I rescued a lot of people last year.
They plead for help, they were dropped in my lap, I found them trapped in high towers — they were in all kinds of predicaments, and every time, they told me they needed my help to escape their captors, or run to safety, or find self-actualization, or whatever the narrative told me I should care about. These characters had lively animations, incredible artificial intelligence, and strong dialogue. I wanted to believe their stories.
But mechanics speak louder than words, and in most cases, the people — usually damsels — who I was rescuing didn't need me at all. Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite is a good example. Independent, indestructible, helpful and willful, she could easily have trudged through Columbia without any help from me — and nothing that I did in the story ever changed her course or even slowed her down, even when I got myself killed. While a lot of craft and care went into telling me that I had to save her life, nothing in the game actually made that true. And so I started to think about games where a character really did count on me — where my decisions changed their lives, and the smaller the decisions, the better.
The power of weakness
In role-playing games, we usually find ourselves with a party of sidekicks, and in most cases, those sidekicks are as powerful as we are. In some RPGs, they even level up at the same time as the player, keeping the whole group in sync. So I was surprised last summer when I finally got the chance to play Earthbound on my Wii U. In this 1994 Japanese role-playing game, your party often includes characters at wildly different levels, and the differences tell much of the story.
You start out as Ness, a normal little boy with a baseball cap who slowly gets stronger as he explores the suburbs. The first companion that he finds is Paula, but when he first meets her, she's not an asset. To track down Paula, Ness goes far away from the safe city, through caves and forests that are littered with enemies. When he rescues her from a jail, he's around level 20 — but she's only level 1. She's forced to join your party, but all of the monsters nearby are way above her level, and those monsters surround you — and so you have to protect her, knowing that the wrong move or a stray attack could get her killed.
But Paula's not helpless. As I carefully led her through battles and helped her gain experience, she revealed her own abilities and spells, and started to wade into the fight. I paid close attention to her stats and skills in every battle, and by the time she had pulled up alongside Ness, I felt like I knew everything about her. This whole "training" period took about half an hour of playtime, but it felt like weeks. And when she was ready, she and Ness took on the local boss together and won, and the victory was sweet.
Paula's character design isn't as memorable as Elizabeth's. I don't remember what her sprite looks like, or any of the few lines of dialogue they gave her. But I bonded with Paula because of what we'd been through together: The process of incrementing a handful of numbers created a relationship that would stick through the rest of the game.
The tactical RPG Jeanne D'Arc pulled a similar trick on me. The cast of characters that join your army in this game are memorable and weird, and I tried to use and train them all — but one character kept getting left behind: Liane, who was the main character's best friend at the start of the game. Liane was a mainstay in the first few battles, but she seemed less impressive and less useful as the campaign went on. I started to neglect her, and that left her several levels behind the rest of the army.
And then — and sorry, this graf has spoilers — the game pulled a fast one on me: The main character, Jeanne, was taken out of the game for a while, and Liane was forced to replace her. This meant that my most powerful character was out of commission, but I was saddled with my weakest one, and I had to make her work through battle after battle. I wound up using free battles and careful tactics to bring her up to speed, and because I spent that time with Liane and gave her so much attention, the end of her storyline knocked the wind out of me in a way that the script alone could not have done.
You can't do it all
Over the holiday break, I finished a game that frankly gutted me — a game where I felt like every character, a whole community, needed me and was deeply connected with me. I finally played Persona 4 Golden and, wow, now I see what everyone was talking about. I wish it had never ended.
Throughout the game, protagonist Yu Nurakami makes friends with strangers and forms "social links" with them. Every meaningful interaction between Yu and another character helps them increment the social link, which starts at 1 and maxes out at 10. Those social links can help you in the dungeon crawling section of the game, although I played at normal difficulty, and they weren't exactly a gamechanger. I spent the whole game building my social links because I just wanted to get to know the characters better.
At first the social links felt blunt and transactional: Every time you spend time with someone, you're reminded that you improved your relationship with them, and advised about the benefits that brings. But after a while, I started to like the way it kept score, because it made me pay attention to the pace of our relationships.
Not every social link works the same: A character like Teddie will automatically bond with you over time, and so you start to take him for granted; others are hard to track down, and you end up valuing them more. The romance subplots are also hard to predict, and they add tension and surprise to the steady progress of your friendship.
But there's another reason that the social links work: you can see just how easy it is not to finish them. The defining feature of Persona 4 is the calendar. Even with a year to spend in Inaba, you realize early on that you probably won't get to do everything you want, and as the end of the year comes up, you can skim through the social links and see who didn't get enough attention, and which characters you'll never really get to know.
And you know that this is all in your hands: If you were smarter, or read a walkthrough, you could max out everyone, finish every quest and get everything done in one year, but if you're a normal player on your first spin through, it probably won't happen. And so the opportunity slips through your fingers.
After a while, I started to like the way it kept score, because it made me pay attention to the pace of our relationships.
One of the themes of the game is connectedness and seeing the truth of other people, and another motif is the idea of making memories; your pals in the game are always talking about making memories together before it's time for you to go home. The memories are ephemeral but the chance to make them is concrete.
Every day you waste is a day that you could have spent with someone else, or helped someone else. You see the opportunities for connection and you miss them when they're gone.
That's why I have actual regrets from my first playthrough of the game, and why I may clock another 60 hours to try it again. A script can give me the most dramatic, apocalyptic, life-and-death scenario in the world to try to make me care; but knowing that I can help someone in the smallest way, and then giving up the chance, is much, much more painful.
Chris Dahlen chose Chie. He is formerly of Edge, The Onion AV Club, Paste, and Kill Screen Magazine, where he was co-founder and editor. He was also the writer on Klei's Mark of the Ninja. Look for him on Twitter @savetherobot.