A Close Look at Social Links and their functions in Persona 4

Posted by thatpinguino (1146 posts) -
Interesting social links with well written characters keep the player as focused on friends as dungeons

Persona 4, published by Atlus, is a role-playing game with an odd pedigree; it draws inspiration from two distinct game genres: the traditional Japanese role-playing game and the Japanese dating simulation. Although, this combination of genres may appear at first to be some sort of unholy union, Persona 4 blends the constant progression and incentivization mechanics of role-playing games with the character interaction mechanics of a dating simulation to create a game with a very specific focus. Through the blending of genres, Persona 4 becomes a game which uses traditional rpg mechanics to incentivize social interaction rather than combat or traditional role-playing game character building. In Persona 4 the player is rewarded more for forming Social Links with the various characters in the game than for fighting enemies, earning money, or buying new weapons. What is truly significant and remarkable about this game, however, is not merely its focus on social interaction and ordinary human activity, but that it does not force these interactions upon the player. The player may, if she/he wishes, play the game completely ignoring the Social Links and ignoring the rewards there in. It is up to the player to realize that the most efficient and gratifying way to play the game is to spend as little time fighting monsters as possible and instead spend time joining the school basketball team or taking up a part-time job at the hospital. Through the use of strong incentivization and interesting characters, Persona 4 mounts a campaign to convince the player that what is truly meaningful in a world full of murder investigations and TV monsters is spending a Sunday afternoon listening to a grieving widow down by the riverbank.

Leveling up a social link is actually a lot more important than leveling up a character

Social Links in Persona 4 provide the player with several in-game benefits that in other games would be tied to a traditional, combat based, leveling system. Upon establishing a Social Link with a character in Persona 4, the player immediately receives an experience bonus whenever he/she fuses a persona that corresponds to that Social Link. This experience bonus increases as the player increases the level of their Social Link through interaction and socialization. As a result, this experience bonus can become quite substantial over time. Towards the middle of the game, due to this experience bonus, the player is able to immediately level-up a newly fused persona by several levels and, in doing so, allow that persona to rapidly accrue abilities and stat bonuses. This single experience boost can remove the need for hours of combat and leveling, as the player’s personae can often learn every ability it is capable of learning immediately after it is fused. Therefore, a concerted focus on increasing the level of one’s Social Links allows for a reduction in the number of hours of level grind in the game. However, rather than simply removing an unnecessary grind from the game, the experience bonus provided by Social Links replaces the combat grind with a social one. Instead of rewarding endless hours of combat in dungeons, Persona 4 rewards players who actively seek friends in the game. Players are rewarded with faster persona growth when they spend their in-game days out of the TV, rather than in it.

Social Links also serve as a motivator for personal growth in Persona 4. Over the course of the game the main character can increase several personality traits, namely: diligence, courage, knowledge, understanding, and expression. All of these character traits represent desirable qualities for a human being and, as such, it is unsurprising that the game incentivizes the player to make the main character as well rounded an individual as possible. However, the way the game incentivizes his personal growth is not through the promise of statistical rewards or combat benefits. Instead, the player is presented with social links that cannot be established until certain levels of personal growth are met. For example, Naoto’s social link, an essential social link for any player who intends to use Naoto in combat, is blocked off until the main character has level five knowledge. In this case the main character is not only encouraged to be intelligent, but the reward for intelligence is first and foremost a social one. All of the personality traits in Persona 4 are treated in a similar fashion and as a result the player is shown that traits such as knowledge and courage are not necessarily useful in and of themselves. On the contrary, these traits are only as useful as the relationships that they allow you to pursue.

