PREFIX: As mentioned in a previous post, in 2021, I was lucky enough to mentor a talented young woman in narrative design. She and I shared a deep love of RPGs, especially the Persona series, and I reflected that I really enjoyed how the character building in that game actually didn’t have as much to do with the main character: the Social Links involved the other character making a big realization and change in their life, often with minimal (but still significant) input from the player character. It’s a fascinating balancing act in many of the games how the balance between the player’s autonomy and input in the conversation is measured both against the surrealism of the world (when dealing with a teammate) and still a very normal, everyday setting (especially for the other characters who are not at all involved in your supernatural nightly shenanigans).
To that end, I wanted to try and experiment with our own version of a Persona-type Social Link – albeit much shorter, only 3 sessions (intro, climax, conclusion) rather than the 10 in a Persona game – and see how to best build a character along a clear thematic arc, with minimal input from the player. I was excited enough by this assignment that I made my own, which you can see if you check out the Interactive page in my writing!
ASSIGNMENT: SOCIAL LINK
Make 3 dialogues of approximately equal length detailing a character story arc that suits the "stages" of a chosen Major Arcana tarot card, e.g. negative aspects into positive. Each dialogue should feature a player dialogue choice of relative alignment with the other character's path (high, medium, low - just as Persona has 1-3 "stars") and have a clear tone, so that the character's responses are not unexpected. Also, list a very short synopsis of the arc, ex. "the character struggles to find meaning in their life in the face of impending death, and learns to both create something they are pleased with, but be content just in its creation and not in the expectations of it outlasting or replacing him."
Each of the three dialogs should achieve a goal sensible to that stage of the relationship:
First – Introduction of the characters, and establishment of connection, as well as a sensible reason for them to continue that connection (ex. study buddies). Strong hint of major flaw/motivation in character.
Second – Climax of the relationship. Should imply other meetings (like we’ve skipped an indefinite amount of time ahead, to allow for variable location in game). Confrontation with flaw/motivation for the character, and clear (but not extreme) influence of player character in helping them face it.
Third – Denouement of the relationship. Should imply the apex of the relationship – possibly even the character leaving (ex. lessons ending, or the character moving away to pursue something) – and the strength of the connection between the two. This dialogue will not have any points given for responses (or can if desired, but mechanically-speaking they wouldn’t be anything more than vague feedback for the player). In the parlance of the Persona games, “You have formed a bond that cannot be broken.”
These dialogues not expected to branch significantly, but to establish flavor, and allow the
player to respond both honestly and with a reasonable understanding of how the other character will react: a dismissive response should not come out of nowhere, or a coddling response to a character trying to be independent should not have their negative reaction be a total surprise. In the end, the arc that the other character goes through and the point they arrive at should be self-motivated, but not make the player feel entirely peripheral - like a therapist that helps them realize and actualize things without making the change directly (and the change should be a direct choice, not something motivated purely by circumstance).
Aside from the featured character and the protagonist, you can only have one other named character featured in the dialogs, and only two other non-named (non-portrait) side characters. (But you don’t have to use any if you prefer).
I don't want to give a specific word count for each section, but I would suggest roughly counting the words/characters in each of the Persona dialogs and responses - also, even if a character's line may be more than one screen, think of where it would be set. Try and give yourself a concrete character limit and stick to it.
For descriptions, things in (parentheses) will still be shown on-screen, while [brackets] will be assumed to be stage directions for developers. Ex. [Joanne runs across the screen] would have the 3D model of a character run across the screen, while (A young woman runs across the room in a panic) would appear as text visible for players. The parentheses lines are subject to the same character limit as normal spoken lines, and while the brackets are not, assume the motions of the characters/models involved in the scene is extremely basic (see videos from Persona 3 or Persona 4 for examples)
If the character’s name has not been revealed, keep the name itself in brackets beyond a description (ex. Young Woman [Rina]). For the player’s name, just use CHARNAME to imply they’re referencing the one initially given by the player.
The only verbal responses the Protagonist (Player Character) is allowed to have are the ones that involve player choice. This means no mid-choice reactions, or chances to elaborate on a line. You can potentially hand-wave it into a description (ex. “you do your best to explain the situation.”), but this should be used sparingly. Part of the goal here is to keep things precise, to not have the main character be the dominant force in the conversations.
Giving a setting in the overview and intro descriptions is nice - let's assume that stays static - but keeping the details light is ideal.
Look to the Persona series for how sparing they are with full 3D character actions vs. 2D emotes.
List no more than 5 different 2D portraits they can have (ex. neutral, happy, angry, sad) and what line uses which image (which is another good way of making the best use of narrow character limits - letting characters swap portraits partway through a line if the tone fits!
Before each named character line – unless they are using a default expression – list which of their expressions they’re using (ex. Wendy: (sad) This isn’t working…)
Title of Card/Social Link
Character(s) Write-up (for named characters) including
Descriptors (as if written for artists to concept from)
Expressions (for the foreground 2D drawing: the main character can have a maximum of 5 expressions – including a netural one – and the extra named character can only have 3)
Background (a brief summation of the character’s arc up until the starter point of the social link)
Setup (circumstances that begin the connection between the characters, ex. the Protagonist told to join the Student Council, and having the link be a part of that)
Settings – brief descriptions of locations where the sessions of the Social Link take place (imagine that, like in the Persona series, they are like a single stage set)
Session (+ Setting)