So far my Shin Megami Tensei rants of 2013 have been pretty positive and meaningful, and I’ve tried to present some food for thought that emphasizes good aspects of the SMT games. But who wants to read all that crap? It’s much more fun to complain about stuff! Which brings me to today’s rant subject: the semi-infamous Party Member AI of SMT Persona 3.
It’s like this: In SMTP3, during battles, you, the player, control the protagonist Minato’s actions. But that’s all. The other 3 members of the party act according to the game’s whims, not your own. It’s not entirely outside of your control, as you can assign each party member a certain basic style of action to follow during the battle (for example, you could put someone on Healer mode, and as a result their actions will be primarily concerned with healing the party’s wounds before taking offensive actions), but that gentle prod in a certain direction is all the control you’re allowed--the specific actions from one turn to the next are outside of your control.
This is a problem.
Now, SMTP3 wasn’t the first RPG to employ AI in party members, nor has it been the last. Quite a few have had it in one way or another. Allies in Shining Force EXA are computer-controlled, for example, with the player only getting to determine their behavior patterns, rather than the whole behavior, as with Persona 3. In Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3, and The Secret of Evermore, you can control all party members’ actions when you wish, but without your direct action, the party members not being moved around by you specifically will engage in combat with the AI controlling them. Much the same with Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2--you can give party members specific orders and set them to act according to certain AI patterns, but they’re generally controlled by the game itself as you go along. And it’s basically the same with Dragon Age 1 and 2, Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura, the Mass Effect series, the Star Ocean series, and so many others. On occasion you even get a party member who can’t be controlled in any way, such as with Bow-wow in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, or the troopers in The Magic of Scheherazade. That complete lack of control is also often the case of very temporary guest party members, too, like the ones you occasionally have in Final Fantasy Tactics. Persona 3 is not the only game with AI in charge of party members, not by a long shot. It’s not even the only game in its own series with AI-controlled party members; both SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha titles have Raidou’s demons on semi-autopilot.
Its AI is also not even all that bad, really. I wouldn’t say that Persona 3’s ally AI is perfect, or even particularly great, but it’s certainly functional, and although you do have to compensate for it some of the time, it could be far worse. Hell, a lot of the examples I listed above have AI that makes for far less useful allies than that of SMTP3. Without direct and constant supervision, Mass Effect allies don’t tend to be much more than decoys, for example. Your allies in SMTP3 actually do seem like they’re trying to cover your back, even if they’re not always doing it well. The allies of Secret of Mana, by contrast, just seem to be going it solo, with no interest one way or another in a team effort. Allies in Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates are even worse, just standing around and only sporadically attacking enemies. So it’s not like Persona 3’s AI is even all that bad.
So what’s the problem, then, with Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3’s AI? Why so much irritation focused upon it by myself and others, and not on the AI of other games?
The problem is that it’s in a game where it has absolutely no place, no practical application whatsoever. Look at most of the games I mentioned above that also have party members controlled largely or entirely by AI. You know what a LOT of them have in common? They’re games with battle systems in which fights take place in at least partial real time. Enemies move and act freely in Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates, and so do you. Everyone isn’t just standing around waiting for each turn to begin and end in The Legend of Zelda, Star Ocean, and Baldur’s Gate games, and as a result, the action is fast-paced enough that the player can realistically only dependably control one single character. Sometimes you have the time and wherewithal to direct your allies’ actions in Mass Effect, but ME has pacing which necessitates you concerning yourself with your protagonist’s actions first and foremost. Some games are so fast-paced that just controlling one party member taxes you to your limit, and you NEED a game’s AI to keep the rest of the party going.
SMTP3, however, runs on a very traditional turn-based system. In true turn-based combat such as this, enemies and allies do not move until you’ve finished assigning your party’s actions for the next turn, and once everyone’s acted in that turn, they all stop and wait for you again. With a fast-paced, action RPG like Shining Force EXA, there is a REASON to have your party members directed by AI--you’re too busy controlling the protagonist to keep up with everyone else. But when the whole battle system waits on you, that reason for AI controlled teammates is gone.
Not every game I mentioned as having AI party members is an action RPG, though. The Magic of Scheherazade’s troopers are only present during the turn-based battles that occur between scenes, for example. But you know, the troopers are just nameless mercenary grunts whose services you’ve purchased, and are totally optional. The actual, real party members of TMoS are fully controllable during the turn-based battles. The troopers are just some bonus damage-dealers, not a real part of the party. You don’t have any particular reason to expect full control of them. And RPGs where an AI controlled guest is helping you in battles? Well, there it makes a certain amount of sense that you don’t have control of them. They’re not meant to be your long term comrades, they’re just helping you as an outside party. A temporary guest party member doesn’t give you the same feeling of someone you should be in control of as an actual, major member of the fighting team.
So there’s no reason, gameplay-wise, for your Persona 3 party members to be AI-controlled, nor does it seem particularly logical. And here’s the problem: that gives it no excuse for its detrimental effect on the gameplay. See, turn-based gameplay is one of the most boring kinds of gameplay imaginable, essentially reducing the actual gaming part of your game to a mundane mental process that is identical to the one for navigating windows and folders on your computer, or ordering lunch from a menu. There is really only one tiny, totally inadequate nugget of gameplay enjoyment created by vacuuming the rest of the fun out of a game to make it turn-based, and that is the strategy aspect. Planning out what to do each turn to damage your enemies and keep your party members alive, while taking into account the countless variables of stats, hit points, magic endurance restraints, elemental strengths and weaknesses, status ailments and benefits, and so on, it all takes a fair amount of strategic planning to do it successfully. Your reward for putting up with the boredom of turn-based combat is knowing that your strategies are sound and that you’ve used your resources effectively.
So what would be a really, really stupid idea when you’re making a turn-based game? Taking 75% of all precise strategic control out of the player’s hands! You can only vaguely plan out the behavior of 3/4ths of your party in this game, and that is detrimental to the ability of the player to play with precise strategy--and thus is detrimental to the main point of turn-based combat. It’s especially bad when one considers that this is a Shin Megami Tensei game, part of a series where strategic gameplay is especially important. It just makes no sense.
Atlus luckily seemed to recognize their error, and the SMTP3 remake on the Playstation Portable allowed for full control of the party. Still, it’s hard to believe that they actually thought this was a good idea. What the hell were they thinking? They couldn’t possibly have thought that needlessly taking the majority of control away from the player would increase the fun. Was it supposed to be story-related, somehow? Like...like...saying that most of the time, you can’t control other people, that you can only really control yourself and hope others follow your guidance? Because that would kinda work with the Social Links thing kinda well, and you could say that being unable to control the party members is kinda like how you can’t control the way the Tarot Cards of your destiny fall, but being able to control the protagonist in the party signifies the part our free will plays in our lives, only a third as much as uncontrollable destiny, but if your will and wisdom are great enough, that small part can be enough to tip the scales in your favor so you can make your own destiny nonetheless...By God, could it be that Atlus was using the AI-controlled party members to make the gameplay itself a symbol of the messages of fate and one great individual’s free will, creating a whole new level of beautiful meaning by layering their ideal and theme into the very process of their game art? Are they even more brilliant than I had thought?
...No, I’m pretty sure this time I really am reading way too much into this. AI party members in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 was a stupid idea, Atlus screwed up, The End.