Can Romance Be Portrayed Well In Games?
This feature was originally published June 3, 2016.
Ah, romance. We all know love and heartbreak to some degree, so we shouldn't be surprised when video games attempt to represent more complex relationships. Some video game love affairs stand out because they’re natural and believable, such as Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher. Others are memorable for giving us choice, such as Dragon Age, The Witcher, and Persona.
Romances can be difficult to pull off in a video game. Unlike a movie or book, video games have to allow players to directly participate in the experience, which takes some of the narrative control out of creators' hands. Jeff Cork and I have both been thinking about this topic a lot lately, and wanted to chat about whether or not games can tell compelling, realistic romantic tales.
Kim: I’ve always really been into video game romances, especially in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games. I admit straight-up that they’re not always done well (they can be rather awkward), but something about picking a character and seeing how they’re going to woo me is exciting. This has always been something I’ve been into, but I started thinking about this topic more recently as I played the latest Witcher 3 expansion, Blood and Wine. A romance in there came out of nowhere and rubbed me the wrong way. Jeff, you said you’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately. What put it in your mind?
Jeff: I’ve been tearing through the Uncharted series, since everyone in the office (and the world, probably) won’t stop talking about Uncharted 4. Along the way, I’ve been baffled by how much people got into Nathan and Elena’s relationship. She seemed like a low-rent Helen Hunt, and there didn’t seem to be any spark at all between those characters. I think Naughty Dog finally did it right with Uncharted 4, since the game has enough quiet moments to show what their relationship is like. And it works. It made me think about all the other times that my characters have been in relationships, and how I’ve felt like a helpless observer. I could fling objects around the room with my ghost friend in Beyond: Two Souls, but I wasn’t able to put the kibosh on a completely terrible romantic subplot, no matter how hard I tried to sabotage it?
Kim: I think the Uncharted series is a good one to bring up. Part of why I think it works so well is the progression we got to see in that relationship over the course of four games. I like that Uncharted 4 has those quieter moments that don’t make it all about them showing the romance during just the big, high-adrenaline moments. For me, a lot of the issues I have with romance in games is that their progression always feels off. Games have more time than movies or books to build up to romances, yet they seem to be worse at it. I don’t think it just comes down to progression, but also that it is a game where you’re supposed to be doing stuff, so then these gamey systems come into play. Like, I love Persona’s social links because I think they do a good job at progressing to a romance. You’ve picked this person to spend time with and learn about, but at the same time it’s done in this level system that seems unnatural. A romance has to make sense. As you mentioned with Beyond: Two Souls, that romance wasn’t something you wanted and you were still forced into it. This happened to me recently with the Blood and Wine expansion. I gave every indication that I was not on board with getting together with this particular woman, but at the end she suddenly makes a move on me. Luckily, I could decline it, but I felt this dissonance between my actions and what was moving forward in the game.
Jeff: We give up a tremendous amount of control with characters in games, but something feels different when it comes to how their romantic selves are portrayed – or at least it does to me. I think the issue is twofold. I’m either forced into a situation because of the story, or I can romance characters as an option. There aren’t many games out there that have believable characters to begin with, let alone characters that are in relationships that have any resemblance to reality. Most of the time, your significant other is introduced so that you have something to chase when he or she is kidnapped and taken to an abandoned construction site. I roll my eyes when this kind of stuff happens in movies and TV shows, but thankfully these moments are fairly short. Games are so much longer, so it seems as though you’re stuck with this nonsense for hours instead of minutes. And when a game gives you a choice to “romance” someone, it’s so mechanical feeling that you can practically see the gears spinning behind your partner’s eyes.
Kim: I think you hit the nail on the head. People obviously like romantic tales in their stories, otherwise they wouldn’t be so popular, but games are still in this weird in-between at how to do them right. I feel where choice is involved, and especially with how many choices are given, is where things get the most complicated. Sometimes I think it’s easier just to focus on telling the story of one relationship and showing its growth. The problem is games often feel like they need all this spectacle and action that the time isn’t really spent to develop these relationships in a realistic way. We can obviously see right through this. But now that games are evolving, I’m hoping they can feel okay with tackling quieter moments like Uncharted or showing us more of what makes this relationship important or work. I’m perfectly fine with them depicting relationships of different sorts. It’d be boring if they were all the same. I think my problem with The Witcher isn’t so much that sometimes things can just be about sex, but it’s gotten to the point where it feels like every time Geralt meets a girl, she’s going to be a romantic candidate. I think Witcher is interesting because it gets in this weird place. Are you playing as Geralt or a version of yourself through Geralt? Because honestly as charming as Geralt is, no person has the ability to just woo everyone they encounter.
