Want to see more marital woes in video games? It certainly seems like Nick D. does. Join him as he looks at why we so often only see the beginnings of relationships in our favourite games.
Video games love romance and relationships. Even Jumpman (later renamed Mario) was motivated to save his girlfriend in the original Donkey Kong. However, when you look at video games closely, they seem obsessed with the beginning of relationships and not what happens later. In some ways, video games are all about the hook ups, letting the player imagine the happily ever after in the same way that many old story books used to. The question raised is why do most games stop there? Why is the beginning of the relationship such a magical spot for story writers? And why do so few games expand past this?
The element of choice weighs in heavily in many RPGs that incorporate romance. For example, both the WRPG Mass Effect series, and the JRPG modern Persona games incorporate romances heavily into their gameplay. For some gamers, the choice of romance is more important that the plot of the game itself. And it’s the choice that’s fun. These games start your character off as a blank slate and you’re free to develop your character’s interests the way that suits yours. If Bioware simply set Commander Shepard up with Kaiden at the beginning of Mass Effect and left you no choice about the matter, a whole segment of gamers would be left dissatisfied.
Choice gives way to perhaps the biggest reason the beginning of relationships are featured so heavily in video games, which is that gaming is goal oriented. Games give you choice because you are supposed to pursue. This can be seen even in games without choice where your romantic interest as the final goal. While some may deride this process as dehumanizing because they treat women as possessions to be won, which is a valid way of interpreting it, I think there’s a more simple and primordial reason for this development.
I say it’s because the pursuit of goals, long term and short term is wired into our brains. Super Mario Bros., stripped down to its barest form isn’t Mario beating up a turtle to save the princess, but Mario overcoming obstacles to reach the goal. Romantic interests make excellent goals because they mean so much to us that we understand how someone would go through eight worlds of hell in order to save them. It is unfortunate that this is mostly seen as male rescuing female, and, hopefully as the industry broadens, we will see more of the opposite.
This goal-obsessed nature of gaming can be seen in every facet of the industry. Trophies and achievements are an obvious place to look. In-game, many genres have begun to adopt RPG elements in order to provide more goals, and thus more reasons to play. There is a reason Call of Duty’s multiplayer is so addictive and so often emulated –it’s because they give players constant reinforcement through goals. Playing a deathmatch because you want to shoot some “noobs” is less motivation than playing a deathmatch to unlock that brand new mod for your favourite weapon.
That’s why we most often see the start of romances. Once the relationship begins, there is less of a massive, tangible goal for gamers to achieve. To quote the late, great Phil Hartman’s Simpsons’ character Lyle Lanley: “A hero with a girlfriend is a lot like a mule with a spinning wheel – nobody knows how he got her and danged if he knows how to use her.” If Mario got more than five seconds alone with Princess Peach before she was kidnapped again, would he even know what to do with her?
Let’s look at Mass Effect again. You have an option to pursue a relationship in Mass Effect 1, and the ability to remain true to that partner throughout the whole series. However, there is very little built in for actual relationship development, especially in Mass Effect 2, which almost presumes you’re going to start fresh and begin another courting session. Most games completely avoid this problem by being self-contained adventures, so the characters remain in stasis at the point you left them, which is often just as their relationship blooms. In both of these situations, developers have structured the game in such a way so as to avoid needing to go into any real detail about the relationship you’re pursuing short of the bubbly early thrill.
Of course, breaking down video game relationships into a lecture about goal-based incentives and choice baiting isn’t very romantic. So let’s talk about romance! This sets a healthy red and pink layer on top of the bare systems that makes video game relationships click with us. Romance is exciting; romance is fresh; and romance can be irresistible. More importantly, romance is often seen only existing at the beginnings of relationships.
The building of the relationship in video games is full of cheezy, yet endearing romantic angles. There’s the meeting, which is sometimes explosive and memorable such as Locke saving Celes from torture in Final Fantasy VI, or completely ordinary such as a chance meeting in class between the Persona 4 MC and possible romance Chie Satonaka.
Then there is the growth, where both parties learn to respect each other and the spark of love begins to appear. There’s the kindling of this spark into a raging fire, culminating in one of the characters forcing out a confession of love to the other. This romantic paradigm is seen everywhere not simply because writers are lazy, but because it works.
In many ways, the beginning of the relationship is the part that involves the most risk. Each party is full of nervous fear that the other will reject them and their advances. Everything could come crashing down if the other party isn’t interested, and the constant threat that we’re straddling the line between success and failure is a massive adrenaline rush.
The casual getting-to-know-you stage is perfect for story-telling because it allows the outside observer to glean all sorts of personal details about both characters as if they were part of the romance themselves. That’s why dating sims, and games with dating sim elements are so popular. Persona was an extremely niche series before someone got the brilliant idea to fuse dating sim elements into it. The same can be said with Fire Emblem: Awakening. We like to pretend we’re actually in the situation. It gives us choice and a goal, but, more importantly, it immerses us in that wonderful stimulant – romance.
But what about after the initial romance wears off? We assume that at least one Link and Zelda actually end up together (my bet’s on the Wind Waker pair), but we never really see it. Is it something we aren’t interested in? Do we really only care about the high risk/ high reward aspects of dating? It’s important to remember that video games developed as a toy for children and the vestiges of that beginning have not been fully shaken off yet. As such, the industry prioritizes thrill-seeking and payoffs perhaps a little too much.
Romances are fun, and exciting, but there is more to relationships than the beginning. Appropriately, the beginning is only just the beginning.
There’s a whole goldmine of story potential available in long-term relationships. Video games have yet to really get down in the dirt with relationship issues, and developments such as introducing stress and children into the mix. One video game I’d like to highlight which actually explored these issues is Catherine. While there is a lot of silly things going on in this puzzle game, it probably deals with actual relationship stresses and the realities after the romance wears off better than any video game on the market.
The protagonist, Vincent, is basically given a choice of overcoming his massive commitment fears in his current stable, yet routine relationship, or pursuing something more romantic and exciting. The player can make either choice to various degrees, and the game is mostly non-judgmental about what you want. These issues don’t provide the immediate payoff that romance does, but they are no less important and interesting.
In film, there is a massive range from the explodiest, Micheal Bay-iest blockbuster, to the most pretentious and unbearable art house film with everything in the sun in-between. In video games, we are at a massive growth and expansion period, but the industry still skews more to the instant payoff blockbuster. This will change because the audience is aging, but it will likely be a slow process. The same people who started gaming when they were kids in the eighties have grown up. They have families, and are interested in exploring some of the more prescient issues relating to adult life. I’m not saying that the wonderful escape from reality many games embody should ever go away, simply that they should occasionally expand their horizons past the happily ever after.
In the future, we are likely to see more romance and relationships than ever before in the medium. They’re just too popular and fun to ignore. However, maybe the industry might start looking beyond the beginning. Maybe they’ll give us more control as to how the relationship develops instead of simply how the relationship begins. Either way, it’s interesting to see some video games racing in popularity not because of added violence, but because of added love