As August draws to a close, we must contend with the fact that our summer up here in the northern hemisphere is also drawing a close. This is good news for the chai-sipping, apple pie-loving pumpkin fiends among us, but it’s always a bit sad to know that beach season is heading out with the warm weather.
So, naturally, what better topic for a roundtable than a beach episode? Let’s have Sidequest contributor Joesph Langdon tell you all about it:
This is going to sound niche, but I’d love to discuss the games equivalent of a beach episode. When I think of August, I think about summer ending and having fun with my friends. So like, discussing games that let you take a breather from the story and just hang out with the characters.
Let’s get into it!
(Editor’s Note: We put this roundtable together before the accusations that Alec Holowka, who worked on programming and music for Night in the Woods, abused multiple people in the games industry were publicly available. We want to be clear that we believe those accusations and support those who have brought them to public attention. Bethany Hockenberry and Scott Benson, co-creators of the game, have since stated that they are cutting ties with Holowka.)
What games do the “hanging out with friends” thing particularly well?
Naseem Jamnia: Okay this is not a tabletop but P E R S O N A 5!!!!! IS THE BEST!!!!! AT FRIENDS!!!!!!!!!!! Have you heard me talk about my love of this game? P E R S O N A PeRsOnA pErSoNa!!!! Okay anyway, the whole premise of the game is literally a group becoming friends and saving the world. And it is everything I love—a band of misfits doing friendship things, getting to know each other and supporting each other, risking their lives, etc., etc. Actually, a large part of the game is literally building your relationships with people, so friendship is integral to gameplay!!
Melissa Brinks: Hands down, this is the Life is Strange series for me, especially the first game and Before the Storm. I’m a bit biased because the parts where you hang out remind me so strongly of my own life, but there is something truly wonderful about the moments of idleness, where there is nothing to do but sit and enjoy the company of someone else.
Nola Pfau: Night In The Woods! That whole-ass game is about meeting up with your friends, telling really bad jokes to one another, and getting up to terrible hijinks. They hang out at each other’s jobs, they go to parties, they have arguments about old subjects. It’s the most accurate portrayal of friends I’ve ever seen in a game.
Angie Wenham: I’m with Nola on Night In The Woods. It captures that growing up/not quite grown-up vibe that long-term friendships go through eventually. I still haven’t finished Final Fantasy XIV, but mostly because I just had way too much fun hanging out with Noctis and co. They’re supportive, with each person taking on a “role” to make the group’s dynamic work. The plot was meant to be this epic journey and I happily ignored all that to just drive around with the guys, cook meals together, and take ridiculous selfies!
Xander Orenstein: I 100% second Naseem’s appraisal of Persona 5. I would throw in Personas 3 and 4 in there as well, though 5 really perfected the art of making you really invested in building the small moments of your friendships. I also feel horribly obligated to mention Final Fantasy XV as it definitely tried and halfway succeeded in making me feel like I was on a road trip with friends. Except instead of making me feel like I was hanging out with my best buds through a world that was falling down around us, it was more like hanging out with people you were friends with in kindergarten, and now that 20 years have passed, their diplomatic and interpersonal skills have remained largely the same. It was the Uncanny Valley of friendships. But one that, at the end, somehow generated actual emotion and depth, so there is that.
Naseem: Okay, I’m coming back to third Night In The Woods—the eldritch stuff didn’t feel earned to me (that’s a whole other piece!), but the friendship parts were dope!!
Maddi Butler: It is perhaps a testament of me putting way too much time into Final Fantasy XV, but I really enjoyed those friendships. I think its better moments were the ones where you can engage in the optional conversations with your buds, because it gave them some depth. As a whole, the game felt more like wasting time with your friends than apocalypse prevention (but I find this true of most open world games).
I haven’t played any of the Persona games, but I’m struggling to think of RPGs (most of what I play) that do “hanging out with friends” well, because it’s a nice reprieve from quests.
What moments of hanging out with friends in games is your favorite?
Naseem: Again, in Persona 5, building up your relationships is integral to your success in the story. I really, really loved those storylines. They were super personal to the friend in question, and the player character was there as moral support most of the time as the friend took the lead. These moments in the game felt tender and intimate, adding a level to the story that didn’t need to be there but absolutely enhanced the game for me.
Melissa: Life is Strange is the reason I wanted to start my Idle Animations series, because the scene where Max and Chloe lie in bed together listening to Bright Eyes’ “Lua” is just absolute perfection. I, too, spent much of my time in high school laying around and listening to Bright Eyes. And in Before the Storm, you have the wonderful scene where Chloe and her friends play a tabletop game together. That’s all; no further story development, no extreme situations, just a girl who tries too hard to be cool learning to have fun with dice and imagination.
Nola: The bits in NITW where Mae goes and bothers her friends at work. Or the party in the woods where they all watch her make increasingly bad decisions and do nothing to stop her. Or the bits where they’re having increasingly bizarre IM chats online. Look, every part of that game’s interactions are so good.
Angie: Obligatory Dragon Age mention from me, but there’s a bit in Dragon Age: Inquisition that just nails the whole “random group of people somehow became pals” thing. Late in the game, there’s a cut scene where you and all your companions are playing a card game. Watching these very different people interact, with all the good-natured jabs and comedic clashing of personalities, was heart-warming. It felt like a real gathering where friends from different parts of your life come together and for some reason it just works.
