Hello, and welcome back to A Narrative Lens. In this article, we cast our gaze back a few years to learn about the effectiveness of paralinguistics!
There's a great temptation, from my brief experience in writing games, to give the player as much choice as possible, allowing them an opportunity at every moment to give them agency. This is especially true, kind of tautologically, in non-linear genres like social simulations or sandbox RPGs. After all, choice is very important in those games, allowing players the opportunity to shape their character's identity and the world around them. Choosing what weapon to wield, what spell to learn, what job to have, who to woo; these are ways a player can shape their character's identity.
However, in creating these choices, we generate conflict for the player. Therefore, a great deal of choice generates a great deal of conflict. Using a hypothetical situation from a recent Gamasutra article, comparing 40 different types of flour at a supermarket is a very difficult task, as opposed to comparing three types at a corner shop. Therefore, it's a good idea to limit the choice a player is presented with at any given moment, so as to avoid paralyzing them with a sense of 'oh god what do I do?'
You'll notice this kind of limiting in some of the better RPGs. For example, in Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, there are eleven types of weapon, divided into eight and three dependent on class (eight for melee, three for ranged), and then those divisions are further split up into groups of two for the melee class (such as Sword and Shield/Dual Swords), and then a two/one split for the ranged class (Light/Heavy Bowgun, and Bow). Deciding on a weapon to use is a simple matter of asking a short series of questions. Do I want to be up close to my target? Do I want to be light on my feet? Do I want to cause a great deal of damage in a short space of time?
If the answer to all of the above is yes, then the Dual Swords are probably the choice for you.
There's a problem with this limiting, at least on the surface, when we take it to the NPCs of a game. Narratively speaking, limiting the interactions a player has with a character severely hinders one of the main sources of expression and characterisation. After all, if there is very little for an NPC to talk about, then we can't learn much about them. This is especially noticeable in social simulations, where these interactions (also known as being social) are at the very core of the gameplay. Limiting interaction here seems almost counter-intuitive.
However, dialogue between player and NPC is only one method of characterisation. Just like in my first ramble with the fighting genre, there are many other ways to express character than just listening to what they say, and even with limited interaction with an NPC, these tools can add a lot of depth to them. In linguistics, what a person does outside of what they say is referred to as paralinguistics, and for ease of expression I'm going to use that term in the actual study section of this ramble.
So, for the study section, let's look at the paralinguistics of the human NPCs in Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. There are 37 human characters that populate the titular setting. Each of these NPCs have likes, dislikes, jobs and schedules, families, and scenarios that the player can witness. It is possible to befriend all of these NPCs, primarily by giving them gifts. As far as dialogue is concerned on a day-to-day basis, it's normally just a greeting or a small box of text. Yet, their characters are clearly expressed through paralinguistics; most importantly, through their schedules. The technical limitations of the console leads to this being the primary method of expression outside of dialogue with the player's character, as the lack of voice acting means that who they're near or in the same room as is the clearest indicator of who they're interacting with at the time.
For example, Cliff is described as a shy, poor wanderer, and this is reflected in his lack of any real relationships except for Carter and Ann, his habit of staying in his room at the inn, or at the church with the aforementioned Carter, and finally the fact that he will leave town due to lack of funds if the player does not help him in the first year.
Then we have Gotz, the lumberjack who lives alone on the outskirts of Mineral Town. Again, the schedule reflects his character as the gruff, tough outdoorsman. Everyday, for at least three hours, Gotz can be seen patrolling Mother's Hill, a location of great personal interest to him. Furthermore, he never wanders into Mineral Town, save for six of the town's festivals. In the game his connection with Mother's Hill is revealed through dialogue; his reason for patrolling is due to his desire to prevent a repeat of the tragedy that struck his wife and child before the game's events.
Of all the NPCs in the game, arguably the most important are the five women you can attempt to romance throughout the course of the game. These have the most visible relationships; not just with the player character, but also with the character's rival. In some cases, the burgeoning relationship between them and the rival shifts the paralinguistics of that character. Take Mary and the player's rival for her affections, Gray. After the first interaction between Mary and Gray, the latter's schedule shifts to include a visit to Mary at the library most afternoons.
It should be noted, also, that this is a small game. Discounting the floor maps of each mine (as they're essentially the same, with randomly placed rocks), there are only 24 buildings. Not only does this reflect the nature of Mineral Town being exactly what it's supposed to be - a small town - it encourages the use of paralinguistics, coupled with player interaction, to express a large amount of character in a small space of time, which is the ultimate key to its use in Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. The use of these tools serves as an effective way of dealing with the limitations of the Gameboy Advance, and in my opinion vastly improves the narrative it delivers.
That's all for now. Next time, we'll be looking at something slightly more meta, so keep your eyes peeled!