Casual Chats: Why Party Bonding Matters In RPGs

by Kimberley Wallace on Feb 22, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Saving the world is a prime plot device used throughout video games. It makes sense; an innate desire to be a hero fills us all, and having the world’s fate in our hands is the best way to feel the thrill. I’m happy to be a savior, but I’ve found that I’m more interested in seeing how my party members interact before the high-stakes finale. A party should grow together, not merely be thrust together for the cause. I appreciate when games genuinely make me feel connected to my party. It puts a realistic spin on the narrative; in real life, bonds grow whether people are working together on a sports team or in an office on a magazine. Do you want someone on your team who is simply there, or do you want to get to know the person?

RPGs foster deeper attachments to characters when the relationship progression feels realistic. It can be as simple as inside jokes or as complex as helping characters confront inner demons. Most of my favorite RPGs feature a mechanic that brings the group together in new and exciting ways. For instance, the Tales series has optional skits featuring humorous dialogue and interesting character revelations. After these conversations, I get a sense that my party is growing closer. That’s a testament to how well-executed they are, since most of the time, the skits aren’t complex. In Tales of Vesperia, it is as simple as having funny skits featuring Repede, the pipe-smoking dog, giving Princess Estelle a hard time. These are minor details in a vast journey, but add a spark that makes the characters feel like real people learning to accept one another. 

The Persona series also stands out for cementing bonds throughout the adventure. In particular, Persona 3 and 4 has its story span the calendar, featuring everyday activities like going to school and holding down a job. Additional interactions take place, such as school field trips and special holiday events, which further cement the bond in a natural and realistic way. Watching the in-game calendar time pass further solidifies a bond while personal struggles and light-hearted scenes take the wheel. Not only does the passage of time make you feel the relationship growth, but the conversations you have with your fellows similarly intensify. No longer do the conversations revolve around the basic hellos; characters open up more and explore complex topics, showing you’ve gained their trust. This impeccable pacing makes the unity memorable and genuine, allowing you to see first-hand how all your relationships grow.

Star Ocean also innovated social systems through “private actions,” where the player character separates from the other party members in town.  Exploring by your lonesome and encountering natural interaction provides just one more sense of realism. Engaging in private actions can potentially change the outcome of the narrative, giving you more reason to pursue relationships. Fire Emblem also follows the trend with support conversations, which not only improve characters’ relationships in battle, but prevents them from being a nameless face in your army. To be honest, it wasn’t the story in Fire Emblem: Awakening that sold me on the characters, it was in these support conversations that I felt most engaged.

The inclusion of systems that show progression in your party’s friendship enable a deeper experience with the game, something that makes that final battle feel that much more victorious and bittersweet. These systems shouldn’t simply be measured by some artificial friendship meter, but should showcase quality interactions outside the critical path naturally. When the journey ends, I want to not only care about the ultimate outcome, but also be able to fondly reminisce over my time getting to know my party members. If more RPGs focused on creating a strong party dynamic, it could pave the way to stronger storytelling and create a greater emotional attachment. I hope more developers tap into engaging new ways for characters to interact throughout the long RPG trek. What better way to make the entire journey transform into something memorable?