiction.
As the industry moves forward, we’re seeing more of these romantic relationships in games, not fewer. Star Wars: The Old Republic was perhaps the first MMORPG to implement romantic relationships, allowing you to “romance” many of the AI companions in the game. Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars (though perhaps troubling in its approach) even titles itself around its aspirations of love(making). It’s a promising trend- some would claim that love is what makes us human, and an interactive representation of it is a wonderful way to draw emotion and affection from players. The challenge it carries with it is great, though, because the moment a connection between two people becomes romantic is key in any relationship. That brief transition is hard to write, but getting it wrong sours the whole experience. In an industry where Japanese developers are struggling to keep up, that at least is one thing that the West can learn from the East.