On Love, Romance, and Game Mechanics

Well, February is almost done. For some, this month is a big deal: the scent of romance permeates the atmosphere, and the looming threat of Valentine’s Day brings stress to singles and couples alike. For others, it’s greeted with the same indifference they give it every passing year. Whether you can’t get enough of that love business, or have been single for the better part of your life, let’s wrap this month up with a quick digression on how romantic interactions have come along in video games; read: how poorly they’ve been handled.

With the game industry’s move towards all-encompassing, player-driven narratives, the ability to pursue romantic relationships in video games has seen a fairly substantial spike. From games that center around it (like visual novels) to games that offer it as just another distraction in a world full of possibilities (GTA, Mass Effect) and to its inclusion in classic franchises (Shin Megami Tensei), romance in video games is more prevalent than ever. Despite that, I feel like the idea has yet to be truly fleshed out in a way that feels like a genuine relationship is being built between player and character. Games that attempt this just can’t seem to separate from the binary fail state way of thinking that makes romance options feel so unnatural.

Video games being the interactive medium that they are, you’d think something like cultivating romantic relationships with characters would be right at home in digital world of gaming. Player input allows you alter the choices the main character makes in a way that’s distinct from how interaction plays out in movies or novels. In many cases, it feels like you are the character and a lot of games go to great pains to emphasize that feeling. And honestly – by looking at the number of long, immersive titles these days – it’s made obvious that games have come a long way in way in that regard. So the promise feeling attached to a character in a game’s narrative seems a perfect fit. But if there’s one thing in particular that can make the discordance between player input and the game’s narrative vividly realized, it is poorly implemented relationship building. Pinning the exact cause of this is difficult though: is it by bad design? Is it the poor writing that most games seem to be plagued with? Or is it simply not possible for players to divorce themselves form the fact that they’re essentially communicating with a program? First, I’d like to dispel that last question.

Frankly, I think it’s an absolute cop-out to blame where we are technologically for this schism. There’s no doubt that once it becomes possible to have an AI that interprets, learns, and reacts to your inputs in a way the seems human, building immersive player-character relationships will become easier. That’s a thing a we’ll just have to let the scientists of Japan work out, but for now, romance in games need to rely on being properly designed in a way that doesn’t make it feel as if it is a game. And this is entirely possible. One look at the recent push indie game have been making (ignoring the dreck that is the outpour of Minecraft clones) tells that the medium has been driving towards convention-shattering ideas that don’t seem like games in the generic sense of the word. Gone Home is a video game about exploring an empty house, and Journey is about walking around a desert or something. And that’s fine! There’re no guns. No fail states. No discordance. So, you can see how a video game doesn’t need to feel like a video game in the traditional sense. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the industry has fumbled relationships with the romance mechanics that do exist (progressive as they are).

As mentioned earlier, most of the issues regarding romance in games comes not from the fact that it is a game, but the fact the mechanics are treated with the same conventionality that other gameplay decisions are, which makes for a very robotic way of going about relationships. Take the Harvest Moon series as an example. With its focus on cultivating both crops and relationships, the series is often lumped into the “not-really-a-game” genre. But how does romance work in Harvest Moon games? Find someone you’re into, discover what sort of physical object they like most, farm up a big batch, and present the vegetable to your love interest once a day. After that, marriage. Boom. Love. Romance.

The unfortunate thing? A lot of games employ this hidden point scale (in some Harvest Moon games, love points are a measurable attribute!) to measure how close your character is to a relationship with another character. Not the worst idea, and reductionists could make an argument for it if you want to go ahead and boil relationships down to thought patterns and chemicals in the brain. Sure. But it runs deeper than that. People’s feelings toward one another don’t operate on a point scale that only goes upwards.

Thankfully, some modern games found a way around this problem. In the Mass Effect or Persona series – both series that follow a story progression and have relationship mechanics. It is entirely possible to select the wrong option in a dialogue tree during a critical moment; completely ruining a potential romantic relationship you had with a character. This is more similar to how it is in the real world: you can say something that makes someone never, ever want to speak with you again. Try it, kids. However, having branching dialogue opens up an entirely new can of gross, smelly worms.

First off, the answer that is going to be most-liked by the character you’re talking to in the game is usually obvious. Even putting aside the fact the games like Mass Effect clearly spell it out by always putting the “good” answer on top, there’s one major problem woven into the system: the fact that there is a “correct” thing to say, and that it’s written plainly in front of you. Sure, it may be mixed with other options, but it become evident the moment you read it, and is not at all similar to how real conversation works. When talking to a real human being, what you should or shouldn’t say isn’t always clear. But in most games, you get a set of neatly laid-out responses. You don’t have to come up with them on your own. So more often than not, it doesn’t feel like you’re having a conversation, but like you’re watching one unfurl, occasionally giving your character a nudge in the right direction. Real relationships take more effort than that. And you’re no doubt thinking that fighting a in war takes more effort than playing Call of Duty does, and that nobody takes issue with that. And you’re right; it’s just that there’s an obvious distinction between having full control of character, and scrolling through lines of dialogue before clicking “I think you have nice hair, Senpai.”

So how do get around this? Short answer: I don’t really know. And it doesn’t seem like anyone does yet, given the way romance is approached in the medium. Certainly, it would involve the use of spidering dialogue with permanent repercussions, but with a different take on how the player communicates with other characters. As for an example, Façade would probably be the best: though rather than building your own relationship you a tasked with helping a couple’s, the game asks you to communicate by typing out sentences with the keyboard. Though this runs into the previously-discussed technological barrier, it’s a good experimental game, and probably a step in the right direction (and honestly, check it out if you haven’t). Anything that crafts real, believable interaction (and it has to feel like interaction) would probably be welcomed with open arms by most people, due to the shortage we seem to have.

And as a side: there’s nothing all that wrong with the way we’ve been doing things for the last few decades. Romance in games is still fun. The slim interaction in a well-crated visual novel can make you feel more attached to a character than you would be reading a book, and romance as a side element in other games can make it feel that much more inclusive. There’s just so much more potential in a medium that puts as much emphasis as it does on drawing players into the world by way of the choices they make.