Suikoden’s known for a fair number of things, but I’m fairly sure that its biggest claim to fame has got to be the enormous cast of every game (besides the side-story Suikoden Tactics). In addition to whatever significant NPCs and villains are necessary to tell the story, each Suikoden game has 108 recruitable characters. In fact, it’s often more than that, since some minor recruitments (the dogs in Suikoden 3, for example) don’t actually count toward the 108 standard, and there are a few instances in the games where you have to choose between 2 different characters to fill a single roster slot (such as in Suikoden 2, when you have to decide whether you want Kasumi or Valeria, or Suikoden 5, where you have a choice between Eresh or Euram), meaning that there’s often MORE than 108 separate entities who can join the protagonist’s team in some capacity. That’s a damned big cast; the closest any other RPG (that I’ve yet seen) gets to it is Infinite Space, which as an impressive cast of a little over 80 possible party members, and then Chrono Cross, which has a little over 40 party members.
Here’s the amazing thing, though. These ridiculously huge casts? They’re generally well-characterized.* I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we’ve got a hundred+ individuals each game who’d give Virginia of Wild Arms 3 or Kreia of Knights of the Old Republic 2 a run for their money, or anything like that, but they’re all generally pretty solidly explored personalities. Hell, the minor characters of a Suikoden title can have stronger characterization than plenty of other games’ main characters. I’d have a hard time finding any of the Suikoden games’ 108 Stars who couldn’t beat out every major party member of Final Fantasy 5 for character depth, that’s for sure.
So how does Suikoden do it? Because it’s not an easy thing to achieve. Infinite Space does a pretty good job of it with its 80+ characters by having minor characters occasionally have scenes during tavern conversations, but ultimately there are a lot of characters who just fall to the wayside after a bit and get ignored (poor, poor Katida, her character had so much more to offer!). And Chrono Cross, working with less than half of a Suikoden game’s cast, couldn’t work significant character depth and development into a full dozen of its characters, nor did it even try to.** No plot could reasonably expect to include over a hundred individual characters within it in a significant enough way that you strongly connect to and have a great understanding of each one.*** But with Suikoden, somehow, you always seem to have at least a small insight into all or nearly all of its cast, despite the size. So, again, how does Suikoden do it?
Well, for the major characters in the Suikoden games, the answer’s the same as any other RPG--character development, plot interaction with them, and sometimes just simply a lot of screentime. Characters like Flik, Viktor, Chris, Hugo, Lyon, Georg, Chrodechild, and Liu, well, they each have huge roles in the stories of their respective games and lots of time to interact with the other major players in those stories, so in those cases, what’s conventional is what works.
But for all the minor characters, the ones who are recruited with little to-do and have no real significance to the party and the plot? Well, the answer is that sweating the details really does matter. Each Suikoden game offers countless optional little scenes and involvements of the various dozens of denizens of the game’s HQ in a number of different ways, all of which help to show and explain their personalities to the player. There are a TON of ways this occurs, more than I really want to get into (more than I even clearly recall, for that matter), but I’ll go into a few of the best ones.
First of all and probably best of all, the Detective Agency. Starting with Suikoden 2, Suikoden games will often have a private detective character in the HQ whom you can hire to investigate any of the 100+ individuals you’ve recruited a few times, with each report giving you any and all kinds of miscellaneous information--what the character likes or hates, their relationship to certain other characters, their history, their aspirations, their personality quirks, rumors about them, etc. This is a very neat idea, and a wonderful way to flesh out the game’s cast without having it distract from the plot’s events, since this, like all the things I’ll be mentioning here, is entirely optional. It’s concise, but effective.
Then there’s the Suggestion Box. Again an invention of Suikoden 2 (I think), the Suggestion Box is just what it sounds like--a box in the game’s HQ into which any and every recruited character can place suggestions for and small communications to the game’s protagonist. These are usually mildly amusing, and don’t really tell you all that much about the character making the suggestion as compared to the detective reports, but at the same time, they keep the many incidental characters fresh in your mind and help to cement their personality quirks.
