As much as I appreciate a complex, well-structured plot, nothing can get me more invested in a story than a good cast of characters. Interesting characters can enliven the most commonplace of story ideas or elevate an already great story to even greater heights.
However, the sad reality is that fictional characters only exist in service to some larger narrative. After all, in traditional stories, the relationships between characters are only depicted if they drive The Story™ forward in some key way, whether it be through direct plot progression or through an insightful exploration of characterization or theme. Ultimately, characters are less like real people and more like plot devices.
This remained true of all characters, until the advent of video games. The interactivity of games forces the audience to be more than mere spectators and enables players to become invested in a way that no other medium can allow.
In comparison to movies or novels, video games come closer to emulating how relationships occur in real life.
As the player, you can choose who to interact with and when. Dialogue options allow you to shape the nature of your relationships with other characters: if you dislike someone, you can insult them, and if you like someone, you can become friends — or more.
As a storytelling medium, video games also differ from movies and books in the sense that games can allow players to experience downtime. These are the moments that do not progress the plot, and in some cases, do not significantly develop the characterization of the main cast. In terms of story, these scenes are unessential padding and are trimmed out of any novel or movie script. But in video games, interactivity and immersion are king; so long as the downtime enhances the experience of playing the game, it is perfectly fine for the story to occasionally (or even frequently) go off rails.
In direct contrast to stories told through other mediums, in video games, character relationships often receive the most development in the moments between The Story™. However, games vary tremendously in regards to execution and in how successful they are at portraying relationships that feel real or meaningful.
Many games provide an incentive for befriending other characters. For instance, the Persona franchise grants players the ability to befriend or romance a large assortment of characters through a game mechanic known as social links. Social links can only be developed during downtime sequences, and the player receives a reward each time they “maximize” a relationship — which essentially monetizes friendship.
Likewise, more recent installments of the Fire Emblem series take this a step further: characters who are paired with one another in battle gain the ability to deepen their relationship during dialogue sequences that the player can activate between battles. Character pairs with strong relationships receive stat boosts in battle, and maximized relationships can potentially yield a new team member for your party.
This is, of course, a very simplified portrayal of friendship and romance. The incentivization also inevitably cheapens the portrayal of friendship and love in these games, as players will likely deepen certain relationships only to receive some coveted reward at the end.
In comparison, other games more successfully enable players to pursue relationships for the sake of the relationship itself. The Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises famously allow players to romance teammates via player-selected actions and dialogue options that appear throughout the course of the story. The recent indie game Night in the Woods also centers almost entirely on friendship and forces players to prioritize certain relationships over others.
Despite its oftentimes lackluster plot, one recent game that portrays friendship in a surprisingly fresh and even innovative way is Final Fantasy XV.
Unlike many other games of its type, the cast of Final Fantasy XV are longtime friends and are already deeply familiar with one another at the onset of the story. There is little in the way of character exposition or even heart-to-heart talks. Most of the dialogue centers on the mundane or even trivial; all the open world conversations are essentially a running commentary about whatever is happening to the team at any given moment. Instead of big character moments, such as the revelation of past traumas or life-altering secrets, the game is dotted with small and seemingly inconsequential bits of information: the characters’ favorite foods, the poses they make when taking silly pictures, their thoughts on some new arcade game, how hungry they get after a big battle.
If anything, I became attached to the characters just through sheer exposure to them — and the game is all the better for it. It was my first time encountering a story that so accurately emulates the pleasant mundanity of real life friendship. Yes, deeper and more personal conversations do far more to strengthen friendships and build trust, but the bread and butter of any relationship lies within the more forgettable and ultimately trivial interactions that make up our everyday existence. And it was a video game that helped me realize this.
Generally speaking, video games are undervalued as a storytelling medium and are unfavorably compared to movies or novels. However, as video games are a relatively new and fast-evolving medium, I believe we are only beginning to see the full storytelling potential that games are uniquely equipped to provide.
The interactive nature of games ensures active participation in the story, as well as greater variation regarding each player’s individual experience with that story. It also allows the breathing space necessary for the smaller moments that typically exist outside of the plot, such as pausing your adventure to take the occasional group selfie or gathering ingredients in order to make your friend’s favorite meal.
Video games can offer a perspective on friendship that you can’t get anywhere else. So relish your next post-battle banter scene or the savepoint campfire sequence. In fiction, those moments can be hard to find.