This week’s DeconstructionCraft will be a special edition in which Steve and I forego our usual biweekly back and forth in order to approach a topic relevant to current events. With Valentine’s Day on Friday and love on the minds of many, we will be looking at romance in video games, particularly its importance, historical nature, evolution, and the future of what romance could be in games. Although romance is reserved for certain genres of games, RPGs with story rather than racing games for instance, in the games in which romance is present, it is usually pertinent to the progression of the storyline and the maturation or development of the involved characters. In this sense, romance needs to be as true to form as possible for the gamer to connect to what is happening on the screen, but as much as a well-written romance can link the gamer to their game, a poorly implemented romance can easily ruin characters in the story thereby placing the romance in a position to be mocked for humor rather than as a source of emotion as it was intended to be.
Beyond the writing of a romantic subplot in a game, it is important to note the implementation of the romance as it enmeshes with the rest of the game. Traditionally, RPGs connected the events of a game, as a sort of driving force, with character development, and romances occurred relative to the progression of the story. Each playthrough of one of these types of games, Final Fantasy 6 for instance, leads to the same events both in the overarching story and in the romantic subplots. Romance, then, is as predetermined as the rest of the story. This style of implementing romance is akin to rereading a novel in which the words on the pages are the same in each individual reading of the text, but this style is not without drawbacks. If a gamer does not agree with the romantic subplot, believing that characters should have ended up in different pairings or that the romance was not organic enough, then each subsequent playthrough will not amend that aspect of the story.
Seemingly in response to the disadvantages of predetermined storylines, games now include much more decision making and customization including the choice of which romantic partner the main character pursues. Each playthrough of one of these games can lead to a different romantic subplot, but as this method of implementing romance evolves the idea of predetermined romance it also creates a new conundrum. A predetermined game requires one playthrough for a gamer to experience most of what the game has to offer, but with customization, decision making, and multiples endings being included in games, there is necessarily a need for multiple playthroughs. This aspect has become more prevalent in contemporary gaming, but can be seen as early as the late 90s in games like Final Fantasy 7 in which decisions about interaction with other characters determined who Cloud would end up going out on a date with during your time at Gold Saucer. Gamers, throughout their multiple playthroughs, must take on a completionist methodology in order to see all the endings and earn all the trophies, but this is also true of the romantic subplots. A gamer must formulate their character, behave in certain ways, and give particular responses to see all the romance options play out across multiple playthroughs, but while this customization leads to positives in the gaming experience, it can also detract from the romantic aspect. A completionist does not always, in this case, pursue the romantic subplots out of a desire to see certain romances occur, and as each playthrough leads to a new pairing between the main and other characters, the nostalgia of the romance from the original playthrough is diminished as the gamer sees how things could have been. Romance, then, becomes similar to the capture system in Pokémon in which you do not catch all the pokémon for a massive land, air, and sea war as battles can be won with one pokémon, but rather, you catch them all because you gotta.
It is difficult to claim that the traditional romantic subplot with its predetermined nature or the contemporary choice-based system with its “conquer all the romantic subplots!” disposition is better or more appropriate than the other. There are also examples of romance in games that do not fit either style, and Second Life is likely the exemplar of this. Gamers in Second Life have romance, love, and marriage without the drawbacks of the romantic subplots in games, but can we draw an authentic comparison here? Games often try to capture elements of life within their storylines in order to create and recreate human experience, but in games like Second Life, the romance is still as genuine as romance in life is where the only difference is that it is a process done through a medium rather than direct or primary experience.
Romance in games, then, has not achieved the status of perfect representation, but must it? Authentic romance as it plays out through a medium can be as real a felt experience for the people involved as it is for lovers who experience it primarily or directly, but in this situation, can we call the medium a game without somehow trivializing the romances? It would seem that everything is best, that is to say, each game should draw from all methods of implementing romantic subplots, and as the narrative is written for a game, the implementation method used should be because it leads to the best overall experience for the gamer. To each story its own romantic subplot, and to each romance its own elegance in its portrayal.
