Fans of RPGs (and fans of narrative gaming in general) are likely familiar with Squaresoft's original Final Fantasy game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It's a revolutionary title; fun to play and instrumental in the foundation of the RPG genre in video games. But the world of Final Fantasy is, frankly, not terribly interesting to explore. The environment is static and unchanging, and the things you do in the game leave little visible impact. This is perhaps most noticeable through the game’s Non-Player Characters. The NPCs have little personality, and their dialogue often fails to reflect the actions of the player. This makes the world feel flat and inauthentic.
Over time, richer, fuller environments for narrative gaming gradually developed. In fact, later entries in the Final Fantasy series would increase the complexity of their worlds, such that by the sixth entry many distinct NPCs emerge, with goals and ambitions that play out over the course of the narrative (such as the old man who eventually goes on to build the game's arena). Coming into the modern era, many titles now boast these kinds of elements, but the Legend of Heroes series is a franchise of particular significance to me specifically because of how effectively it incorporates these concepts into and around its main narratives. This is especially notable in the first two Trails of Cold Steel games.
The first game is set at an upper-class military boarding school, where your active party consists of the main protagonist, Rean, and the 9 other members of his class. However, interaction is possible with every student and faculty member, as well as some minor interactions with the townspeople. Every character has their own unique story developing over the course of the game, in approximately five parts. To give an idea, some of the NPCs in the game include Linde and Vivi, a pair of twins who like to play pranks; Becky and Hugo, who have rival businesses; and of course Bridget and Alan, a pair of childhood friends with a romance angle, among others. Some of these stories are revealed through side quests with attendant goals and rewards, but most of these story arcs are just dialogue pieces that advance as chapters are cleared. This means that most of their stories advance automatically over time, often without input from the main character. This helps each character to feel as though they exist independently of the main character's quest. This added much greater depth to the characters, and made them feel more realistic to me as I played. As a result, I found myself much more deeply invested in them, and it made me think more about how I could help them, or even what my actions in the main quest meant for them.
This illustrates how important it is for a game world to feel populated. It's all well and good for a world to have rich texture and ample backstory, but if it doesn't seem inhabited, we players can tell. When a game world starts to feel inauthentic, it’s very easy to disengage, or to dissociate our actions in the game with any sense of consequence. This is especially problematic in a narrative game - where you theoretically create the story as you play. Here is a small but omnipresent example: The concept of breaking into people's houses and stealing their things. This has become something of an old joke in discussions of video game worlds, but that’s specifically because it so radically diverges from true-life experience. People get angry when they're robbed; having NPCs that don't respond to that level of personal assault has a negative effect on immersion and makes it feel like the player's actions don't have genuine consequences on the world around them. Static, immobile NPCs who repeat lines ad infinitum lead to a dearth of empathy, and if the player doesn’t care about saving the people, then why would they care about saving the world?
In Trails of Cold Steel, the investment in what's going on around you pays off tremendously in the game. The world of the game is heavily reliant on a major split between the nobility and the increasing social mobility of the non-noble classes. This struggle is reflected on the micro level through the interactions of your classmates. To start, there's one class for nobles and one class for commoners. But beyond that, you've got rich kids and scholarship kids, noble families on the rise and families on the decline, and an unbearable enmity between these groups pervades the campus. All the important themes that you see play out in the macro narrative with the government have parallels with your classmates. It is their constantly evolving worldview (and dialogue) that shows you the impact that your actions are having. When the high noble Patrick, who has been the schoolyard bully for most of the game, finally starts to see the merits of Rean interacting with commoners, it genuinely makes you feel like you're making a difference, which is ultimately the goal of immersive gameplay and storytelling.
At the end of the first game, your school gets raided and your classmates get split up. Thich is, of course, devastating after all the investment you've put into these characters. However, even after the dissolution of the school, these stories and interactions continue on in the sequel. There, you're eventually asked to reassemble the student body, and all the while, their individual stories have been continuing. A few of them have begun new arcs (such as Rex the photographer, who took pictures of pretty girls in CS1, but becomes a war photographer in the sequel), but many of them are continuing to resolve their issues from the first game. For example, by the end of the first game, Bridget and Alan have recognized their romantic feelings for each other (something which you, as the player, have nothing to do with). In the second game, while recruiting the students, the player encounters Bridget first. Because she's extremely worried about Alan, she can't be recruited until he’s been found. The continuation of stories across multiple games is not only engaging, it creates a sense of a world that persists even between playable segments.
In order for players to embrace a simulated world, that world must be populated with "living" characters. No matter how solidly built the rest of the environment is, no matter how robust or engaging the backstory and history of that world is, without a living cast, it becomes a tomb. While there are definitely good and interesting stories to tell in a tomb (and in fact, games like Gone Home have done just that), they rely upon a very different kind of narrative gameplay. Traditional narrative gameplay is reliant on immersion. These worlds inform who our main characters are and why they act the way they act - and by extension, why we make them act the way they act. Just like the real-world environment helps to shape the choices an individual makes and the person they become, these fictional settings help to establish what it is that's made the characters in these narratives who they are, and thus help us relate to them as we step into their shoes.
Dr. Daniel Gronsky is a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Science, focusing on media studies in film and video games.