In the Japanese gaming industry, it is not a foreign concept to implement social aspects into games (read RPGs) a la dating simulators. However, with the growth of Japanese games being localized for a western audience, many western gamers have begun to question whether or not this growing trend in JRPGs have made them more casual. A video game series that is under the scrutiny of this criterion (albeit not the only series) is the Persona series.
A spin-off of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, the Persona can be broken down, in its most simple terms, a high school-themed dungeon-crawler. The first two entries in this series were more like their predecessor where they were strict dungeon-crawling games that focused on gameplay and story. The closest thing these games had to a “social” mechanic was the ability to persuade enemy monsters (Personas) to come and join your team. While these two games are loved in their own right, the Persona series did not gain much popularity until Persona 3.
Persona 3 was the first game in the series to introduce a social mechanic to the game where completing Social Links would allow you to create stronger Personas. The mechanic is most similar to that of dating simulators or visual novels were the character would like you more based on how you answered them. This mechanic was used in favor of persuading enemy Personas to join your team, in fact, enemy Personas no longer existed and were, from then on, referred to as Shadows. While this mechanic created a new “deck-building” aspect in the dungeon crawling part of the game, the most apparent change was how you interacted with key NPCs in the overworld. The Persona games were no longer strictly linear e.g. you were no longer bound to the story for character development. While this did create a new way to play the game and introduced deep character development, the core part of the game, dungeon crawling, suffered as a result. Dungeons became boring and monotonous in comparison to building your Social Links and became a chore. In Persona 4, the dungeon crawling was much less monotonous but it still stayed in the shadow of building Social Links in the game.
While the gameplay of the Persona games suffered as a result of added social interactions within the game, not all games would follow suit. The most recent game to prove this would be the newest iteration to the Fire Emblem series, Fire Emblem: Awakening (herein referred to as FE: A).
While the character development did not rely on the player interaction to progress, it would be hard to argue that the character interactions were not on the level, if not deeper, than the interactions in the Persona games. In FE: A, you learned of your characters’ (or units’) through story progression but that is not to say FE: A was without any direct interaction from player to character. You were able to marry a character in the game, or marry characters to each other, to create powerful offspring in a very twisted Pokémon breeding-esque mechanic in the game. Ethics aside, the social part of the game was carefully added to mix in with the core gameplay and what resulted is probably Game of the Year material.
The main difference between the social interactions in FE: A and Persona is that one is paired with a subpar aspect of the game, tainting an otherwise amazing gaming experience while the other mixes all the elements so well that it becomes one amazing product and a near perfect gaming experience. Much like many other artistic mediums, it’s not the source material that is the problem, it’s how it is implemented with all other elements.