Relationships in Games: The Romance(s)

Image by Flickr user Ana Petree Garcia
Image by Flickr user Ana Petree Garcia

The forming (and breaking) of intimate relationships between characters has become something of a hallmark in modern games. We muddled about by ourselves in games for years prior, taking on the toughest of enemies either alone or with a ragtag group of new-found “friends” with vacant backstories. Enter in the likes of story-heavy games, such as those in the Final Fantasy series, and change happens. Even though you couldn’t actively court other characters in games like that, it was easy to develop vicarious relationships with and through them because they each had individual pasts that lain in wait, to be uncovered at the player’s discretion. And before the world was treated to the now –ubiquitous character development styles of firms like Bioware, plenty of games had introduced the complexities that accompany personal interactions into their ranks, such as games in the Zelda, Metroid, and Half-Life series.

But it’s with Bioware that some gamers associate the fast-moving development of romances in games. (Or, at least I do, hence the bent of this post.) That said, the first game I recall playing that involved romantic-type adventures was Fable. But the mechanics of relationships in it were quite different from navigating dialogue trees and interpreting misplaced innuendos. In Fable, if your Hero fell on the side of good, people became instantly attracted to you and were denoted with hearts floating above their heads, just like in real life. (If only…) If you found a particular lad or lass with whom you wanted to bond, you had to get them to like to you the point of “true love.” The more enjoyment instilled (by making them laugh, getting them presents), the bigger their floating hearts got. Once a person’s “affection meter” (my term) was filled, it was love, marriage, and a baby carriage for you. Once you established a family, you could either nurture or ignore them. You didn’t receive any commendations for being a good parent to condemnations for being a bad one, and forming relationships in the game was not necessary to complete it.

What I remember most about the set-up in Fable was just how easy it was to make people either really, really like or really, really hate the Hero. I eventually created a “family” in every town I could simply because it was allowed. Though I might have called myself a cheat and a liar in real life for such actions, as long as I kept my trysts secret in the game, I was perfectly just. Bedding multiple characters became a game in and of itself, though it grew weary after awhile. All those characters with the floating hearts, they quickly convened upon my character any time he entered town. The crowds became tedious and unbearable after awhile, so it was only a matter of time before I started destroying entire villages. (Again, because it was allowed…and I was bored.) It was the only natural solution, you see. And it made me think that romance in games was quite overrated and finicky as best.

But then along came Mass Effect, which forever altered my view of relationships in games (along with a number of other gaming ideals). When I started playing ME, I didn’t know much about it, but I also hadn’t been living under a rock. ME’s relationship “controversies” had made headlines, so I knew about that part going in. Beyond that, what little I did know came from watching my husband’s brief stint with it, but he didn’t get far enough into the game to tackle any romances.

Although I wasn’t very thorough in my first playthrough of ME, I still caught onto a number of flirtations from at least a couple different characters later in the game. But being something of a nervous and naïve RPGer at the time, my mind was quite wrapped up in the game’s bigger events.  I didn’t pay much attention to extraneous conversations or stop often to chat with my teammates between missions. But apparently, I still made enough of an impression to follow through with one romance that first time round. But it was a rather hollow experience; one that was more like an annoying quest to complete rather than a holistic element of the game. I didn’t make that mistake the second time round. In fact, during my second ME playthrough, I was almost too thorough.

Adventuring a second time in ME, I decided that I wanted to do everything. I wanted to complete every side quest, visit every planet, and get to know everyone I possibly could.  And it was that last bit, getting to know people, that cemented my own relationship with ME. True that the dialogue wasn’t always perfect, but conversations with other characters in the game ebbed and flowed naturally. This was especially apparent with potential love interests. It was fascinating to watch and listen to my crew as they evolved from teammates to romantic partners. But in this second playthrough, I got a little too swept up in the virtual “play or be played” game, and I ended up wooing two characters at once. But whereas in Fable, you could cheat and get away with it, the folks in ME weren’t having any of that two-timing madness! In fact, they both confronted me at one point and blatantly stated that I had to choose between the two of them. After making my choice, the anger and sadness in the rejected character was palpable enough to make me feel actual regret.  That right there – that ability to bring about real emotions through virtual interactions – that’s what makes Bioware RPGs stand out from the rest. And deciding to make the commitment to a romantic relationship in ME changed the game’s landscape for me. And it made me look forward to playing through similar scenarios in future games.

