Star Ocean and Non-Person Characters

For me, the most important thing an RPG can do is make its setting feel like a real world inhabited by real people. Having recently played Star Ocean: The Divine Force and Star Ocean: The Second Story R back to back has provided me with a couple nicely illustrative examples to share. Minor/vague spoilers follow for both games.

Divine Force does something weird with its townsfolk NPCs: it doesn’t let you talk to them. Some of them do have chatter, but you can’t read any of it (unless you turn on an obscure option buried in a menu somewhere that I went the entire game without finding). It’s voiced but barely audible, and even if you stand still in the right place long enough to hear it there’s a good chance your party members will start talking over it to remind you where the next plot trigger is (which is completely unnecessary as there’s always a map marker for that as well). It quickly becomes clear that it’s just not worth the bother.

I can’t wrap my head around this. Why in the world would a game do this? It feels like a decision by committee where the result is far more expensive and far less effective than just having text bubbles. And because you don’t talk to the townspeople, the world feels empty apart from the major characters.

The most frustrating instance of this is a part where you are visiting a town to meet someone who lives there. Their home is all the way in the back, so you need to walk through the entire town past many NPCs to reach it. Once you get there, the cutscene dialog implies you’ve learned a lot about the person you’re meeting by talking to the townsfolk about the things this person has done for the town. This had not happened for me even a little. Again, it feels like design by committee: in most RPGs, putting the character’s house at the back of the town would absolutely have had this result and it would have been a great way to introduce this character, but here the effect was ruined by how Divine Force handles NPC dialog.

Contrast this with a couple scenes in Second Story, which has the traditional talk-to-any-NPC-for-text-bubble-dialog approach. When you reach the game’s second town, the tavern is full of miners. If you talk to them, you learn that work in the local mine has been stopped. As you advance the plot, you eventually solve the issue that required closing the mine. If you return to the bar after this, it’s empty and the barkeep laments that all the miners have gone back to work so his business has slowed to a crawl.

I love this little touch. It makes the world feel real, like your actions are actually making a difference to real people.

Sometimes an RPG will do something so bizarre that it destroys its illusion in one fell swoop (see my reaction to Lost Sphear). It can be harder to see the more spread-out impact of having or not having NPCs to react realistically to a story’s events (see Shamus Young writing about this in the first two Mass Effect games), but it can make a huge cumulative difference in how satisfying a game’s world is to inhabit. It’s definitely part of why I still consider Second Story to be the best Star Ocean.