As Kevin mentioned the key to a successful romantic narrative (successful here being an enjoyable and authentic experience in its own right) in a game is the game’s portrayal through mechanics. Each method of portrayal having its own possible inherent drawbacks along with its strengths. The linear romance’s success is limited by how far the player buys into the protagonist’s interest in the romantic partner. The multiple option romances have been criticized as being a shallow representation. An experienced player might be able to get whom ever they like without challenge or even regarding the romantic interest as a real character.
This brings us to the importance and method of acquiring romance, the very game elements that aim to build meaningful relations can very well break down and trivialize the reality of those relations. The manner in which a partner is found or in some cases “won” has a drastically different effect on how the relationship is interpreted by the player. To be clear it is a matter of the game’s specific execution of mechanics and not the mechanic itself that leads to the game’s successful or unsuccessful portrayal of relationships. A common critiqued mechanic in romantic subplots is the item quest, that is ‘find X number of item Y to acquire level Z romantic interest from romantic interest character number 5.’ As imagined this mechanic has the potential to reduce the concept of romantic courtship into one of those coin operated toy or candy dispensers. Past the completed quest Smooch of Victory, this Earn a Smooch design trope in game relationships is one of the earliest and most used mechanics because of its simplicity. In defense of this trope, as previously stated it’s the execution that decides the game’s success and there are cases where simplicity supports an elegance onto itself.
In the Harvest Moon series the player is a farmer on a sad patch of land and has the option to court and eventually marry one of a select number of bachelors or bachelorettes while building up their farm. That’s the premise of every game in the series with only slight alterations to what inevitably become side quests. The difference in the Harvest Moon series’s treatment of the mechanic, the means of finding or crafting gifts is not treated as a side mission or mini-game, but is the game’s main source of gameplay. To make the character’s significant other’s favorite dish isn’t as simple as just buying ingredients from the store. The player needs to slave to find goods to sell to maintain their slowly expanding farm while still regularly finding food for themselves, in-between the constant chores of maintain a farm and fetching supplies the player must perform quests for the townsfolk to unlock recipes or items you’ll need to craft the dish, at the end of all that if you burn the dish good luck finding those ingredients anytime soon. Harvest Moon makes completing the romantic quests a challenge of dedication and forethought, a poorly organized and run farm will go nowhere, to be productive and successful on top of that takes real effort and an investment that’s regularly at the expense of the protagonist’s farm. The betterment of the farm, player’s very livelihood, is regularly set on the sidelines for the progression of the romantic sub-plot. Within it’s mechanic design and subplot this game uses the inherently devoted nature of game grind to showcase devotion to people over personal gain.
Reminiscent, theoretically more refined, to this Earn a Smooth trope mechanic is faction earning or -similar to effect- status bars. Here the focus is brought away from the toil of requiring specific game items onto the game’s in-text narrative. This is done through quest selection or dialogue responses, and as games have an increasing focus on lengthening gameplay this has recently become a norm in the triple-A RPG games. The strength of the faction mechanic is that it takes into account multiple parties, and typically it pits actions beneficial to the player’s relationship with one party against their relationship of another party. Within forcing the player to take a side it also allows the narrative to present the player with moral dilemma. When the romantic interests are well written there is always ticks or character flaws that make them less desirable, to decide which character is the lesser of evils is to make a moral statement on what matters more in a relationship. In the psychological-horror-puzzle game “Catherine” the player is both given dialogue options in story segments and relationship questions between puzzle rounds; soon as the choice is made the point is hammered home by a bar showing up indicating the character’s fall or rise to virtue. Another aspect of this -as made popular in BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age series respective- it the complexities of group dynamic. By deciding to focus your efforts on certain characters through dialogue or quests the player is not just making a moral statement to their individual plights but a personal one. In Dragon Age dependent on the player female character’s relationship build with Alistar, not just the game’s lore but Alistar’s personal future and fulfillment is effected.