Every member of the investigation team can gain new personas if player hangs out with them

The final aspect of Social Links that I wish to touch on is their ability to affect permanent change on the characters in the investigation team. Each of the investigation teammates level up and gain abilities through combat; they accrue experience points after each victory and those points allow them to level up and gain new abilities. However, there are levels of growth that each character can only attain though Social Links. In fact, certain team based abilities can only be unlocked by socializing with the members of the investigation team, such as follow-up attacks. Follow up attacks can completely change the way that the player approaches battles as characters like Yukiko and Teddie gain the ability to dizzy opponents after a knock down and Chie gains the ability to instantly kill one opponent. Each of these follow up attacks add options to the battles in Persona 4 that are completely unique and can change the strategy of combat fairly significantly. Furthermore, to gain these combat advantages as well as the investigation team’s evolved personas the player must choose to forgo the TV world for weeks of game time. The player must make a conscious effort to prioritize socializing over the fantasy world of the TV. Also these added bonuses that the investigation teammates receive further incentivize the player to prioritize these teammates over the other Social Links in the game. Rather than taking the ordinary rpg tact of leveling characters based purely on using those characters in combat, Persona 4 elects to instead reward players for getting to know the characters on a more human level.

What makes Persona 4s rpg mechanics so interesting for me is that the Social Link system allows the game developers to take ordinary rpg leveling and incentive systems and blend them with something resembling reality. The player is rewarded with fantastical things like experience points and elemental bonuses for studying after school and for participating in school clubs. Furthermore, these bonuses always come at the expense of another day in the TV. To get the best results in Persona 4, a proper balance must be stuck between entering the TV world and socializing. It seems to me that this game is both making a statement about balancing fantasy and reality while also showing a way to season reality with aspects of fantasy. This blending of fantasy and reality, thus, makes reality into something more interesting and exciting than it otherwise might be. Yet, what is always most important is social interaction, without it none of the fantastical rewards can be reaped.

#1 Posted by thatpinguino (1146 posts) -
Interesting social links with well written characters keep the player as focused on friends as dungeons

Persona 4, published by Atlus, is a role-playing game with an odd pedigree; it draws inspiration from two distinct game genres: the traditional Japanese role-playing game and the Japanese dating simulation. Although, this combination of genres may appear at first to be some sort of unholy union, Persona 4 blends the constant progression and incentivization mechanics of role-playing games with the character interaction mechanics of a dating simulation to create a game with a very specific focus. Through the blending of genres, Persona 4 becomes a game which uses traditional rpg mechanics to incentivize social interaction rather than combat or traditional role-playing game character building. In Persona 4 the player is rewarded more for forming Social Links with the various characters in the game than for fighting enemies, earning money, or buying new weapons. What is truly significant and remarkable about this game, however, is not merely its focus on social interaction and ordinary human activity, but that it does not force these interactions upon the player. The player may, if she/he wishes, play the game completely ignoring the Social Links and ignoring the rewards there in. It is up to the player to realize that the most efficient and gratifying way to play the game is to spend as little time fighting monsters as possible and instead spend time joining the school basketball team or taking up a part-time job at the hospital. Through the use of strong incentivization and interesting characters, Persona 4 mounts a campaign to convince the player that what is truly meaningful in a world full of murder investigations and TV monsters is spending a Sunday afternoon listening to a grieving widow down by the riverbank.

Leveling up a social link is actually a lot more important than leveling up a character

Social Links in Persona 4 provide the player with several in-game benefits that in other games would be tied to a traditional, combat based, leveling system. Upon establishing a Social Link with a character in Persona 4, the player immediately receives an experience bonus whenever he/she fuses a persona that corresponds to that Social Link. This experience bonus increases as the player increases the level of their Social Link through interaction and socialization. As a result, this experience bonus can become quite substantial over time. Towards the middle of the game, due to this experience bonus, the player is able to immediately level-up a newly fused persona by several levels and, in doing so, allow that persona to rapidly accrue abilities and stat bonuses. This single experience boost can remove the need for hours of combat and leveling, as the player’s personae can often learn every ability it is capable of learning immediately after it is fused. Therefore, a concerted focus on increasing the level of one’s Social Links allows for a reduction in the number of hours of level grind in the game. However, rather than simply removing an unnecessary grind from the game, the experience bonus provided by Social Links replaces the combat grind with a social one. Instead of rewarding endless hours of combat in dungeons, Persona 4 rewards players who actively seek friends in the game. Players are rewarded with faster persona growth when they spend their in-game days out of the TV, rather than in it.

