– Why team-based RPGs capture my imagination more than the alternative.

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   Playing through Persona 4 at the moment, I find myself absorbed in it to a degree I haven’t had with an RPG since Mass Effect. In between these games, I’d picked up both Fallout 3 and Fable 2, and quit both out of general ambivalence. And I couldn’t help but wonder why.

 

 

   There’s a number of reasons really. Both Fable and Fallout had some aspects of their gameplay and atmosphere that I wasn’t big on, but there was one key point that I settled on. And that was the games in the pro column being RPGs where you lead a team of characters through the adventure, whereas the con column were games featuring a (mostly) lone protagonist. Was this what was truly turning me off? I think so.

   Something the games all had in common were the presence of an undefined lead character. Mass Effect, Fable, and Fallout all follow the western RPG standard of letting you define your character. You pick their appearance, their weaponry, and how they handle any given situation. It’s in your hands. On the JRPG side, Persona doesn’t give you those variables, but it’s (mostly) silent hero really has no specific character traits beyond those you assign him in your own head. So if I had total control, why did I like two of these characters and not the others?

Mass Effect conversation wheel.

   Commander Sheppard had to make a lot of tough choices. But he (or she, in my case) never made them because a menu asked him. He made decisions when his teammates asked him what to do. I had to think about how my actions would affect poor Wrex, or what Tali might think of me. It was their expectations of me that propelled me through our journey.

   My little “Wasteland Wanderer” in Fallout 3 had nobody to bounce an idea off. VATS from Fallout 3

   All the characters you meet in the first hour are pretty much forgotten about. And I really didn’t give a crap what happened to my dad, as the 10 minutes I’d spent with him hadn’t fostered much love on my end. I’d find myself wandering into situations with no context for my actions, wondering if what I was doing had any merit or impact.         Anyone I met along the way just became a glorified mission debriefing. They were all individuals with names, but I couldn’t help but feel disconnected. Switch on V.A.T.S. and they all become a torso, limbs, and a skull.

 

   Despite the little emotion he shows, I learned a lot about Persona’s hero, Souji (his name in the manga anyway). By virtue of the gameplay itself, I know the guy is a hell of a pal. He spends most of his free time providing his friends with an ear to talk at or a shoulder to cry on. He cares man. He’d have to. In getting in the heads of his friends, I see what kind of guy he is reflected.

Persona 4's team attack.

   As for Sparrow in Fable? Hell, who knows anything about that guy. You can buy him another name if you feel like it. With all those interaction options, you’d think he could foster some real relationships. But it’s mostly a matter of whether or not the cut and paste townsfolk enjoy farting and hand puppets. Even worse, the only characters you can’t seem to have any real discourse with are the allies you gain over the game. The minute it introduces actual characters into the picture, it locks you away from them.

   Gaming is an weird medium. It’s the only form of storytelling where a solid supporting cast seems to be an exception rather than the rule. While plenty of game are better off for it, (I can’t imagine a platformer working as well with 3 other dudes hopping around behind you), I think the RPG needs it. After all, it’s a “role playing game”. What kind of role has no feelings for anyone or anything? It’s not a role, it’s a sword.
   And I don’t want to play as a sword. I want to play as the person who wields it. Hopefully right next to a few companions.

 

– Andrew Power gets by with a little help from his friends. He also does a webcomic called “Aptitude Test” that you can find at http://www.aptitude.surfacingpoint.com