Nowadays, in any game that allows the player to pursue a romantic interest, I always take the bait. But my motives don’t necessary involve a desire to reach any sort of titillating conclusion (though it’s a nice reward), but rather it’s because playing through romances helps me to become more invested in the game itself. While my goal may remain the same, to defeat the final boss and win, well…the chase is better than the catch, as they say. That chase is what raises the game from a simple series of quests and battles to something akin to maneuvering through life. Sure, we sometimes use games to escape from real world hassles, but that doesn’t mean all games should be purposefully removed from reality.  Intimate relationships play important roles for our real selves, and they can, and should, play important roles in our games too.

What do you think about romances in games? Do you enjoy or avoid them? Are they frivolous pursuits meant to capture a certain player demographic, or are they natural inclusions in games that seek to mirror real life through fantastical stories?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 Comments Add yours

  1. simpleek says:

    Ever since I discovered the Bioware games and got introduced to their unique relationship aspect of the game, I loved it immediately! I personally think that if these relationships are done right, it helps make the characters feel real to the player and they don’t end up being some one-dimensional character you don’t care about.

    As you said, playing out the relationships in Fable got old really quickly because you started not caring about the decisions you made with regards to that. At least in Mass Effect, the consequences of your actions are really felt in the game, especially when you’re wooing two people at the same time and are forced to pick one of them.

    I rather see more games approach relationships the way Bioware has succeeded to do.

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    1. cary says:

      Combining great storytelling with a bit of romance is something Bioware does so well; lots of developers could take a cue! And it just makes sense when you’re trying to tell a story about fake people while engaging real ones, just like in books. What’s nice about the way Bioware does things is that the relationships develop over time. And they’re always optional and/or they can be screwed up. (Hey, sometimes things don’t work out in real life either!) And this isn’t to discount the necessity of simpler questing games (i.e. The Last Story offered complexity in character relationships even though they weren’t player-driven), but it’s nice to see developers making strides in involving romance in games without it seeming juvenile or contrived.

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  2. I love romances in games — the scripted ones, the BioWare ones, even the funny ones like in Fable you mentioned. =) They add so much to the realism of the world, and it never hurts to have an extra emotional connection to a game when it’s story-based anyway.

    I also agree that Mass Effect did it best. Having a relationship develop over the course of 2 to 3 games made it feel so emotionally realistic.

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    1. cary says:

      Yeah, it was great that relationships from the first ME were carried over to the sequels — brilliant move and as fantastic way to keep people invested!

      I had forgotten how comical romance in Fable was, especially in the 3rd game. It was hilarious to see how characters would either throw themselves at your feet or avoid you like the plague! Fable took such a different approach to relationships, but it worked (mostly) for those games.

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  3. Hatm0nster says:

    The character relationships (romantic and otherwise) were also what got me hooked on the Mass Effect games. I mean the gameplay was good, and the universe/story interesting, but it was engaging with the characters and watching them change and evolve over the course of the game that really got me invested.

    It made Mass Effect into something really special rather than just another Sci-Fi game.

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    1. cary says:

      Exactly. And having a great story that you felt like you could “control” didn’t hurt either! And what you said about character evolution –yes. The relationship between Mario and Peach will never be more than it is because they’ve remained the same characters for years. Beloved though they are, they’ll never be more than video game characters. Meanwhile, we talk about our Shepards and ME folk like they really exist. It’s that magic in transforming virtual people into those with which seem to change over time (just like ourselves) that lends to the brilliance of what Bioware has done, and continues to do.

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  4. duckofindeed says:

    I haven’t played many games with romantic relationships, and I don’t think I’d do much with it if the option was available, as I usually get overwhelmed by extra tasks in games. I can only handle so much. The only game I have that has relationships is “Harvest Moon 64”, but it creeps me out because all the characters look like children…and then they get married and have children, and… It’s just weird.

    Nevertheless, I kind of would like to try such a thing in a game, if the option ever arises, and if my attention span will allow me to devote time to relationships when I still have a game to finish. Gah, but I gotta save the world! I don’t have time for love!

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    1. cary says:

      That’s kind of how I felt during Mass Effect the first time. I was so focused on the missions that I didn’t think the people mattered that much. But taking time to play through the relationships in subsequent attempts made the game so much richer. Like, it really felt like my actions affected others, which changed the way I approached some missions. It was an interesting and wholly more fun experience. Game romances aren’t for everyone, but they’re worth trying out, or at least start. If it turns out to not be fun, then you just ignore the love interest and get on with the game!

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