Most RPGs use a party system. In a party system, one controls up to a certain number of characters, usually one at a time in, say, a battle. These characters are called party members. Party members fight together, eat together, shop together, even sleep together. Perhaps the most important truth about the party members is not merely what they do together but that they choose to do those things together. It is unremarkable that these select characters fight monsters and dragons for the simple reason that each character could do this on their own. However, what is remarkable is the fact that they fight together. It would be unremarkable if Riku denied King Mickey’s assistance in the Dark World and tried to escape on his own; it is remarkable that he accepted it. It would be unremarkable if, yet again, Mario saved the day with no help from Luigi; it is remarkable that he couldn’t face Cackletta without him. It would be unremarkable if Cloud fought Sephiroth by himself; it is remarkable that he didn’t.
Some video games, often by genre, center around one character and one character alone. Everyone else they meet along the way is primarily inconsequential, comedic, or mercantile. I have in mind Super Mario Galaxy, Sonic Unleashed, and the Dark Souls franchise. RPGs, generally, stand out as one of the video game genres that consistently limit the player to working with multiple characters simultaneously for long periods of time. In other words, the game commits the player to relationships, and I see some good in this.
First, if one wishes to finish the game, they must see these relationships through. If one wishes to enjoy the complex narrative of Final Fantasy VII, they must put up with Cid’s blatant saltiness and occasional misogyny. Of course, one could refuse Cid the opportunity to battle, but one can neither kick him out of the party nor pretend he does not exist. Like it or not, Cid’s on the team, and one must put up with his philippics if they wish to progress in the game. And this is good. It is good because he irritates the player; it is good because he is hard to love. To accept Cid into the party is to practice hospitality. It is to be congenial when someone in uncongenial; it is to love someone despite what is unloveable about them. Cid’s acceptance into the player’s party, then, is implicitly an act of befriending the unfriendly. This is good because charity is only a virtue when it is extended to those who seemingly deserve it least. To welcome Cid is to love Cid; to love Cid is to practice charity.
Second, one typically has little say over who joins the party. Some games lock the player into a certain set of characters for a certain period of time, because, for reasons unique to the characters and the narrative, they are unavailable. This suggests the player is not always in control of what happens in the game; particularly, they are not always in control over whom they play with. This, I think, is an exciting feature of RPGs, for a lack of control often leads to unexpected or unanticipated results. British journalist G. K. Chesterton once said,
“The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect.”
There is some degree of freedom in some RPGs, but if there were total freedom, there would be no excitement, no unforeseen consequence to one’s actions. To secure the excitement of any story, there must be some things over which the player has no control and experiences at the mercy of the developers. Part of an RPG’s excitement lies in the unexpected words, “So-and-So joined the party.”
One additional, parenthetical point. In the case of Final Fantasy or Super Mario RPG, it is important to observe the motley crew that is one’s party when they finish the game. Cloud, Tifa, and Red XIII; Mario, Geno, and Bowser. A blonde, spiky-haired swordsman, a kick boxing brunette, and a talking lion-dog; a hoppy and happy-go-lucky plumber, a wooden puppet and marksman, and the plumber’s nemesis. Part of the power of finishing the game with an exasperated yet triumphant sigh lies in the disparate nature of one’s party. It is uncanny that such characters could cooperate to accomplish what they did, for they are all so different. But it is also uncanny that they could be similar enough to befriend each other, if only for a moment, to slay the dragon, save the kingdom, or save the Planet. Such is the goodness of relationships, not merely setting aside differences, but affirming them and cooperating with them to unite for a single cause.
In sum, RPGs that use a party system introduces the player to a nuanced sense of relationship. It is good to relate to one another, especially if the other is either annoying or unexpected. In this respect, such RPGs illustrate well some intriguing truths about life in general. We don’t always have a say in with whom we partner, but in partnering with them, we love them and treat them with respect and dignity as, perhaps, a friend. Let it be said, then, that no one is meant to fight the final boss alone. If RPGs with a party system teach us anything, it is that our greatest challenges, our most ferocious demons, our gnarliest dragons are defeasible only by the fiery virtues of friendship. There is no ‘I’ in teamwork, but there is at least two in friendship.
A young, thoughtful, amateur ludologist, who enjoys philosophy and what philosophy can teach us about gaming. Whether it’s Aristotle and the latest RPG release or Lyotard and the future of VR, I’m eager to see how and what video games today assist us into living well together.