Monday, September 24, 2012

YOU ARE ALL GOING TO LOVE ME - romance in video games.

So I played through To The Moon the other day. Bawled my eyes out, of course, but more to the point, it got me thinking; what, exactly, makes for a good romantic story in a video game? Is such a thing even possible given the technology we have? And is there, in fact, any way to tie a romance into a video game in any way beyond narrative function (and perhaps a stat boost)? Let's go through this bit by bit, then.

So what was it about To The Moon that worked so well? And was anything about the story something that was uniquely suited to the format? Well, I'm going to have to make a pretty clear call on this one: no, not really. With To The Moon, the player is largely regulated to the position of a passive observer - this is made even more clear as the viewpoint characters aren't really the protagonists of the story - they (along with their plot-device technology) are a vehicle to allow access to the stories' non-linear view of the plot's chronology - the story is most definitely a love story at its core, but what it does so well is to actually present this love story as a mystery. In hindsight, none of the plot revelations should come as a huge surprise - but what it does very well is to set up a huge number of events and objects, whose initial presentation is, at best, unclear (and at worst, quite sinister) - but as you learn more about the character's lives, all the pieces start to click together, until a particular scene pretty much snaps everything into place in a moment of wonderful catharsis. And again, whilst all this is lovely, it's hard to say that the video game format is something that really works in the story's favour - the gameplay mostly consists of wondering around. trying to find the next important thing to click on, and the rest of it is spent trying to solve extremely simple puzzles. I actually found the puzzle bits more of an impediment to my enjoyment of the title than anything, and I'd always try to get them over with as quickly and as cheaply as possible, just to get to the next plot section so I could dig a little deeper into the central mysteries of the story. Apart from the puzzle sections, nothing about this format could not work in the form of a film or novel. Perhaps, though, there could be something to be said for the player being able to resolve the mystery at the own pace making the narrative more involving, but it's a hard call to make - and also there is a certain amount of charm in the 16-bit rpg style visuals that would be hard to portray elsewhere without very careful visual direction.

Perhaps, though, one thing that makes the story of To The Moon something of a stand-out in the world of video games is that the relationships between the characters is the absolute core of the plot. Though there are some titles which have a romantic sub-plot (or sub-plots), for the vast majority of these titles they are, at best, window dressing to whatever the central conflict is (usually good vs evil, human vs nature, human vs technology or some derivative thereof). That's not to say that they are without their charms - certainly, the romance sub-plots in many Bioware titles can become oddly involving, but after you look at them past all the sweet confessions and awkward avoidance's, it becomes pretty clear that there isn't all that much substance to them.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by a lack of substance, here. Love stories, at their heart, are the stories of people relating to each other, usually in a romantic context (there are love stories about other kinds of love, of course, but they tend not to be as numerous - most of the tropes carry across, anyway, so there's no real need to go through them individually). Thus, they are probably the most character driven stories imaginable - though it's quite possible (and, indeed common) to create some kind of external problem or threat to give meat to the story's character conflicts, the very best and most interesting kinds of conflicts are those born from the characters themselves - not the least of which because, with interpersonal conflicts, it's very difficult to simply kill the evil space-fortress and end the threat (even in a metaphorical sense). So the task becomes - how does one create believable (if not realistic) conflict resolution for these kinds of problems? Though perhaps this, in itself, is a bit misleading - perhaps it's not the conflict itself that needs resolving in these kinds of stories, but the conflict WITH the conflict - characters learning how to accept (or not accept) each other fully is often possibly the most honest resolution one can have to these kinds of conflicts. This kind of nuance is something that would be very difficult to portray in the video game format - it's been noted in several places that in games that have love interests, they tend to fall into one of two formats - either the object of romantic pursuit, or a piece of emotional impetus. I found it somewhat amusing in the Mass Effect series that, though you could carry romances across multiple titles, when each new title came out the writers had to think of a new way to keep the romance interesting. Take the first game, for instance - you're given a choice of two love interests per sex (one character being romancable by either sex). The romance in these titles follows the pretty standard video-game romance format (with the added bonus of the player having some direction of the course of the romances) - that is to say, they are all about the first state of the relationship - the pursuit. If your character is pursuing two characters at once, you are eventually forced to make a choice between them (or have the choice made for you). By the final act of the story, the object of your affections will eventually return them, with the standard kind of physical affection that's usually portrayed as the 'payoff' for these kinds of stories. So far, so standard. However, when we move onto the next game (complete with the feature to 'carry over' plotlines from the first game via an old save), we start to see the cracks form in this format. First of all, all your previous love interests are sidelined for the duration of the title, regulated to cameos and the like. You are also presented with a largely new cast of romance options - and in doing so, makes the limitations of these kinds of romantic storylines in video games clear.