Jeff: Especially with that ponytail. I do appreciate how those relationships are optional though, so that the squeamish can avoid them entirely. I did end up on a unicorn with that one lady, mostly out of morbid curiosity. And as good as CD Projekt Red’s presentation is, the “payoff” was exactly as I expected: virtual puppets banging up against one another like when kids make their dolls hump. We’re still in a place where characters can barely articulate their fingers or convey facial expressions, so these kind of creepy sex plays are to be expected. That doesn’t make them any less hilarious or uncomfortable to watch, though. Even if they looked completely natural, it’s hard for me to get past how rote everything feels. In games, you can see someone’s polygonal butt if you go to the right store and buy X amount of roses or whatever. I remember playing Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon on my Amiga when I was a little creeper, and getting excited when this sequence would pop up (at the 2:46 mark). It’s pretty primitive stuff compared to what’s out there now, but the same methodical “Say this, then this, then this to get girl” formula hasn’t evolved much at all in the intervening decades. Are there any games that you can think of that handle romance in a satisfying way?
Kim: I’m glad you brought up the awkwardness of it all. I keep thinking to myself we don’t need to see the actual sex, because it looks so wrong and weird in games. Heavy Rain, anyone? I wish we could at least get kissing looking more natural before we go any further. Because to me, that’s as far as I need to see video game affection. As for satisfying romances, I’m not sure I can think of many. Like I said, I really do like some of the Persona romances because they make you feel like you made a difference in someone’s life by spending time with them. Some are better than others; I thoroughly enjoyed Persona 3’s Mitsuru’s romance because you helped her realize she needed to be more independent and make her own choices, but as I said, it sucks that it has be this leveling process to get there (although that leveling is just spending time with her and saying the right things at the right time). I’ve always been a fan of Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher because I like how they play off each other. And Final Fantasy X's Tidus and Yuna stand out for me not just for that awkward laughing scene, but because it took such a selfish character like Tidus and made him give a crap and sacrifice for someone else. All of these have something in common for me: the build up and showing how these people are different or affected by another’s presence. But even these all have their issues and problems that I can’t deny. I really can’t think of a video a couple that is the pinnacle of a good video game romance. What about you?
Jeff: You’re going to laugh, but I think Chibi-Robo has a great representation of a marriage in peril. It’s not a “good” video game romance, but the dynamic in the house is a fascinating backdrop, even if you’re seeing it through the eyes of a tiny robot who talks to toys and cleans up trash. I’m still ambivalent as to whether games are a great storytelling medium to begin with, so it’s not surprising that interpersonal relationships – which are routinely attempted and blown in other, more story-driven formats – create challenges for writers. As much as I gripe about Telltale’s games, I think that studio could do something great with a slower-paced, relationship-driven story (without fairy tales!). Maybe after Batman?
Kim: There’s just so many different plates that creators need to spin for video games that it’s hard to keep the focus on one specific thing. I agree with Telltale putting story so front and center, it has potential to be one of developers that does it well or better than what we’ve seen. I felt like they tried to get there with The Wolf Among Us with Bigby and Snow, but were in a hard place with it being a prequel to the comics. I think the indie space will probably be where we see more experiments with romance and what can be done, hopefully giving other developers some things to consider. BioWare continues to have romances in their games because they’re extremely popular. I see some improvement with every new title, so maybe it can get to a place where they’re stronger and more realistic as well. So much is going on with development that it gets hard to put the focus on these, but I think relationships are interesting and can be told in such a way that gives us more payoff than we’re currently seeing. Of course, it’s hard to put the effort into an experience that is also optional for a lot of these games. That’s why I think I’m a bigger fan of seeing them play out in a very deliberate, authored way. I think that for now has the most potential. I just want these relationships to feel meaningful in some way, even if some are just flings.
Jeff: Exactly. Given the opportunity in games, I have shown that I will gladly drive along the sidewalk and shoot friendly NPCs when their backs are turned. Maybe I can’t be trusted to chart my character’s intimate life. Or maybe games haven’t given me many reasons to care. Yet, I hope.
Kim: Always hoping for better, right? Either way, I think it’s an interesting topic in video games and something we’ll still be talking about in the years to come. Let's hope for some progress in the meantime. I like getting giddy over a good romance.
What are some video game romances that you feel were done well? Let us know in the comments below!