Naseem: Did I just panic at thinking I was going to read an Inquisition spoiler and then realize it was fine? (I’m playing it for the first time.) Actually, I want to throw in Dragon Age 2 on this—sometimes, there’s a cutscene before you talk to a companion at their home location, and it feels like it’s friends hanging out outside of Hawke and the main adventure. I wanted more of it, but I love what is there!
Maddi: I fully agree with Nola and would also like to add the part where you help Gregg reassemble a giant, busted robot in his home. I also think The Witcher 3 has one of my favorite moments of come-togetherness, when you reunite with your friends to defend Kaer Morhen and there’s a cutscene of everyone laughing and carrying on. TW3’s Blood and Wine DLC also felt like a fun romp with friends. It’s framed as a murder mystery, but it takes place across several beautiful countryside vineyards, like a fairytale version of the Agatha Christie book Dead Man’s Folly. Geralt gets a house, some truly ridiculous doublets, and the help of an old friend to solve it.
How do you balance the excitement, competition, and even stress of a tabletop game with maintaining an air of friendliness and warmth?
Melissa: I try to design encounters that will play to the players’ strengths, and to recognize that the point is not to be in competition with the players, but to create a situation in which everyone will have a good time. Sometimes that means I have to let go of rules or a story that I feel very fond of; the players are the ones ultimately in control, and being able to let go of your darlings (you don’t have to kill them, a good story can be recycled) in favor of keeping momentum and fun up is an invaluable skill.
Nola: Honestly, it’s about giving players what they want. Every player accepts the risk that their character might die, for instance, but they keep showing up because until that happens, they have goals they want to achieve and stories they want to tell. Tabletop games are a lot like life that way, huh? Anyway, things should never happen to characters just because, they should always be to serve that character’s story in some way. That’s what players are looking for, and if you show that you’re engaged in what a player wants, they’re gonna come back to the table over and over. It’s also important to let the party have those sessions where they abandon the plot and spend the night carousing in a tavern or something. They’re never gonna remember every little fight but they’ll always remember the time Solvar the always-solemn elven mage told an hour-long string of bawdy jokes that brought the house down.
Angie: I’ve not run a game, but I’ve seen them go very bad, very quickly, because someone felt railroaded or became frustrated. Thankfully, our game master can read situations and adapt quickly. When there’s a disagreement between players over a course of action, they often think of a way to defuse this. What helps most, though, is having some ground rules before we start: the majority vote decides; no grumbling if you objected (especially if the group ended up making the wrong choice!); and the game isn’t more important than the people you play with.
Naseem: It helps if you don’t have sore loser friends (for tabletop board games rather than RPGs). But if that doesn’t happen, and your friend is losing, I try to think of ways to cheer them up! Like talk about all the times I’ve lost at that game (probably a lot) or even end the game early if it’s really beating them up. Does that answer this question??
Melissa: Oh gosh, sometimes it’s nice to be the person who loses every board game because then I can console other people if they’re not doing well. I always have something to fall back on because I lose every single game except Scrabble.
Maddi: My fiancé and I are both very competitive people, especially when it comes to Magic: The Gathering. We both have custom decks that are designed to annoy other players, and it’s impossible to play these against one another. They’re banned in our house, unless we’re playing on the same team, in which case we have a great time. It can be really hard to let go of my competitive side, but ultimately, it’s just a game.
What games do you wish had more moments of hanging out with friends?
Naseem: I wish there was more of it in Fire Emblem games (granted, I’ve only played two, but at least for those). We get a little bit of it in the barracks/when character relationships improve, but it’s not nearly as much as I would like. ALL OF THE FRIENDS! (… and romances. Make it gay. Very gay.)
Melissa: oH lOoK aT mE iM mElIsSa AnD i DoN’t AnSwEr My OwN qUeStIoNs [Editor’s Note: Melissa did not write this.]
Nola: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance had a snowball fight using turn-based strategy mechanics as a way of introducing the system, and besides enjoying that, I think I would’ve liked to see character stuff like that in the original FFT; it’s largely a story about a group of teens who end up having to fight a messy, bloody civil war, and as good as it is, I think I’d have really liked to see some moments in it where they take a little more time for themselves. They are poor tragic babies and I’m worried about them!!!
Naseem: L i s t e n, I would die for something like the original FFT with more focus on the characters!!
Angie: Look, I know it doesn’t have any hanging out with friends scenes at all and would make no sense with its gameplay and total lack of story-driven plot. But! With all the art, comics, films, fan art, and fan fiction of Overwatch, I really want some “chilling at the base” moments with the characters interacting with each other. I want to see Reaper with his feet up, reading skirmish reports and sipping some cocoa, while Sombra cheats at Tetris against Widowmaker. Just give me domestic AU, Blizzard!
Xander: Being the only person still yelling about Brütal Legend for the last five years now, I feel like the friends and relationships you made were really well expressed in the small gestures during cutscenes, especially as time passed within the game. That being said, some small scenes of everyone just sort of hanging out and working/fighting/making demon music/magic together would have really been awesome. But despite that, it remains the best game ever made. Of all time.
Maddi: All of them. Just, all of them. I expected more of it from Horizon Zero Dawn (especially based on the amount of Aloy and Ikrie fanart I’ve seen), but it just teases you with a shot of everyone you’ve helped coming together before the final boss.
Melissa: Now that everybody else has given me some good ideas (and some sass), I’m going to second Overwatch and “all of them.” As others have mentioned, Night In The Woods was great at this, but heck, I’d still spend more time with those characters! BioWare’s games frequently have scenes of just hanging out but I want more. My need for chill hangout scenes is never satiated!!
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.