Social Links also serve as a motivator for personal growth in Persona 4. Over the course of the game the main character can increase several personality traits, namely: diligence, courage, knowledge, understanding, and expression. All of these character traits represent desirable qualities for a human being and, as such, it is unsurprising that the game incentivizes the player to make the main character as well rounded an individual as possible. However, the way the game incentivizes his personal growth is not through the promise of statistical rewards or combat benefits. Instead, the player is presented with social links that cannot be established until certain levels of personal growth are met. For example, Naoto’s social link, an essential social link for any player who intends to use Naoto in combat, is blocked off until the main character has level five knowledge. In this case the main character is not only encouraged to be intelligent, but the reward for intelligence is first and foremost a social one. All of the personality traits in Persona 4 are treated in a similar fashion and as a result the player is shown that traits such as knowledge and courage are not necessarily useful in and of themselves. On the contrary, these traits are only as useful as the relationships that they allow you to pursue.

Every member of the investigation team can gain new personas if player hangs out with them

The final aspect of Social Links that I wish to touch on is their ability to affect permanent change on the characters in the investigation team. Each of the investigation teammates level up and gain abilities through combat; they accrue experience points after each victory and those points allow them to level up and gain new abilities. However, there are levels of growth that each character can only attain though Social Links. In fact, certain team based abilities can only be unlocked by socializing with the members of the investigation team, such as follow-up attacks. Follow up attacks can completely change the way that the player approaches battles as characters like Yukiko and Teddie gain the ability to dizzy opponents after a knock down and Chie gains the ability to instantly kill one opponent. Each of these follow up attacks add options to the battles in Persona 4 that are completely unique and can change the strategy of combat fairly significantly. Furthermore, to gain these combat advantages as well as the investigation team’s evolved personas the player must choose to forgo the TV world for weeks of game time. The player must make a conscious effort to prioritize socializing over the fantasy world of the TV. Also these added bonuses that the investigation teammates receive further incentivize the player to prioritize these teammates over the other Social Links in the game. Rather than taking the ordinary rpg tact of leveling characters based purely on using those characters in combat, Persona 4 elects to instead reward players for getting to know the characters on a more human level.

What makes Persona 4s rpg mechanics so interesting for me is that the Social Link system allows the game developers to take ordinary rpg leveling and incentive systems and blend them with something resembling reality. The player is rewarded with fantastical things like experience points and elemental bonuses for studying after school and for participating in school clubs. Furthermore, these bonuses always come at the expense of another day in the TV. To get the best results in Persona 4, a proper balance must be stuck between entering the TV world and socializing. It seems to me that this game is both making a statement about balancing fantasy and reality while also showing a way to season reality with aspects of fantasy. This blending of fantasy and reality, thus, makes reality into something more interesting and exciting than it otherwise might be. Yet, what is always most important is social interaction, without it none of the fantastical rewards can be reaped.

#2 Posted by eccentrix (1587 posts) -

Where does the Meat Dimension figure into this fantasy/reality balance?

#3 Posted by thatpinguino (1146 posts) -

@eccentrix: Well truly there is no meat dimension, the meat dimension is only a way of describing the ridiculous amount of meat in the rainy day challenge, so I would just say it is an analogy. Or it throws into question all that I thought I knew about reality.

#4 Posted by Pepsiman (2485 posts) -

In my own review of the game on here soon after it originally came out, I originally touched upon why Persona 4's incarnation of Social Links not only sets it apart from its predecessor and (in my opinion) helps make it the superior game, but also stand out as an RPG in general. This blog, however, does a much more thorough job of conveying why it is that the system is so integral to the experience. It may very well have been ignorance on my part since I've only become serious about playing RPGs within the last five or so years of my game-playing career, but prior to Persona 4, I had always wondered why so many RPGs emphasize party-based combat without really making you feel invested in the actual bonding and growth of the group. Certainly any RPG worth its salt that has parties goes out of their way to ensure that different members have different abilities that can complement each other, but having only that alone makes things feel mechanical and while that isn't an inherently bad thing in and of itself, it always felt like a lost opportunity to make teamwork more meaningful like it can be in real life. While I still think there's a lot of room for Social Links to grow in general, I feel like Atlus did a really good job of making them have a sort of tangible significance on the gameplay without making them lose that emotional edge. Even if the actual progression of it is very apparent and linear, It just felt so natural that as I got to know Chie better that our bonds would lead up to better teamwork and she would really have my back more and more. Social Link-like mechanics are actually something Atlus has been tinkering with on some level long before Persona 3 in some of their other games, but it feels like their impact is only beginning to be understood and felt in today's games.

