The battle of wits has begun
One of my favorite diplomatic encounters in a game comes from the tabletop adventure Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon.
After a long night of questing, my brother and I just wanted our current chapter to end. However, as we passed through a city, we triggered an encounter with a lost child. In Tainted Grail, diplomacy is treated equal to combat. You’re given a unique deck of cards to resolve these encounters, and the intended solution involved using empathy-based cards to calm the child and find a caretaker for them. However, we decided on a different strategy.
My brother’s burly blacksmith had two cards in his hand called “Sinister Voice”. Due to some funny mechanics, these cards could resolve both phases of this encounter single-handedly despite scaling off his aggression stat. The moment left us in hysterics due to how fast we resolved the situation despite handling it as inappropriately as possible. We kept joking that we entered this village, saw this child crying, and yelled “Hey you! STOP CRYING! Hey adults, RAISE THIS CHILD OR I’LL BE PISSED! AAAGH!” before peacing out and continuing our journey. By playing to our strengths to resolve the encounter, the outcome actually reflected how we felt “in the moment”, despite defying the path Tainted Grail wanted us to follow.
I want social situations in video games to feel like this.
Conversations aren’t quizzes
Despite playing roughly 250 hours of Persona 4, its social link events always felt off to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love the life sim elements of Persona 4. Failing to eat beef bowls on rainy days is the ideal way to unwind from dungeon crawling. Though I like the social link stories in Persona, I never took to the dialogue options required to advance them.
I love visual novels with branching story paths, yet choices in Persona aren’t like that. With a few exceptions, choices only trigger some unique dialogue and a variable boost to a relevant character’s relationship stat. In other words, conversations aren’t “what would I do in this situation?” and instead are “what does the game want me to say?” Since relationships cost time to build in Persona and time is your most limited resource, you’re incentivized to always pick the “correct” dialogue option and treat yourself like a happiness pump. Social link conversations are the climax of Persona‘s social elements, yet they offer the shallowest gameplay.
I don’t mean to pick on Persona 4. I admit this is a minor gripe in an otherwise fantastic game. Yet I’m astounded that series like Persona are so influential, yet titles copy these threadbare dialogue options instead of experimenting with other ways to express social situations. Even Fire Emblem: Three Houses has numerous guides explaining the “correct” dialogue options you should make throughout your playthrough.
These games are filled with complex systems, yet their social elements are distilled into conditional branches that increase a number. Players obviously love these social elements, because why would games even include them if we didn’t? I just wish someone could crack the formula to make the conversations themselves as engaging as combat in video games.
Enter social combat
Social combat is a term used in the tabletop gaming space to describe “combat” systems without the violence. Like my Tainted Grail example, these typically share mechanics with traditional combat systems and feature twists to fit the format better. It’s hard to describe social combat since it’s an emerging trend, especially when it comes to video games.
The first video game I played that used unique mechanics to express social conflict is Pheonix Wright. While not quite “social combat,” its courtroom scenes are still an incredibly inventive way to immerse you in the drama. There’s still one solution you’re chasing, but Pheonix Wright lets you get there on your own terms and even make some mistakes along the way. Much like a hard boss battle, these situations test your mastery of the game’s mechanics and make you feel like you’ve earned the victories in its story moments. Yet more importantly, Pheonix Wright connects you with the story through its gameplay. It emulates being a detective and a lawyer, not just someone observing a detective at work.
Even if these social systems aren’t pervasive in the industry, many games have made admirable efforts to develop them. Undertale blew everyone’s minds in 2015 by making pacifism viable in turn-based combat. Griftlands is a deck builder with diplomacy cards like Tainted Grail. Yet a more comprehensive example is Betrayal at Club Low, reviewed by our own Zoey Handley last year. By imagining social situations as dice rolls based on social stats of your choosing, Betrayal At Club Low is a strong proof-of-concept as to what social combat could look like on a foundational level.
Video games have the potential to be anything, we just need someone to imagine it.
Embrace the abstraction
Look, I get it. You might say that adding so many systems and dynamics to social situations is a bit silly and unrealistic. To that, I say, you know what else is silly and unrealistic? One of the most celebrated video games of all time featuring an attack that involves a meteor blasting through the cosmos that destroys several planets in our solar system before causing our sun to trigger a supernova, destroying the foundation for life itself to exist just to inflict a moderately high amount of damage.
Video games thrive on abstractions. Combat systems are fun because they feel frantic and exciting, not because they accurately reflect what combat looks like. It’s like how a musical is unrealistic by design. No one breaks into song when they fall in love, but these moments feel romantic and stirring because it’s what idealized love feels like. Even Sephiroth’s Supernova is awesome because it conveys the scale of the battle, not the reality of it. Really, that’s what any social system should focus on: reflecting how social situations feel in our heads. Just as how the original battle system of Final Fantasy was inspired by American Football, all that matters is how the players connect and interact with the events onscreen.
We can see this abstraction of combat systems taken literally in MiHoYo’s otome gacha Tears of Themis, which uses a standard battle system to convey social conflict. This isn’t groundbreaking gameplay, but it’s intriguing to see systems reserved for swords and sorcery make about as much sense when applied to conversations. Social combat doesn’t need to mimic traditional combat, nor is Tears of Themis the only game to use this gimmick. Yet it’s a great starting point to imagine what social systems could feel like as they mature.
The time is now
Let me make one thing abundantly clear: I’m not saying all video games need to change. Fans love Persona and Fire Emblem, and I’d never want to take something away from them. Even I have a propensity towards gory sidescrollers with basic narratives, so I’d be a hypocrite implying those can’t exist.
That said, it’s clear that the market is hungry for social systems to evolve like never before. “Cozy games” have gained intense popularity in recent years, despite the term arguably not even existing before 2016. Undertale has inspired literally hundreds of fangames based around its battle system that allows pacifism as an option. Even rap battle sensation Friday Night Funkin has mods that generate millions of views on YouTube within months. You don’t need me to tell you that games should expand their nonviolent systems. The market is literally pointing that way!
The only obstacle to overcome is just developing the core mechanics and terminology that developers can then iterate on to develop awesome and engaging systems of their own. We owe so much to the early Final Fantasy series for making turn-based combat engaging and awesome, and really, that’s what we need. Social systems need their Final Fantasy or Mario to turn them from a fun gimmick into a robust genre. Maybe these theoretical games wouldn’t be for everyone, but that’s okay! At least you’d be able to try it and decide if it’s the kind of experience you would want.
Let’s celebrate the pioneers in this field
There have been many games that have experimented with their social systems in interesting ways, and I’m sad I couldn’t fit them all in without making this article way too long. For example, I missed Alpha Protocol and read passionate things about its narrative design as I researched this topic. Even if I had the time to test another game, Sega won’t let me buy it on Steam.
So, once again, I gotta reach out to you all in the comments: what are some of your favorite games to innovate with social systems? Would you like to see social situations treated like battle systems, or would you prefer finite branching dialogue options? Whether it’s morality systems in classic BioWare titles or something completely different, I’m genuinely curious to see what games have resonated with you the most. Maybe your perfect vision of social conflict goes in a completely direction than what I discussed here!
I honestly can’t say if we’ll see robust social systems in video games over the next decade. Maybe social combat isn’t as awesome in execution as it is in my mind, and if so, I’ll accept that. But if more games allow me the freedom to shout at a village to resolve their problems, I’ll at least be content.