“Romance in games is inherently transactional,” a friend told me once, “but isn’t everything? It’s just a limitation of the format.”
That was six months ago, and I’ve been mulling it over since. As optimistic as it might seem, I refuse to believe that romance arcs in games are incapable of transcending the basic “choose correct conversation option, repeat until you receive sex” formula. Granted, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise – a quick Google search for romance games turns up either flash games or a general sense that it’s a weakness of the medium. As sad as it may sound, romance being done well in games is something I’m deeply invested in; interesting character dynamics and a feeling of immersion are two of the things I look for in media (and games in particular) and I’ve thus far found it kind of lacking. It feels tacked-on at worst, and prescriptive at best; either it has no bearing on the story at all, or it’s inseparable from the plot but completely divorced from the sense of player agency which is so crucial to the medium.
Romance in games roughly tends to follow one of two models. Either they’re a complete side story to the “real” plot and add no more than some dialogue, as in many RPGs, or the plot splits off into one of multiple routes depending on which character you choose to pursue, as in many visual novels and dating sims. For the sake of argument, let’s ignore games which assign you a canon love interest and a set path for that relationship; I’m interested here in the way choice plays into romantic arcs, whether in their selection or the way they unfold. I think my ideal here is a game in which the player’s enjoyment of the plot is inextricably linked with their enjoyment of the game’s central relationship and the choices they make in regards to both, and I don’t think that’s impossible to ask.
Game romances tend to be enacted through either dialogue choices or pure numbers, and both of these have obvious problems. Choice-based games usually consist of simply picking the right option which, assuming basic social skills and basic knowledge of the character you’re trying to romance, is frankly trivial. Really, the only thing more token than choosing the right dialogue to advance is when games don’t even bother to disguise this behind conversation options. There’s a reason I won’t go near pure dating sims with a ten-foot pole, because grinding stats in the hope of unlocking more content is basically about as boring as gameplay comes. It’s lazy, and frankly manipulative as all hell; by putting the guts of the mechanics out in the open, you’re pretty much admitting that you don’t care how the player gets to their ideal end state of having won over their character of choice. But while making affection points a hidden stat makes the game look less ugly, this can be problematic too; they still frequently wind up being the ultimate arbiter of the ending you receive, even if it’s fractionally more subtle.
This leads right into another problem I tend to have with romance in games, and that’s the simple binarism of “good end” vs “bad end” (and, occasionally, “true end”). Why should there only be one correct path? Why should a successful romance be more interesting or narratively satisfying than a deep and reliable friendship, or an ending where you fuck up and never see the girl again because of a fundamental misunderstanding? Really, all these options are equally valid, and all have the potential to get at some emotional truth. (Admittedly I’m the kind of person who would go for the last one just to see if it could break my heart; that kind of story definitely doesn’t get told very well very often, let alone in this particular medium, which is a shame because I am a complete sucker for it). And that’s not even taking into account potential dynamics which seldom come up in the medium at all: friends-with-benefits, say, and the various ways that can end, or a romance which ends on cordial terms and continues on as a friendship.
I think this is because romance in media – not just in games – is something which is expected to be a) present, and b) peripheral to the “real” story; getting the girl is always, always going to take a back seat to saving the world/having a bro adventure/whatever else. To an extent, this is true of almost all character work, but particularly in games. By and large, as much as party-based RPGs lean towards having a tightly-knit, interesting group of playable characters, the fact is that they usually have almost no impact on the plot beyond their introductions. (Mass Effect 2, with its emphasis on recruiting party members and then gaining their loyalty, is a rare example of a game which tries to make plot out of its characters – but I also don’t think this was done very well, and that it works better as a giant sandbox than a story). Ultimately, this is because romance and character relationships are fundamentally seen as being “side content”, a mere accessory to the “true” (and frequently railroaded) sequence of events. Is a game centring around the relationship between two people and the choices they make really such an alien concept? I’m sure there are games out there I’m yet to actually play which touch on this in some ways, and I’ve gone through good visual novels which explore this on a simplistic level, but I’d like to see something which goes a lot further.
The gold standard of video game romances is, for me, Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins; as the most plot-critical character in your party, the story actually has an impact on the romance (and, if you make the right choices, the romance can even impact the plot). You can end up married, or having to break up because of circumstance, or in a standard kind of good-endgame, or some sort of happy (if potentially unsustainable) medium. Still, it’s far from perfect, especially as it otherwise still runs off a dialogue-based affection-point system; any favour you lose from making decisions your party disagrees with can pretty easily be nullified by giving them a single gift. That’s pretty much the kind of flexibility I’m talking about, though; multiple endgame states which are, if not equally satisfying, at least equally well thought-out. Sure, it’s easy to feel gypped if you have to end the romance because you didn’t a) make the correct choice during character creation or b) follow a very certain line of conversation twenty-five hours of gameplay ago, but it’s also consistent with the game’s logic and doesn’t feel particularly mean-spirited.
Let’s return to the ideal I outlined at the beginning of this piece: I want to believe in a game which has a plot bound up with, and as engaging as, the relationship between your protagonist and the other lead, while still retaining player agency and letting you shape this central dynamic. I suppose my perfect model would focus on the relationship between the protagonist and one other character, who holds a position of some importance in the game world. These characters would meet at the beginning of the game and develop some kind of bond, which develops differently based on your choices. Ideally, the decisions you make should impact not just the core relationship, but also the world in which it takes place. And as I outlined before, you’d also be looking at multiple branching paths, all of approximately equal lengths, depending on the choices you make in regards to this central relationship. (Actually, I’d like to do a mock-up in Twine of a story that operates this way, but that’s a little too big a project for me at the moment. Someday.)
Of course, there are some clear issues here, the most obvious of which is that no matter how well-written a character is, you’ll never be able to make them appeal to everyone. Throwing out any other potential romance options is placing all your eggs in one basket, which means you’d better have a damn sturdy basket. (If one was feeling particularly cynical, they could easily argue that creating one incredibly well-constructed character runs the risk of sitting less well with an audience than shorthanding an ensemble of half-constructed ones, because people can more easily relate to, or project on, loose character sketches.) Still, it’s pretty unrealistic to expect to be able to please your entire prospective audience anyway, so I don’t think it’s a stupid gamble by any means. On top of that, good writing goes a long way in selling characters, even those which lean on tropes or archetypes you don’t particularly enjoy, so that’s not entirely a lost cause either.
Is there a bottom line here, besides the obvious adage about still having a long way to go? Well… I’m not sure. Yes, the medium doesn’t really lend itself to telling the kind of deeply personal stories I want from it, particularly romantic ones. Yes, on the rare occasions it does, it often comes at the cost of sacrificing its key strength of player agency. Neither of these are particularly groundbreaking observations, but still, I wanted to make them. I consume as much media as I do because I want to engage with different characters and the dynamics between them, but mostly because I want fiction to mean something. It doesn’t have to have a deep moral or shake up my entire worldview, but I want it to have some element of human truth in the way its characters deal with each other, and I want this to be shown through the particular strengths of the medium. Video games seriously have so much potential, and it drives me crazy to see that wasted.