Then, of course, there’s the famous staple of the Suikoden series, the bath house. This one I’d usually be a little iffy on. See, in theory, it’s a great idea--when you take certain character combinations into the bath house at the game’s HQ, you can activate hidden scenes where the characters interact with each other in various ways. That’s a good little way to not only once again explore the personalities of various minor characters, but also to explore how the many, many party members in the game interact with one another, seeing how their personalities connect with or bounce off of one another. The reason I normally would be hesitant about this idea is...well...it’s a communal bath. In an RPG. An RPG that follows many anime-standard forms of storytelling. Thus, it’s an invitation for the stupid, tasteless “humor” that abounds in ALL such communal bath scenes in games and animes and manga and whatnot. BUT, the Suikoden series actually has enough dignity to generally avoid the obscenely stupid, overused anime cliches of communal baths--I believe there’s only 1 bath scene in the whole series where breast sizes are compared (what a shocking thought, women able to converse together for a full 3 minutes without loudly proclaiming their cup sizes to one another!), and I can’t recall ever seeing the “hilarity” of some guy making a worthless, scummy asshole of himself by trying to invade the privacy of the women’s bath for a peek. So kudos twice over to the Suikoden creators for this one, because they not only have another way of cementing their characters through minor interactions and further exploration, but they do it without lowering themselves as human beings.
And there are, of course, the various little minigames and quirky bits and pieces that each game has on its own that continue to further emphasize their minor characters and help us familiarize ourselves with them. For example, the cooking minigame in Suikoden 2. Besides being perhaps the only cooking minigame in the history of RPGs to be enjoyable in any way, the cooking minigame uses, for each round, a randomized (I think) panel of judges taken from the current residents of the game’s HQ. Okay, yeah, being told what the characters’ taste preferences are isn’t exactly Shakespearean character depth, but it does, all the same, keep its minor characters in the player’s mind and give us new information about them, no matter how small that knowledge may be. And then there’s the plays in Suikoden 3. You can choose almost any of the characters in the castle-mansion thing to play roles in a half dozen or so plays, and watch them as they act it out. Some do well, some do poorly, and some, like Viki, are just hilarious. It’s another little way of including the minor characters in something, and helping to remind you of their personality quirks while you’re at it.
And these are really only a handful of the various little, optional sidequests, minigames, and quirky features Suikoden games have that involve and flesh out minor characters who would otherwise be left behind by the game’s main events. And that’s how Suikoden does it, how the series manages to have over a hundred cast members in each game but almost never**** feel like its characters weren’t properly developed or like it had too many of them. It’s another example of the little details of character development really pulling everything together, like the skits in the Tales of series, or the campfire scenes in Legaia 2, or the wonderful dinner conversations in Grandia 1 and 2. The major plot can take care of establishing a character and the major aspects of their psyche, but little stuff on the side, that’s what really tells the player who they are, and the identity of the characters as a group. Any RPGs in the future that try to pull off an excessively large cast would do well to follow Suikoden’s example of optional, small side content for their cast, lest we get another Chrono Cross.
* As well-characterized as you could reasonably expect given the overall quality of the game, that is. I wouldn’t say Suikoden 4’s cast is particularly interesting, for example, but then, playing Suikoden 4 is about as stimulating as being in a coma (less so, in fact, given that in some comas one can supposedly have dreams), so if we grade to scale, Suikoden 4’s cast is adequately developed.
** Not that the ones who did receive any character development got anything worthwhile.
*** Well...probably. Hang on...lemme go count how many characters and NPCs there were in Planescape: Torment. There are people you meet wandering on the street in that game who have more depth and human insight than the entire cumulative cast of characters made for some game companies.
**** Again, Suikoden 4 is just crap no matter how you slice it.