I want to highlight a couple games based around their inclusion of social (or social-like) interactions, and their impact on the game. The first is Harvest Moon, for the Super Nintendo. The second is Persona 3, for the Playstation 2. I’ll admit it’s been long enough since I played Harvest Moon that I could have a lot of details wrong — I’m working from memory and the Wikipedia article.

For the purpose of this entry, we’re going to define “social interactions” as investing game resources in non-player characters without receiving an immediate, in-game benefit. The NPCs can be picky about player choices or not, that doesn’t really matter. In some cases, there’s a need to discern the invisible (or obvious) desires of the NPC and appease them. That may or may not be relevant.

In Harvest Moon, your solitary action is farming. It’s the whole focus of the game, and you can’t get a good score in the end if you don’t farm. Farming gives you money and resources to continue farming. The act of farming makes farming possible. In Persona 3, your solitary actions include attending school and battling through the dungeon Tartarus. You have a party of NPCs, but they provide an immediate, tangible benefit.

Both games utilize time as a resource, and the proper management of that time is one of the skills required to play the game well. This plays an important role in deciding how to invest time, because social interactions consume this resource, making certain other in-game actions difficult or impossible.

In Harvest Moon, you have the option of going into town, wooing, and eventually marrying one of the girls. It takes an investment of time, money resources, and either guesswork or luck to gain a wife, not to mention the resources you have to invest in upgrading your house. A wife imposes restrictions on your solitary action, farming, but provides a significant endgame reward (higher score).

In Persona 3, you have the option of spending time with social contacts (friends and people you meet) or studying and increasing your various interaction stats. As you invest time in social contacts, you unlock new levels of abilities that you in turn use to advance in one of your solitary actions, battling through Tartarus. The investment of time in social interactions has an attached benefit, even if it takes time to pay off.

Choosing social interaction in Harvest Moon imposes restrictions on gameplay, and rewards the player at the end for increasing the challenge. It reinforces the long-term benefits of choosing social interaction of solitude. You must choose one of the five girls to marry — you can only choose one of them, and time is a factor.

Refusing social interaction in Persona 3 imposes restrictions on gameplay, as it would seem their primary purpose is to facilitate the main game (by powering up the player): the fight to reach the end of the dungeon. It is possible to complete every Social Link in the game, if they’re done in the correct order. It’s a solvable puzzle.

I would argue that support for social interaction in Harvest Moon is greater than in Persona 3, despite the greater complexity of the latter. It is more rewarding to accept the social responsibility in Harvest Moon because its benefits are less tangible. Social interaction in Harvest Moon supports deeper strategy, whereas in Persona 3, it represents a solvable puzzle. (“In what order do you complete the Social Links?”)