Video games, are, largely, goal-oriented excersizes. You are given (or you give yourself) a task to fulfill, and then - working within whatever boundaries the game prescribes - you attempt to complete it. You'd be hard pressed to find a video game which didn't strictly adhere to this premise - indeed, there could be an argument to be made that without some sort of goal to focus on, there isn't really a game at all. Thus - though many video game romances of the pursuit ilk can have layers of witty dialogue and decent characterization to give them some weight - in the end, once you've reach the 'end' of the romance, and have secured your paramour's affections - there are no more goals to be found, there. The 'spark' is gone - the chase is over, the conflict is resolved. There seems little more for the narrative to do - so, in Mass Effect's case, its solution is to move all the old love interests out of sight for a time, and present the player with a new set. The player may choose to stay faithful to their previous love interest in they wish - but there is very little in the way of on-screen interaction between them and the protagonist. When the third and final game in the trilogy came around, you are again given the option of carrying over the previous storylines, including your various romances - and several of the romances return in full story roles. However, even for the returning characters, the romance had to be 'reset' - especially true for the romances carried over from the first game. If you wish to continue that romance, you are required to 'win' them again. This, I think, amply demonstrates the problems with this kind of romance approach - by make the object of the protagonists affections an, - well, an objective, the narrative has pretty much no where to go once it's obtained.

As mentioned, the other way that games tend to use love interests is to have them killed off early in the story to provide character motivation. And again, no matter how well you write this character, if their only purpose in the story is to die, it's going to be very obvious (and feel pretty cheap) to even the most mildly savvy viewer.

There are few games which will even attempt to approach relationship dynamics in a different way - a notable exception is Catherine, a game I just completed recently. Though heavily stylized and containing many supernatural elements, the core conflict - that of comfort and stability vs freedom and passion - is something that most games will seldom even attempt to address, as these kinds of issues are something that only really begin to rear their hand in a ongoing relationship. The game's far from perfect in this approach (a lot of the choices come down to the same kind of simple binary morality that video games have been doing for years), but it deserves a bit of credit for at least attempting to address something which most games don't even want to think about.

Another game which had some fairly interesting romance options was Dragon Age 2 (another Bioware title) - though the characters themselves are all pretty much archetypes (though no less fun for that), it's the first time I've seen the standard 'warrior therapist' role that most rpg protagonists fall into being, in the instance, a complete failure. Over the game's 10-year time-span, you can become engaged in the lives of several deeply troubled characters - however, wherein most games, under your influence they would be able to 'solve' whatever's troubling them and come out better people, in Dragon Age 2, 3 out of 4 romancable character do no exhibit any improvements- one of them, in fact, becomes a lot worse. Though these characters can be encouraged to share their stories and emotions with the player, they actually have something of their own agency. Many people will find this off-putting - part of the reason many people play most video games is to fulfill particular fantasies, after all - to experience the freedom that comes with power, be it through strength, or charisma, or some other virtue. To have a game where your character is, in fact, powerless to influence the outcome of a particular narrative arc, to change the course of a character's life how you want it - this would fly in the face of many people's ideas about what they play games for.

However, the fact remains - as long as narratives are centered around goals and power, characters within these narratives will have to follow suit. In To The Moon's example, it largely removed these characteristics (goals remain, but they are simple to reach) - but by doing so it allows the narrative to move in directions that one seldom finds in this particular medium. It relies on strong engagement with the characters to keep the player interested, but sacrifices much in the way of interactivity. Is there a way out of this particular design trap? Or is the best we can hope for to be charming stock characters? I think, at the current level of technology, it might be impossible - and the constraints of design being focused creating characters the fulfill the player's fantasies will also limit developer's choices. Titles like To The Moon and Catherine are both interesting experiments that are perhaps best admired for the experimental natures than for the final product - though To The Moon presents a wonderful story, it would be very hard to recommend it to someone just as a game. If people were more willing to accept characters who have their own agency (or at least the illusion of agency), things might start to change, but as it is, we'll probably just have to settle for every eligible character in a given title falling over themselves to get the player's attention, before being quietly sent away or dramatically murdered in the sequel. In my view, writing a love story works a lot better without having to cater to the player's potential desires.

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