Why are game romances so boring?
The winner of The VG247 Writing Award 2015 is Paul Cosgrove with his article on relationships in games, titled, “Love is not a flow chart”. As well as publication, Paul receives a prize of £100.
VG247’s staff would like to extend heartfelt congratulations to Paul. This is our first open writing competition, and the response has been fantastic. We’ll be running more next year. In the meantime, please read Paul’s words and keep an eye out for details of the next contest. I want to say thank you to everyone who took the time to enter. You all won by writing an article and hitting “send”. Keep trying.
Here’s Paul’s piece.
There’s a conversation in Mass Effect 3 which, if you do missions in the wrong order, boils down to a choice between the total extermination of one race, or the total extermination of another. I made my difficult decision and watched Shepard’s love interest throw herself off a cliff, the last of her people burning up on re-entry as their fleet crashed from orbit.
The only other time I can remember being as horrified by the unintended consequences of a dialogue option was a Persona 4 Golden conversation, which resulted in my character cheating on his girlfriend.
These outcomes are on different scales, of course – high school romantic melodrama isn’t in the same league as genocide. But in both instances I felt betrayed by the game system’s interpretation of my actions and intent.
Character relationships in games often feel like there’s a track, with hate (or indifference) on one end and sex on the other. By picking the Right or Wrong dialogue option, you can move along the track. Some games, like Persona 4, will only allow you to roll in one direction. Others, like Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol, can allow NPCs’ opinions of you to deteriorate if you say something stupid.
I have two problems with the assumptions made by this flow-chart approach.
Firstly, it takes as fact that the way into anybody’s knickers (and parts beyond) is just to be nice to them. Say reassuring, friendly, supportive things to someone and you’ll soon get your very own 30-second cutscene of mannequin lust. Aside from being predictable and boring, it reinforces the increasingly creepy Nice Guy idea, where simply being a decent human being entitles you to romance from a perpetually compliant target.
Limited inputs are a problem, of course – simplified UIs reduce the number of dialogue options to one per controller button. With only four options, there’s not much room for variations of meaning. And a game would require a bewildering number of animations and voice samples to cover the multitude of relationship configurations, almost certainly unfeasibly expensive in the current triple-A market.
But why do the romance options so rarely have an opinion of their own? Maybe your Shepard’s ears are just too big for Tali’s liking, or Garrus disagrees with that renegade decision strongly enough to re-evaluate his feelings for you. Why can’t I spend the whole game chasing Chie, only to have Yukiko confess at the last moment?
Imagine spending the entirety of Alpha Protocol chatting up Mina, and then right as you’re moving in to seal the deal she pulls back and says, “Whoa, hey – what are you doing? We’re just friends!”
(The most effective game about relationships, for my money, is Cara Ellison’s Twine game Sacrilege, precisely because it focuses on a scenario that so few games even contemplate: failure.)
Secondly, it assumes that the only reason I could ever want to be nice to someone is to get into their knickers (and parts beyond). In Mass Effect 2, I had to panic-abort my way out of a conversation with Miranda because a Paragon dialogue option suddenly caused Shepard to hit on her. In Persona 4 Golden, I attempted to comfort a crying friend and suddenly found out that doing so meant that our relationship had become “intimate”. A friend should have just stood there, apparently, watching her cry her eyes out in the street.
Why can’t games account for the idea that I’m being considerate and friendly without ulterior motives?