Social Links – the value of friendship in video games

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I’ve never been great at making friends. Blame it on me being a shy introvert at a young age then carrying a misanthropic streak in my adulthood, but being a gregarious social butterfly is not one of my strong points.

That’s not to say I’m a totally aloof and unapproachable grouch. I’m generally a friendly person who doesn’t like to cause conflict. In my time, I’ve met many like-minded people, colleagues, acquaintances, and peers, but the one nagging thing in the back of my mind is always, ‘but are they friends?’.

What does that even mean in the social media age of so many casual swipes and requests, where being mutuals on Twitter can assume a familiarity that may or may not be genuine? Given reports that consider Millennials and Gen Z the loneliest generations, it’s clearly not just something that’s been on my mind.

That’s probably why I get fascinated by games that incorporate a social or friendship system. We know that a lot of games are about player power fantasies, but games where you can be charismatic, popular, and everyone wants to be your friend? That’s surely a super power we can all relate to.

To some extent, the power of friendship is a well-spun theme in party-based JRPGs where victory against evil forces rests on a collective group of heroes, or indeed Saturday morning cartoons, but the first game that really brought this down to earth for me was Persona 4, which I was recently replaying with via the Steam port.

As a transfer student who starts off knowing nobody in the small rural town of Inaba, you soon make friends with fellow classmates who get caught up in a kidnapping and murder mystery that involves fighting shadows from another dimension. Integral to the story is how each teammate has to confront their shadow, a manifestation of a repressed side of themselves. It follows that friendship forged-in-fire trope where bonds grow stronger after facing your worst demons together. But alongside this you also have the opportunity to strengthen your bonds through the game’s Social Link system.

These aren’t limited to party members but also fellow classmates like Daisuke and Kou from the football and basketball clubs or those beyond your school or age range, like elderly widow Hisano or even your own uncle Dojima. Between your investigating and dungeon crawling, you’re balancing a normal life of a high school student and can choose how often you meet up with your acquaintances. It feels natural and meaningful how it takes time for bonds to increase over time, as conversations get deeper, your Social Link ranking up once you’ve reached a new scene in a character’s arc, as opposed to some games it just takes showering someone with items to get that relationship gauge to rise. Take Harvest Moon for instance, or Stardew Valley.

There’s more to Persona 4’s Social Links than just proving you’re Mr. Popular. A lot of these arcs are about these character’s own personal anxieties and struggles, such as Dojima’s fraught relationship with his daughter Nanako. Or Yumi from the school drama club who’s having a hard time reconciling with her estranged father on his deathbed. More importantly, while you do need to spend time with them to advance their arc, you’re not magically solving their problems either – sometimes you’re just there to hear them out and offer them the emotional support they need. Isn’t that what friendships are all about – being there for one another in the good and bad?

Through many of these heartwarming stories, culminating in you maxing out your Social Link, I find myself contemplating where my own friendships would rank – do any even go beyond Level 2 or 3, let alone max out as an everlasting bond? Sure, I can be friendly and get on with people, but how well do I ever get to know them? Who would I reach out to when I have something I need to get off my chest? Or rather, would they choose to confide in me? In contrast, I’ve had acquaintances who met each other through me first who then go on to become besties while at my last workplace, colleagues who started around the same time as me went on to marrying each other.

There’s an inherent problem with trying to evaluate your friendships with how good a friend you are – though isn’t that what happens when affix labels like ‘close’ and ‘best’ friends? – because surely real friendships aren’t quid pro quo.

That also quickly reveals just how video games fail to portray the complexity of human relationships when so many are quid pro quo in design. That’s fetch quests in a nutshell. Sure, the characters of Persona or Fire Emblem may be attractive, charming and well-written, but you’re also conscious that you’re spending time to level up a friendship because there’s something in it for you, whether it’s increased battle proficiency or Persona 4’s Social Links that grant XP bonuses when fusing personas.

That crosses over not just to NPCs but also IRL. Just think of the times you’ve been compelled to add or follow someone either as a nicety or to increase your own social currency. And how many times have you added a friend on your Switch purely so you can trade rare Pokemon or turnips (I also can’t quite articulate the anxiety when I’ve seen requests from people to be my ‘best friend’ on Animal Crossing).

Making friends is easy in Judgment, the Yakuza detective spin-off, but then it would be when you have the charisma and boyband good looks of Yagami. In his Kamurocho there’s scores of NPCs just waiting to become your friend and it all entails in speaking to a character, hearing out their requests and then fulfilling it in order to boost the friendship meter. That’s not to say there aren’t some genuinely wholesome encounters, like when you get to play matchmaker between two baristas working alternating shifts at the same coffee shop. These friendships also serve to boost your detective agency’s reputation, therefore increasing business by way of more clients.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons probably goes some way of providing a nuance to the relationships between you and your fellow animal friends. For a start, they’re not necessarily friends, but more like neighbours you can greet every so often. Yet how you get to know them happens more organically.

It’s not a one-way street in interaction because they’ll sometimes be the one to approach you with a gift, or run towards you excited to teach you a new reaction. More touching is when you unexpectedly receive a letter from one of them offering anything from words of encouragement to whatever random thought that pops up, much like a friend’s unsolicited Whatsapp musings at 3am.

A more unexpected surprise is Sable at the Able Sisters store. When you first approach her, she’s quietly beavering away with her sewing, but if you keep going to speak to her, she eventually opens up to you. Sure, there’s a kind of reward element in there where she’ll offer you additional patterns for you to customise your furniture, but what’s more touching is how she comes out of her shell, opening up about her deceased parents while also occasionally teasing her sister Mabel.

Nonetheless, there is still a quid pro quo element, mainly the attention or lack thereof your islanders get. If you’ve been away for a long time, they may mention that they were worried why you hadn’t been speaking to them, while entirely ignoring an islander is also how you’re supposed to get someone to leave. Then again, maybe it’s not too dissimilar to real-life anxieties about a friend not responding to a text, or just losing touch because of a lack of contact.

This anxiety is actually conveyed not in the game of Persona 4 but rather its anime adaptation, where your protagonist (known as Yu in the anime) is ultimately afraid of losing his bonds and being left alone. In the anime’s finale, we discover he’s stuck in a Groundhog Day time loop, a way of suppressing his fear of having to move away and lose his friends. It honestly resonates too as I have often found myself quickly losing touch with everyone from each phase of my life, whether from school or work, and the opportunity to meet and foster friendships becomes increasingly more difficult as you get older, especially when working from home.

Yet if games don’t always best represent friendships, video games can still be a way to maintain and even rekindle them. I’d like to conclude with a story about one of my oldest friends Josh, who I’ve known since the early years of primary school. While we weren’t always close back then and lost touch for most of our twenties as our lives took different directions, we always had a shared love of video games, especially as I was responsible for getting him hooked on Halo. So it was almost by fate that shortly after I did get back into games after a long hiatus, he reached out with an email and we quickly fell back into recounting our love for gaming and the latest trends.

We don’t really get the time to catch up face-to-face or for an online gaming session, especially when he has his own family and obligations, but it’s great to be back in contact again being able to easily touch base on our shared interests. More recently, he completely surprised me out of the blue as he said he had to downsize his home office to make room for their new baby and had something left over for me I could find useful. That turned out to be his old laptop he wanted to donate to help me with my freelancing career – by ‘old’, I actually mean a pretty damn cutting edge gaming laptop that he could’ve easily traded in for over a grand. That kind of generosity still blows my mind. I mean, I shouldn’t really put a value on acts of kindness, but isn’t that what friends are for?