Radios, Journalists, and Pegasi: Relationships In Games

I’ve been playing a smattering of games recently as school has been ticking on. First off, I played through Campo Santo’s Firewatch in the span of a day or two, which is a fascinating story-driven adventure game which I’ll definitely give a full write-up to eventually. After that, I spent a bit more time in the Commonwealth in Fallout 4. Then, finally, with the recent hubbub about the supposedly superb Fire Emblem: Fates, I’ve now decided to finally discover the series for myself for the first time with my copy of Fire Emblem: Awakening which has been sitting in shrink on my shelf for a while.

Real talk, though: Chrom is the best

What do these three games have in common? Well, for once, the answer to that question isn’t “murder” (thanks Firewatch!). The correct answer, or at least one correct answer, is that all of these games feature interpersonal relationships as a key component.

For Firewatch, there is just one relationship being really explored: the relationship between Henry and Delilah. There is but a single connection between characters, but that connection is the focus of the entire game. Henry and Delilah’s relationship grows and changes throughout the whole game, swinging sometimes wildly from friends to lovers to teammates to enemies. Players can guide this relationship using dialog options, and can explore it to whatever depth they want by simply initiating more radio prompts.

In the case of Fallout 4, the relationships being explored are those between the Sole Survivor and their wide range of companions. If Firewatch‘s network of character relationships is a single, bold line, Fallout 4‘s is more of a fan of lines all emanating from a single point, one bolder than the others. I say this because all of the relationships Fallout 4 explores involve the Sole Survivor and a single companion, and the game does very little to explore the relationships between two companions. The reason a single line is bolder is that you can only explore and advance one relationship at a time, the one with the companion currently following you.

Piper is angry in this picture because you are rummaging around for a key, instead of picking the lock like a real man.

This relationship structure sort of naturally follows the nature of the game. Players sort of naturally want to be there when important parts of the narrative, including character arcs, are developing, so it’d be weird if you went back to your settlement and all of a sudden two companions hated each other. Combine this with the fact that you can only have one companion at a time, and trying to explore the relationship between just two companions would be extremely difficult in Fallout 4.

This, however, leads to some weird scenarios. For instance, at this moment, I am currently gallivanting around the Commonwealth with Piper. This means, however, that Paladin Danse, a literal crusader dedicated to destroying Synths, and Detective Nick Valentine, a Synth, are chilling back in Sanctuary. I understand this from a design perspective, but from a narrative perspective, I should come back to Sanctuary and find something, be it the results of an argument, an all out fight, or even just signs of an uneasy truth. Something which shows that the two characters have acknowledged each other in some way. Alas, no such luck.

There are ways to design your game, both narratively and mechanically, to allow for NPC to NPC relationships to bloom. For instance, look at Bioware RPGs (I’ll cite Mass Effect specifically, just because I know it the best). Not only does Mass Effect pursue these PC to NPC relationships, it also explores NPC to NPC relationships in depth. Why can it do this when Fallout 4 can’t? Three reasons:

  1. You can have two companions with you at a time, allowing these two companions to talk with each other while you’re out and about (Mechanical)
  2. There is a central hub area, the Normandy, which all companions can be found in, that the player returns to at a consistent rate through the game, meaning players can consistently stumble into/overhear conversations between companions in this area (Mechanical)
  3. The game takes place in a military setting, with the player character as the Commander of all of their companions. Thus, by military protocol, any characters who are experiencing disagreements with their teammates are to report it to their Commander, the player, thus not only informing the player of the character drama, but also letting the player mediate. (Narrative)

With Mass Effect, we can see how fairly basic and seemingly unrelated design decisions can shape how your game explores inter-character relationships. Unlike FalloutMass Effect is structured from the ground up to create a web of relationships, rather than a fan. However, because Commander Shepard has such a central role in the narrative, all of these relationships end up involving Shepard in one way or the other, usually as mediator. As a result, this relationship web orbits a central point: the player.

Pictured: a powder keg of conflicting beliefs, goals, and ideologies

For an example of a noncentralized relationship web, we turn, finally, to Fire Emblem: AwakeningAwakening tracks the relationships between every single party member and every other party member, improving relationships as the two party members team up in battle. Relationships can grow between two non-main characters completely without the intervention of the main characters. In my game, Fredrick, the bulky, logical knight, has been giving sparring lessons to Miriel, the curious, perfectionist witch, until finally Miriel admitted her feelings, and the two fell in weird, kinda robotic love. At no point did either Chrom or Robin even play a minor role in the relationship. It was just sort of able to grow on its own.

The tradeoff with this structure is that each individual relationship is fairly simple, to the point where they all basically can be defined by one sentence. Lissa is trying to cure Lon’qu of his gynophobia. Sully wants Stahl to be tougher. Robin is trying to better understand Panne’s culture. Where Mass Effect‘s relationships have subtleties, and can range in nature from love to friendship to rivalry to even distrust and hate, Fire Emblem‘s relationships are all really simple.

The relationships have to be simple, again, as a result of the design. There are thirty playable characters in Fire Emblem: Awakening, and that’s not counting any of the children. According to some hastily done math, that’s four hundred thirty five* possible relationships between these characters. If all of these relationships were extremely deep, with layers and nuance, then A) your writers would quit, B) people would wonder why you’re investing so much time in writing relationships, when players couldn’t possibly explore all of them to completion, and C) players would need a goddamn flowchart to keep track of even just the ones they do end up exploring. As a result, Awakening has to focus on quantity over quality.

(*3/3/2016 Addendum: This assumes that every character can have a relationship with every other character, which is not the case. Still, though.)

The purpose of this case study is to explore, and explain, the notion that character relationships, despite being thought of as a narrative construct, is intimately connected with mechanics. When designing games, a designer should consider how the mechanical design of their game affects the sort of relationship constructs they can create. Some mechanics lead towards the single line, some to the fan, some to the centralized web, some to the decentralized web, and surely some to a structure I haven’t even considered while writing this. As designers, it’s our job to ensure that the mechanics aid in the player’s exploration of character relationships, and don’t hinder them.

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