On a tangential note, I like how you underlined "Persona 4." It adds a subtle sort of heft that I'm only used to seeing when reading articles on books and whatnot.

#5 Posted by thatpinguino (1146 posts) -

@Pepsiman: I agree with a lot of your points. However, I feel like sometimes the in battle synergy between party members in traditional rpgs can be just as interesting as the more straight forward growth that characters in persona 4 undergo. I think persona 4 really marries traditional rpg character growth with more modern story telling in really compelling ways; by making every story moment grow your character rather than simply being fluff surrounding the gameplay. I would take intelligently designed mechanics over a character development cut scene any day. I really hope that systems like the social links in persona 4 and the loyalty system in mass effect 2 catch on in future rpgs.

Also thanks for the comment about the underlining. I try to treat every work that I write about with the same reverence so I underline or quote as appropriate, be my topic Moby Dick or Psychonauts.

#6 Posted by FLStyle (4765 posts) -

So, you like to underline titles, every time you mention them. Instead maybe you should just link to the a game's wiki page instead?

For example, Tekken 3 is the 3rd Tekken game.

#7 Posted by thatpinguino (1146 posts) -

@FLStyle: I wrote the blog in word first so I couldn't add the links as I wrote and there is a link to the Persona 4 page at the end of the essay. Would more links really be helpful?

#8 Posted by Turambar (6808 posts) -
@thatpinguino said:

@FLStyle: I wrote the blog in word first so I couldn't add the links as I wrote and there is a link to the Persona 4 page at the end of the essay. Would more links really be helpful?

Depends on your audience.  If you are writing this for a class, then it's fine.  The format is certainly (nauseatingly) formal enough for such a task.  But given your need to go into explanations of just what Persona 4 is, for the audience of this site, simply linking to the wiki page serves a much better alternative.
#9 Posted by thatpinguino (1146 posts) -

@Turambar: I tried to split the difference between a really formal essay and a normal blog post. The next blog post I write will still provide the proper context in the essay itself but it certainly cannot hurt to include links. Thanks for the feedback.

#10 Posted by SuicidalSnowman (396 posts) -

On a stylistic note, I love that this is more formal. A critical piece like this requires the formality to help control the logical progression. Very well written, although I do agree that using GB's linking feature to wiki articles might be cool.

Substantively, this is a great look at a unique aspect of an interesting game. As someone who can't always keep up with the endurance runs, I am less familiar with Persona 4 than most of this site. Nonetheless, it is obvious that the game lends itself to critical study. The sheer amount of blogs on here that point to intricacies of the game is a real testament to its design.

The social aspects are, to me, a fundamental difference in game design between 'western' and 'Japanese' games. This has always struck me as odd. First, I don't exactly find the parallels in other mediums. In literature, English writers such as Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, and the Bronte's can write entire tome's where the only action is conversation, or even perhaps the Russians such as Tolstoy and Dostevesky with their deep, philosophical character studies. In film, I would look to the French or the American "Character Study" genre long before any Japanese director or writer for social leanings.

My second thought on this topic is the odd way this social leveling interacts. In real life, social relationships are complex, subtle, and often completely unmeasurable. Psychology literature has determined some aspects, such as trust and shared interests, that grow relationships, but otherwise they are mysterious from a scientific standpoint. The only one I can really put my finger on states that social relationships almost always grow through small steps in mutual sharing, that is I share a surface level fact about myself, you respond with a slightly more private fact about yourself, to which I then respond with a slightly more personal share, and so on. Apparently relationships will stall if one party refuses to share deeper.