The issues with this faction mechanic is in it’s replay-ability and focus on properly selecting elements in a specific order it can be broken down into a what is essentially a test, when there’s nothing that prevents the player from simply memorizing and replicating a series of actions to succeed -especially when that success is highlighted with steamy romantic polygon figure shorts- could easily become a trivialization of the game narrative and the type of relations the narrative stands for. It’s important to note this is not a critique of the game’s initial romance mechanics but what they cannot escape becoming after at least the first play through. In multiple-ending games the player can only truly experience a romance narrative with a character once, after the first play through the game goes from an exploration of that narrative inherently to a manipulation of that narrative based off the player’s primary experience. The potential strength here is the in text narrative, the context of a certain character’s sub plot and the subtly small dialogue decisions can effect what character’s think of the player makes them consider the character’s position and struggles above the their own. Player’s have built real connections with these fiction characters to the point some of them have transcended their own medium. Both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age universes have their own comic and novel adaptations, not to mention the vast amounts of fan fiction. These widely accepted non-interactive additions to a classically interactive franchise show the player’s investment in, and appreciation of, a well portrayed narrative.
In the status bar mechanic, while the player is in a manner focused on building their relations with the love interest, the status bar is much more focused on accurately portraying influences outside of the player’s immediate actions. Time for example; yes a player can woo this character by bringing them X number of gifts, but if they do it over a number of in game weeks it won’t have the desired result. While not explicitly romantic an example of this is the Animal Crossing series, small endearing characters with charming writing will take a liking to the player easily through small quests, but if you’re not in town for too long they’ll up and leave the game with only a “I’ll miss you, bye.” letter to remind you of your failure. In the Sims the status bar is the primary focus of gameplay. Not only does it account for the time between interactions between the player and the love interest, but it accounts for a myriad of desires or differences the love interest might have that could effect that character’s reactions to the player’s advances. This aims to make game romances more realistically dynamic within the game world and represent the difficulties of maintaining relationships balanced with personal life through play, and that’s its greatest strength. The player might be back from a long shift at work and just want to play guitar at 3 in the morning but the girlfriend will not have any of that. The wife will chew the player out for not mopping the water off the floor and will think lesser of him for it then at the same time love him for ordering pizza instead of cooking when she gets home. When the player is courting someone they can only take educated guesses at how to make the romantic interest like the player’s character, and once they’re married or moved into the family the player character is privy to dealing with all of their significant other’s small personal tics and habits around the house. The flaw is with the measured algorithm that decides if a love interest responds well to the player character or not. The relationship is still mostly dependent on the repetition of measured actions. The courting process can be compared to a slot machine where the odds typically grow in the player’s favor, might not win every time at first but if they put in enough time and effort they’ll win eventually… or beat up the significant other and force them out onto the streets. This view of the status bar, while representing the active dynamics results in a simplification of those dynamics to the point they become a partly warped version of what they mean to reflect, only recognizable through the player’s acceptance of the experience being only a simulation of reality.
The most powerful way to showcase relationships between the player character and a in-game character is not specifically in the manner the game gives the player to interact but in the difference the game shows through the mechanics that support the romantic narrative. That is, it’s not the fact that in Ico you go to save the princes and you protect her as she follows you around, it’s that after a time she’ll hold your hand. Mechanically the escort aspect is the same, but the game shows a difference from when the player character and the princess first meet to the game’s end. This aspect of difference to show relation isn’t secluded to being shown through animation, it’s a universal design principle and it isn’t limited to any one aspect of relationships.
In Rob Humble’s “The Marriage” the player controls a blue block, which when interacts with the pink block gets smaller, but when interacts with the moral passing circles gets bigger. The mechanic is the player block bumping into other objects, the difference in result conveys a simple but powerful metaphor for the game’s romantic relationship without a spec of dialogue and only the most basic graphics. In any art form It’s never about replicating the complexities of life, it’s about representing it.