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Can Turn-Based Elements Be Useful to Game Narrative?

A case study of how turn-based gameplay can help tell a story with a focus on narrative-heavy RPGs.

Game Developer, Staff

November 11, 2009

6 Min Read

Recently there has been much discussion over RPG and turn-based elements and their use or relevance in the current gaming market.  While many of these discussions highlight the different gameplay mechanics related to the battle systems (for lack of a better word) of various games, RPGs are largely defined by how they tell their story, and many RPGs that are looked at as outdated today despite their evolving battle engines appear so because the narrative structure is still stuck in the past.  With special focus on turn-based RPGs, I will in this post look at how games can use new narrative techniques to match changing battle mechanics with fresh storytelling. 

Though turn-based board or card games have directly influenced tons of games’ battle systems in nearly every genre, a surprisingly small number of them have experimented with using similar techniques to tell a story, or even reveal background information about characters or worlds.  If you think about what makes Dungeons and Dragons or Monopoly more than just a numbers game, it’s that every time your turn arrives and you make a decision, the “story” is told at the same exact moment you have chosen your next move – perfect story/gameplay integration, at least in the sense that I can say “I’m rich” when I win in Monopoly as opposed to “I have more points.”  Although neither of these games has a narrative story attached to them, the example punctuates why it seems easy to imagine a battle mechanic based on turn-based traditions and bizarre to think a narrative story could be told this way.

Many games use a decision-based system within conversations with characters in-game, but comparatively few use these ideas the same way a traditional turn-based battle system is made - usually a simplified version of chess plus varying levels of character customization.  Can this same system apply to interactive storytelling, and could a game benefit from it?

The quick answer is yes, and the long answer is Persona 3 and 4.  Both games are based on the same mechanic that charges the player the same cost – one turn (or in these games, one morning, afternoon or evening) – for dungeon crawling, stat boosting, or character interactions.  Players can wander the city or school and take their time worry-free doing small tasks like shopping or completing simple quests, but if you are looking to spend an afternoon with another character or go to the dungeon and grind, you will use up one turn.  Also, both games interweave each possible action by providing benefits to your battle stats by furthering your interactions with other characters.

I call this turn-based story development, but that doesn’t fully capture the reason Persona’s system works so well.  The interactions you can have with characters further reveal who you are talking to (and who your character is through your conversation choices and their reactions to you) and reward you for simply spending time with them, which in my opinion better approximates human interaction and friendship than, say, a fetch quest.  And though story elements that are tangential to the main plot seem easy to brush off, the characters in Persona thank you both passively and actively, which seems to legitimize the emotional bond you are forging with them.  

In Persona 4, for instance, let’s say you spend a day with Yukiko (a party member) and your Social Link (relationship rank) goes up a notch.  In battle, this translates to improved stats and abilities with certain Personas (sort of like equipment) as well as Yukiko’s protection from a mortal blow or status ailment.  In the main story, there is not a huge difference in dialogue, though the next time you hang out with Yukiko you will pick up from where you left off.

This is not a perfect system, and some would be turned off by the lingering heavy presence of traditionally scripted narrative (still very much there) or the limited character customization choices in comparison to games by Bioware or Bethesda.  Though turn-based story development helps tell part of Persona's story, the game still primarily relies on the standard method of storytelling to give you the essential details.  That being said, the problem I always face in many open-world and other (also turn-based) games is that character interactions feel like they are merely obstacles between me and loot, and it more or less feels like there is no choice in my interactions because I’m inevitably going to do all of them.  Persona 3 and 4 are set up such that even the most time-conscious player will not see every story event in the game without a strategy guide because of the one year time span, which gives an air of urgency and relative importance to every action you take.  Persona is the also only game I know of in which dungeon crawling is given the same turn-based value as every other element of the game, which I feel like places plot on the same level of relevance as battle and does wonders for integrating story and gameplay, the supposed ultimate goal of the RPG. 

I’m sure there are other games that have done this (strategy RPGs have used variations on this before, though none come to mind at the moment), and games that use real-time day cycles of course have values attached to your choice of actions (Grand Theft Auto 4 comes to mind).  What I’m trying to say, though, is that the evolution of turn-based gameplay doesn’t have to be strictly relegated to battle, and can hugely improve aspects of a narrative-heavy game if used inventively.

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