Romeo and Juliet, Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, DiCaprio and Winslet… And maybe Squall and Rinoa,of Final Fantasy VIII, or, from Metal Gear Solid, Solid Snake and Meryl? Although romance has managed to penetrate every single artistic medium on the planet, adding videogames to that list of couples still seems a little curious, a little naïve, a bit like listening to Dark Side of the Moon and then finishing off with some Miley Cyrus. Why is this?
When considering the relation between romance and video games you need to make an important distinction between romance being captured within a videogame, and romance being captured by a videogame. Gaming has an advantage almost unique to its medium; it can utilise other mediums. Cutscenes have become an industry staple and, particularly within the RPG genre, players are often treated with short samples of literature such as a discovered book. In short, almost every game features sections, however brief, in which they stop being games, but rather experience a medium shift to that of film, literature or something else. It would be foolish to suggest that romance can’t be captured within a game in this sense but true romance being captured by a video game must express romance using the game mechanics, rather than the mechanics of cinema or literature, and interact not with itself, between uncontrollable actors, but with the player.
Perhaps the first challenge that a romantic game must pass, however, is not one of mechanics but one of culture. Robert Heinlein once said that ‘fulfilment in life involves loving a good woman and killing a bad man’ and whilst gaming offers an awful lot of the latter, is there a really a need in it for the former? Romance is never the main objective of a game (except for a certain genre of Japanese games, pictures of which I can’t show here) and any relationships that do exist are often sidelined to the extent that all the intricacies of them are dumbed down to a minimal amount of dialogue merely aimed at moving the plot along or, at worst, the mindless dating mini-games found in Grand Theft Auto 4. Is this really a bad thing though? The disinterest of developers in romantic games really only mirrors the disinterest of consumers and, being honest, how many of you have really been itching for a videogame equivalent to Pride and Prejudice?
Such an answer might explain why the romantic exemplar of video gaming has yet to emerge but it doesn’t answer the question of whether such a feat would even be possible? Whereas for almost every other artistic medium on the planet their only limitation is the boundaries of human self-expression, videogames could potentially be limited by the boundaries of the mechanics they depend upon. Certain ideas simply may not be possible and the importance of player-interaction to gaming could be a curse as well as a blessing.
One mechanical issue that video games need to overcome is the idea of love as a progress bar. Video games have a tendency to motivate the player with simple operant conditioning (action-reward mechanisms); kill that guy and objective complete, collect three mammoth tusks and get some gold, solve that puzzle and level up. Gaming relies far too heavily on basic action-reward mechanisms that have no place within the framework of love. You only need to look at Fable‘s portrayal of romance to see this in action. In the Fable series your character is capable of performing a number of social actions like posing heroically or blowing a kiss. Every NPC has their own preference for what expressions they like and dislike and, if you repeat an likeable action enough times, that NPC will eventually fall in love an marry you; its hardly Romeo and Juliet. And yet, its become an all too common mechanic for representing love in games. Its implementation in Bioware’s Dragon Age Origins has a little more depth but it still revolves around picking appropriate responses during dialogue options in order to manipulate an ‘approval meter’.
The reason why this mechanistic approach to romance is so ridiculous is because human relationships cannot be stripped down to manipulating numbers and character stats without losing one of their fundamental characteristics. Love is not an achievement or fulfilment of an objective but rather an ongoing process of emotional development and change. So is it a lost cause for the electronic romanticist? Perhaps not…
Because, as we have seen time and time again, whilst video games aren’t so good at making the player feel love they are remarkably good at making the player feel attachment. You need only look at Yorda in Ico, Agro in Shadow of The Colossus, and most recently the companion cube in Portal. Strong attachment is not the same thing as love (some may disagree but that’s a whole new discussion) but it does represent a major stepping stone towards romantic gaming. Ico and Portal represent great lessons to be learned in terms of using subtle game mechanics, such as holding hands, to create a deep emotional resonance in the player.
The idea of comunicating romance through game mechanics seems almost paradoxical; human emotion and human relationships are far too complex to be reduced to mechanical responses and experiences. In order to succeed videogame romance needs to turn into something other than a glorified progress bar. But, if we cast these doubts aside for a moment, and consider how well Amnesia: The Dark Descent has made us feel fear, how well Spec Ops: The Line has made us feel guilt and how well Ico has made us feel attachment, the romantic game does not seem so impossible. If our paramour of gaming does arrive though, it is likely to come, not from the triple-A publishers and developers but, from the new innovators of this generation. The indie developers, the true gaming romantics.