In Persona 4, however, (and much like the other "social relationship" game, the Sims), relationships are broken down in concrete statistics such as knowledge. While it is true that many social relationships do follow similarities in certain areas, including intelligence, there are few times in life where you can actively raise an aspect to become someone's friend. For example, if you want to sit at the high school lunch table with the jocks, getting a spot on the football team may help, but it won't guarantee you a lifelong friend. The concrete goal of improving your athleticism may not give you the shared interests and hobbies that forge strong friendships. You could possibly befriend these jocks through your intelligence, by become team manager or statistician, and having a mutual love for the game of football, instead.

I think the Sims actually has tried to represent this, by tying career progressions to other statistics, such as certain social based jobs requiring a wide social network. Persona 4, on the other hand, seems to take the social features and boil them down to something much less social. If you want to be friends, increase your strength, says on character, so off you go on a solo quest to raise your strength. Once completed, you don't have mutual interests or trust, instead you have a taskmaster and a humble servant. Now that you have done what the potential friend asks, you are able to give orders in combat and have them followed.

In some ways, the original Pokemon games on Gameboy may have done this the best. There, if you raised a Pokemon in your own game, it always followed your orders. If you got one through a trade from a friend, and it was a higher level than you, it wouldn't always follow your orders. The slightly random nature is probably more like real friendship and social relationships, where you cannot always control the other party (in fact, the first lesson in dating is often that you cannot control someone else). The structure of having a Pokemon you caught always have the familiarity and trust with you is a good social analog, as is the idea that one from someone else will only respect you if you have progressed far enough to be its equal.

Great essay, can't wait to read more of yours!

#11 Posted by Fallen189 (5033 posts) -

Popularity leads to intimacy

Online
#12 Posted by thatpinguino (1146 posts) -

@SuicidalSnowman: I agree that the idea of a primarily social aspect is quite unique to games, mainly because the player is both a person viewing the fiction and the character involved in the fiction. By placing the player simultaneously within and without of the fiction ordinary narrative devices like character development and story progression become more human, just as experiencing life is more riveting than hearing a great story. It really presents a unique opportunity for development and expansion in how games involve socializing, even in single player games.

As for your point about the statistics, the way Persona 4 tends to handle the five main statistics I mentioned is that they prevent friendships from being formed without meeting a stat requirement or prevent further progression until a stat is raised. This relatively gamey system is handled very well within the confines of the story and perhaps these two examples may sway you as to their potency. One is Nanako's social link, early on in the game you form a social link with your cousin Nanako who is a 6 year old girl. Early into the social link Nanako begins to ask about like and death and whether her father loves her, as he is a police officer and is often at work. To answer her questions requires level 3 expression, as these are tough questions to answer. Though it does pose a gamey wall to your socialization it does make some impact , and it also creates a situation where as your character becomes a more well-rounded person your options in conversation increase.

Another example is Naoto's social link which requires level 5 intelligence to start. Naoto is a socially awkward and brilliant detective who has trouble interacting with ordinary people her own age. She at first does not know how to interact with the main character; however, once your intelligence is sufficiently high she will initiate a relationship predicated on solving a mystery she cannot solve by herself. The relationship starts as an intellectual exercise and if properly pursued it can end in a romance or a lasting friendship.

Although I will freely admit that these systems are gamey and exploitable, as well as being quite removed from ordinary human interaction, the actual dialog and character interactions are some of the most believable I have seen. The game really does a great job of making the gaminess work and feel natural. There are of course game design reasons for these limits; for example, preventing some of the more available night time social links from being burned through until new ones are available. However, on the whole I feel that this game handles the actual character interactions as well as I've seen and all 10 levels of each social link do feel like a logical progression from acquaintance to life long friend.

#13 Posted by SuicidalSnowman (396 posts) -

@thatpinguino: Good points! I especially think the second one, about Naoto and intelligence, is relevant. If there is context for the relationship, or a reason why your character needs a certain quality to help it happen, it makes all the difference.

#14 Posted by Bocam (3784 posts) -

I want to kill someone

#15 Posted by thatpinguino (1146 posts) -

Included a few pictures and links to make the essay a bit more interesting.

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