Monday 14 June 2010

Romance in Games

As someone said somewhere sometime:
Romance in games is about as welcome as romance in war movies ... and it's far sadder
So far as I can work out romance (or sex) in video games serves at least three purposes:
  1. As a core element of gameplay,
  2. As an embellishment to gameplay, for the purpose of adding texture, depth or role-playing, or
  3. As titillation.
I suspect some Far East games manage to encapsulate all three at once!

The general media jump on any occurrence that they deem "suspect" and sometimes they're right to, but why do video games have such a bad track record when they try to represent romance. Other media don't seem to have the same problems: "rom-coms" in film, love songs in music, and just about any form of affection depicted in visual arts seem integral to our (Western) culture.
Manipulating characters' love lives in god games like The Sims is fun, probably because you're not one of the protagonists. As soon as you are actively participating, things get a little uncomfortable; "forced" at best, "sordid" at worst.
In Mass Effect, your character can romance a particular member of the opposite sex or a particular alien of a species with only one gender. The mechanic for progressing the romance is via the conversation system, which permits the designers to prevent liaisons with "unsuitable" partners by simply restricting the options. Although there is no requirement to pursue the romance subplot to complete the game, there is an Achievement reward if you "succeed". Up to this point, the script elements are fairly well written, if understandably a bit stilted, but the denouement is well into "titillation" territory. The game is "15" certificate in the UK so there's no point in being prudish, but the "passionate" finale looks more like a partial nudity scene gratuitously inserted into a bad movie to try to spice it up.
In Mass Effect 2, any romance achieved in the first game is carried over; a framed picture of your original love interest is shown in your cabin. Ah! They also appear in the game, although for reasons beyond your control, you cannot continue your relationship. There are, however, more romantic options than in the first game, including a lesbian fling with your personal assistant if your character is female. Interestingly, there's no same-sex option if your character is male. At least homosexuality isn't completely ignored, but your ability to order your personal assistant (and subordinate) to "dance for you" is a bit sordid, not to say unprofessional. Also, the lesbian relationship will not award you the romance Achievement, which also suggests it's firmly in the titillation sector.
In my opinion, the romance subplots in both Mass Effect games would have been greatly enhanced if the consummation had been implied, instead of rendered.
Of the games I've personally worked on, only Thrillville had any romantic component, where it's critical for some of the missions. The original design had a fairly abstract, Uno-style, pattern matching game where you had to string together topics of conversation for as long as possible. Pretty much like a real-life first date! I moved on to other aspects of the game, and by release the "Flirting Game" had morphed slightly, but it's a good fit for the target audience. Romance is limited to teen-boy with teen-girl.

Bonsai Barber almost had a matchmaking mechanic where you could indirectly influence the love lives of your customers. It never got beyond the early design phase though, probably because any offspring between Reg Wedge and Catnip is too horrific to contemplate!

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